India: Modi's BJP a 'grave danger' to women and minorities, says Kavita Krishnan

Kavita Krishnan.

May 8, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Kavita Krishnan is a central leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and editor of Liberation, the party's central publication. A former leader of the All India Students Association (AISA), Krishnan is joint secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), which is active among women workers and agricultural labourers, and has led struggles for the dignity and rights of Dalit women, and against state repression. The AISA and AIPWA played a significant role in the struggle against sexual violence that followed an internationally publicised gang rape of a student in Delhi and Krishnan has become a well-known international spokesperson for the movement.

Krishnan will be on of the international guest speakers at the 10th national conference of the Socialist Alliance to be held in Sydney, June 7-9. She will also be doing a speaking tour of Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, Adelaide and Perth.

Mila Gisbert, a conference organiser, interviewed Krishnan in the midst of campaigning for India's April 7-May 12, 2014, general election. The CPI-ML is fielding in 83 constituencies spread over 15 states and three union states.

To find out more about and to register for the Socialist Alliance 10th national conference and the associated People's Power in the "Asian Century" seminar that Krishnan will address, see here.

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If a new right-wing government is elected in India, with Narendra Modi as prime minister, what effect on sexual violence laws and their implementation do you envisage it will have, and generally what impact this election outcome could have on the future of the Indian women’s rights movement?

It is not only about the laws on sexual violence. I think that there are a broader range of very serious developments that are already unfolding, even during the election campaign. For instance, one of the ways in which Narendra Modi and his supporters are mobilising votes for themselves, is by sparking up a fear of sexually violent minority community.

By painting the Muslim minority as a sexually aggressive community, as posing a danger to Hindu women and children, they are trying to consolidate their support here.

The way in which that happens is very dangerous for women. Just before the elections, there was a case of communal violence, violence against Muslims, and the violence was done by raising the slogan: “Save our honour, save our daughters and our sisters”. They state the idea that young Muslim men are targeting Hindu girls.

The main bodies that carried out this campaign were institutions called Khap Panchayat. These Khap bodies actually do the honour killings, they actually kill daughters for exercising their own choice, for falling in love with the wrong person. And so, the same organisations have this campaign saying “Save your daughters, save your sisters” from those Muslim men.

India’s election campaign has included the same message repeated by a man very close to Narendra Modi: Amit Shah.

I think this implies that in the name of “protecting women”, this is a threat of a new set of restrictions being imposed on women. It is going to mean a restriction on our freedom.

The other important thing to note, is that in this election Modi has been accused of having illegally used tape machinery to conduct surveillance on a young woman for weeks on end. Essentially he stalked her. He used the state anti-terrorist squad, he used the police machinery and his state government machinery. He used all of these to stalk a woman, and yet he has not had to answer a single question about this.

The Indian media is not asking him these questions, and his party is silent on it, and is offering the explanation that it is alright because the woman’s father asked for it. Even the idea that they can say: illegal surveillance is ok if the woman’s dad is ok with it. It is deeply worrying.

I think if Modi wins the election this would represent a very big danger for women also because the party to which he belongs, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has this moral policing groups, groups of men that go around imposing moral norms on others. For example they pick on women for wearing jeans, they target couples on Valentines Day. Essentially their target is to restrict women’s own choice, or what she wears, or her choice of relationships and friendships. And these groups will experience an enormous sense of empowerment if Modi becomes PM.

My party, the CPML-Liberation has been campaigning very hard, and we do hope for strong and powerful assertion of revolutionary left forces in the election. Apart from that, our observation is that while Narendra Modi and his party have benefited from the immense corruption and the anger against the policies from current government, the BJP and its allies represent much worse. They stand for the same neo-liberal policies, with additional violence against minorities, violence against oppressed communities and women.

We have been campaigning very hard against this. While the media projections are saying that Narendra Modi already won, it is premature. That the battle is very much on and we will be fighting the battle strongly right to the end.

Since the public outrage and massive demonstrations following the gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus in December 2012, how have public demands and activism enabled legislation changes and particularly, has this action brought a change of police procedures regarding sexual violence complaints and resulted in increased conviction rates?

