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DATELINE INDIA: Pervasive sexism in politics

The Speaker was referring to the prolonged debate wherein MLAs were demanding more time to speak on crop loss due to the rains in the state. At this Congress MLA K. R. Ramesh Kumar told the Speaker: “There is a saying—when rape is inevitable lie down and enjoy it”.
Kumkum Chadha
DATELINE INDIA: Pervasive sexism in politics

Even while the election frenzy is on and there is a scramble for votes, what has receded into the background are the controversial remarks made by a legislator down south targeting women. Even while that had created a temporary furore, the issue and its gravity seems to have taken a backseat.

Of course then all eyes were on the Congress High Command and a kind of wait to see it would actually crack the whip: in other words punish the erring lawmaker but sadly nothing happened except a feeble apology with many ifs and buts. 

Someone rightly said that an apology cannot make the dead alive; neither can it bring back a bullet that has been fired. So how can it restore a dignity that was lost? 

This is the question that lawmakers need to ask themselves even as they target women, demean, or trifle with them. 

As things are, sexist remarks are the rule rather than an exception hence whenever they are made, they pass off as banter unless of course women put their foot down. And even if an apology is forthcoming, it is more to douse the fire, as it were, than one that comes from within. 

Nothing can demonstrate this better than a recent incident in the Karnataka Assembly wherein a Congress MLA K. R. Ramesh Kumar, demonstrated a regressive mindset to put it mildly. 

Kumar was responding to Speaker Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri’s repartee about his position being similar to someone who was compelled to enjoy an adverse situation. 

The Speaker was referring to the prolonged debate wherein MLAs were demanding more time to speak on crop loss due to the rains in the state. At this Kumar told the Speaker: “There is a saying—when rape is inevitable lie down and enjoy it”. 

Shocking as this statement was, it did not nudge anyone’s conscious: at least not of the men present in the Assembly. Together, they laughed it off.   

The BJP was quick to jump in, with spokesperson Aparajita Sarangi, criticizing the Speaker for not taking the erring member to task. She struck the right note but backtracked soon after, because she was short on facts. She did not know that the Speaker was from her Party and hence criticism was not in order. Sum total: Party above gender loyalty. 

Yet defending the indefensible were two BJP MPs, one currently a minister, who said that the Speaker had made no comment and hence could not be faulted. In other words, spare him because he did nothing. 

For someone who holds the high office of a Speaker, puts on him an additional responsibility to ensure that decorum and dignity is maintained. Therefore, to allow such comments and also laugh with the perpetrator is nothing short of being an accomplice. 

If Sarangi put her party above the interest of women as a whole, then what about the Congress? At the helm are two sensitive women: Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Vadra. 

In her recent sojourns in election bound Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Vadra, recently launched a pro woman campaign “Ladki hoon, lar sakti hoon”, I am a woman I can fight. Yet in the face of her muted response over her Party legislator’s rape remark, this is mere optics. 

The ladki campaign urges the women to rally behind the Congress even as it promises to reserve 40 percent of its tickets for women candidates. What if any of these women were to question Vadra on how she intends to deal with the erring legislator? 

As of now except for merely condemning Kumar’s controversial remarks, the Gandhi scion has done very little. 

Enraged, women and some political parties have demanded Kumar’s expulsion. That may be too much to ask for a faction ridden Party and the Congress cannot afford any more public spats like the one between the Party High Command and Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh or Uttarakhand’s Harish Rawat et al, but the Party needs to at least appear to set in motion correctives to anomalies that now seem to be the norm. 

In any case, Ramesh Kumar is kind of a serial offender, if one may use the term. Rape, quipped a colleague of his, seems to be top of mind for him. 

Rewind to 2019, when he was Speaker of the Karnataka Assembly. 

During the discussion on controversial audio clips that mention Kumar’s name for allegedly accepting Rs 50 crore in a conversation between Opposition leader Yeddyurappa and a Janata Dal (Secular) MLA, Kumar had quipped about his name being repeatedly recorded in the debate: 

“My situation is like that of a rape victim” Kumar had then said: “The rape happened just once. If you had left it at that, it would have passed. When you complain that a rape has happened, accused is put in jail. But his lawyers ask how did it happen? When did it happen and how many times? The rape happens once but you get raped 100 times in court. This is my condition”. 

Once again, almost everyone in the Assembly had laughed at this crass humor. Like they did in 2021.  

Kumar continues in the Congress, under which he has served as a Minister and also held the post of a Speaker. The Party did nothing then and is unlikely to do anything this time around too. 

