There is something sick about the manner in which women’s activists have recently been conducting themselves, obfuscating the core issue of women’s dignity and empowerment and reducing everything to what is politically correct (that is, beneficial), or politically inconvenient, in which case the entire corpus gets instant amnesia. Even a cursory examination of some prominent and widely reported cases of rape and sexual harassment, coupled with the deafening non-response to Home Minister LK Advani’s recommendation of death penalty to rapists, would suffice to establish my point.
This is why, despite 200 years of struggle for social reform and women’s rights, we face the danger of losing the battle because an aggressive female vanguard has usurped the aspirations of the masses. The fight to recover the central role for women in the home and in society, advocated most effectively by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, rested on the basic premise that the minds of women must be empowered with knowledge and their deprived human dignity restored to them. Since then, advocates of women’s rights have recognised that in order to experience their human dignity and realize themselves, whether through education, employment or self-employment, or as mothers and housewives, women must be free from all forms of debasement, both inside and outside the home.
This remains the cornerstone for any meaningful empowerment, and the proliferating range of crimes against women and the growing crime graph tells us that we have a long way to go. Indeed, we seem to be going backwards in this regard. Perhaps, this is the reason why the women’s movement is looking for a “short cut”. Under the leadership of the politically and socially well-connected, it has lost sight of the grassroots. The most telling instance of its self-centredness is the manner in which it made its own case for political reservation synonymous with women’s empowerment. No wonder, it came a cropper.
Looking at the manner in which the movement tackles actual incidents concerning women, we find that the political and publicity potential of a case, rather than a passion for securing justice to the victim(s), dominates the minds of the activists. The Bhinmal Jain muni suicide and the Jaipur hostel gang rape cases are illustrative. In the first instance, a Digambar Jain muni (a naked ascetic who is free of human desires and weaknesses), was accused of rape by a former devotee. The police, reportedly aware of her reputation, were reluctant to press charges. But the activists, sensing an opportunity to challenge a patriarchal system (itself unexceptionable) and to embarrass the administration (a questionable motive), clamoured for the muni’s arrest.
A fact-finding committee sent by Ms Mohini Giri, then chairperson of the National Women’s Commission, declared the muni guilty, as accused. Overwhelmed by ignominy of the charge, he committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Later, as passions cooled down, investigations established the charge as false. The findings were accepted by the activists, who then beat a strategic retreat, no doubt to engage their energies on a more worthy cause.
However, to this date, the National Women’s Commission, which tom-tommed the judgment of its fact finding committee with gusto in the national Press, has not seen it fit to apologise to the family or community of the holy man for virtually hounding him to death. What is more, neither the Commission nor women activists elsewhere have learnt the basic lesson this unhappy incident should have taught them; that even sympathetic women must investigate charges of such enormity with precision, impartiality and dispassion. That is to say, justice must be seen to be done, not revenge taken.
Then there is the sordid Jaipur gang rape and sexual exploitation case, which has assumed such political and casteist overtones as to put the very investigation in peril. The case is on the lines of the tragic Ajmer and Jalgaon sex scandals, except that in this case there is only one victim. Going by Press reports, it would seem that a young, emotionally vulnerable girl became involved with a youth of a different caste, expecting the relationship to culminate in marriage. But the young man cynically passed on her name and address to hostel mates when he moved on, leaving her to cope with a seven-year nightmare with the “boys”, which culminated in her public rape at a party for a civil official.
The story is gruesome and painful for listeners; the suffering of the victim herself cannot even be imagined. It goes without saying that punitive action should immediately have been taken at least against this official and all the accused should have been speedily arrested. That the administration moved at a snail’s pace is bad enough; what is worse is the manner in which women’s groups made the case the spearhead of a campaign to arraign the State Government for protecting a potential caste votebank, rather than concentrating upon securing justice for the victim.
The politicization of the case has ill-served the victim, though it has brought the spotlight on all those fighting for her cause. Thus, the opposition Congress, which could have pressurized the administration to act, has adopted a low profile because it has traditionally been supported by the “accused” caste. Hence, by presenting the case in terms of political credit and loss, rather than as a crime, vociferous women’s groups have introduced extraneous considerations into its resolution. Its result can be seen in the confusion following the alleged repeat rape, which was converted into sex by mutual consent with a mysterious doctor-lover, which in turn became a police fabrication when the activists realized that the case was being hopelessly compromised as the victim was losing public credibility! Press intervention from Delhi has since kept the case alive, but few are hopeful of victory in the courts.
Most educative, however, is the exposure of the sexual harassment of a former JNU student, as reported in The Pioneer, by a don who is also the husband of a well-known woman activist. Now, we all espouse the theory that the law should be equal for all. We also know that the veracity of the student’s charges can be verified with the university authorities, with whom she had lodged verbal complaints in the past. As such, it should be easy to secure punitive action against the accused, especially since even the JNU Teachers’ Association has taken care not to condemn the student. Yet, there has not been a peep out of the Capital’s burgeoning population of women’s groups, who otherwise dominate the news with rallies for the Women’s Reservation Bill.
With such a self-serving mindset, it is little wonder that the Union Home Minister’s offer to amend the law to make rape eligible of the ultimate penalty of death – something that should have been welcomed as a major step towards the recovery of women’s dignity and freedom – should have met with such indifference from the vanguard of the women-as-permanent-proletariat, Ms Mohini Giri. She commented on the issue in an interview with a leading daily and made a mockery of this landmark proposal by linking it with a demand for the simultaneous castration of rapists.
In an atmosphere of growing social depravity, when the rapes of six-month-old babies and 90-year-old women is a grim reality surrounding us, she has reduced this most heinous assault on the body, mind, and consciousness of women, to a petty tit for tat. Given the current priorities of the women’s movement, women in search of justice would do well to try the courts and the National Human Rights Commission.
The Pioneer, 17 August 1998