Vol. XLIII No. 20 May 19, 2019
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Five Years of Modi Govt Sees Deterioration in Women’s Status

Brinda Karat

THE Modi government’s five years have led to a deterioration in women’s status on several important fronts. The overall pro-corporate thrust of the government’s policies on the economic front, its blatant assault on the constitutional principles of democracy and secularism and especially its ideological campaigns of Hindutva utilising State power, damage the gains women have achieved over the years through their struggles and sacrifices. This article looks at a few of those aspects.

IN THE ECONOMY

It is well recognised the world over that one of the prerequisites for women’s advance is the economic independence of women. It gives women the strength to resist sexual violence, to live independent lives and to be respected within family and society. It also helps her to develop a wider view away from the confinement, restrictions and drudgery of domestic work.  Employment opportunities for women are very critical in ensuring women’s advance.

In the five years of the Modi government, pro-corporate policies and the ease of business concept to give concessions to business houses has not helped generate employment. According to the most recent State of Working India report released by a group of scholars from Azim Premji University, a ten per cent increase in GDP leads to only a one per cent increase in employment.

Because of its utter failure to provide any jobs leave alone the two crore jobs a year promise made by Modi, the government has stopped release of any statistics on employment. The Central Statistical Organisation had prepared a report which Modi government tried to suppress leading to the resignation of two directors. It showed that unemployment rate in India is the highest it has been for the last 45 years!

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) is doing the job the government should be doing, that is measuring the jobs created and the jobs lost. The CMIE report for 2018 is truly shocking. It reveals the disastrous impact of demonetisation on the employment scenario. It shows that in 2018, 11 million jobs were lost but even worse, 8.8 million of the employment lost were of women – 6.5 million in rural India and 2.3 million from urban areas. Never before have so many women lost their employment in a single year.

The unemployed rate among educated women, those who have completed at least the secondary level has also shot up. According to the NSSO, it went went up from 9.7 in 2011-2012 to 17.3 in 2017-2018 among rural women and almost doubled for urban women from 4.0 in 2011-2012 to 19.8 in 2017-2018.

This shortage of jobs is compounded by very low wages, with 82 per cent of men and 92 per cent of women earning less than Rs 10,000 per month.

At the same time, the MNREGA, the lifeline for rural women looking for work has been deliberately sabotaged by the Modi government through a squeeze in funding. Last year workers, a large number of whom are women who had performed manual labour on MNREGA sites were denied payments to the tune of Rs 5000 crores. During the Modi years this backlog in wages has caused deep distress to MNREGA workers.

There are over 50 lakh scheme workers in India. They have been on struggle demanding a minimum wage and recognition as government employees. After the continuous struggles of the anganwadi workers and helpers, the Modi government last year had announced a Rs 1500 increase in the honorarium to workers and Rs 750 in that of helpers. The government announced that an additional allocation of Rs 10,649 crores would be required to fund the increase for six months. However not a single penny was paid to the workers and helpers till now. In this year’s interim budget, there is an increase of only Rs 1900 crores over last year, so basically Modi government has once more cheated the ICDS workers, making announcements but not allocating the funds.

WOMEN’S SAFETY AND SECURITY AGAINST VIOLENCE

There is no doubt that during the last five years, crimes against women are increasing. But under the Modi government for the last two years, crime statistics against women are not being released. The Reuters Foundation, after a survey, has found that in global perception India today is the most dangerous place for women in the world.

There were 3.39 lakh cases of crimes against women in 2016, the latest year of statistics published. That is 30,000 more cases of crime than in the previous year. There were 38,947 cases of rape. That means every hour, four cases of rape took place. More than one third of these cases of rape were against children.  But the conviction rate in the same year which reported an increase in crime reported a decrease in conviction: just 18.9 per cent of those accused were convicted. Even worse, a large number of cases remain pending for years together. If one looks at the crime figures against dalit and adivasi women, the conviction rate is even lower. So women who face triple burdens because of her gender, her economic status of being poor and also her being part of an oppressed caste, who face discrimination at multiple levels, face injustice even in the application of the law.

These figures point to a situation of a sexual crime emergency in India. but who recognises this?

