By Taruni Kumar
Last week, the Congress party held a ‘Jan Aakrosh Rally’ or a public anger rally at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. On 29 April, at this rally, Congress workers held aloft placards and posters with Rahul Gandhi’s photo and the line, “Rapes not my new India [sic]”. Gandhi said, during his address, “Modiji speaks about ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao. However, in the history of India – for the first time in 70 years – India’s prime minister has been questioned abroad. He was told that women in India are not safe, that women are being attacked.”
In the opposite corner of the boxing ring, the BJP has started publishing its own campaign advertisements in Karnataka. On 20 April, the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Chronicle carried an ad that read, “Rapes, Murders & Lawlessness, An insensitive Karnataka Government”. To this, it added the faces of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and the party’s chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa. A similar ad in The Hindu on 24 April stated, with zero self-awareness of how long the Prime Minister took to speak about Kathua, “Modi Sarkara punished child rapists with death penalty, Siddha Sarkara still asleep”.
Evidently, women’s safety is going to be the election card that both the national parties play for not just the Karnataka elections but also the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Ironic then, isn’t it, that the Congress party is fielding a grand total of 15 candidates for the 224-seat Karnataka Assembly. And the fact that a puny 15 is over double the BJP’s total (6 women candidates in Karnataka) offers no solace. If you like your data in percentages, a total of 6.8% of the total number of names announced by the Congress for the Karnataka elections are women. BJP has less than 4.2% women on their list. And the third biggest party in the state, the JD(S) has named a grand total of four women in their list of 126 candidates released till now. That’s 3.2%.
With these abysmal numbers, what are the two national parties playing at when they talk as if they have women’s safety all sorted? It is merely a continuation of “our daughters/mothers/wives/sisters” quotes or the more ubiquitous “our women” dialogues. Hence the PM announcing in London during his April visit that, “A rape is a rape. How can we tolerate this exploitation of our daughters?” This familial register would have been vaguely tolerable if it hadn’t been, to date, his only reference to the Unnao and Kathua rapes that shook the country up and he didn’t even refer to these crimes by the names that India knows them. Only the UK has been the recipient of this generalised concern porridge.
For the record, Mr Modi, I would like to excuse myself from having to be your daughter or from being related to you in any way. But does that mean I have to excuse myself from laws and policies that ensure my safety as well? Because those are the only women you seem to want to keep safe. Dalit (as in the case of Unnao) and Muslim girls (as in the case of Kathua) can please excuse themselves.
But then again, why listen to me or women activists across the country when our male politicians remain so confident of their manels’ abilities to pass policies and laws about women’s safety? In February, Gandhi announced that his party would get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in Parliament once it comes to power at the Centre. In 2017, news reports suggested that the BJP government would be considering bringing the Bill in Parliament. The Bill calls for 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha as well as the state assemblies. That’s far larger than the single digit percentage of women candidates either of the two parties has put up in Karnataka. They wouldn’t even hit the mark if the numbers were combined.
Which brings us to #WhyNotHer.
Really what was the party thinking when the Indian Youth Congress held their National Executive meet at the Nehru Yuva Kendra in Delhi on 30 May with the theme Why Not Her? Twitter has been inundated with #WhyNotHer tweets in support of women empowerment and the need for greater participation and representation of women in politics. At this point, one knows not whether the Congress party is just oblivious to its own lack of representation of women or whether they’re entirely apathetic towards it. Because how else can they justify calling for greater representation for women when their own statistics are so abysmal? Really, #WhyBother?
Here are a few photos from the meet tweeted by Amanat Ullah, whose Twitter handle claims he’s the State President of the Uttar Pradesh (West) Youth Congress (though his profile isn’t verified). I think there’s at least one woman if you look closely at right side of the first picture in the gallery. I think she’s wearing blue.https://twitter.com/AmanatUllah23/status/991563358401773568
And on the topic of the BJP’s commitment to the safety of women across the country, let us not forget how UP Chief Minister Adityanath protected BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar against charges of rape even after the survivor’s father was killed in police custody in Unnao. And how public outrage and a High Court order had to be issued for his arrest. This aside from the fact that two BJP officials were present at the now infamous Kathua protest that was held in support of the rape accused. Sure, they were eventually forced to resign but one of them, Chander Prakash Ganga, has now stated that he attended the rally on the orders of his state party chief. Well, one’s arrested and two have resigned, you say? There’s also the matter of BJP man and now Jammu and Kashmir Deputy Chief Minister Kavinder Gupta, who just hours after taking oath called the Kathua rape and murder “a small thing”, telling reporters, “Such challenges are faced by the government. It shouldn’t have been given all this hype.”
How does one expect these political parties to set in place effective measures for women’s safety?
The assumptions of our male politicians that they can take decisions about and for women based purely on their knowledge of having female relatives has been the go-to recipe for the state paternalism and moral policing that this country’s women have come to know and expect. And it looks like that isn’t changing any time soon.
Here’s some advice: Bring more women into the conversation. Dear politicians, don’t talk about your daughter, your sister, your mother, your wife and the experiences you gleaned from communicating with them. Let women talk for themselves and ask them what needs to change.
Take Bihar for example, which has 34 female MLAs in the 243-member Vidhan Sabha. Though far from ideal, it is still one of the highest in the history of female representation in India’s state assemblies (which should be enough to give one pause). The state is witness to stories such as that of MLA Bhagirathi Devi, who was reported about in IndiaSpend by Bhanupriya Rao, who belongs to one of the poorest of Dalit communities in Bihar. She quit her job and joined politics to try and solve the problems of poor women who were treated unjustly and cruelly. She struggled against society and her own family to become part of the state’s Vidhan Sabha, even separating from her husband for five years because he was against her joining politics. Her experiences which will inform her decision making aren’t the kind that can be gained from second-hand information.
Women are not tickets to election. At the moment, it looks like election season has begun. And in the corners of our metaphorical boxing ring, it’s Congress vs BJP vs women and the parties certainly seem to be hoping the best man, any man, wins.
Co-published with Firstpost.