Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mumbai gangrape: What politicians don’t get about rape

Mumbai gangrape: What politicians don't get about rape

One would think a barrage of gang rape stories, the Verma commission report, debates in parliament about a newer, stronger anti-rape law would have taught our politicians at least a few basics about gender and violence.

That's why a Raj Thackeray thinks he is striking a big blow for womankind when he tells women across Maharashtra to send choodiyan (bangles) to the home minister R R Patil after the gang rape of the young photojournalist in Mumbai.

"Absurd idea-women=bangles=weak" tweeted CNN-IBN's Anubha Bhosle. She is correct. Thackeray implies that a minister he derides as weak, useless, clueless should just think of himself as a woman. What does he mean? Someone who wears bangles aka a woman is not fit to be a home minister? That is exactly the kind of gender sensitivity a state does NOT need in a leader who wants to be its chief minister.


His cousin Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena are hardly much better. After the gang rape, Shiv Sena members were staging vociferous protests outside the police station to express their overflowing concern for women's safety. "The incident brings shame to Mumbai and to humanity" Uddhav told the media. None of that shame or concern for women's dignity was in evidence a few days earlier when a Shiv Sena leader Anil Kadam threatened to have the women at a toll plaza in his constituency stripped for daring to ask him, a sitting MLA , for a Rs 40 toll. As Kavita Krishnan points out on Twitter, when a constable raped a 16-year-old student near Marine Drive, a front-page article in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna complained about youngsters who "show their undergarments in the name of 'low-waist' fashion."

Not that the Shiv Sena has any monopoly on this issue of disrespecting women. Congress-supported independent MLA Shirishkumar Kotwal and his supporters were caught on camera attacking an all-women toll plaza as well.

Whenever rape happens, especially a gang-rape that erupts into the headlines, the political reaction is predictable, almost scripted.

The government calls it an "unfortunate incident." The opposition calls for the government's head. The Congress' Manish Tewari, usually never at a loss for words, managed to summon up only "unfortunate" to describe the Delhi gang rape. Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda said "the incident was very unfortunate" after a young woman was gang-raped in Gurgaon in 2012.

This time around too the u-word was trotted out by the government representatives in a reassuring voice to television cameras. Junior home minister R.P.N. Singh, for example, told the House: "The Mumbai gang rape is extremely tragic and unfortunate."

"Every time such an incident occurs, representatives of the government come out with a sound bite to regret it but no action is taken. Till how long will we remain a mute spectator?" asked the BJP's Smriti Irani in the Rajya Sabha.

Inevitably this leads to the government complaining about the opposition politicizing the issue. As Sheila Dikshit did after the Delhi gang-rape. "We will gain nothing by politicizing it," she whined at that time. Mamata Banerjee in Bengal went a step further and saw a political conspiracy to defame her in gang rapes in her state.

This complaint about politicization is followed up by window-dressing fix-it measures. Dikshit went after tinted windows. Mamata went after closing time for bars. The Maharashtra home minister R R Patil came up with the ridiculous idea of women journalists asking for police escorts to visit secluded places. Does Mumbai or any city really have enough cops to provide escorts for women who want to photograph a sunset in an abandoned mill in the middle of the city? In terms of providing a safe city that's about as helpful an idea as the one about women not working after 8 pm in Gurgaon after the gang-rape there.

As always in the name of safety, the politicians are happy to put limitations of women's movement.

If Kapil Sibal truly believes "the country can't afford insecurity of women in society" and Nirmala Sitharaman really wants India to "wake up", this could be an issue that could actually bring political parties together unlike NREGA or Food Security bills. Even a joint all-party march on the issue that keeps the focus on women and safety would be welcome.

Rape is not politicized as much as it becomes a political football thrown around not to ensure justice for the victim or safety for women but to push each side's political agenda. At the protest outside Churchgate station in Mumbai, where Firstpost's Arlene Chang was present, BJP supporters spent most of their energy shouting "Sonia jiski mummy hai, Woh sarkar nikami hai!" (The party that Sonia is mother to, is useless).

So Smriti Irani rattles off statistics to claim Congress-ruled states as hotbeds of rape and violence against women neatly omitting BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh from her roll call of shame, leading the Congress' Vijaylaxmi Sadho to cry foul. The Shiv Sena uses it as an excuse to ratchet up its diatribe against "outsiders" aka Bangladeshi immigrants even though the police commissioner has said all five accused are "locals born in Mumbai." No matter, now we can read dark undertones into the fact that the first suspect detained is Mohammad Abdul. As Kavita Krishnan tweets "If #Abdul rapes, doesnt make all Muslims rapists. Just as if #Asaram rapes doesnt make all Hindus rapists."

Perhaps given the makeup of our political class it's hardly suprising they seem to have such a difficult time grasping the problem. As women's activist Santasree Chaudhuri commented "Here we find the victims are treated like criminals. And criminals are socially included and accepted in the political field."

Our politicians should pay attention to what Suzette Jordan, the survivor of the Park Street gang rape had to say about politicization. Incidentally, the main accused in her case, is still on the lam 15 months after the crime. A women's activist on Bengali television said he had been spotted in a hotel in Mumbai but he was not nabbed. As politicians turned her case into a political football, Jordan said "When a rapist is raping he does not ask which political party you belong to. And believe me the girl is definitely not interested in what party the rapist belongs to." Or his immigration status. Or religion for that matter.
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