In the political tussle over the suicide of an AAP woman member, the real question has got lost – how normal is sexual harassment within political parties?
New Delhi: The recent suicide of a woman member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), allegedly because of the sexual advances of a party colleague, appears to have now turned into a predictable game of shield and sword between the AAP and its staunchest adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the BJP took no time to take to the streets holding AAP responsible for her death, AAP in return accused the BJP of playing “politics over corpses”.
In the process, a pertinent question been left out of the discourse. Is sexual harassment, particularly of junior women cadre, an unusual phenomenon in political parties?
AAP worker Soni Mishra was a junior party member. According to news reports, the 28-year-old Narela resident filed a police complaint on June 2 against party colleague Ramesh Wadhwa for harassing her. She alleged that Wadhwa asked her for sexual favours several times and touched her inappropriately. According to family members, she raised the matter in the party but failed to get a favourable response. Her family alleged that Wadhwa was shielded by local party legislator Sharad Chauhan. On July 20, on hearing that Wadhwa had been released from custody on bail, she feared more harassment and consumed poison.
Women activists and members of political parties that The Wire spoke to underlined that the conditions that might have led to the young woman’s death were neither uncommon nor in any way unique to AAP.
“Sexual harassment of women members, particularly of the junior members, exists in every political party. It is the most underreported fact. But it is particularly unfortunate that the woman belonged to AAP as it began as an ideal party, supposed to be different from the others,” said Shazia Ilmi, formerly an AAP senior functionary and now a Delhi BJP member.
Ilmi said she was not surprised that the party reportedly didn’t come to her help. “Once, after reading a news report about some women journalists alleging molestation by AAP workers in a rally, I raised the issue in the party along with both Prashant (Bhushan) and Yogendra (Yadav). Arvind (Kejriwal) said he would look in to it but no action was taken,” she told this correspondent.
She brought up a particular incident during her campaigning days in Ghaziabad as an AAP candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to underline her point, “There was this young girl, a party member, who would stand close to me in every public meeting. Maybe she felt safe that way. One day, the party’s Ghaziabad convener slapped her for standing next to me. I stepped up in her defence but the convenor, and also a brother-in-law of Manish Sisodia – present at the occasion – said it was the right thing to do. I took up the matter with both Sisodia and Arvind (Kejriwal). Both said they will take action but nothing happened. I never saw the girl during the rest of my campaign trail.”
Having left AAP, it is certainly easier for Ilmi to come out openly against such incidents than it is for women still associated with a party. A junior BJP woman member from Lucknow told this correspondent on the condition of anonymity, “Many women regularly face sexually implicit abuses and comments on how they look, etc. from party colleagues but are helpless about it. Some remain silent for their career, some for fear of being targeted, some just quit politics. Most don’t want to be seen as trouble makers by the party leadership.”
“There are also veiled sexual overtures. One takes it to the point possible. If you share it with family, they tell you to quit politics, but that is not the solution,” she said.
The young woman politician remembered an incident she went through a few years ago, “A senior party member would often ask me to accompany him to Delhi on party work. He said he would introduce me to senior national leaders. Once I travelled with him. On reaching Delhi, I found out that he booked himself and me in a shady hotel. I somehow managed to wriggle out of it. He was obviously very angry with me. Now, he keeps me out of important party developments.”
In June last year, a BJP junior worker filed a police complaint against a senior party leader in Kanpur, alleging that he molested her in his car on the pretext of dropping her home. In March this year, BJP Mumbai Yuva Morcha president Ganesh Pandey was expelled from the party for allegedly molesting a party worker.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association and a politburo member of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), agreed that the prevalence of sexual harassment is a common thread that runs through all parties, including hers.
“It is considerably less in Left parties as gender equality is in our constitution. Unlike other parties, it is known to women party members that a complaint can be made and will be acknowledged by the party. But there are times when cases come up before inquiry committees and they don’t function as they are supposed to and need the intervention of the senior leadership and higher committees to give justice to the complainant,” she told The Wire.
