‘Where is the political will?’

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Brinda Karat addressing people gathered at Jantar Mantar on December 29, the day the rape victim died in a Singapore hospital. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Looking at this incident of gang rape and murder that triggered widespread anger and protests, how would you locate it and the reactions it generated from ordinary people and from the ruling political class.

The circumstances in which this horrific incident took place were so ordinary it could have happened to any young woman in this city. Getting into a bus to go home after watching a film is what most young people do. The voices on the streets in the protests were saying it could have been me. The terrible injustice of it, the brutality of the crime and the incredible courage of the girl, struck a deep chord. How could a city not react? I have heard some cynics say, ‘well, how come these people did not react when there have been so many crimes?’. This is missing the point. The protests brought to the fore not just this case, but through this case the issues connected with crimes against women. It was the trigger which brought out pent-up feelings of insecurity, of facing harassment in various forms on a daily basis, of being humiliated and demeaned, groped in buses, targeted by sexist comments while walking on the road; there comes a point when you say enough is enough, and for thousands of young women that is what happened. It is also true that in the age of satellite television channels, the back-to-back coverage of the utter brutality of the crime and the subsequent brave battle of the young woman to live was an important factor.

The protests were and are most welcome. They have given confidence to young women to assert their right to security in public spaces. The thousands of young men who participated on the slogan for justice also in their own way challenged stereotypes of male masculinity linked to expressions of aggressive misogyny. I strongly believe that changing attitudes of boys and young men towards male privileges embedded in our son-preference cultures are critical in the fight against sexual harassment. Obviously, it cannot be only spontaneous. It also requires structured responses, such as gender sensitisation courses in syllabuses in schools and colleges and so on.

About the second part of your question, about the ruling political class, thank you for using the term ruling. I totally distance myself from opinions which hold that all political parties are bad and so on. But that is not the topic of your question. The ruling party behaved in the most abominable manner, both Central and State governments. To fight out a turf war at the bedside of a young woman struggling for life is the greatest crime and an indication of the criminal callousness and total disconnect from the people. Why has no top police official been punished for the blatant non-implementation of previously decided measures? If the bus owner and the driver of the bus, which had been challaned seven times previously, had been booked and punished, if the bus had been taken off the road as it should have been for having tinted glass windows, the girl may have been safe. Is no one to be held accountable?

How would you react to the measures that have been taken now by the government, considering that these have been some of the steps women's organisations, including AIDWA [All India Democratic Women’s Association], have been campaigning for for two decades at least.

No measures have as yet been taken. Only committees have been formed. We have once again, for the umpteenth time, given our suggestions. Let us see what the government does. No one is satisfied. If the government had the political will to send a strong message against sexual harassment and assault, it would have taken action against Delhi’s Police Commissioner and others responsible. All the homework for a comprehensive legal framework to deal with cases of sexual assault has been done by women’s organisations. It will take no more than a day to accept the recommendations and act. But where is the political will?

You have mentioned earlier that the growing violence against women is more in terms of a reaction to the assertion and participation by women in the public arena. Is it symptomatic of a society that is deeply undemocratic in its structure and therefore feels the need to suppress violently hitherto suppressed groups?

I also said that low conviction rates and related factors are almost a licence to commit sexual crimes against women. But yes, certainly one of the factors, and an important one, is the assertion of women to equal rights in public spaces, whether in educational institutions, work places and so on. There is a backlash against that, fuelled by conservative forces who believe that they have the social sanction to punish those women who cross the Lakshman rekha set out for them. But it is not the only one.

Look at what the khap panchayats are doing. Certainly it is against a girl asserting her right for a self-choice partner. But here there is another crucial factor operating, which is the caste system. Self-choice can never be and is not tolerated if the boy happens to belong to a lower caste. The caste system generates the most brutal forms of violence against those lower in the caste hierarchy. Dalits face that violence in different ways and, more particularly, Dalit women face it every day. Caste constitutes the most undemocratic structure, but 62 years after India adopted its Constitution, practices of untouchability and discrimination not only continue but intensify in certain areas. So the question arises as to how in the so-called modernisation processes caste continues in such a virulent form.

To put it briefly, I think we need to look at the path of India’s development, the capitalist path of development, which has created new inequalities and intensified old ones. In the present phase of neoliberal policies, a striking feature is the devaluation of women in the economic sphere. I am referring to the large majority of women belonging to the working classes, the agricultural workers, the millions of women in the unorganised sector without minimum wages and other rights. If economic independence is a prerequisite for women’s advance towards equal citizenship, then these policies, which have pushed women further to the margins, have created a framework of acute disempowerment for the mass of Indian women. Cultures associated with neoliberal economic policies commodify women’s bodies as sex objects designed to please the male gaze. This has its own impact. Thus there is not just a coexistence but a cooption of old forms of oppression and exploitation of women, which feeds into the present framework of neoliberal policies. Violence against women has increased owing to a combination of all these factors.

Is the demand for the death penalty for certain kinds of extreme forms of violence against women justified, considering that world over the experience is that it has hardly acted as a deterrent.

That is true. It is not a deterrent, but one can understand the anger against such a heinous crime, which gets expressed spontaneously in the slogan ‘phansi do’. The issue whether India should have the death penalty or not is still to be settled. There are strong opinions on both sides. Among progressives also, there is a debate on this issue. But as long as the death penalty is on the statute book, this brutal gang rape and murder will come under the rarest of the rare category and invoke the death penalty.

There are a lot of knee-jerk solutions being offered to the problem, ranging from chemical castration to self-defence. Some of them border on the ridiculous, in terms of dress codes for women and so on.

I think such proposals have not been thought through or they could be influenced by trying to assuage public anger at the utter failure of the governments, both at the Centre and in the States, to provide a secure and safe environment for women.

The main problem is the absence of certainty that the perpetrator will be punished. Also, there are no time-bound procedures. This has meant that even in a child rape case, it could continue for over 10 or 15 years. These are the issues that need to be ensured—fast-track courts, speedy justice, three months for a case of sexual assault to be decided. The CPI(M) has given its suggestions, which include some of these issues.

There is also this feeling that there is a distinct change in the nature of the polity, in that there was a time when Parliament did not fight shy of enacting progressive laws and policies, including those for affirmative action. Today it seems to be the reverse. Barring the Left, no political party even seems to be thinking about the women’s reservation Bill or enacting other laws dealing with crimes against women.

That is so true. The Bill against sexual harassment at the workplace has some really flawed clauses, which subvert the aim of the Bill, but it was passed in the Lok Sabha without any discussion and has not yet come up in the Rajya Sabha. It takes five minutes to cross from the Rajya Sabha to the Lok Sabha, but the women’s reservation Bill adopted by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 is yet to reach the Lok Sabha. Again, no political will.

For most political parties, issues like violence against women or women’s rights are soft issues that do not make a difference in electoral politics. Today, we have politics sans social and gender justice, sans social reform. The only reform on the agenda is corporate-demanded reform. One feels so much anger at this reality. But, then again, anger can become just a self-indulgence unless it can be translated into meaningful action to challenge these myriad injustices.

Hopefully, the anger we have seen on Delhi’s streets against this brutal crime can also be translated, in the context of struggles for security and justice for women, into a more sustained challenge to the unjust status quo.

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