Kumar’s apology too, that followed a furore, was half-hearted. It was kind of conditional, with the word if, staring hard in the face. 

To quote Kumar: “If it hurts the sentiments of women, I’ve no problem apologizing”. 

This, to say the least, is plain offensive. Decode it and it roughly translates to unless women are offended there is no need for an apology and on its own, the remark does not merit attention. 

In any case once the damage is done and women demeaned, an apology serves little purpose. It is, as one said, a fired bullet. 

The dust has yet to settle but a Minister in Maharashtra has shot off his mouth. He has compared a film actor’s cheeks to the roads in his constituency. 

At a political rally, Water Supply and Sanitation Minister Gulabrao Patil said that the roads in his constituency were as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks. Film actor Hema Malini is a BJP MP. 

Even though these are not as deplorable as the rape remarks, they are decidedly sexist. Patil later apologized but Shiv Sena MP, Sanjay Raut said this comparison was not new and that the remark is “a respect” for Hema Malini and thus should not be seen negatively. 

One would, perhaps, have to leave it at this because asking Raut what he meant may lead to more regressive statements. If Raut is on slippery ground on the comparison being respectful, he sure is right about this not being new. 

It was in 2005, that former Union Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had said that he would make the roads in Bihar “as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks”. 

Since then, Hema Malini’s cheeks have become a topic of conversation, with several ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh talking about making streets “chakachak”or pretty and shiny, like Hema Malini’s. 

Reportedly, there was an advertisement with images of state roads alongside Hema Malini’s picture with a caption: Swapan Sundari samaan Pradesh ki chamchamati sunder sadke, beautiful and shiny roads like the Dream Girl. 

For the uninitiated, Hema Malini earned the title, Dream Girl with her debut film Sapnon Ka Saudagar, half a century ago. 

Women have been ridiculed by leaders across party lines. The practice is so rampant that often derogatory remarks are ignored or taken light-heartedly. 

Remember BJP degrading Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav’s boys make mistakes remark? Yadav had justified rape as “galti” a mistake for which boys cannot be hanged. 

Mulayam Singh Yadav had also opposed the Women’s Reservation Bill on grounds that if passed it would “provoke young men to whistle in Parliament”. 

While on the Bill, how can one forget the infamous jibe by Janata Dal (U) leader Sharad Yadav about par-kati mahilayen or short haired women in his pitch on urban women against those in rural areas. 

Yadav was also among those who said in Parliament that India is fixated with fair skinned women. He had also referred to Leslie Udwin who was given permission to direct a documentary inside the jail because she was “fair skinned” and for whom “all doors open”. 

Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit had embarrassed his father and the Party he belonged to, when he had referred to activists as “dented painted women” during protests in Delhi following the bus gang rape case.

In the aftermath of the horrific crime, it was none other than a state Congress chief who said that women should stay indoors to prevent rape. He also had the audacity to call the gang rape a “minor incident”. 

In 2012, the Delhi gang rape shook the conscience of the entire nation when a paramedical student was repeatedly raped and brutally tortured in a moving bus. She died in a hospital in Singapore where she had earlier been airlifted. 

What about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “50 crore girlfriend” remark about Congress leader, Shashi Tharoor’s associate turned wife Sunanda Pushkar? Or a well-known Congress leader referring to a woman colleague as “sau tunch maal”, a slang used for women in North India. Or a BJP leader referring to Priyanka Gandhi as a “chocolatyface?”. 

There is more: a Chief Minister asking protesting nurses not to stage a hunger strike because it would ruin their marriage prospects: “When we met the Chief Minister with our demands, he said that the girls should not sit on hunger strike in the hot sun as their complexion will become dark and they will not find a good bridegroom”, said one of the nurses. 

Or a Congress leader who compared cricket victories to wives after India’s win over Pakistan in a T-20 match. Latest victories and new marriages, he had then said, have their own importance but as Time goes by, memories of the victory fade like in a marriage, the charm goes as the wife becomes old. Another MP had called BJP’s Smriti Irani thumke wali, dancing girl, because of her past as a TV actor. 

The list is endless. But what does this say about us as a country? We target legislators because what they say grab eyeballs or come under public scrutiny. While that cannot be condoned at any cost, we, as a nation, need a systematic overhaul. We need to pull down “sons” from the pedestal that they are put on, in their formative years and take away from them the sense of privilege that they seem to enjoy, be it in the house or outside: a privilege often given by their mothers or other elder women around. Once that imbalance between sons and daughters is corrected, the skewed gender gap will be, automatically, bridged. It is only then that men and women will fight sexism together.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: ([email protected]

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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