That question is actually a bit difficult to answer because I would say that there are two things here, one that the public demands are not in one voice, and there are two sorts of currents in that movement. One current was seeing the entire movement being about extreme punishment of death penalty for rapists but another very significant current also was focused on identifying the many layers of misogyny that operate in society. This included looking at institutions like the police, like the judiciary, the medical and so on, and also, at the response of these institutions to the whole question of sexual violence and rape. From this willingness to look closely at the laws, at the functioning of institutions, some legislative changes were sought by the movement.

All the changes that were being sought have not materialised but some changes in the law have taken place. For instance we have a wider definition of what constitutes rape.

But if you look at conviction rates there isn’t too much improvement in the institutional response. Even now we see that when a woman is raped, the kind of support that she ought to be able to expect, from medical support to the expectation of being able to get justice within a reasonable time, this is still something that nobody can really count upon.

One significant achievement that has recently happened is that there were outdated tests that were still in use in India, basically every rape survivor was subjected to this test to check the elasticity of her vagina, so that the doctor would then say whether or not she was habituated to sex. Essentially, this is a way of bringing in the “character”, the sexual history, of the complainant into the picture.

Recently the Indian Ministry of Health issued guidelines for the treatment of rape survivors which made it very clear that this test has been outlawed. They should no longer subject the rape survivor to it. Yet it is still happening because the guidelines have yet to be implemented across the board, in all hospitals and states. But at least it has been admitted that it is demeaning and should not be used. The one disturbing thing that has happened on the pretext of last year’s protests, it has been the introduction of the death penalty for rape in certain circumstances. We had two such verdicts, one on the December 16 case and another case of gang rape in Mumbai, where in investigating that, it transpired that there was another woman that had been raped by the same set of men. Both these women survived the rapes, so it is not a question of murder here, but the court in Mumbai dictated the death sentence to the perpetrators, and they did it based on laws of honour, laws of chastity. These were the arguments of the prosecution.

It was very disturbing to see that one of the outcomes of these laws has been to reinforce the notions of honour and chastity, and allow the State to mete out the death penalty in the name of those notions.

It is now over a year since the Delhi case ignited people’s anger and led them to protest. What do you consider has been the main achievement of that movement?

I would say the main achievement has been actually a shift in the way that rape is talked about. To me, the most significant thing about the protest was that there were slogans being raised against victim blaming, rape culture, and this was happening for the very first time, and to introduce the idea that the women should not be subjected to restrictions in the name of “chastity”. This was something new that was happening in India for the first time with this case.

But I think that the changes we want to see are clearly yet to happen and not all of the changes were positive.

For instance, we wanted marital rape to be recognised as rape but that did not happen. We wanted the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces and personnel who are accused of sexual violence in conflict areas removed but that has not happened. There are also two significant changes that have been introduced that we opposed: one was the raising of the age of consent, from 16 to 18, and the other the introduction of death penalty for rape. Both these changes have very dire consequences for women, and yet these changes were made in the name of protecting women.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, has widened the definition of rape and also states that consent cannot be presumed. What is the effect of these changes in the current culture and how is it creating debate and highlighting the need of society to catch up with the new laws? For example, the recent case of sexual assault charges against prominent editor and journalist Tarun Tejpal, where media reactions and divided public opinion has resulted in campaigns of support for the aggressor and vilification of the complainant.

In the past, people would only recognise rape as vaginal fornication no matter to what extent the woman was hurt – even if it left her so badly injured that she is nearly dead. Now the law has recognised that violation of the woman’s integrity as rape.

This is something which a certain class of people seemed to be accepting, but the minute it comes home to their own class, the minute that comes home that someone among themselves, among the elite, the fact that this law would apply to them, to someone like Tarun Tejpal, an influential person, there was an outcry. Had the same law been invoked for someone of a lower social stature, I don’t think there would have been this kind of outcry.

Actually, this outcry is about the privileges, control and power – especially in workplaces – that men hold over women. Privileges that continue to be denied. Women do experience a lot of sexual violence and sexual harassment at the workplace. I think that this response in the case against Tarun Tejpal shows an unwillingness to accept the implications of a changed of definition of rape. But it is also about class. Because of the laws of privileges, we are having sexual harassment cases come out against judges, serious cases of sexual harassment, which are met with different types of response, and some strange responses. For example, one minister said if women keep making this type of allegations, people would stop employing women, because they would become a liability. So this is not addressing the problem, or even acknowledging that there is a problem.

