She struggled to fight the odds, but succumbed in the end. The young woman died against her own desperate wish to recover and live life fully and normally, without in any way feeling diminished for having been through the ordeal. With her exemplary courage and matter-of-fact defiance of the rape-victim stereotype, she became a metaphor for the new urban woman — independent, brave and determined to be her own person.
Tragically, the political class was unable to absorb this message. Two days after the rape, Parliament debated the issue in painfully illiberal language, with several MPs holding that the young woman had been scarred for life. Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, lamented that rape victims could be counted “neither among the dead nor the living.” Further, she said, even if the young woman survived, she would live as a jeevit lash (living dead). Ironically, she was saying this of a woman who was still fighting to live.
Two recent developments have returned the focus to women’s safety, their freedoms and the moral-social rules by which they still appear to be judged despite their own monumental struggles to break free. The debate that has followed has not just exposed the doublespeak of political parties on women’s rights, it has brought out the stark gap between elite talk and practice when it comes to feminine rights and liberties.
The first of the two incidents concerns a young woman who was allegedly placed under surveillance for over a month in 2009 by the Gujarat government. The claim about the alleged surveillance was made by two web portals, Gulail and Cobrapost. They released audio recordings of alleged conversations between then Gujarat Minister of State for Home Amit Shah and then Superintendent of Police with the State’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, G.L. Singhal. The conversations suggested that a range of state investigative agencies had been deployed to closely monitor the girl’s movements and tap her phones.
The second incident relates to a complaint of sexual assault, since classified as rape, filed by a woman staff member of Tehelka against Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief and founder of the magazine.
Admittedly, in both cases the full details are still to be known. In the alleged rape case, the legal process has started. In the other case, the Gujarat government has set up a Commission of Inquiry, the legitimacy of which has been questioned by legal experts. Nonetheless, some things are prima facie evident in both cases. Also, disturbingly, both cases reveal that at a fundamental level attitudes towards women have not changed. A woman complaining of sexual assault must have ‘easy morals.’ On the other hand, it is fair game to treat a woman as family property and do with her as the family pleases.
Curiously, the news of the Gujarat inquiry commission came even as Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons were stampeding to dismiss the need for a probe into the alleged surveillance. The BJP said it was a case of protection and not surveillance because the 2009 monitoring was preceded by an “oral” request made by the woman’s father to Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The father had since made a “heart-rending” plea to be left alone, saying his daughter too was aware of the protection offered, the party said. It added: “Is it too much to ask that we respect the family?” The two cases are at once dissimilar and similar. In one instance, the alleged invasion was direct and physical. In the other, state actors allegedly monitored the private moments of a woman, who, notwithstanding the father’s letters, appears not to have known about it.
The physical intrusion, constituting rape, is manifestly more grave. But the absence of physical hurt surely cannot lessen the sense of revulsion any woman placed under intrusive surveillance must feel. A woman is as much body as she is mind and soul. Monitoring her private moments is an affront to her dignity and self-respect, and as much is evident from the recent inclusion of stalking among sexual crimes.
The reactions of the Congress and the BJP have been typically partisan in the two cases. The Congress fielded a powerful group of women functionaries to tear down the BJP’s defence of the ‘snooping’ case. They said the taped conversations produced by the web portals showed the woman had been ‘snooped upon’ and not protected. Yet, just a few days later, when the Tehelka case burst into the open, the same spokespersons held back their punches. Mr. Tejpal, who has been celebrated for his crusading journalism and advocacy of liberal feminism, went back on his own stated beliefs and values to defame the journalist who accused him of rape. His statement that she had “partied with elan” after the alleged rape constituted crude character assassination, not very different from the patriarchal judgments handed out in such cases. Indefensibly, Mr. Tejpal also tied the police case against him to his being a sharp critic of right-wing majoritarianism.
The Congress should have confronted this frontally. Not only was Mr. Tejpal playing by outmoded rules on how women ought to behave, he was also claiming to be witch-hunted for his liberal-secular beliefs. This is spurious logic and should discomfit all those with genuine secular-pluralist convictions, including the Congress. Bringing ideology into the case also carries the preposterous suggestion that the Tehelka staffer acted with political motives.
The BJP has been even more hypocritical. The party energetically batted for the Tehelka journalist, interpreting her complaint against Mr. Tejpal as a powerful blow for women’s rights. Party person Vijay Jolly, who defaced the walls of Tehelka managing-editor Shoma Chowdhury’s home, said he was protesting her failure to support the complainant. “I want women to find the courage to come out and complain,” he told a TV channel. In the surveillance case, the BJP has taken the opposite position, arguing that a woman’s family could decide what was good for her.
The BJP has tied itself in knots in the surveillance case — changing its stand from the tapes not being reliable to admitting that the woman was indeed monitored, even if only for her own good. It produced letters from the woman’s father to make the case that no probe was necessary since he and his daughter did not want one. Yet, the overwhelming concern for the father who had made a “heart-rending” appeal to be left alone disappeared once the Gujarat government set up a Commission of Inquiry. The position changed from respecting the family’s wishes to applauding the State government for having set up a probe.
Writing in the context of attempts made to monitor his call records, Arun Jaitley said on April 17, 2013: “His [the citizen’s] right to privacy is an inherent aspect of his personal liberty. Interference in the right to privacy is an interference in his personal liberty by a process which is not fair, just or reasonable… In the case of an average citizen it [monitoring] can reflect on his relationships…” (source: BJP website). Taking a conflicting position in the surveillance case, Mr. Jaitley said no case could be made for breach of privacy because the woman and her father had not complained.
Till today, the BJP has no answers as to why the entire state machinery was needed to protect the woman; why she needed to be protected even while in her own home; and why those protecting her were worried about her escaping their watch.
The BJP’s Nirmala Sitharaman took an even more regressive line on a TV programme. She said India was not a “progressive, left-wing country” where a “woman after [the age of] 18 will speak for herself.” Further, questioning the family’s right to intervene on a woman’s behalf amounted to “hitting at the very value system which we in India hold dear.” It probably did not occur to Ms. Sitharaman that her logic was fully in consonance with the justice system followed by the khap panchayats.
In yet another notable example, last week Union Minister Farooq Abdullah scored a 10 on 10 for insensitivity with his comment that he is scared to hire women as staff members lest he land up in jail.
The December 2012 Delhi gang rape released the collective emotions of India’s women. The legion of women who took courage from that brave girl deserve better than the hypocrisies on offer today.