Why has women’s safety stopped having any political impact in the Modi age?

Welcome to The India Fix written by me, Shoaib Daniyal. Every Monday I write on an issue that lies at the heart of Indian politics. To get it in your inbox every week, sign up here (click on “follow”). Have feedback, interesting links or think I’m wrong? Write to me at theindiafix@scroll.in.

In January, some of India’s top wrestlers began a street protest in the capital, New Delhi, demanding that Brij Bhushan Singh, president of Wrestling Federation of India, be arrested on charges of sexual harassment.

The protesting wrestlers included some of the top names in the sport, including men and women who have won medals for India in the Olympics. On the other side was Singh, a powerful member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

In response, the Modi government used a tried and tested tactic to quell agitations: it appointed a committee. Frustrated with this delaying tactic, the wrestlers restarted their agitation in April. This had more success than the January agitation. On April 28, after the case had been heard in the Supreme Court, the Delhi Police relented and filed first information reports against the BJP MP. One of them was under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act given that Singh was accused of sexually harassing a minor.

Backing Singh

In spite of the severity of the allegations as well as the fact that the people making them were some of the most prominent Indian sportspeople alive today, the BJP has stuck by Singh. The Delhi Police, controlled by the Modi government, filed an FIR only after pressure from the Supreme Court. However, even then, it has not arrested Singh. In fact, Singh has released statements brazenly saying that he will not resign as president of the Wrestling Federation of India.

How is the BJP managing to resist the political pressures that such a grave incident could potentially put on the party?

Part of the answer lies in the unfortunate fact that women’s safety plays out in complex ways when it comes to voting. In spite of the fact that women make up half the electorate, by itself it is rare for women’s safety to feature as a major issue during elections. Instead, communitarian identity – caste and religion – usually dominate Indian elections along with economic factors such as inflation and welfare.

This cold political calculus probably explains why the BJP thinks that it might gain more by backing Singh than by supporting the sportspeople who allege they have been harassed. The wrestling chief started out life as a so-called bahubali or gangster and has been accused of working with terrorist Dawood Ibrahim. Later he built an impressive political network in Uttar Pradesh, with strong backing from his Rajput community.

Lack of impact

The fact of community identity trumping gender violence is true not only for the 2023 wrestler’s protest: it has been a longtime feature of Indian politics. The 2002 Gujarat riots, for example, saw mass sexual violence against women. However, this played out electorally along the lines of communal identity. The violence ensured a Hindu vote bank for the BJP, catapulting Modi to the status of a national figure. As part of this politics, the BJP-led Gujarat government last year released some criminals convicted of gangrape during the riots and the party felicitated them after they walked out of jail.

As if to illustrate this political phenomenon, on Sunday, in fact, one of the protesting wrestlers shared a message in support of the BJP’s Hindutva push in the Karnataka elections.

So strong is this communitarian superstructure in Indian politics that even the wrestler’s protest has used it. Khap panchayats of the powerful Jat caste from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh have backed the wrestlers, ensuring that the protests continue even in the face of strong pressure from the Delhi Police.

Apart from straight electoral calculation, the BJP is also helped by the fact that much of the Hindi- and English-language mass media in the country does not report critically on the Modi government. Part of this has to do with the government’s ability to use the legal framework to reign in recalcitrant media houses. In other cases, owners of media companies are friendly with the government. It is also a fact that members of the upper castes, who dominate the national media, tend to be strong supporters of the BJP.

The 11 men convicted in the Bilkis Bano gangrape and mass murder case, being welcomed after they are released by the Gujarat government in 2022. Credit: PTI.

The UPA exception

This stands in stark contrast to the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, where the issue of women’s safety actually did acquire the political prominence it deserves. The Manmohan Singh-led government was strongly attacked by the media in the wake of the horrific 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder. In contrast, in 2020, a gangrape in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh saw much more limited media outrage in spite of the fact that the BJP-led government actually moved to quell protests using draconian force by summarily burning the body of the victim.

In 2012, Delhi had seen large protests for women’s safety. In 2020, the Delhi Police used force to make sure no protests happen given that even a limited protest in the capital would generate TV images that could be beamed across the country and undermine the BJP’s political capital.

With strong media control and support from powerful upper castes, the BJP has ensured that the media is unable to repeat the strong watchdog role it played during the Congress years when it comes to women’s safety.

While media control is a strong factor that helps the BJP government control the political narrative, it is not impossible to overcome. In fact, sustained protests seem to be the one thing that can break it. Farmer protesters have successfully rolled back the farm laws while protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act seem to have led to the law being frozen. As a result, while Modi’s BJP has successfully prevented women’s safety from being an issue that could erode its political capital, a sustained protest by the wrestlers against allegations of sexual harassment by a BJP MP could, in theory, change that.

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