Socio-economic factors

Missing the point

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Students performing a play during a protest rally at Jantar Mantar and demanding changes in the law against sexual crimes on the basis of the Justice Verma Committee recommendations, in New Delhi on February 21, 2013. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

There is a need to address the factors that lead to the increase in the violence against women. For this, a more consistent examination of the socio-economic situation that characterises the neoliberal era is essential.

Once again women in India are in the eye of the storm. Once again it is for all the wrong reasons and also, perhaps, the responses are determined by a myopic vision. For over a week, television channels were rocked by the telecast of excerpts from the BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, slated to be telecast on March 8, International Women’s Day. Many people, including TV channels took sides. There were those who were shocked by the chilling lack of remorse in the voice and words of one of the men accused of raping Nirbhaya in December 2012. The debate continued until the lynching in Nagaland overtook the attention devoted to the documentary.

The episode was a repeat of the now-familiar pattern of media hype around an incident, uproar in the political domain, followed by a knee-jerk reaction. The government, apparently caught on the wrong foot with regard to the whole sequence of events, responded in classic authoritarian fashion by imposing a ban on the telecast. Subsequently, it was officially made unavailable for viewing on YouTube as well. The arguments advanced in favour of the ban are several. A few of them need to be considered seriously.

It may be worth revisiting the evolving discourse/ discussion on violence against women in India without passing any judgment on the documentary or the responses to it. It may also help to consider the issue from a long-term historical perspective.

The title India’s Daughter, as some argued, is reminiscent of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India; it smacked of an Orientalist gaze and projected Indian women in poor light. Some went to the extent of arguing that this would adversely affect tourism. The debate resonated in Parliament, with members of the House expressing anger at such a negative portrayal of Indian women, and thereby seeking to make the point that there was a concern for women.

Such a display of concern for women in India is itself a revelation for those tracking debates on women and development in India. Firstly, have we seen such anger when members of the House and other senior politicians made statements denigrating women and used unparliamentary language both inside and outside the House? Have we forgotten the long stony silence on the part of the government in December 2012, which was finally broken by a brazen attempt to disperse the protesters with tear gas, lathi charge and water cannons? There was no one responsible or responsive enough to speak to a youth in ferment, troubled by the utter lack of safety on the streets in the capital city.

The then Chief Minister of Delhi, in an attempt to wash her hands of the matter, went on record to say that it was not in her hands since the police came under the Union Home Ministry. In a rare show of wisdom, the Central government set up the Justice Verma Committee to review the laws relating to sexual assault and it organised a national consultation to hear out the concerns of women’s organisations across the country and came up with a report in record time. This led to amendments to the laws relating to criminal assault in 2013. However, several issues raised by the women’s movement remain unaddressed. One among them is the issue of a code of conduct and regulations with regard to public officials and politicians who voice misogynistic views almost on a daily basis.

Damage control

From a situation where no one was willing to address the real issue, we are today in a situation where damage control is once again done as a public relations exercise. The government of the day needs to realise that we no longer live in the colonial period when there was a need to counter the imperialist Western/Orientalist gaze with the rhetorical assertion of a glorious past and a culture known to worship women. There is, in fact, the need for a more critical appraisal of the situation today.

There is no doubt that the Western media highlight concerns raised by the women’s movement on a selective basis, and their choice, over the years, have remained largely restricted to issues of sexual violence against women in India. The women’s movement has for a long time known that its critique of macro-policies and the linkages with the marginalisation of women as well as the continued prevalence of discriminatory practices alongside apparent modernisation are continuously overlooked.

One of the arguments advanced to stop the screening of the film is that the matter is still in court and this exposure as well as public opinion may prejudice the proceedings. The question is: Are there not guidelines in place for such matters? Would the film-maker not have sought and been granted permission to conduct the interviews? If this was so then what is the basis of a post-facto embargo? In fact, one may well ask whether permission would be given with such ease and access allowed to Indians who may have wished to make such a film as in the case of Leslee Udwin. Also, are we not disrespecting the judiciary by asserting that its judgment may be so easily swayed by public opinion?

The statements of the defence lawyers, in fact, raise major concerns about the judicial process. One of them is seen to be making comments such as that a woman should not be put on the street just like food, and much worse…. The other is seen declaring that he would actually set his daughter on fire if she were seen to be going out with a boy and defying the norms as defined by society. It is chilling to see the visceral words of the moral brigade in such open public declarations by those seen to be a part of getting women justice in our courts. The demand by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) for a first information report to be lodged against the two has more substance than the outcry for a ban on the film.

There are several other aspects to the film and the process of its making that cannot be brushed aside. Was the family not told of the project in its full, as now being claimed/ stated by the father of the victim?

The fact is that while the media played a stellar role in the aftermath of the December 2012 incident, we still need to discuss the ethical issues with regard to the construction of “stories” around issues of sexual violence. There is equally a need to contextualise the evolving discourse around mentality, mindsets, and so on.

Socio-economic factors

At the same time, there is a need to address the factors that lead to an increase in the violence against women. This requires a more consistent examination of the volatility accompanying the development processes, rural impoverishment, increasing urbanisation accompanied by social insecurities and vulnerabilities, and the utter lack of thought given to socio-cultural needs in new locations of urban growth in the neoliberal era. There is a need for more sustained interrogation of developmental processes and their links with changing aspirations, expectations and the frustrations accompanying failures in a competitive marketised economy. An added feature to consider in all this is the implication of large-scale impoverishment in rural India and a deepening agrarian crisis, growing unemployment and a lack of regular work and job security given the expansion of the unorganised sector.

At the same time, more in-depth study of the impact of these processes on young minds and the shaping of their consciousness needs investigation. To address the numerous questions accompanying these changes, we need back-up research teams that monitor the data, and, in fact, longer and more detailed interviews to capture the thought processes which shape the outcomes that are visible in extreme brutality and the increase in the violence and the intensity of it, especially against women. Here again, ethical issues will have to be kept in mind and strict guidelines laid down for conducting such studies. This has to be given priority both in terms of social science research and with regard to policy.

Parliament and the government would do well to address these issues with a long-term perspective so as to understand emerging societal trends and put in place policies and procedures that are needed to address the situation on the ground. This needs to be done on a sustained basis with a balanced approach to upholding democratic norms. Such concrete interventions are urgently needed and would go a long way, moving beyond sensationalised reporting of specific and selective incidents in the name of addressing gender concerns and knee-jerk reactions.

Indu Agnihotri is director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

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