What should women demand of the new government in Delhi?
The shouting is over. The voters have voted. India has a new set of rulers. And for the majority, who did not cast their votes in favour of the party now in power, this is a time for reflection.
How do we weigh this outcome? How should we respond if we feel less than enthusiastic? Should we be resigned and say ‘the people’ have decided and therefore we must accept? Or do we, the majority that did not vote this party into power, take on the role of the real opposition — one that is as essential a part of any democracy as elections?
And then again, if we consider ourselves the real opposition, given the truncated elected opposition in the Lok Sabha, how should we conduct ourselves? How do we make our voices heard when an election has allowed one grouping to get what is termed a ‘brute majority’?
In the post-election euphoria, these might not seem the relevant questions to be asking. But this is precisely the moment when these issues should be discussed.
Let’s take the question of women, for example. Since the December 16, 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, India has gained the reputation worldwide of being a country where its women are under attack — in the public space, in their homes, in villages, in conflict zones. Some of the reporting in the western media is out of context, even alarmist. Yet no one will dispute the reality that violence against women is growing and that it ought to be an issue of urgent concern for any group that claims it will provide the country with good governance.
Every mainstream political party endorses ‘women’s welfare’. The much-overused term ‘women’s empowerment’ slips off the tongues of politicians of all hues with ease. Yet, the women of India know that there is a difference between rhetoric and reality, between promises and performance, between the ‘safety’ of being confined and the ‘safety’ of being free.
So as a new government takes power in Delhi, what should we as women be demanding of it and what should we expect?
The most obvious demand is likely to be the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. It has been passed by the Rajya Sabha and awaits the consent of the Lok Sabha and half the state assemblies before it can become the law. This ‘brute majority’ should have no problem passing the Bill. But will it?
Even if it does, will that establish the new government’s credentials as a supporter of women’s rights? Not necessarily because even the most vociferous advocates of this law know that political representation is only a very small part of the overall struggle to ensure that all women get equal rights.
A more important test, I believe, will be to monitor if and whether the party in power reins in members of its ‘Parivar’ who have little regard for women’s rights. We have seen these elements in action as they attack young women in pubs, stop films where they conclude without any evidence that ‘Indian’ culture is being demeaned, demonstrate the extent of their misogyny when they launch personal and vitriolic attacks on women who speak out, women like the actress Nandita Das.
These elements have in the past supported the barbaric tradition of ‘sati’ claiming it was part of ‘culture’, they have refused to condemn honour killings, they have looked the other way when men like Babu Bajrangi, now serving a life sentence for the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre of 97 Muslims in Gujarat, forcibly prevented young people of different faiths getting married. According to such people, the rights of Indian women are confined within the definition of what they choose to call ‘Indian’ culture. The new Prime Minister of India has already equated Hindu and the nation in his self-definition as a ‘Hindu nationalist’. So women should worry as the line between ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’ has been erased.
The real threat to the rights of all women, irrespective of class, caste or creed is from these self-appointed defenders of ‘Indian’ culture — the likes of the Sri Ram Sena, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad —who will feel no compulsion to hold back now that their ‘family’ members are in power.