Only a few days after Salman Khan was acquitted of killing a homeless man in a long-drawn hit-and-run case, the headlines have already moved on. Now the narrative is back to the usual business of Bollywood reporting: romantic entanglements and upcoming birthday celebrations. On the same day that Khan was cleared of the charges against him, three of the five men who raped Suzette Jordan were convicted of their crime. Look up Suzette Jordan and you’ll still find news articles linking Jordan to a label she abhorred and fought until the end: 'Park Street rape victim’.
Therein lies a crisis in how we remember. A closer look at Suzette Jordan’s story will reveal how she exposed this crisis, and how much she was punished for it. On the evening of February 5, 2012, Jordan, like many other Kolkatans, went to a nightclub on Park Street. Later, a man who offered her a lift back home and four of his friends assaulted and gang-raped Jordan, and threw her onto a street early the next morning. Bruised and in pain, she found her way home. Three days later, she went to the police.
Instead of registering her complaint respectfully, the police officer-in-charge asked how many positions she’d been raped in, and whether there was a chance he could have drinks with her that night. Instead of being scheduled immediately, her medical examination was delayed until eight days after the attack. Instead of believing her, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee branded her a liar who was trying to defame Banerjee’s government. Sports minister Madan Mitra wanted to know why a single mother would want to be at a nightclub. Trinamool Congress leader Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar said what happened to her wasn’t rape, but a ‘transaction’ between a sex worker and her client that ‘went wrong’. Angry mobs gathered at her door, landlords and employers would have nothing to do with her, and whispers followed her wherever she went.
There is no doubt that Jordan suffered immensely because of these circumstances. But no matter how much she suffered, she refused to let the narrative of suffering take over her life. In doing so, she flew in the face of what our society expected a woman who had gone through sexual violence to be and do.
After meeting the mother of a college student who was raped and murdered in the village of Kamduni, not far from Kolkata, Jordan decided to waive the right to anonymity. She refused to be ashamed of her attackers’ crimes. In an interview with the BBC, she said, “I am Suzette Jordan, and I don’t want to be known any longer as the victim of Calcutta's Park Street rape.” She told actor Aamir Khan on his talk-show Satyamev Jayate, “I am not a victim or a survivor. I am a person, I had a life, and I want my life back.”
Jordan’s response wasn’t just about her own life; it was collective. In stark contrast to the ridicule and blame directed at her, she was vociferously progressive. This is typified in her reaction to Ghosh Dastidar’s statement, in which she defends the rights of sex workers in the same breath as she stands up for herself: “How dare they call me a prostitute? Even if I were one, should I get raped? A prostitute earns for her family. She is not standing there for you to rape her,” she said in an interview.
Jordan became a women’s rights activist, working with a helpline against domestic and sexual violence called Survivors for Victims of Social Injustice. She sustained this work despite frequent court appearances, during which she was routinely humiliated.
Jordan did not live to see three of the rapists, Ruman Khan, Naser Khan and Sumit Bajaj being convicted; she died of multi-organ failure after contracting meningo-encephalitis in March 2015. Although no conclusive link can be established between the hounding and harassment she faced and her illness, we cannot rule it out either. Anybody who has suffered acute stress will be intimately familiar with the effect it has on the body. Even if Jordan’s illness had nothing to do with how she was treated, she was still let down at every level: from the highest political office in the state, to the management at a restaurant called Ginger who wouldn’t let her enter because they recognised who she was.
It is important to remember Jordan in the right way. This means remembering that two of the rapists, Qadir Khan and Md Ali, are still absconding. That the only police officer who seems to have shown any sensitivity towards her, and who cracked the case — Damayanti Sen — was transferred to a lower post because she went against the official government line.
It is important to remember that Mamata Banerjee has still not apologised to Jordan’s family. That in almost all her interviews, Jordan urged us to see her as a human being, not as ‘Park Street’. It is our collective responsibility to remember how every single mechanism that was meant to support Jordan, failed her. She changed India in a fundamental way, forced us to look at how culpability stretches well beyond the perpetrators of sexual violence. For this, and for many other things, Jordan will never be forgotten.
Shreya Ila Anasuya is a Delhi-based writer and activist