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Why Don't Voters Show Solidarity With Women Who Speak Up Against Sexual Assault?

It doesn't matter for Indian voters because women’s freedom (and violence against it) doesn’t count for much either.

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The 2024 Lok Sabha elections have delivered a remarkable mandate that puts the brakes on the impunity the Modi-Shah duo had enjoyed in the last 10 years. But can we say that voters delivered a mandate against persons accused of committing or defending sexual violence? I don’t think so: I will explain why, further on.

We can, however, safely say that Modi-Shah’s communal and patriarchal rhetoric on rape was far less successful than usual.

Their speeches told Hindus, “You need us to protect your daughters and sisters from love jihad, your wives’ mangalsutras from Muslim men.” But they failed miserably to scare Hindu voters away from other concerns, ideas, and parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost Banswara in Rajasthan – where Modi made his first reference to the Congress snatching mangalsutras to hand over to Muslims. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lost nearly half the seats where Modi made speeches; in Varanasi, Modi’s own victory margin dropped drastically.
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This scare-mongering failed most dramatically when aimed at adivasi Christians in the Santhal Pargana seats in Jharkhand. Here, Modi said that ‘Love Jihad’ started from Jharkhand and ‘infiltrators’ (dog-whistle for Muslims) patronised by the JMM-led state government were trying to outnumber Adivasis.

He said, “The infiltrators are grabbing tribal lands. Tribal daughters are the target of infiltrators. Their security and safety are at risk. Their lives are also at risk. Tribal daughters are being chopped into 50 pieces... Being burnt alive... Someone’s tongue was pulled out. Who are these people who are targeting tribal daughters? Why is the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) government patronising them?” In the same vein, Amit Shah said that the JMM-led government in Jharkhand “carried out love, land and forest jihad”.

In spite of such unrelenting hate-mongering by the Prime Minister himself, the BJP suffered a rout in all five seats reserved for STs in Jharkhand, failing to retain the three it had won in 2019.

The reasons for this rout lie primarily in the arrest of the chief minister. This rout, as well as the setback to the BJP generally is not a definitive mandate against Modi’s communal-patriarchal rhetoric on rape. But he escalated that rhetoric in an attempt to stave off defeat and win back voters – and failed.
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On Sexual Violence, the Verdict Can Only Be Called a Mixed One

Prajwal Revanna, the NDA candidate from Karnataka accused of raping several hundred women, lost the election. But the tapes that exposed Revanna surfaced publicly only after the polling date in his constituency, so his defeat might not be the voters’ verdict on sexual violence. However, it is a comment on the country’s top leaders.

Amit Shah reportedly knew about Revanna’s conduct before the NDA finalised its list of candidates, yet Narendra Modi shared a stage with Revanna and campaigned for him.

In Uttar Pradesh, Karan Bhushan, fielded by the BJP as a proxy for his Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who is charged with sexual harassment and assault of several women wrestlers, won his seat. Defending the BJP’s choice to field Karan, Nirmala Sitharaman (Finance Minister in the outgoing cabinet) took recourse to a technicality. Brij Bhushan had not yet been convicted, she said. During his campaign, Karan dismissed the charges against his father as “political and made-up,” and asked for votes as an inheritor of his father’s legacy.

BJP’s Sakshi Maharaj was elected to a third term as MP from Unnao. He is known for his closeness to Kuldeep Singh Sengar, the former BJP MLA now convicted of raping a minor girl and conspiring in the custodial killing of her father and murder of other members of her family. After Sakshi’s 2019 win, he had visited Sengar in prison to ‘thank’ him.

In 2021, the BJP fielded Sengar’s wife as a candidate in panchayat elections – withdrawing her candidature only when faced with severe criticism.

BJP leaders craft a narrative that treats rape as something that Muslim men do to Hindu women. Take the response of Smriti Irani (she lost her Amethi seat) to three cases of politicians accused of multiple rapes – TMC (Trinamool Congress) politicians in Sandeshkhali (Basirhat, West Bengal), NDA candidate Prajwal Revanna, and BJP leader Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh

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In Sandeshkhali, several hundred women of Adivasi communities have filed affidavits with the court alleging land-grab related to the illegal conversion of agricultural land to water bodies for pisciculture. Several of these women have also alleged sexual assault by local Trinamool Congress leaders Shahjahan Sheikh, Shiba Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar. Court records of proceedings and orders on this matter do not make any mention of religious identity as a factor.