In a number of articles you have written, you make reference to the importance of the use of language. How we cannot take lightly any phrases, analogies and jokes that keep alive the culture of oppressing women – in particular when used by politicians or the authorities. You have warned about the danger of notions such as “safety”, “protection”, “real men”, “modern”, “modesty” and other apparently positive concepts. What is this danger and why do we need to worry about certain “benevolent” discourses?

I think this insight is actually something that was powerfully articulated by some of the young women protesters. They were saying very loudly: “Don’t teach us how to dress, teach men not to rape”. This was one of the slogans. There was a lot of anger against the imposition of restrictions on girls and women in the name of protecting them.

I think that is some of the most interesting and important discussions to which last year’s protests and movement have contributed, to our understanding – and I don’t mean just in India – to the understanding of what sexual violence does to us, the ways in which women are forced to live under certain kinds or restrictions imposed in the name of our safety.

What has happened is that the threat of sexual violence has been used to take away women’s freedom. This is something that women started to hear loud and clear last year. Every time they would hear somebody saying, “We will give you protection” , they would hear “We will take away your freedom”.

Some of the students last year made it very clear, saying that their parents would not allow them to go to college, or go and live in a hostel to study away from home. There were students whose parents would drop them to college and pick them up again to ensure they were safe. This is a way to ensure that they are safe, but also obviously to ensure that they don’t have male friends, to keep a surveillance of what they do.

This kind of surveillance is extremely common, even for adult women in Indian society. But I think there is a growing rejection of this surveillance, and a growing sense that women cannot possibly live their lives fully unless they are free to take some risks. The right to take risks is something that a woman should be allowed to have.

The State has a responsibility to expand the arena of freedom for women, the state has a responsibility to ensure that public spaces are not prohibited to women, that are not difficult to access for women.

A “benevolent” regime of protection of women that is easily translated into a kind of victim blaming because it means that they are “benevolently” telling you how to be safe, and if you don’t listen, if you don’t dress modest, if you don’t behave well, then it is your fault you got raped. This is the message that is heard by the survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence, all the time, that there was something in them that provoked it. So there was something in those statements by young women in the protests that was asking for this to stop.

How much impact have media and films in Indian popular culture, and is the women’s rights movement helped by any new ideas or are film stereotypes (both Indian and Western) only perpetuating the current culture?

It is not so much the Western model that is the problem. Of course there are exceptions but much of the popular culture and media, advertising, still help enforce the old of stereotypes about women. So I don't think this in the dividing line. Both Western and Indian models Indian popular culture loves to make this distinction between the Indian girl and the Western girl, and between the Indian type of woman and the Western type of woman.

But this keeps reinforcing certain kinds of oppressive values in the name of tradition.

Clearly India has a lot of traditions to choose from. It isn’t that there are only oppressive kind of traditions at hand, but in painting this kind of picture they try to reinforce those oppressive values.

Even when they introduce the so-called Western model, or Western mores, there will end up with a moral lesson at the end of it, to say that the Indian mores are the correct ones. The point of what they are doing, is that they are selling a culture of consumerism. Even when they try to sell this culture of consumerism as “freedom” it is utterly disturbing, because it is not as if the imposition of fashion, or dressing, the pressure to do make up, is “freedom” either. It is a very superficial definition of modernity. It does not represent modernity at all.

There are some exceptions. There are some popular films that are beginning to open up the discussion, it has been happening for some years now.

There is a recent film which I am interested to see – but I haven’t seen yet because of the work with the elections – an Hindi movie called Queen. It talks about social expectations and social pressures, how hard can these be on a woman in India. It is not so much about being Western or Indian, but it is about a young girl that visits Europe and finds out about the difference in expectations on how she should behave and live, and it is about how being away from India changes her. I am not recommending it myself because I haven’t seen it yet, but I am told that it talks about these issues without having to frame them within the backdrop of a violent incident.

It is not just about rape, or horror against women, we need be talking about our lives, about how they are constraint and how those constraints ought to be questioned and challenged.

You have described sexual violence as “disciplinary action” to preserve patriarchal rules and dominance over women, and disconnected it from the concept of sexual attraction. Can you explain this in relation to Indian society, and why then neo-liberalism is not the key to Indian women’s freedom?

I think it is an imposition for women across the world, not just in India, that happens because women start having sense of themselves, and also have to start disciplining themselves, even if little, even if we say to ourselves all the time we would not circumscribe our freedom in the name of our safety, but in a way we do.

