The Disquieting Nature of BJP's Response to Violence Against Women

Since the BJP will take no action against its dozens – if not hundreds – of ministers, MPs and MLAs who openly support such acts of brutality, the only possible conclusion is that the party tacitly endorses their stand.

I have just watched BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi’s press conference on the Kathua and Unnao rapes, as millions of my fellow Indians must have. According to Ms Lekhi, due process of law is taking place.

Really? The police investigation in Kathua has been obstructed by Hindutva claimants for four months, with the support of BJP ministers. The Unnao accused have only been taken in for questioning ten months later and after public outcry. BJP MLAs continue to defend them. The Uttar Pradesh Women’s Commission is deathly silent, as appears to be the National Women’s Commission, both of which are, of course, headed by BJP members.

The BJP ministers and MLAs, according to Ms Lekhi, ‘were misled’. Anyone can be misled, she said. In any case, she added, it was their ‘personal opinion’ not the party’s opinion, and therefore the party would take no action against them. What’s more, she asked, why was the media only talking about rapes in BJP-run states and not those in Congress-run ones?

The answer to the latter question is self-evident. Not only has the media been impartial in reporting rapes irrespective of the political dispensation concerned, most political parties, other than the BJP, have begun to reform. No Congress state minister or MLA defended the rape accused in the case Ms Lekhi mentioned, unlike their BJP counterparts in Jammu and Kashmir, or for that matter in UP and Madhya Pradesh. Nor have we heard the Trinamool Congress pooh-poohing rape allegations as they did in the past, or even the Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal(United).

More disquieting is Ms Lekhi’s absurd attempt to distinguish between personal and official opinion. The ploy is one that that the BJP has used time and again, whenever one of its ministers, MPs or MLAs makes a communal or sexist speech. It is tired and worn and only BJP loyalists, of whom there are a diminishing number, give it any credence.

A man who holds public office must uphold the law, not voice disgraceful opinions that violate the law. The party he represents bears the responsibility of either legitimising his opinion or taking action against him. Since the BJP will take no action against its dozens – if not hundreds – of ministers, MPs and MLAs who openly support violence against women, the only possible conclusion is that the party tacitly endorses their stand. Struggle as I might to find exculpation, the inescapable conclusion is that the BJP’s anxiety to acquire power at all costs includes hanging on to power even if it means deploying rapists, lynch mobs and the like.

Ms Lekhi’s press conference was shaming enough, but how are we to react when Maneka Gandhi says the BJP should not be blamed for ‘one or two bad eggs’? She is the Minister for Women’s Development, for pity’s sake. We expect her to stand up for women not provide cover for her party.

Even when it comes to her party, Gandhi appears to be ignorant. The BJP has earned the dubious distinction of having the largest number of MPs and MLAs who defend violence against women, in the history of this country. That Ms Lekhi and Ms Gandhi display neither shame nor horror at this awful fact only underlines the cynical callousness of the BJP, who send women members out to defend the indefensible, their government’s inaction against alleged rapists because they are linked to the party.

The BJP’s response to the Kathua rape and murder is especially horrifying because its ministers sought to communalise the issue, casting doubt on the J&K police as predominantly Muslim. Nothing could be further from the truth. The J&K police live in a constant double bind, facing the brunt of insurgency as well as public anger. To cast aspersions on them is to ignore the many sacrifices they have made and further devalue the police as an institution.

Far from the J&K police being communal, it is those who accuse them and the victim’s family who are being communal. Perhaps someone should remind the BJP and its J&K ministers, that it was a Bakerwal boy who first alerted the state authorities to Pakistani infiltration in 1948, and that neither Gujjars nor Bakerwals, the two border communities that are being targeted by the likes of the Hindu Ekta Manch, have been involved in the communal conflicts of Jammu or the insurgency in the valley.

As a party that claims to represent ‘Hindu sentiments,’ the BJP should have been especially vociferous in seeking punishment for the rape and murder of an eight-year old girl in a temple in Kathua. Which Hindu is not horrified that a temple was desecrated – not once but day after day after day – to commit brutal acts of torture and murder on a child? Which Hindu would not want the custodian of the temple to be cast out and the perpetrators punished? Or is this what Hinduism has been brought to, a rabble of marauders who seek vengeance on the weak and vulnerable and crawl to the powerful?

With a changing global environment towards violence against women, the use of rape in war or ethnic conflicts is now internationally regarded as a heinous crime. What happened in Kathua has a clear Hindu versus Muslim dimension. I hope that the government and the courts treat is as such. That the Supreme Court has taken notice in this case is a hopeful sign.

What happened in Unnao is equally heinous, involving the misuse of power by an elected official and the total capitulation of the local police. Over two decades ago, India’s parliament passed a bill to address such misuse of power. The act put the burden of proof on the perpetrator as against the victim, once a rape was established. To my knowledge the act has never been used, but it has not been rolled back either. I do hope the prosecutors invoke it in the Unnao case, where it is eminently appropriate.

As I conclude this article, journalists report that the two J&K ministers have resigned and the prime minister says that what happened in Kathua and Unnao is shameful. So much for Ms Lekhi’s press conference and minister Gandhi’s statement. The Allahabad high court has also directed that the Unnao MLA be arrested and not simply detained.

But I cannot help but wonder: if the media had not universally and in one voice kept up an onslaught on the government over the past day, would the Prime Minister have responded in this way? And have he and BJP president, Mr Amit Shah, expressed remorse to Ms Lekhi and minister Gandhi for having put them in the invidious position of defending the BJP’s inaction, only to do a turnaround a few hours later?

In the meantime, we can ponder the lessons of Kathua and Unnao: that our government will not act to prosecute the perpetrators of violence against women, or their supporters, if they are members of their party and especially not if they are ministers, MPs and MLAs. After all, the women who beat up an alleged rapist in a Maharashtra court were right. By the way, that was under a Congress government and the women were disgusted by a trial that had dragged on for a decade. The difference was that the alleged rapist was not related to the Congress party, nor did elected officials defend him.

A parting word, about the Jammu Bar Association. If there is a national network of bar associations, why have they not been expelled yet?

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst.