“...Sochne par majboor ho jate hain, akhir beti ko sheher bhej kar galti to nahi ki. Humari betiyon ko suraksha na de pane walon, janta maaf nahi karegi. Chalo haalat badlein, desh ki sarkar badlein. Ab ki baar Modi Sarkar.”
These lines are from a 47-second-long video campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before it came to power in 2014. Having formed the government for two consecutive tenures, it seems that the BJP-led government has turned its back to the issues of women’s safety and gender-based violence (GBV).
Parents of young women have started to express their doubts about sending their daughters into sports after they witnessed on social media what happened with the top wrestlers and grapplers of the country on May 28 as they marched from Jantar Mantar to the new Parliament on the day of its inauguration.
The wrestlers, who took on outgoing Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and BJP Member of Parliament (MP) from Uttar Pradesh's Kaserganj Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s sexual misconduct, had discontinued their sit-in protest following their manhandling, harassment, and detention by the Delhi Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on the day of their march at India Gate. Last week, they announced that they will fight the matter in court and withdrew their protest against the BJP leader, who is also accused in a number of criminal cases, including murder.
At a close distance from the new Parliament building inaugurated by the prime minister in the presence of saffron-clad saints and seers, hundreds of women from rural and urban India gathered to participate in a Mahila Mahapanchayat at the Constitution Club of India on June 14. As they expressed solidarity with the protesting wrestlers, activists and women’s organisations took cognisance of the alarming state of women’s rights and security in the country.
Harbouring abusers and rapists
Adhering to the ideology of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ruling BJP has intensified the ideals of patriarchy among the youth of the nation, combined with communal and caste politics. When queried about the wrestlers' protest, young men repeatedly defend Singh asking: “Why did they (wrestlers) not complain when they were being harassed? Why are they making such a big deal of it now?”
The case of Singh is not one in isolation as the BJP government has unfailingly shown relentless support to those accused of sexual harassment, assault, murder, and even rape.
As India celebrated Independence Day on August 15, 2022, the Gujarat government announced its decision of remitting the 11 men sentenced to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and mass murder case in the 2002 Gujarat Riots case on the recommendations of the Jail Advisory Committee. The then 21-year-old Bano, who was five months pregnant, was gang-raped. Her mother and sister were raped and she witnessed the killing of almost her entire family, including her three-year-old daughter.
Notably, the panel set up by the Gujarat government comprised officials and ‘social workers’—all members of the BJP or connected with it— that approved of the remission. Godhra MLA CK Raulji—one of the committee members and BJP legislator further went on to say that some of the convicts were, after all, Brahmins with good sanskaars, and may not even be guilty of the crime in the first place.
Jagmati Sangwan, Bheem Awardee volleyball player from Haryana and All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) national vice-president, informs that after a junior female coach accused Haryana minister and former captain of the National Hockey Team Sandeep Singh of sexual assault and attempt to rape last year, women’s organisations, khaps and kisans came forward demanding Singh’s removal.
“Haryana CM and BJP leader Manohar Lal Khattar said that they cannot just remove a minister based on mere allegations adding that investigations in the case are going on, what is the hurry,” Sangawan said. On the Opposition’s demand for Singh’s resignation, speaker Gian Chand Gupta responded by saying “SIT (a Special Investigation Team) is conducting investigations. Many FIRs are lodged by women, but an inquiry is conducted first.”
On March 2, 2023, special judge Trilok Pal Singh acquitted three of the four accused in the September 2020 Hathras gang rape case and convicted the main accused under charges of culpable homicide (without the intent of murder) citing that since the Dalit woman, who succumbed to her injuries on September 29, 2020 was in a condition to continue to talk for eight days after the incident, hence prime accused Sandeep can't be said to have the intent to kill her. She was denied dignity even in death as her body was hastily burned by the local police in the presence of the District Magistrate without her family's presence or permission.
“There is an open support to the molesters, sexual harassers, and rapists by this government with absolute impunity,” says General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), Annie Raja. “The fact that this man (Brij Bhushan Singh) is going around is due to the support from the government and from the BJP.”
Raja points out the aforementioned instances underlining the dealing of this government on sexual assault and violence. Without upholding any other government or party, she says that the country never had a government or administration that had acted in as adverse a manner as the present government.
“In the January 2020 case of an eight-year-old’s rape and murder in Kathua, BJP leaders rallied in a candle march in support of the accused,” Raja says.
The ministers also addressed the crowd, calling the police action against the rape accused a ‘jungle raj’.
Human rights campaigner and activist Shabnam Hashmi said that in their attempt to discredit the narrative of the wrestlers, the government has propelled fake news and intimidation, intimidating all girls and women into silence, who dare to raise questions against sexual abuse.