The threat of sexual violence is something that shapes our lives, that shapes our choices, that shapes what we do, how we feel in public spaces or private spaces, how we feel around men and so on.

What I had in mind was, if you look at the kind of behaviours that woman are asked to live by, across the world, how is this achieved? How do they achieve telling women that, for instance, taking care of children, that motherhood is their job? One way is by building a paradigm of “good women” and “bad women”. That is partly in a sexual sense, but it goes beyond sexual control alone.

What I also had in mind was that other forms of control over women actually enable sexual violence. I have been thinking about this lately, when I talk about sexual violence in India and I start telling people to think that it is not about sex, it is not sexual attraction, that enables that violence.

What enables a man to think that he has the right to do something to a woman that she does not want? Then we start talking about the sense of entitlement that a man feels over women in general, and how he learns to feel that entitlement by the entitlement that society bestows on him, and allows him to feel, over the women in his own life, over his sister, daughter, even over his mother. That also leads to sexual violence within families.

Undoubtedly, it is a culture of entitlement and control which teaches him that is alright to perpetrate forms of violence against women. It is very difficult to make this connection here in India because, generally, any campaign against sexual violence, by the state or certain agencies, would tend to say to men” “Learn to treat women like you treat your mother and sisters”. The point is that he is treating women like his mother and sisters. He has control over his mother and sisters, he gets to decide how they live their lives, he has control and entitlement over them, and he expands and extends that entitlement to other women in society, to exercise that control over them.

That was what I was trying to say.

The other point I made was why neo-liberalism is not the answer. Neo-liberalism also benefits from maintaining the structure of discipline over women, of control over women. One example (let’s not look at India for a minute), in advanced capitalist societies, the state is taking away welfare measures that they were forced to adopt earlier. For instance, they are taking away child support, but they are forced to perpetuate an ideology where they say that if a woman has to take child support she is a “bad mother”, she has failed in her mothering duties, she will get the support but not without being told that it is not what all women are entitled to or that they all do.

So you have the “good mother” and the “bad mother”, then you have the “good worker” and the “bad worker”. A “good” woman worker is not be someone who is asking for her rights. Clearly it serves a wider purpose for the capitalist system to maintain all notions of “good women” and “bad women”.

In the Indian context, what neo-liberal policies have done to Indian women? The government will try to tell us that they are empowering women. Yes, women are coming out and working, but the point is the kind of work that they do, what enables that?

Looking at the textile factories in South India, largely young girls from oppressed castes background are doing that type of work. What enables the subservience on those workplaces is caste and gender division and subordination. Neo-liberal policies would not get cheap labour from that section of society were not for gender and caste inequality there. So they clearly benefit from it.

There are also big foreign multinational companies coming here to take the land. Large corporations are land grabbers and people from indigenous societies have resisted their land grabbing very strongly. Women have been a very, very important part of these movements. They have been subjected to violence, including sexual violence, by state and non-state agencies, in order to break their movements. So neo-liberal policies have not helped to empower them. In fact the opposite, neo-liberalism has benefited from the perpetuating the existing inequalities and restrictions.

In your opinion, should we be focusing on global campaigns to put a stop to violence against women since the struggle for women’s rights and freedom is an international issue?

We need solidarity among countries, but a single global campaign probably would not be very effective, you would need to look at the local specific details of many different countries.

But what is important is that we cannot look at sexual violence as a problem specific to one part of the world. For example, I would look at the international media coverage of the Indian protests, and it was actually very problematic because they tried to look at sexual violence in India as some kind of problem specific to India, and to do with India only.

I met some foreign students soon after that movement, and I realised that their thinking – influenced by what they have learned from the media – it had not helped them to reflect upon the violence against women in their societies. They found it all too easy to think that the violence only happens in India or Afghanistan or Pakistan. They were able to distance themselves from the violence around them, the violence and discrimination that would take place against women in their own countries and in their own society.

What I try to tell them in our discussions is that the only useful kind of movement that looks at sexual violence is one that makes you uncomfortable, not one that makes you comfortable by locating the problem far away from you. So, women in Afghanistan are fighting their violence their own way, women in India are fighting, and women in Pakistan are fighting, but we should not be locating the problem far away from us and then refusing to reflect upon the implications of that problem close to home.