Under the Modi government, the Nirbhaya fund which was set up in 2013 has hardly been used. According to a reply to an RTI enquiry in 2018, only 30 per cent of the total fund had been utilised. The finance ministry has ensured that the funds have such strict conditions that money does not have to be allocated. Where money has been allocated it is to subsidise other ministries. For example, the railway ministry has been given Rs 500 crores from the Nirbhaya fund to put up CCTV cameras. These cameras are for the security of all passengers, not just women; so why should the money come from the Nirbhaya fund? In the recent parliamentary committee report 2019 on utilisation of the fund, the committee has pointed out that even buildings have been constructed from this fund. This is the callous attitude of the Modi government.

Under the Modi government, rape also got communalised. The horrific Kathua rape case of a child brought this reality to the forefront when top state leaders of the BJP came out in support of the accused on the basis of their religious community and because the child victim was a Muslim. It was horrifying that the victim herself was chosen in a diabolical conspiracy to teach a lesson to her community. India has witnessed rape as an instrument in communal riots to teach the “other” community a lesson in humiliation and subordination. This has now been extended to “normal” circumstances. Top BJP leaders condone such statements. Yogi Adityanath was on the stage listening silently when one of his supporters ranted that Muslim women’s bodies should be pulled out of their graves and they should be raped.

When rape is legitimated by top leaders as a weapon in their communal arsenal, an environment is created in which no woman can go unscathed.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

The other aspect is that of increasing domestic violence including dowry related deaths. 7,634 women were burnt to death in a single year, according to the NCRB report. After a big struggle by women that tore apart the veil of hypocrisy surrounding violence against women within the home as a “personal matter”, a law was introduced under Sec 498a. This law was never accepted by the BJP which has always held that the family is sacrosanct, part of Hindu tradition and no law can intervene. In the name of misuse of the law, the BJP has campaigned to dilute the law. In 2017, when the Supreme Court was hearing a petition under Sec 498a where the issue of misuse came up, the assistant solicitor general, arguing on behalf of the Modi government informed the court of the misuse of the law and supported dilution. The court gave a judgement completely diluting the law. Women’s organisations strongly protested. Fortunately a year later in 2018, the division bench of the Supreme Court revised its own judgement and restored the original provisions of the law and the rules. But the government role was exposed.

The section concerned is a secular law applicable to all communities. Dowry demands and related violence has also spread to all communities but the majority of them are young Hindu women.  It is a measure of the hypocrisy of the BJP and its leaders that in all these five years, not even on a single occasion have any one one of them ever spoken against dowry demands, violence and the killing of young brides, 21 a day, according to official statistics. 

TRIPLE TALAQ

This is in contrast to the crocodile tears shed by the prime minister on the plight of Muslim women. The Supreme Court on petitions filed by Muslim women against the practice of instantaneous and arbitrary triple talaq struck down the practice of talaq e bidaat as being unconstitutional. Once it is struck down, then even if a man pronounces triple talaq, it does not constitute a divorce. The woman had every right to continue to stay in the same home with her children. In case he tried to throw her out, she had recourse to other laws including the prevention of domestic violence which also includes the right to residence, and laws which would grant her maintenance for herself and the children etc. In case he left her, it would amount to desertion.

The CPI(M) welcomed the judgement. In fact women’s organisations like AIDWA had always fought against triple talaq e bidaat and the Party had supported those campaigns.

However, the Modi government in a deliberate misuse of the Supreme Court judgement brought a law to arrest Muslim men who gave triple talaq, wrongly criminalising a civil matter. If desertion is to be made a criminal offense, then the prime minister himself is guilty of deserting his wife. Why these double standards?

The CPI(M) is opposed to the law criminalising a form of divorce which is non existent after the SC judgement. This is a method to demonise the community. It has nothing to do with the rights of Muslim women.

NO WOMEN’S BILL, NO LAW AGAINST HONOUR CRIMES

When the government failed to get the law on triple talaq through the Rajya Sabha, it brought it as an ordinance, determined to make this a sectarian and communal election issue. However on all other urgent legal initiatives, it utterly failed.

