Albeena Shakil, a former President of JNU Students’ Union, is a political activist.
It is exactly a year since that fateful night of December 16, 2013 when a 23-year old paramedic student and her male friend were conned into boarding a bus of joyriders who then proceeded to follow their initial taunts with a brutal sexual assault of the young woman. Gang-raped and grievously wounded, that night the student started her courageous battle for life that lasted for the next 13 days.
Injured and traumatized, the young man lodged a complaint at the Vasant Vihar police station the same night. By the next day evening the JNU Students Union staged a protest at the Police Station demanding immediate arrest of all the perpetrators. The next day morning their chakka-jam of the ring road was joined by women’s rights groups and before the routine prescriptions and proscriptions about greater restrictions for women for the sake of their safety could begin to unfold, the slogan of ‘azaadi’ started reverberating on the lips of the youth.
By December 19, several protests broke out across Delhi culminating in a massive gathering by evening at India Gate. JNU students stormed into Raisina Hill to demand a meeting with the Home Minister. Next day, throngs of students and youth from across the city started pouring on to Raisina Hill and there was no looking back for the protests from there. What was witnessed for the next several days was a massive outpouring of people’s anger against violence against women.
The protests revealed a massive rift between the people and the political establishment with no mainstream political leader being able to establish any connect with the sentiment on the streets. The Prime Minister and others embarrassed themselves with their delayed and lame responses. Several leaders across political parties were caught unawares with their foot-in-the-mouth. Some were wondering what the fuss was all about and started reading conspiracy theories into the protests. The shaky government decided to order evacuation of the people from India Gate and the Delhi police resorted to the only method known to them – Sec. 144 and indiscriminate repression. Nothing, however, could deter the waves of protesters from hitting the streets against the insensitive establishment.
Eventually, the Justice Verma Commission was formed, which came out with a set of recommendations for comprehensive legal and institutional reforms to address the issues of violence and discrimination against women. However, the government and indeed the entire Parliament chose to ignore the detailed roadmap provided by the Verma Commission. Rather they hoped that the award of death penalty to the perpetrators and some tinkering with the laws would provide closure to this chapter of disenchantment.
Recently it was a senior Congress leader who identified the mishandling of the anti-rape protests in Delhi as one of the major causes for the drubbing received by the Congress in the Delhi Assembly elections, including for the defeat of its three-time woman Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. If this is an indication of the political ramifications of the anti-rape protests, the experience over the past one year only underscores the need for a paradigm shift in the political landscape of the country as far as gender issues are concerned. The ruling establishment’s response to the to the anger on the streets remained limited within the narrow confines of responding to crimes ‘after’ they happen rather than engaging with the root causes and undertaking systemic reforms aimed at ‘prevention’. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill was enacted by the Parliament involving long pending recognition of many crimes like acid-attacks, stalking, public stripping, voyeurism, etc., but what was bypassed were all additional options for ensuring prevention. The state and the system exposed themselves before the people. They refused to proactively do anything about why crimes were growing against women at an alarming rate in the first place, asserting that they could not be held responsible for societal failings.
But is that what the state is supposed to do – just be a mute spectator to massive injustices only to offer half-hearted or hostile responses to women who come knocking at the doors of the criminal-justice system? Is the state not entrusted with a leadership role in undertaking all possible measures to ensure justice for its citizens, including women? It is this that lay at the root of the disconnect that was witnessed between the people and the political establishment. While the people held the powers-that-be responsible for the state of affairs vis-à-vis rising crimes against women, the political establishment felt that their role was incidental in the matter at best. It is in this regard that the claims of Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit of developing a world class city fell flat. If Delhi was still the rape capital of the country, could she absolve herself of the blame?
The political establishment today presides over a law and order machinery that is systemically faulty. The weak and the disadvantaged – women, dalits, tribals, minorities and the poor – who are anyway facing the brunt of social inequities, find themselves short-changed when they approach the state for providing justice. The police and the courts routinely side with the strong and powerful, rather than with the rule of law. This is but a reflection of the distorted democracy that prevails in our country.
It is here that the ‘Modi mantra’ that is being touted as the solution for all the ills facing the country also fails to hold water. The 2002 Gujarat pogrom was not merely a carnage against the Muslim minorities, but also essential for implementing the Modi-model of development. The claims of the weak and the disadvantaged; in this case the Muslims; are viewed as a ‘drain’ on the state’s resources. The weak needed to be forced out of the way to clear the field for an unchallenged run for the corporates in the state. It was not for nothing that the Narendra Modi government blocked even centrally sponsored scholarships for minorities in Gujarat. In his scheme of things, any special measure for the socially disadvantaged is a sin. Within this framework, special measures like more fast-track courts, police reforms, gender-sensitive training, education reforms, administrative measures and multi-pronged policies aimed towards ensuring gender equality are likely to be ruled out.
The question is – can the women of our country move forward if they are supposed to just fend for themselves in the face of a massive and very violent patriarchal backlash against the changing status quo? Without proactive state intervention, this violence cannot be combatted just by the force of will and self-belief. The two major political parties of our country have nothing substantial to offer to women. Their apathy stems from the fact that gender issues did not have serious political-electoral ramifications. Political leaders who made the most atrocious comments against women never faced the ire of the voters. Women do not yet comprise a conscious political constituency and women’s issues remain marginal to the political mainstream of the country. This is not because women’s issues do not have an ideological and political content, but because till the anti-rape protests happened we could not imagine the emergence of political forces that would be willing to champion the cause of women.
Among regional players we have a mix of powerful women leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha and Mayawati who are often known by their popular kinship-based epithets like didi, amma or behenji. Despite being women, none of them are particularly known for their gender sensitivity. If at all, they have had to make their way into the traditional male domain of politics by reassuring the patriarchal order that they do not bring the baggage or threat of women’s issues with them. Looking at the content of the campaign led by Sheila Dikshit or Vasundhara Raje Scindia, one could almost miss the fact that they were women.
This challenge is evident in a wide variety of arenas in our country today where a generation of women are emphatically making their mark. While credit must be given to the media for their relentless and dedicated pursuit of gender issues over the past one year, women journalists who specialize on women’s issues are still a rarity. Most are constrained to concentrate on traditional male issues to prove their worth. It is the same approach that is often betrayed in the conduct of a handful of female police personnel in our country today (just over 6.5%). To justify their presence in the macho work environment of the police force they often have to be more masculine than the males. Many corporate house leaders continue to be known as the ‘men’in their organizations.
It is this Catch 22 predicament that faces a generation of women today – if they wish to be successful they have to prove themselves to be like men, and if they bring too much gender-sensitivity to the workplace then they are less likely to succeed. This stranglehold of patriarchy can only be broken by the participation of much larger number of women in the public realm, including in politics. But can a much larger number of women politicians make headway without championing women’s rights and building an effective gender-sensitive political constituency?
It is here that the defeat of a woman Chief Minister, who disregarded women’s issues, bodes well for the future of gender politics in our country. Unlike the identity politics script that entails that being a woman should be enough to be perceived as a representative of women, there is a nascent mainstreaming of gender politics that is taking place in our country. The need of the hour is for more women and men in politics to champion women’s rights and the evolution of political forces that would build their political constituencies based on a strong content of gender politics. Without this turn, young people across the country, especially women, are likely to be disappointed by regime changes. A year since a young woman’s tragic ordeal in Delhi that led to a massive outpouring of popular anger, one is hopeful that the change that began a year ago will develop into a torrent in the days to come.