On August 15, 2022, as India celebrated independence amid ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the pride of woman power or nari shakti. “A distortion has crept into our conduct and we at times insult women. It’s important to get rid of every speech and conduct that lowers the dignity of women,” said PM Modi.
That same day, 11 rape convicts walked out of a Godhra sub-jail as the Gujarat state government allowed their release under its 1992 remission policy. These convicts had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for gang-raping a pregnant Bilkis Bano and killing several members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter, during the Gujarat genocide of 2002.
Then first Adivasi and the youngest President of India, Draupadi Murmu, was allegedly denial entry within the sanctum sanctorum of Jagannath temple at Delhi. The first citizen of the Indian republic was seen performing her prayers from the outside. Union Minister of Education and Skill Development Dharmendra Pradhan was able to touch the feet of the idol.
Hate crimes have taken over news pages in the last few weeks. Chetan Singh, a Railway Protection Force (RPF) constable opened fire on and killed three ‘visibly’ Muslim passengers in beards and caps on a moving train.
Far-right organisations led an ethnic cleansing agenda of driving Muslims out of Uttarakhand’s ‘Devbhoomi’ or the land of Hindu gods.
Haryana government’s Cow Protection Task Force and the head of the Cow Protection Unit of Bajrang Dal in Nuh, Monu Manesar, among others, incited communal violence through a video. The violence killed at least six people, including a Muslim cleric, while dozens of others were injured as mobs of Hindu and Muslim men clashed.
Settlements of Muslim migrant families were set ablaze after mobs gave them ultimatum to vacate their homes for bearing Muslim names. A video of a woman breaking down while saying that she just wanted to move to Delhi was widely circulated. Much of Gurugram’s millennium-city architectural sheen is built upon the labour and sweat of Bengali Muslim migrant labourers and construction workers, a majority of those who were beaten up and forced to evict on the accusation of being Bangladeshis.
The persistent othering narrative of the ruling dispensation has festered a disease of hatred, fomenting a series of Islamophobic propaganda and fanning brazen violence sabotaging the minority community’s right to education, means of livelihood, healthcare, safety and dignity.
This increasing mob-ification of the vigilante outfits of the Hindu Rashtra has also been polarising women in terms of identity. A patriarchal, hyper-masculine and muscle-flexing state is increasingly dismantling women’s constitutional rights, especially those demanding justice and those bearing marginalised identities.
Last month, Indians across the nation and Twitter’s political landscape erupted in rage at a video of the naked parading of two Kuki women amidst the Manipur ethnic violence.
The state has seen women being raped, their bodies brutalised with reports noted that many of them were “handed over” to armed men.
On July 20, 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The incident of Manipur has put 140 crore Indians to shame”.…“What has happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven, the guilty will not be spared,” he said referring to the video.
The operative word here is “shame”. The other operative word here is “daughters”. Just as the prime minister evoked the collective shame of 140 crore Indians, many expressed their own masculine shame at what was happening to India’s “daughters, mothers, and sisters”. This underlined, once again, the idea that women after all belong to men, communities, and nations.
Women don’t belong to themselves; their bodies are sites where symbols of masculinity are often stamped in acts of hate, rage, vengeance and violence, with men of opposing clans teaching a lesson to each other by punishing their women. This has been an age-old custom, prevalent from the times of wars over fiefdoms and among land-owning feudal classes. This mediaeval mindset has undergone several rites of passage, earning a modern currency of relevance and prestige during the Indian nationalist movement with Bharat Mata becoming the leitmotif of the nation itself. Later in independent India, women have often borne the burden of nationalism through social roles, codes of dressing and moral duties.
Why is conversation never about the women and the violence against their bodily autonomy, the assault on their identity, their dignity and their health? Why is it that only when Indian men feel ashamed or outraged that the nation must rise from its apolitical slumber? Who decides who deserves justice and doesn’t?
This same year, Olympic and Worlds medal-winning women wrestlers protesting in New Delhi were forcibly removed and allegedly attacked by police. They were protesting against police inaction against outgoing Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accused of sexual harassment by the female wrestlers.
The same wrestlers including heavyweights like Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat, who are otherwise hailed as “Bharat ki Beti” upon winning medals and bringing laurels to the nation, were accused of having political agenda in their protest.
Thus, workplace sexual abuse, a raging issue of our time, was trivialised and the powerful wrestlers were rendered defenceless against the alleged sexual predator, the 66-year-old Singh. Malik said, “It took seven days for the Delhi Police to register an FIR against sexual harasser Brij Bhushan, and it didn’t even take seven hours to register an FIR against us for peacefully protesting [during the inauguration of the new parliament building],” she tweeted. “Is this country under dictatorship? The whole world is watching how the government is treating its players.”
Vinesh Phogat remarked that this is indeed the culture of the WFI. “When the head himself is like that, what action will he take against others?”
As on August 11, 2023, Delhi police said that there is enough evidence against Singh for him to be put on trial in the sexual harassment case filed by women wrestlers. The Delhi police had filed a 1,000-page chargesheet on June 15 against the accused for offences under Sections 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 354A (sexual harassment), and 354D (stalking) of the Indian Penal Code. Police have not opposed his bail.
C.K. Raulji, the sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Godhra, said, “They were Brahmins, and Brahmins are known to have good sanskaar (culture). It might have been someone’s ill intention to corner and punish them.”
He was speaking of the 11 rape convicts set free in Bilkis Bano’s case.
Indeed, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) greeted the released rape convicts with garlands at its office in Gujarat. Visuals showed relatives including women greeting the rape convicts with sweets and charan-sparsh, touching their feet for blessings, outside the Godhra jail. Many might call it bizarre, but, in reality, it was a deliberately mounted optics, the message was loud and clear: You would be rewarded for perpetrating hate crimes and raping or gang-raping women, especially minority women.
Hijab ban, denying a generation of girls their right to education
On February 5, 2022, the Karnataka high court upheld an order issued by the state of Karnataka, which suggested that government colleges with uniform codes are well within their rights to put a “reasonable restriction” on Muslim female students wearing hijabs
Several Muslim girls were barred from taking examinations and several found their bodily autonomy threatened and violated as invigilators and institutional gatekeepers instructed them to take their hijab off before entering the educational premises.
The government stated that the total dropouts of hijab-wearing girls stand at 1,010 because of the hijab ban (or other reasons as well), per the PUCL fact-finding report released in September 2022.
It is ironic that the Modi-led NDA alliance, which has prided itself on its noble mission of liberating Muslim “sisters and daughters” from the tyranny of triple talaq, would deny the constitutional right to education, the biggest gateway to progress, discriminating them on the basis of what they choose to wear. The debate in this context amid a culture of persecuting a community is not about whether hijab is liberating or not, but the choice to wear hijab or not should solely lie with Muslim women.
It is time to clearly spell it out that fascism and hate can never be the foundation of feminism or any effort that seeks to safeguard the rights of women.
Remember India’s octogenarian grandmother, “Bilkis Dadi” of Shaheen Bagh protesting against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019? She had said: “I want religious harmony. I want everyone to be together again, like how it was before. We are Indians and we have been in India for a long time and never thought to leave to anywhere else because we want to stay here, where there are so many religions, cultures, people, and food.”
Remember thousands of woman farmers protesting the now repealed new farm laws?
Now that is Nari Shakti.
Sanhati Banerjee is a journalist.