She says, “There was a lot of support for the girls earlier, but after the May 28, incident, the misinformation campaign of the RSS machinery has built a narrative to delegitimise the wrestlers. Media anchors shout on top of their voices on TV channels that are watched by millions across and there is no strong counter to it.”
She further adds that the minor’s father spoke quite a few times that they were under a lot of pressure and intimidation which explains them retracting their statements against Singh under the POCSO Act.
Raja draws a background of the Narendra Modi government which ever since it came to power, has labeled the left, Opposition parties, and all voices of resistance as “anti-nationals”. Those aligning with the BJP-Sangh Parivar’s nationalist ideology claim to be the true ‘sons of the soil’.
Raja says, “The PM himself goes on to say that every household should have a national flag as a symbol of patriotism. However, when these Olympians and international wrestlers, who have won gold medals for the country and upheld the tricolour, raise this complaint and fight for justice with the authority for several months, they are labeled anti-nationals.”
Raja notes that the two committees that were initially formed to investigate Singh’s case were headed by the same persons.
She says, “I learned that Singh came with a convoy of 15-20 cars accompanied by his men as a show of power; to intimidate and terrify the complainants and their families.”
The fact that the topmost wrestlers of the country had to sit on the streets of the national capital for months, and later dragged brutally, for justice, which is yet due, is unacceptable. Given the attitude of the government, police, and administration towards the international players, it is frightening to imagine what would it be like for common women who are victims of sexual violence and rape every day to raise their voices against the institutional violation of their rights, she says.
Tip of the iceberg
For Hashmi, the wrestlers’ protest is the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as sexual harassment is not an uncommon phenomenon and it manifests in all fields and sectors.
Hashmi says, “So far, we had not heard or witnessed this kind of outrage from any sportswomen even though sexual harassment takes place everywhere women are working. Thus they were pressurised so much so that they had to withdraw from the protest.”
After the Jantar Mantar episode, a large number of women activists have come forward to support these wrestlers as the matter is beyond an organisation or federation, but that of women.
“The wrestlers’ protest exposes how sexual harassment manifests at each level of the system while the state gives impunity to the perpetrators and survivors are constantly victimised. It unearthed the defunct POSH committees and the mere eyewash that they are,” the activists say unequivocally, adding that the government and its allies have consistently and repeatedly demoralised, discouraged, and discredited the victims to silence their voices.
Warning women, second-class citizens
ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy) Co-founder and sister of firebrand activist Safdar Hashmi who was murdered, Shabnam says that the state machinery’s constant support to sexual abusers and discrediting survivors gives a clear message to the women of the country that “we are second class citizens and that there is no space for them in this country to live a dignified life”.
“When you shield the likes of Brij Bhushan or release Bilkis Bano’s rapists, it's a clear signal to the women that the struggle for gender equality will continue for centuries. They might be throwing their jumlas but what they believe in is that women are second-class human beings and this is how they will treat us,” she says.
Hashmi expresses her doubts about the wrestlers getting justice. She is unsettled like many others at how the Supreme Court skirted the case after directing the Delhi Police to file an FIR against Singh.
“They should have taken suo moto action, intervened, and said arrest the man.” Adding that the current socio-political atmosphere prevailing in the nation is that of fear and intimidation, she feels that the judiciary too does not seem to be working independently.
Raja warns of the repercussions that the Delhi Police and armed police forces' handling of the wrestlers on May 28 could have happened throughout India.
“The way the Delhi police dealt with the case can be a precedent for other state police and governments who would try to push women away from seeking justice in such cases. It is a major setback to women’s rights and gender equality in the country which dilutes hundreds of years of our struggles and fights. This is a war-like situation for women.
“What is the use of the judiciary if after it has convicted someone, the government decides that they are sanskari Brahmins and they cannot do such crimes, thus bailing them free? The entire justice system has become meaningless with this remission and the dealing of the wrestlers,” Raja says pointing to the remission of convicted rapists and murderers.
The activists have also seen Khaps’ and farmers’ support of the wrestlers' movement as a welcoming statement. Sangwan, who has been a voice of resistance against Khap diktats in Haryana, believes that Khaps speaking against sexual violence is a silver lining for Haryana, which, if sustained consciously, will help to trickle down the change at the grassroots level.
Despite the government’s eerie silence on the wrestlers’ protest and his regime’s mistreatment of the “daughters” he called his own after they won medals for the nation, the likes of Sangawan and Raja continue to have their faith in the judiciary.
For months, the entire machinery worked to safeguard Singh from any arrest and succeeded in retracting POCSO charges against him. However, the initial statements would still continue to show on the record. “The judiciary in its process must take cognition of the circumstances under which the minor’s supplementary statements were recorded and then reach a decision,” Sangwan hopes.