Krishnan said, “When it comes to choosing between a woman and a man, a party often chooses a man because typically a man is seen to have political potential and a woman is seen to have potential for disruption. A reason why many women prefer to keep quiet.”
A revealing report
Women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari quoted from a survey her organisation, the Centre for Social Research, released jointly with the UN in 2014 on violence against women in politics to drive home the point, “It was a survey conducted across India, Nepal and Pakistan. Nearly 50% of the respondents in India said they face verbal abuse and 45% of them said physical violence and threats were common. This was particularly true during election campaigns. As per the survey, 67% of Indian women politicians said the perpetrators were other male contestants and 58% were members within their parties.”
Conducted between 2003 and 2013, the study found that women politicians in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi were particularly vulnerable to gender violence. “In most cases, the perpetrators were men within their party and fear of being harmed prevented them from participating as contestants and voters,” said Kumari.
According to a report in The New Indian Express, Karnataka Congress MLC C. Matomma said in the survey that men in leadership positions sexually exploited new entrants to grant them a party ticket.
“Misbehaviour is common. Women politicians are vulnerable and it is a lone battle for them. Many men harass and assault women members in the party as a way of lobbying for their own wives and daughters to be taken on board,” she said. “Some men also spread rumours about affairs between the woman and other men in the party.”
BJP Karnataka leader Shobha Karandlaje told the surveyors that violence was rampant, to the extent that it was tough for women even to mingle and work with men on a daily basis in a political party.
“That women comprise only 3-4% of the member base of a political party anyway makes them a vulnerable minority. The predominant male architecture of our parties itself is a problem when it comes to seeking a women-friendly space. Their problems are hardly given a hearing,” pointed out Kumari, an ardent supporter of 33% reservation for women in parliament.
The UN-CSR survey also quoted the then Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee women’s wing president Manjula Naidu as saying, “Once men realise that a woman is gaining political clout, they mentally harass her. Character assassination is common.” She also said women from political dynasties or actor-turned-politicians do not face these hassles.
Ilmi and Kumari agreed. “Even those women who have reached a considerable seniority with or without family lineage don’t usually face sexual harassment and abuse. They are respected, at least overtly,” said Ilmi.
Kumari added with a laugh, “It is a common joke among many women in the political arena that in order to be able to grab a top post in a political party, your husband or father has to be assassination material or someone who promotes his family. This is true for the entire South Asia region.”
“What is most objectionable,” Kumari underlined, “is that political parties don’t have internal committees to address complaints of sexual harassment.”
“As per the Vishaka Committee guidelines, any workplace which has more than 10 members should set up an internal complaints committee. But political parties somehow feel they are out of its ambit. In the absence of such committees, women politicians don’t find any ready platform to raise their issues. They silently suffer it till they can. The AAP worker’s suicide is an extreme case of someone not heard,” she said.
Krishnan accepted it is a common folly but added, “Since a political party is not a regular workplace, there are specific issues to be looked at; we are also struggling to form one, looking at what kind of a structure a committee should have so that it can deal with many issues unique to political parties.”
That cases of sexual harassment occur in political parties primarily because misogyny fueled by patriarchy is at play is an obvious conclusion.
“Politicians come from the society itself. They bring the same mindset to the parties, how else would the UP BJP leader Dayashankar Singh say such a thing about Mayawati? Obviously he feels that if he has to put down a woman in public life, it has to be by comparing her with a sex worker, considered the lowest of the low in a patriarchal set up,” stated Krishnan. She also pointed out, “What Mayawati did in response also springs out of patriarchy. She attacked his 12-year-old daughter and his wife simply because the women will now have to pay for the man’s mistakes.”
Soon after his derogatory remarks against Mayawati, BJP expelled Dayashankar Singh. After Soni Mishra’s suicide, the AAP government in Delhi has ordered a magisterial inquiry.
“The similarity in both the cases is that the respective parties want to be seen taking action so that they can quickly move away from such incidents. Unfortunately, none of the parties came up with a statement that derogatory remarks against women politicians and cases of sexual harassment are serious issues faced by women across parties and they need to be addressed. Even senior women members seemed to have toed their party line,” remarked Kumari.