GENDER AND ELECTIONS

Political Discourse on Gender Hits an All-Time Low

Members of the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the women's wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, participate in a procession in Allahabad in 2010. Photo: AP

In this Monday, June 14, 2010 photograph, members of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (RSS) or National Women Volunteers Committee participate in a procession in Allahabad, India. RSS is the women's wing of the right-wing Hindu nationalist the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers Force. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

The political discourse and debate on gender has hit an all-time low in this election campaign, observes Kavita Krishnan, who says that it is chilling to observe the way in which politicians invoke women’s safety as a pretext to justify communal and caste violence.

With the 2014 Lok Sabha election in India being held a year-and-a-half after a notable anti-rape movement, the international media has been writing about whether we are about to witness a ‘gender revolution’ in Indian politics.

In fact, the discourse on gender in these elections is deeply disturbing. In previous years, perhaps women were ignored or taken for granted. Now, women need to worry about how they are being talked about – and what kind of politics is being done in their name.

These elections will be remembered for Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Mulayam Singh’s remarks that trivialised rape by saying ‘boys commit mistakes’, and his colleague Abu Azmi’s recommendation that women, along with men, should be hanged not only for rape but for any sex outside of marriage. These reported remarks were justly met with outrage. But in the furore that followed in the media and condemnation by political opponents, few made the point that such views are not just vile aberrations. They express the theory of what organisations like khap panchayats practice.

The same khaps in western Uttar Pradesh that believe in killing daughters to ‘avenge lost honour’ for consensual relationships with Dalit or Muslim men, are the ones who raised the rallying cry of ‘save daughters, save honour’ during the communal violence at Muzaffarnagar. Invariably, profiling men of the ‘other’ community as a danger to the daughter and to one’s honour, goes hand-in-hand with coercion and violence against women of one’s own community.

In the ongoing election campaign, it is chilling to observe the way in which politicians invoke women’s safety as a pretext to justify communal and caste violence. At Bijnor, Amit Shah (a general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a person considered close to the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, made a speech that indicated that Muslims are the community that violates the honour of daughters and sisters. 1 Seeking to win over Dalit support by stoking fear and hatred of Muslims, he asked why the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Mayawati, had given 19 tickets to a particular community “that violates the honour of sisters and daughters ( jo behen-betiyon…ki aabru pe haath dalta hai),” while she had only given 17 tickets to Dalits. From this, his audience was left in no doubt that he was referring to Muslims, since the BSP indeed has 19 Muslim and 17 Dalit candidates.

When Amit Shah refers to Muslims as a community that “violates the honour of sisters and daughters”, he is seeking to reap what was sown at Muzaffarnagar, in the calculated violence his party unleashed just before elections. In another election speech in the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli area from a Jat Sabha platform, Shah explained “why riots happen.” He said, “No one is fond of rioting. But when a community violates the honour of our daughters and sisters, and the administration does nothing, people are forced to riot.”

What we women need to remind ourselves is that such speeches are not just blatantly communal. Those who say all Muslims are rapists, are implying violence against consensual love and sex exactly as Abu Azmi did. They are saying that if a (Hindu) woman dares to love or marry a Muslim, she will be killed, along with her lover, who will by definition be called a ‘rapist’. Those who harp on the ‘honour’ of ‘daughters and sisters’ are, invariably, enemies of the autonomy and freedom of those daughters and sisters, whom they are ready to kill in cold blood to avenge ‘honour’.

The BJP’s ally in Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), carries out an identical campaign, only there the targets of violence are Dalits. Like the Sangh and the khaps in Western UP do for Muslims, the PMK identifies sexual danger from Dalit youth in t-shirts, with mobile phones and bikes. 2

In 2012, the PMK unleashed violence on Dalit villagers in Dharmapuri on the pretext of a Dalit youth, Ilavarasan, marrying a Vanniar caste woman, Dhivya. The PMK goaded Dhivya’s father into committing suicide, pressurised her into returning to her mother, and later Ilavarasan was found dead in suspicious circumstances. In this election, Dhivya’s mother reportedly participated in ceremonial greetings of PMK leaders, and recently, the PMK reportedly unleashed arson and violence on villagers who refused to vote for it. 3

Why are Amit Shah’s inflammatory speeches and the PMK’s vicious violence against inter-caste marriage not subjected to the same scrutiny by the media as Mulayam Singh’s or Abu Azmi’s speeches?

Most parties tolerate or placate sexist individuals and groups. But let’s face it, among India’s political actors, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the only one that has groups dedicated to actively organising violence against women’s freedoms – as a staple of their political activities. For them, it is not pragmatism, but a part of their core philosophy and regular practice. Just do a random internet search with the keywords ‘Bajrang Dal’, ‘ABVP’, ‘Valentine’s Day’ – and you will find entries for every year: year after year, these outfits ritually harass and humiliate couples on February 14 [which is celebrated widely as Valentine’s Day]. The same goes for the BJP’s and Modi’s fellow travellers, the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). And the excuse is ‘foreign', but the real target is women’s freedom to love men.

Self-styled godman, Asaram – now in jail accused of raping a child and defended openly by BJP leaders such as Subramaniam Swamy – had launched a campaign to observe February 14 as ‘obey your parents day’: which basically meant what the khaps and the PMK say, i.e., “let your parents decide whom you will marry.” And lest we forget, the ‘protection’ offered to women by the Sangh does not extend to domestic violence: the Sangh teaches that wife-beating is just punishment and should be borne without fuss. A report by Neha Dixit on the Rashtra Sevika Samiti [yes, women don’t get to join the RSS as swayamsevaks (volunteers), they only get to serve the nation] gives chilling details of the RSS worldview of women, marriage, love, family, and domestic violence. 4

When patriarchs tell women ‘we’ll give you protection’, they mean ‘we’ll take your freedom.’ For a brief window following December 16, it seemed that this insight – shouted out by women on the streets against rape and misogyny – might be one that India might reflect upon and absorb. Now, it seems that precious insight is in danger of getting lost – drowned out by the menacing cries of those promising ‘we’ll protect you by hanging rapists, by massacring the community that rapes, by ensuring your phones are tapped for your protection….’