In her Press Conference on the issue, however, Smriti Irani did not emphasise land-grab at all, nor made any mention of Hazra and Sardar, singling out Sheikh, the Muslim in the trio. She accused Sheikh of the “mass rape of Bengali Hindu women,” especially “young married Hindu women.”

Compared to these incendiary accusations on Sandeshkhali, Smriti Irani has not said a word about Prajwal Revanna, but she has not been silent on Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. She stepped out to insinuate that the allegations were politically motivated and false because the “world-famous wrestler Babita Phogat” had not supported the wrestlers’ protest led by her own sister Geeta and cousin Vinesh (she failed to mention that the latter are also winners of international trophies).

Dilip Ghosh was a BJP MP from West Bengal till he lost the elections this month. He has shown great concern for the women victimised at Sandeshkhali, as has the RSS student wing ABVP. Some years ago when Jadavpur women students complained of sexual harassment by ABVP cadres, Ghosh had declared the allegations to be baseless because, according to him, the women students were “below standard and shameless, always in search of an opportunity to be in the company of male students.” Likewise, the ABVP had said, “These girls claim to be molested. Someone should tell them that only girls who have shame can be molested.”

One of the Sandeshkhali complainants Rekha Patra contested as the BJP’s MP candidate from Basirhat: the PM spoke to her on the phone and called her Shakti-Swarupa (the goddess of strength incarnate). He did not, however, speak to the wrestlers, or the complainants against Sengar or Revanna. On the rare occasions that Modi has broken his silence on rapes (for instance, in Kathua and Manipur) he offered a generic condemnation of rape without reference to the specific instance, followed by whataboutery.

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Women’s Freedom (and Violence Against It) Doesn’t Count for Much

But we should also ask ourselves as a society, some hard questions.

Why did voters elect Karan Bhushan: testimony to his father’s undiminished popularity? Why does Sengar continue to command support in Unnao: the reason why BJP continues to woo him even after his conviction for grim crimes?

I think there’s no escaping the bitter fact: solidarity with women who speak out against sexual assault doesn’t count for much among Indian voters, and that’s because women’s freedom (and violence against it) doesn’t count for much either.

The wrestlers’ movement is a case in point. The Indian public did not react to public protests against the abuse of sportswomen by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh as the US public did to revelations of abuse of sportswomen by Larry Nassar. Why? The fault does not lie with the courageous wrestlers: they led their own protest and took support wherever they could find it. But we should look closer at the character of some of that support.

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The khap panchayats (caste/community councils) of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh rallied in support of the wrestlers. On what basis, though? The photographs are revealing: at every event, male khap leaders have their hands placed on the head of a woman wrestler: a patriarchal elder is blessing a daughter of the community. And that same hand might turn violent if the ‘daughter’ asserts her autonomy in matters of love and marriage.

The ‘Sarva Khap’ General Secretary Subhash Baliyan supported the wrestlers, saying, “We can’t leave our daughters in the lurch.” But with the same zeal he had rejected the Supreme Court verdict against the khaps’ involvement in ‘honour’ crimes, saying, “We can’t accept marriages in same ‘gotra’ or village as it is a centuries-old tradition started by our forefathers.”

Rakesh Tikait, also of the Baliyan Khap, is a leader of the farmers’ movement and a prominent supporter of the wrestlers. He too has rationalised honour killings, declaring, “Same gotra marriages cannot be allowed and stern punishment should be given to the guilty...such marriages are immoral in the Hindu society and should be banned...We can go to any extent to stop such marriages...the guilty will have to face the consequences of their act. The Government can’t protect those who break customs, killings will definitely take place.” 

His brother Naresh Tikait had, on behalf of his khap, announced a ban on the use of mobile phones by young people. Their father the late Mahendra Singh Tikait, a well-known farmers’ leader and chaudhury of the Baliyan khap in 2009, went further. He said, “Love marriages are dirty, I don’t even want to repeat the word...Only whores can choose their partners. Education has contributed to this dirt. Recently an educated couple married against the samaj (community’s) wishes in Jhajjar. We hail the panchayat’s decision to execute them.” Asked about the Constitutional rights of individuals, and women, he said “That’s your Constitution, ours is different.” 

Are movements against sexual assault a defence of Constitutional rights? Just as movements against ‘honour’ crimes, moral policing and laws restricting inter-faith marriages and live-in relationships? To what extent can we celebrate the farmers’ movement as a democratic triumph and hail its support for the wrestlers’ struggle, if some of its most prominent leaders reject the Constitution exactly as Hindu supremacists do?    

(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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