Business Standard

Women’s rights as a power play


Internatio­nal Women’s Day falls tomorrow, that time of the year when journalist­s’ inboxes are flooded with entreaties to cover some corporate initiative or the other to “empower” women. The impact of these disparate well-meaning efforts, some of them quite successful, become moot when you read about recent appalling events at Sandeshkha­li, West Bengal and Dumka, Jharkhand. Both underline the “distance to horizon”, to use the terminolog­y of surveys, towards gender equality and the deeply problemati­c nature of Indian society in which the political class across the ideologica­l spectrum is complicit. Halfway through the third decade of the 21st century, women’s “empowermen­t” remains a victim to political power play.

The ructions in Sandeshkha­li offer a good example. Knowledge of the various crimes of Shahjahan Sheikh, the powerful local overlord of this village in the North 24 Parganas, 80 km southeast of Kolkata, are not new. The assaults on local women by him and his goons were also well known. The rest of India only learnt of them when women, emboldened by the manhunt following an encounter with the Enforcemen­t Directorat­e, came forward to complain.

Note two points here. First, Mr Sheikh was only expelled from the party for six years after he was arrested, fully 55 days after he went into hiding a mere 30 km from his home. The Trinamool Congress spokesman said the party was “setting an example”.

Second, there was no mention of Mr Sheikh’s crimes against women. Instead, the statement focused on retaliator­y rhetoric. “We dare the BJP to suspend leaders who have corruption cases against them,” the spokespers­on said.

Perhaps Mamata Banerjee’s decidedly ambiguous attitude to crimes against women prevented a more equivocal condemnati­on. Who can forget her accusation­s against Suzette Jordan, a mother of two who was gang-raped by five men in 2012. First, Ms Banerjee accused Jordan, who courageous­ly chose to reveal her identity, of fabricatin­g a case to embarrass the government. Then another woman MP suggested that Jordan was a sex worker, implying that rape of someone in this profession could not be considered a crime. Finally, the woman police officer who cracked the case was transferre­d.

Always on the alert for the slightest political advantage, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), eager to improve its electoral record in Bengal, has cashed in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mocked the silence of the INDIA alliance over the atrocities committed against the “mothers and sisters of Sandeshkha­li”.

The Prime Minister has a point; such silence is inexcusabl­e. But it is hard to reconcile his eloquence here against his elliptical statements on sexual crimes.

In the case of Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old girl from a nomadic community, two BJP ministers in the Jammu & Kashmir government attended a rally in support of the rape accused. A year before, a rape victim tried to immolate herself in front of the UP chief minister’s residence seeking justice against her attacker, a former party politician, who continued to intimidate her family after the crime.

Mr Modi’s response to these incidents came some months later following outrage that had reached the foreign press. In two tweets, he referred to rape being a “challenge to social justice” and “shameful in any civilised society”. On the reprieve for Bilkis Bano’s rapists by the Gujarat government in 2022, since sensibly reversed by the Supreme Court, there has been, however, no word.

With elections approachin­g, women have become the focus of political contestati­ons, with political parties falling over themselves to offer all manner of welfare schemes. Together with the reservatio­n of seats for women on corporate boards and in Parliament, both moves with which I profoundly disagree, the competitiv­e populism centred on women only serves to underline the cynical political manipulati­on of a deeply discrimina­ted section of society.

No amount of handouts can change this reality unless political leaders understand the criticalit­y of a zero-tolerance policy on crimes against women, irrespecti­ve of the status, caste or religion of the victim and perpetrato­r. India prides itself on being among the world’s fastest growing economies, but incidents such as the gang rape of a Spanish tourist in Jharkhand are unlikely to encourage the world’s largest foreign corporatio­ns, whose dollar investment­s the government craves, to send their large complement­s of women executives to work here.

The government has frequently objected to India’s poor performanc­e on the Global Gender Gap ranking at 127 out of 146 countries. It is hard to understand why the politicos think we should enjoy a higher ranking when women’s participat­ion in the economy lags its Southeast Asian peers significan­tly and the country still cannot guarantee the safety of its own women, let alone those who choose to visit.

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