Monday, August 07, 2017

Political Love Fest: We Pledge To 'Protect' Women On Rakhi, But Forget To Treat Them As Equal Citizens

Misogyny remains misogyny even if you tie a rakhi on it. A woman ties "Rakhi" onto the wrists of a man sitting inside a passenger bus during Raksha Bandhan celebrations in Kolkata.

I don't know about brothers and sisters, but for politicians, Rakhi seems to have become the festival of binding ties. Politicians are very busy this Rakhi, tying themselves into knots.

Just sitting in Kolkata, my inbox is flooded with invites for an array of 'raksha bandhan' events, all of which apparently warrant media attention. The West Bengal BJP Mahila Morcha President, Loket Chatterjee, is tying a rakhi on state BJP president Dilip Ghosh at 10 AM.

Then the governor will be rakhi-ed at 11 AM. And all local BJP karyakartas at 4:00 pm.

A rakhi ustav with the Bengal sports ministry involving cricketer Jhulan Goswami and local politicians is at 10:30 AM. Another rakhi event would also be the inauguration of a fountain by a state minister. And a rakhi bandhan function at 9 AM with a local Trinamool minister, a councilor and former footballer would be followed by high tea.

At least no one has enthusiastically issued a circular here requiring all state government employees to show up for work so that women employees could tie rakhis on their male colleagues, queering the pitch instantly for all those workplace romances and bringing back nightmarish memories of "rakhi brothers".

Later I learned that the widows of Vrindavan are going to Delhi to tie rakhis on Narendra Modi himself. According to Sulabh International, the NGO organizing it, five widows will visit the prime minister's residence and tie rakhis on him. Around 1,500 handmade rakhis would be given to him, though hopefully not all tied on him. That would require a 56-inch wrist.

In 2014 after the BJP took power in Delhi, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said rakhi should be celebrated widely to "protect Hindu culture and live by the values enshrined in it." It's not surprising politicians have taken the message to heart and are competing to wear the devotion on their sleeves and wrists.

Alas, the political love fest over rakhi has hardly translated into more generous attitudes towards women.

Of course, many would contend that's hardly surprising. Rakhi has been deemed a patriarchal knot, strong brothers promising to protect weak sisters. But still, at its best, at its simplest, it is about love and caring that extends beyond the family. It's in that spirit that the Institute of Cerebral Palsy is doing an outreach programme on the streets of Kolkata today, tying rakhis on ordinary people and public transport operators to dispel myths and stereotypes about people with cerebral palsy.

It's that love and caring that seem to be in such short supply from so many of the politicians running around to try and find the most photogenic rakhi for the day. Even as the BJP embraces rakhi for its values, the son of Subhas Barala, the BJP chief in Haryana finds himself accused of stalking Varnika Kundu, a young woman, daughter of an IAS officer, in Chandigarh.

He allegedly blocked her car and tried to jump into it with a friend. State chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has said the father should not be held liable for the alleged sins of the son. That's fair enough if there had not been an accompanying campaign of victim shaming going around.

A member of the Barala family who describes himself as having "worked at the Bharatiya Janata Party" shared (and later deleted) a photograph of the young woman with two men and another one of the young woman with a glass to imply she was drunk and of questionable morals.

Kundu denied it and also rightly said, "moreover, if any woman is drunk that doesn't give a right to these men to harass and do what they have done."

There's an active campaign on Twitter saying the incident is being blown out of proportion because of vested interests upset at Khattar cracking down on corrupt IAS officers. Even if that is true, does that give anyone the right to do what these men are accused of doing? If the sins of sons should not be visited on their fathers, should the sins of fathers be visited on their daughters?

When asked if anyone in the ruling party had called to express regret, Kundu said, "There was no official statement or call from anyone from the BJP expressing regret." On the contrary, state vice-president Ramveer Bhatti told CNN-News 18, "The girl should not have gone out at 12 in the night. Why was she driving so late in the night? The atmosphere is not right. We need to take care of ourselves."

It's not fair to pick on the BJP. Congress CM Sheila Dikshit, a woman herself, could not resist blaming the victim when journalist Soumya Viswanathan was murdered in Delhi in 2008. "All by herself till 3 AM at night... you should not be so adventurous," Dikshit had said chidingly.

Misogyny and sexism are hardly new in India or unique to it or limited to one party. But they stick out even more egregiously when politicians fall over themselves to find the biggest, blingiest rakhis around to profess their brotherly love for all their sisters.

Perhaps that is the problem. We seem to think that treating women as sisters and daughters is the best way to honour them. We ignore the ugly truth that we also kill them in the name of that same honour.

We forget too often to think of women as simply equal citizens, deserving protection not just from the kindness of their brothers but from the fairness of the law like anyone else. Until we do that, misogyny remains misogyny even if you tie a ribbon on it and put a rakhi on top.

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