Women as politics, not persons

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

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