No country for women

Print edition : April 13, 2019

A protest in New Delhi against the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, in April 2018. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Kuldeep Singh Sengar, BJP MLA and accused in the Unnao rape case. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with the “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” beneficiaries, at Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan in March 2018. Photo: PTI

A protest by women’s organisations against the gang rape of a 19-year-old CBSE topper in Rewari, outside Haryana Bhawan in New Delhi in September 2018. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Women have generally fared badly in the Modi years, notwithstanding the hype around the flagship programme claiming to save and educate daughters.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto in 2014 made many promises to women. The most important of these was the pledge to enact the Women’s Reservation Bill guaranteeing 33 per cent reservation for women in the legislatures. The BJP also made political capital out of the Nirbhaya case, involving the gang rape of a woman in Delhi, to showcase its commitment to women’s safety. Its motto of “Ek Bharat, Shreshta Bharat” held the promise of “involving women” in progress and underpinned the launch of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign, “a comprehensive scheme to encourage positive attitude amongst families towards the girl child”. Other related promises included strict implementation of laws against rape and acid attacks, dedicated industrial training institutes for women, women-friendly police stations and a school curriculum that includes women’s self-defence. But the manifesto did not promise increasing the budget for women and child development in any substantive manner.

Notwithstanding the election promises, the crime graph against women has risen substantially all over the country, including the BJP-ruled States. The Women’s Reservation Bill has not been passed, and the government does not have the excuse of not having the numbers in Parliament to enact the legislation. The BJP and its allies have over 300 seats in the Lok Sabha. Moreover, in at least three BJP-ruled States, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (the last two are now ruled by the Congress), preconditions and minimum qualifications for candidates were introduced in the panchayat laws for contesting local body elections. Rajasthan was incidentally under a woman Chief Minister when these were introduced. With these changes, in one stroke, thousands of people, especially those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, were automatically excluded from the democratic process.

The amendments to the Haryana Panchayat Act were legally challenged but were unfortunately upheld by the Supreme Court. Therefore only those people who had studied up to a certain level (for S.C.s, till class VIII and for the general category, till class X), possessed a toilet in their homes, had no electricity bill dues and no criminal cases against them were eligible for contesting panchayat and other local body elections. According to Jagmati Sangwan, former general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the preconditions led to the exclusion of 83 per cent Dalit women and 77 per cent of women in the general category. A candidate who stood for the mayoral elections from Rohtak, a nominee of the BJP, had huge outstanding electricity dues against his name but managed to get a No Objection Certificate so that he could contest. He won. Recently, in Rajasthan, the newly inducted Congress government reversed the amendments to the State Panchayat Act, restoring the status quo.

Economic exclusion

The NDA government’s record on economic inclusion is equally lacklustre, despite the hype. The Bharatiya Mahila Bank (BMB), which was started during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance government with the objective of nurturing the entrepreneurial skills of women, became a page in banking history in 2017 following its merger with the State Bank of India on the grounds that the BMB’s administrative and managerial costs were too high. The mahila bank concept had been mooted to enhance women’s “access to financial services at affordable rates, promote asset ownership and entrepreneurship for the purposes of inclusive growth and empowerment of women in general”. Explaining the reasons for the merger, a release of the government’s Press Information Bureau stated in April 2017: “The objectives of affordable credit to women as well as propagation of women-centric products need to be quickly achieved through a wider network and lower cost of funds which is not possible for a new bank and that is why to achieve this, BMB has been merged with State Bank of India.” The declining work participation rate of women in the unorganised sector is also a matter of record. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), in 2018, as a category, women lost around 88 lakh jobs as compared with 22 lakh jobs lost by men. Rural women lost more jobs than their urban counterparts did.

Crimes in BJP-ruled States

The Crime in India report of the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) is the only authentic source of information on all registered crimes and trends of crime in India. Its 2016 report, the latest to be published and released in October 2017, revealed that most of the crimes against women took place in BJP-ruled States such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The BJP incidentally ruled Madhya Pradesh for three consecutive terms from 2003. The repeated victories were attributed to the good governance of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Yet, Madhya Pradesh under him was among the States that reported the highest number of crimes against women. Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh were the States to report the largest number of cases of “assault on woman with intent to outrage her modesty”. The States to report the maximum cases of kidnapping and abduction were from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar; for rape, it was Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, in that order.

In April 2018, while replying to a question raised by a Samajwadi Party legislator, the Uttar Pradesh government admitted that crimes against women and girl children in the State had gone up in every category when compared with the 2016-17 figures. The government said that dowry cases had gone up from 2,084 for the period from April 1, 2016, to January 31, 2017, to 2,223 in the period from April 1, 2017, to January 31, 2018. For the same period, the number of rape cases went up from 2,943 to 37,04; kidnapping cases from 9,828 to 13,226; cases of outraging women’s modesty from 495 to 987; and torture cases from 10,219 to 13,392. In all, the number of such crimes against women and girl children (IPC and SLL both) had risen from 33,728 to 44,936.