In the spate of interviews of Narendra Modi, why has no interviewer asked him, point blank, if he is the ‘Saheb’ of the Snoopgate tapes, where Amit Shah and the Gujarat top police officers and the State’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) illegally snooped on a woman 24/7, obsessively relaying details of her personal life, conversations and friendships to ‘Saheb’? Why isn’t he being asked to show proof that the snooping was legal? The otherwise vocal Modi has been silent on this issue, while the BJP and the Gujarat government have told us the snooping was requested by the woman’s father, to ‘protect’ her, and that she, today, is ok with having been snooped upon.

Senior BJP leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, has told us that this snooping is a ‘personal matter’. The point that ought to concern every citizen is, that surveillance by the state for ‘personal’ reasons is simply not permitted. In the landmark PUCL [People’s Union for Cilvil Liberties] verdict of 1997, the Supreme Court set restrictions on the scope of the Indian Telegraph Act that permits phone taps. The concerned section S.5(2) of the Telegraph Act reads:

On the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety, the Central Government or a State Government or any Officer specially authorised in this behalf by the Central Govt. or a State Government may, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of and offence, for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct that any message clear of messages to or from any person or class of persons, relating to any particular subject, brought for transmission by or transmitted or received by any telegraph, shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detailed, or shall be disclosed to the Government making the order or an officer thereof mentioned in the order.” [ Emphasis by author]

The PUCL verdict introduced a number of rigorous procedural safeguards, among them,

“1. An order for telephone-tapping in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act shall not be issued except by the Home Secretary, Government of India (Central Government) and Home Secretaries of the State Governments. In an urgent case the power may be delegated to an officer of the Home Department of the Government of India and the State Governments not below the rank of Joint Secretary. Copy of the order shall be sent to the Review Committee concerned within one week of the passing of the order.”

If the Gujarat government, then, failed to obtain orders for the surveillance of the woman from the authorities specified by the Supreme Court, it committed an act of illegal surveillance. This would be illegal whether the target was a man or a woman. The fact that the woman, her parents, her men friends, were all snooped upon, with no specified aim except that “Saheb” was desperate for these personal details, makes it a crime against the autonomy of women. And the justification the BJP is asking us to swallow – that illegal snooping on a woman by the Chief Minister and his State machinery is OK since it was “to protect her” – is an insult to the intelligence and self-respect of each and every Indian woman. In any case, the transcript of the tapes, the authenticity of which is confirmed by BJP’s justification, shows that excuse to be false. If the woman’s parents were in the know about the surveillance, why are their phones being tapped? If she knew about the tapping, why do the transcripts show the police saying she is cleverly avoiding surveillance? Defending Modi on a TV debate on Snoopgate, a BJP representative, Lalita Kumaramangalam said, "Indian women aren't yet ready for autonomy" - much in the same way as the British Raj used to say "Indians aren't yet ready for freedom"!

The issue of Narendra Modi’s wife, is similarly brushed aside as a ‘personal’ one. Sure, if he were to have acknowledged rather than suppressed information about his marriage, and explained that they were separated by mutual consent, it would be his personal business. But Modi denied his wife recognition, respect, and rights – how, then, can he claim in public life to offer the same for women citizens? The BJP claims ‘child marriage’ as an excuse – does that mean the party recommends that the scores of other Indian men married in their late teens, should similarly enjoy the right to reject and abandon their wives, without any legal due process? Will Modi’s practice be among the ‘best practices’ that the BJP manifesto promises to include in its Uniform Civil Code?

I have discussed above, the instances that underline that political discourse and debate on gender has actually hit an all-time low in this election. The latest, shameful instance is a yoga guru, Baba Ramdev’s leering innuendo about ‘honeymoons’ in Dalit homes: literally, a wink-wink reference to the practice, enshrined in the ‘Bhartiya Sanskriti’ model patronised and protected by the saffron brethren, of feudal men raping Dalit women as a matter of entitlement. After Asaram, Ramdev is yet another self-styled godman close to Modi, who has let slip his real thoughts about women – and Dalit women in particular.

Add, to this, a bumper sticker with Modi’s face on it, calling for ‘Namo-cracy’, and asking the voter to choose between ‘Go Raksha and Gay Raksha’ (Cow Protection and Gay Protection). 5

Will political players like Mulayam Singh, Abu Azmi, Amit Shah, Narendra Modi and Baba Ramdev, and the parties they espouse, pay a political cost in this election for their creepy view of women and gender? Or will they be rewarded for it?

References

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCjYDbwdQsY (Last accessed on May 2, 2014)

2. Anand, S., 2013, ‘No pink chaddis for PMK’, The Hindu, July 13, 2013. Available on https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/no-pink-chaddis-for-pmk/article4910536.ece (Last accessed on May 2, 2014)

3. Ragunathan, A.V., 2014, ‘8 injured in brutal attack on Dalit colony’, The Hindu, April 26, 2014. Available on https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/8-injured-in-brutal-attack-on-dalit-colony/article5950411.ece (Last accessed on May 2, 2014)

4. Dixit, N., 2013, ‘Holier than cow’, Outlook, January 28, 2013. Available on http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?283593 (Last accessed on May 2, 2014)

5. https://twitter.com/n0m_nom/status/460146427474096128/photo/1 (Last accessed on May 2, 2014)

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