Wanted: A New Vote Bank
I still recall the anger that saturated my entire being when I first heard about the horrific rape of a young woman in the national capital on December 16, 2012. I felt that same rage seeping into my bones as I read about the incident in Mumbai where a young trainee journalist was raped and brutalized on August 22, 2013. At the same time, I was reminded of how frequently I have experienced such rage in the last couple of years. Park Street, Barasat, Delhi, Kamduni, Mumbai... The list of horrors is endless and my rage futile.
As if the angst, outrage, and pain, generated by each of these event were not enough, India’s political leadership contributed their share to each tragedy by coming out with a set of comments, each one more offensive than the one that preceded it. We have by now had numerous cases of “sajano ghotona.” We experienced disbelief when we heard Abhijit Mukherjee, son of the president of India, who made national headlines (the only time in his career, so far) for his idiotic remark delivered with aplomb that the women activists protesting the Dec 16 crime were “dented and painted”. While no one knows what he meant, this much was clear that the honourable MP did not have much regard for those who braved water canons and police batons for days during Delhi’s freezing winter. RSS chief Mohan Bhagvat’s remark was far more insidious in the spurious distinction he drew between “Bharat” and “India” observing that the former was free of rape.
Had Bhagvat done some basic homework, he would have known how wrong headed his statement was. One need not be a cynic to think that India’s political leadership is often intentionally sensationalist. For ballots and bytes, they will not shy away from making comments that can foment violence. The Aug 22 rape of the young Mumbaikar has already been seized upon as an opportune moment for the Shiv Sena and the MNS to blow on their usual "Bangladeshi migrants" and anti-north Indian horn.
As I read the news of the young woman and her friend’s trip in the early evening to the abandoned Shakti Mills complex to catch the special evening light in which to photograph the dilapidated factory, I could not help asking myself which inch of India is safe for women. Is there even an iota of truth in Bhagvat’s projection of the places he designated as “Bharat”? Then why do we have a Kamduni? Why did 16 year-old Rajib Das have to die in order to save his sister who was being sprinkled with alcohol and molested only 100 m away from the district magistrate’s bungalow in Barasat? Perhaps Barasat is not “Bharat” enough? What then of the numerous women in Sutia or the female police official in Jharkhand? The list can be extended ad nauseam.
The truth is that the safety of women is under threat everywhere in India. It is under attack in militarised zones such as Kashmir and the northeast, it is under threat in villages, in highly literate states such as Kerala, in states with women leaders such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. It is under threat in many homes and in many schools, in public toilets and train stations, on brightly lit roads of metros such as Mumbai Kolkata, and Delhi as well as in the dark, country roads of UP, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Assam. I am not interested in making a tally of the levels of atrocity suffered by Dalit women versus upper caste women, nor am I invested in making arbitrary distinctions like Bhagvat on Bharat vs India. I am still surprised that such statements are regarded as important and worthy of thought by a well-known social scientist like Ashis Nandy. Equally, I am not interested in whether item numbers and Bollywood films contribute to these crimes or if it is the unfortunate underbelly of economic globalisation. Most of all, I am not interested in the question of whether these crimes have gone up in recent years or if this is simply a function of widespread media reportage. I am sure that there is some truth in many of these propositions.
I was reminded with a sense of sadness that in Bengali we call that time of day when the young woman was attacked in Mumbai “godhuli”, a time when the dust from the hooves of cows returning from the fields creates a storm that renders the light of the setting sun even more beautiful. She wanted to catch that light of the setting sun, but was attacked, abused, raped, and brutalized by five men. She was an intern who is still determined to return to that same spot to complete her assignment. I laud her courage and her spirit and am it takes me back to a utopian thought I have nurtured for many months now. Utopian because it is unlikely to ever become reality. But which sensitive human being among us is not thinking today about how to make this country safe for women? This is by no means to take an extreme position that regards all men with suspicion or to say that the rape is a fantasy for all men. Not at all.
It is however true that in India these incidents are still treated as “women’s” rather than everyone’s issue. Haven’t we had enough of candle-light vigils and street protests? The truth is that nothing happens in India unless we can think of some way to impact electoral results. Most politicians, and they are the ones who hold our police and bureaucracy in an iron fist (the case of Durga Shakti Nagpal or Damayanti Sen are two important examples), will not give two hoots about women’s safety unless there was some way in which this could upset their numbers at the polls. I think that women in India have a huge challenge facing them. Can they overcome the numerous divisions that will never go away—divisions of caste, religion, region, and community—and come together as a bloc that will demand that every political party should have a well worked out agenda for women before the 2014 elections? Can they unite themselves despite their diversity, converting difference into a strength and demand public debates among parties about proposed plans for making fast track courts work, making charge-sheet processes actually happen, about counselling centres, lights, and emergency phones in villages and cities? Only a concerted front that wields considerable power at the polls can bring about significant changes in our legal and judicial system, whose proceduralism is deeply wanting in imagination.
If the fracas over the women’s bill was anything to go by, it is clear as day that there is no such entity called “Indian women.” There is Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Naga, Marathi, Himachali, and countless others. Can we imagine a women’s movement in this country that does not deny these divisions but is able to successfully posit an overarching identity called “Indian women” that supersedes these discrete ones? It is time for “Indian” women to step out as a bloc that demands certain rights for the entirety of the female population in the country. Failure to deliver should hold the threat of being toppled at the polls. This is my dream. And reading about Nirbhaya or the young women of Kamduni, or the young photojournalist in Mumbai gives me the courage to express it in words.
Rochona Majumdar is Associate Professor, University of Chicago
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