First and foremost, this government refused to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. In the 2014 elections, this was the major promise to women. It boasts that it has made a woman the country’s defence minister and a woman the country’s external minister for the first time. While such appointments are definitely welcome, it is no secret that it is the prime minister who is actually the defence and external affairs minister rolled into one. In fact, the Rafale deal showed clearly that the defence minister herself had no knowledge of the details of the deal. As for the MEA, the minister concerned is reduced by the prime minister to answering the SOS messages of Indians in distress. But the more important issue is the decreasing representation of women in elected bodies. The average percentage of women in state assemblies is below 9 per cent. With a single  majority in parliament, there was no excuse for the BJP to have refused to bring the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Yet another urgent law which the Modi government refused to legislate was a law against honour crimes, those crimes committed against young people who love across communities and caste because of which they are subjected to social boycotts, violence, lynching, beating and even murder. Just like the Congress government before them, the BJP too has preferred to ally with the regressive caste panchayats, known as khap panchayats to use violence to maintain caste boundaries that prohibit inter-caste marriages when the girl happens to be of a so-called higher caste. Such socially backward thinking has been supported by the BJP in different states.

THE IDEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK

These grave omissions and commissions regarding women’s rights by the Modi government are not policy aberrations but deeply rooted in the ideology of the RSS which controls and runs the BJP. The RSS has never accepted the constitution of India which guarantees equality to all citizens, and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, creed, caste or any other factors. The RSS had specifically referred to the Manu Smriti as the guideline for its idea of India, a Hindu rashtra. In other words, the RSS would like India to be a theocratic State and its laws and rules determined by the shastras and other religious texts. The BJP following this understanding has taken the first legal step to undermine the constitution by bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This retrograde and communal bill seeks to extend recognition as citizens to Indians who are citizens of other countries on the condition that they are Hindus.

The interpretation of religions by men through the centuries have upheld patriarchal practices and notions as being intrinsic to religions. Social reform movements in various religions have challenged these notions. In India we have seen how right wing forces across religions often united in the name of tradition to deny women equal rights. The debate on the Hindu Code Bill reform presented by the then law minister Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar saw extreme right wing forces like the representatives of the Hindu Mahasabha who were members of the Congress party at the time and those of the Muslim fundamentalist forces joining hands to oppose reforms in favour of the property and marital rights of Hindu women.

The argument was that this is against the basic tenets of Hindu religion. What infuriated these right wing leaders was the reform which recognised marriages between castes as valid. When BJP leaders refuse to bring a law against honour killings they are echoing those cries of rage when their leaders opposed inter-caste marriages in the Hindu Code Bill discussion. When they oppose Sec 498a today they are following in the path of their icon Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who declared that granting divorce rights to Hindu women would destroy the fundamentals of Hindu religion which considered marriage a holy sacrament. The RSS sarsangchalak Golwalkar defended multiple marriages of Hindu men on grounds that this was required to help women who could not find husbands! It was BJP leaders in Rajasthan who waving naked swords, came out on the streets in support of sati after the tragic death of a 22 year old girl on the pyre of her husband in Deorala, Rajasthan.

For the RSS it is the manuvadi understanding that sees women as subordinate to men that prevails. Even today RSS leaders speak the same language. For them the main role of women is to stay at home, look after the family and produce good Hindu children preferably sons. For them women are the main messengers of Hindu samskaras to their children and that must be the primary task.

The attack on the constitution, on the pillars of secularism and democracy by the BJP and the sangh parivar today have a very deep and dangerous impact on women’s rights as they want to undo the gains of Indian women and push them back into the darkness of patriarchal practices in the name of tradition and religious custom. For the BJP, faith has become an instrument to fight everything that is progressive and forward looking.

It is the RSS and the BJP which is giving direct patronage to the most misogynist, conservative and orthodox forces in our society. It is these forces which are shaping a backlash against increasing assertion of young women who express their own aspirations and dreams different from the ones that tradition determines that they have.

This is the challenge today. On the one hand we have policies rooted in an ideology that sees women through the lens of Manu Smriti- subordinate to men and to the toxic caste system – and the other the fight to preserve a secular and progressive India with alternative vision for women’s progress as enunciated without compromise by the Left. In the coming days, people of India will no doubt defeat the BJP and RSS and strengthen the forces of the Left.