India today is faced with grave gender issues and yet parliamentarians and leaders are often heard making reckless comments, which are then followed up by farcical, insincere apologies. Dr Paromita Chakravarti, Director, School of Women Studies, Jadavpur University, attributes this mindset to “the gender bias entrenched in our political system”. According to her, “the entire political process is patriarchal. There is great resistance to giving women one-third seats in Parliament, which is why the Women’s Reservation Bill has been given the lowest priority.”
Of course, while the unfortunate reality is that political parties want to keep women away from the corridors of power by denying them tickets, what is truly disappointing is the track record of prominent women in power. In Bengal, for instance, electing Mamata Banerjee as the chief minister hasn’t really helped the cause of the state’s women. While gender crimes are at an all time high, the manner in which Banerjee has dealt with the situation can only be termed as objectionable. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals that West Bengal has topped in crimes against women with 30,942 cases reported in 2012 – the highest in the country. The picture gets grimmer with 2000 reported cases of rape in 2012 alone. From the much publicised Park Street rape case in 2012 to the gang rape of a 20-year old college girl in Kamduni, about 40 kilometres north of Kolkata in June 2013, to the two-time gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Madhyamgram, a mere eight kilometres from Kolkata Airport, in October 2013, and the heinous community gang rape of a 20-year old tribal woman at Subalpur village in Birbhum district in January 2014 on the orders of a kangaroo-style village court – all these incidents have occurred during her tenure. There were other incidents too, but these cases gained significance in view of the heightened media coverage and the subsequent politicisation of the events by almost all major political parties in the state.
The chief minister herself led the brazen attempts of politicisation by terming most of these cases as a conspiracy by her opponents. She called the Park street case a “sajanoghotona” (fabricated incident), declared the housewives protesting the Kamduni rape as “Maoists” and actually told them to “shut up”, and also alleged that the accused in the Madhyamgram and Kamduni cases were Communist Party of India (Marxist) supporters. The parties opposed to the ruling Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, pointed fingers at her party workers as well as poor government and administrative measures. In short, none of these cases were treated as ‘crimes against women or law and order issues’ by any of the major political players.
Banerjee may have struck a chord with the female electorate with her slogan of ‘Maa, Maati, Maanush’ (Mother, Earth and Mankind) but that has not translated into gender-sensitive governance. Statements fixing blame for the increasing number of rape cases on the free mixing of men and women only enforce this view.
The track of other state leaders is no better. Akhilesh Yadav, the “young and dynamic” chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha, has made no efforts to ensure that speedy justice is given to the minority women raped during the Muzaffarnagar riots. Moreover, Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent attempts to give Ram Sene’s Pramod Muthalik a ticket to fight elections, is another case in point. Muthalik’s supporters had attacked women in a Mangalore pub in 2009 for allegedly having “loose morals”.
“Gender issues have not been in focus during the polls despite the lip service paid to women’s safety. One look at the election manifestos will reveal that no political party across the spectrum is committed to women’s safety or adopted a clear position on stopping rape and sexual assault or taken a stand on effective implementation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. And let’s not even talk about West Bengal, because the government here clearly shuns women’s rights and does not care about either their safety or their right to self-determination or autonomy,” laments social activist Ratnaboli Ray, adding, “The fact that the chief minister challenged the NCRB data and wants to create her own data clearly reflects her apathy towards women. The police here are either hyperactive or totally inept, depending on the orders from higher quarters. I have seen them refusing to lodge FIRs and even if they do, in some cases they are so poorly written that it becomes difficult to form chargesheets.”
Besides women, the political system and politicians have been extremely ambivalent on the rights of the LGBT community as well. According to Ray, parties need to be educated to respond to their needs. Even though the LGBT community has made itself visible in Bengal and some other states, rights are far from their ambit. Ray also stresses on the importance of eliminating discrimination in cases of violence against disabled women.
On her part, Dr Chakravarti supports the idea of giving gender sensitisation trainings to Parliamentarians so that they can create informed laws and take inclusive decisions. What she welcomes today is the discursiveness that has emerged in post-Nirbhaya India, “At least the media is increasingly highlighting these issues. The comments made by actor Dev would have been ignored five years ago but not anymore. The Election Commission is also taking note of irresponsible statements. I find Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to include women empowerment as a campaign issue interesting. No doubt there is politicisation of issues like violence against women, but now things are coming within the public domain politically and the change is actually taking place. Protests around gender issues are being noticed. They may not always in the proper way but they are definitely no longer marginal.”
The absence of gender issues from the mainstream political discourse has been noticeable. Professor Sinjini Bandyopadhyay, Department of English, Calcutta University, believes the physical security of women, 33 per cent reservation in parliament and state assemblies and education should figure in election campaigns, while Dr Chakravarti emphasises that parties need to clearly state where they stand on issues like violence, women’s workforce participation – that is dropping alarmingly – women and environment, property rights – particularly within tribal communities – and most importantly, women’s participation in governance.
In a surprising change, however, health indicators like Infant Mortality and Maternal Mortality rates, which are never addressed by politicians, have been mentioned this time around. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s claims to development have somewhat forced his opponents to mention the poor record related to these in his governed state of Gujarat, while archrival Congress promised healthcare for all in their manifesto. Other developmental planks like sanitation and hygiene, health care, safe drinking water, access to natural resources or gender-differentiated impact of climate change, still remain largely ignored.
Women make up 49 per cent of the voters but their problems are yet to be accorded an equal status in election campaigning. As always, there are a lot of right noises and not enough action.
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