The Death of Chuni Kotal - Mahasweta Devi

05 February 2016
Rohit Vemula’s suicide has put into focus the oppression and discrimination faced by Dalit students in educational institutions and given rise to a storm of indignation and protest. However, Dalit and Adivasi students committing suicides in campuses are not a new phenomenon. An earlier and relatively well-known case is that of Chuni Kotal, a tribal woman, first woman graduate among her tribe of the Lodha Shavars, who committed suicide on August 16, 1992, when the so-called ‘Left’ Front was in power, due to continuous caste-based harassment and discrimination by one of her Professors, Falguni Chakarvarti, at Vidyasagar University, Medinapur, West Bengal. She was pursuing her MA in Anthropology. Given below are the excerpts from a commentary on Chuni Kotal’s suicide, Story of Chuni Kotal, written by Mahasveta Devi that was published in Economic and Political Weekly, August 29, 1992, just 23 days after her suicide - Red Star.

CHUNI KOTAL’S suicide has ripped the mask off the face of West Bengal under Left Front rule: the caste prejudice and persecution and the govt’s callous indifference.

Chuni Kotal, a girl of 27, from the de-notified Lodha tribe, the first graduate woman among the Lodha Savara and Kheria Savara of West Bengal, hanged herself on August 16, at her husband’s one room residence in Kharagpur, a railway town. The reasons that led Chuni, a unique woman, to take her own life, are palpable ones and she “became a victim of sheer injustice and callousness of the university authorities and the West Bengal government.” (The Statesman, 23/08/1992)

Chuni was appointed a Lodha social worker in 1983 at Jhargram ITDP office. From childhood she had starved, worked in the fields, had had no money to purchase books, yet doggedly she continued to study. As a social worker she cycled 20-25 km a day and made extensive surveys of the Lodha villages. In 1985, she graduated. In 1987, she was appointed superintendent of Rani Shiromani SC and ST girls’ hostel at Medinapur.

Her working hours were 24 hours a day and working days were 365. No holidays, no break. If she had to leave the hostel for a few hours or a day, she had to take prior permission from the office which was very unsympathetic to her.

On one occasion her ailing father came from the village and had to stay in her room for one or two days as a hospital bed was not available. An officer of the district office accused her of entertaining men in her room. Chuni felt suffocated in the job. Countless times she had come to Calcutta to Writer’s Building pleading for (a) transfer to her original job, or (b) better working conditions. The department remained brutally indifferent. Matters became worse when Chuni enrolled her name with the local Vidyasagar University as an MA student in Anthropology.

Falguni Chakravarty, a male professor, from the very first day started abusing her as one coming from a criminal tribe, a low-born, who had no ‘right’ to study MA. The university authorities, the head of the department, did nothing about it.

This man was allowed to mark her ‘absent’ though she was present for days. And Chuni was debarred from sitting for examination for ‘irregular attendance’. She lost one year. The district office made life hell for her for ‘leaving the hostel’ and going to study.

In West Bengal, after so many years of Left Front rule, the first woman graduate from a very backward tribe was openly abused because of her low-caste and birth and nothing was done about it. No one was ashamed. Only Chuni suffered.

The second time Chuni sat for exam. The professor gave her low marks. Thus she lost two years. In desperation, she complained and complained and, in 1991, the education minister ordered an enquiry commission which constituted of three principals from three district colleges. All through this man was allowed to refer to the criminal nature of her tribe, abuse her. The commission just went to sleep.

On August 13 (just 3 days prior to her suicide), there was a seminar in the university. By that time Chuni knew where she stood. She had no hope that the enquiry commission would do justice to her and punish the ‘bhadra log’, the babu, who pointed to her low birth and low-caste relentlessly. She went to the university.

Thereafter, she weepingly told a few co-students, “Today in the seminar Falguni babu, quite off the context, referred to the Lodhas as thieves and robbers. In the corridor, he threatened me, I’ll see that you don’t sit for the examination in September. I am a Lodha. So I shouldn’t have dreamt of higher studies. I complained against the offenders, but they remain untouched. Unnecessarily I wasted two years, attended classes but was not allowed to sit for the examination.” (Letter to the editor, Daily Bartoman, August 25, 1992)

By August 13, she had made up her mind. Death was the only way to escape the hunters. On 14th she went to her husband. They had married in a court in 1990, but due to her job had not been able to stay together.

Her husband is a Lodha youth who is a High School graduate and works in the railways workshop. That Chuni was a graduate and he was not had never created any friction. They had been in love with each other from 1981. They were to leave for Chuni’s village, Gohaldohi, on the 16th to talk about formal reception, a community feast after marriage.

On the 16th he left for the workshop at 6.15 am. He returned at 10.45 am and found Chuni hanging. Chuni’s death has revealed what West Bengal truly is.

Brutal caste and class hostility and persecution have been allowed to continue. The government allowed the district babu to abuse her. The university authorities did nothing to throw out the caste-baiter.

And the commission appointed by the government submitted its report three days after her death.
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