The record of the police and courts in disposing of these cases was abysmal, hardly matching the populist slogan of Beti Bachao aur Beti Padhao. In the 1,52,165 rape cases that came up for trial, 87.6 per cent of the accused were charge-sheeted, but only 25.5 per cent were convicted. Of cases of rape of S.C. women, there were 40,401 cases in 2014, 38,670 in 2015, and 40,801 in 2016. Crimes against senior citizens also went up by almost 3,000 cases.

Overall, there was a 34 per cent increase in crimes against women in the first four years of the Modi-ruled government; and a 2.9 per cent increase in one year, from 2016 to 2017. There was an almost 83 per cent increase in incidence of child rapes and a 13 per cent increase in crimes against children in 2016-17. A charter presented by a group of women’s organisations to political parties in the context of the coming elections points out that on an average 916 cases of violence against women were reported in the country with an average of 40 incidents an hour.

Communal & criminal

The issue is not just about the rising crime graph. The communalisation of the gang rape of the Bakarwal minor in Kathua of Jammu district and the open protection extended to the alleged culprits by BJP legislators was a new low. Similarly, the alleged involvement of a BJP MLA in the sexual exploitation of a minor in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, and the complicity of a woman Minister in the Nitish Kumar government in the welfare home sex scandal in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur involving minor girls pointed to the gravity of the overall situation for the girl child and women in States ruled by the BJP. Equally shocking was the gang rape of five women in Khunti district Jharkhand in June 2018. The women had been conducting an awareness campaign on migration and human trafficking at the time of the incident.

In Haryana, another BJP ruled State with a low child sex ratio, there has been no dip in the number of killings in the name of honour. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who drew a lot of flak for advising women to dress decently, repeated similar misogynistic comments recently when he said that rapes were mostly the outcome of “small fights” between men and women. According to NCRB data, Haryana is among the States reporting the highest number of incidents of gang rapes. Others are Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Prtadesh. All were ruled by the BJP in the years for which data were collected.

Support for khaps

On October 11, 2014, addressing an election rally in Jind district Haryana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his support for khaps, caste councils specific to the Jat community, which are known to violently protect caste endogamy and are virulently opposed to inter-caste marriages. “It was an indirect support to the khaps in order to get their backing for electoral reasons,” said Sangwan.

In 2018, a young girl from the Jat community was murdered in Rohtak for having married a Dalit boy. Her community members did not allow either her family or her in-laws to cremate the body on the ground that she had brought shame to the community. The body was finally cremated only after the AIDWA put pressure on the State Women’s Commission to take a firm stand. Sangwan said that the protection homes for couples marrying out of caste were overcrowded as they hardly had any budgetary support, whereas funds were lavished on government advertisements of schemes for the girl child. In one particular case, where two sisters had been honoured for fighting off their molesters in a bus, the State government withdrew the honour after some reports emerged that the incident was fabricated. The girls were shamed and the women’s organisations that had taken up the issue were discredited. The girls were subjected to lie detector tests and asked ridiculous questions. There was an attempt to fit the deliberately crafted narrative that the women filed false cases in order to implicate men.

An undergraduate science student in Harynana’s Rewari district, who had been felicitated by President Ram Nath Kovind for topping the Central Board of Secondary Education examination in the State, was gang-raped in September 2018. Her assaulters kidnapped her while she was waiting for her father to pick her up from a coaching centre. Sangwan said that while there was growing eagerness and aspiration among girls to pursue studies and take part in sports, given that Haryana had produced a good number of national and international award winning women sportspersons, the State did not have adequate supportive mechanisms and infrastructure.

NCRB data on custodial rapes showed only Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh as having reported such cases. The promise to increase the number of women personnel in the police force has also been a non-starter. The idea of having all-women police stations in every district proved to be impractical and unworkable for a country of India’s size. Women comprise less than 10 per cent of the total police force, and a majority of them do not make it to officer-level positions. The scope for promotions is limited in all-women police stations, which explains women police personnel’s reluctance to work in them. Sangwan told Frontline that it would have been better to increase the presence of women personnel in all police stations and make them gender sensitive spaces, rather than setting up all-women police stations. The model of separate women police stations was inherently flawed, she said.

Conservative outlook

Unsurprisingly, the BJP has been consistently conservative in its outlook towards women, despite having women in the Cabinet. Its opposition to the entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala temple is a case in point. Notwithstanding some progressive judgements by the Supreme Court decriminalising Section 377 and adultery and allowing entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala temple, the overall status of women took a beating in the last five years. There was a resurgence of conservatism and rise in economic inequality that had a bearing on overall rates of violence against women.

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