Women and the Modi raj

Gargi Bhattacharya examines the sexist reality behind the ‘pro-women’ rhetoric of India’s ruling party

April 3, 2019 · 12 min read
Narendra Modi. / Flickr

This article is featured in Red Pepper Issue 223: Feminist Futures.

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In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition primarily consisting of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, came into power in India with a sweeping majority. The BJP put forward as the prime ministerial candidate its poster boy, Narendra Modi, on the basis of his model of industrial development while chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s richest states. He made promises to bring back an enormous amount of ‘black money’ parked abroad, along with the creation of employment opportunities and the empowerment of women. It sounded like a political renaissance; the reality was rather different.

One of Modi’s early measures, aimed at curtailing the informal economy, counterfeit cash and tax evasion, was the infamous demonetisation of 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee banknotes, implemented in 2016. It was widely criticised for being poorly planned and unfair, and largely ineffective in curbing the black economy since only a small proportion of such money was held in cash. Meanwhile, a recently-leaked National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) report found unemployment levels soaring to a four-decade high of 6.1 per cent. As with demonetisation, women have been affected more than men. So what else has the government been doing to resuscitate the struggling economy and the worsening condition of women?

Women first?

The Ministry of Women and Child Development certainly appears to have been busy under Modi. For the first time, a de facto head of the republic has put gender issues on the map, right alongside his ambitions to demolish the black economy, professing a ‘women first’ approach to development. At a press conference in 2018, Modi mapped out this approach, stating that: ‘Today the country is moving forward from women development to women-led development… When we have such a mantra for the country’s development, our party also believes in this mantra. For the party, mahila shakti [women power] is important. For us, whether it is organisation or government or framing of programmes, it is women first.’

The plethora of women-centric schemes that the ministry has come up with merits some discussion, especially in the light of the kind of challenges facing a developing nation such as India.

It seems that the ministry started off with good intentions. One of the major schemes to push for the education of girl children, the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (‘Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child’) scheme, is aimed at righting the skewed child sex ratio in India and curbing female foeticide. Two other ministries are also involved in running the scheme: the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Launched in January 2015, in the past four years the scheme has been granted 113 billion rupees (£1.2 billion) for expansion up to 2020, with the cabinet committee on economic affairs approving its involvement in all 640 districts in the country.

Similarly, the Ujjawala scheme, which the Ministry of Women and Child Development explains as ‘a comprehensive scheme for prevention of trafficking and rescue, rehabilitation and re-integration of victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation’, has also been started. This is not to be confused with the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (it would seem the government runs out of names fast), which aims to provide liquid petroleum gas cylinders to below-poverty line households and is said to have mainly benefited women in rural areas who risk their health and well-being by cooking with coal or wood. However, they also need help in outgrowing their roles as resident cooks in their respective households, and to that effect, the government has remained inert.

Accolades and state and district level awards have been initiated to acknowledge women’s contributions to society. Cash incentives, although nominal, to pregnant and lactating women, the construction of toilets, and the increase of paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, are extremely important in a developing country.

Other modernising changes have also been made, such as the overhaul of passport rules to favour single mothers, doing away with the triple talaq (whereby a Muslim man could divorce his wife simply by saying talaq three times, in complete violation of her rights), and lifting the restriction on women above 45 years of age performing the hajj pilgrimage unaccompanied by male relatives (Saudi Arabia will not grant visas to unaccompanied women under 45). These are important steps in a more equitable direction, especially since they seem to be directed at not only the betterment of the majority but also the Muslim minority of the country, poor and urban alike.

Brutal misogyny

On closer inspection, however, three different aspects of the roles and status of women in India remain largely unaffected despite all the National Democratic Alliance’s empowerment jargon – those of social safety, economic participation and political voice and visibility.

The government expected that certain steps, like the introduction of the death penalty for the rape and killing of minors, and the penalty in other cases being raised from 10 to 20 years, would deter the horrific crimes against women for which India is becoming infamous. The problem, however, is the government’s failure to educate both rural and urban masses and inculcate a culture of respect for human and women’s rights, instead of relying on fear of punishment.

India has been adjudged one of the worst countries in the world for women’s safety. Despicably sexist and misogynist remarks from the BJP’s own ranks, including figures of considerable political power and clout, have stunted any serious intentions of fostering a gender-sensitive, non-patriarchal, equitable society. Brutal social media campaigns against female journalists and activists, such as Barkha Dutt, Gauri Lankesh (later assassinated), Rana Ayyub (especially after the release of her book on the Gujarat riots, Gujarat Files: The Anatomy of a Cover Up), have ensured that trolling women with incessant abuse and threatening them with murder

and/or rape are offences that can be committed with relative impunity.

Not only in secluded, dark alleys, women are now vulnerable to abuse and assault in the virtual world, in broad daylight. Irony is the order of the day, then, when a programme called #WebWonderWomen is announced to nominate women who are powerful social influencers in various fields and are vocal and active on social media.

Insecure and powerless

This is similar to the way women participate in the Indian economy – always contained in a structure built to make them insecure and powerless, but needed to play their roles nonetheless. Even women in formal employment get paid only 80 paise for every rupee (100 paise) that a male employee makes.

A staggering 97 per cent of all female workers in India are in the informal sector and will have no access to the extended maternity leave. Increased maternity provision will also adversely affect the employment opportunities of women in private businesses, which are likely simply to stop hiring women for fear of granting them paid leave. In most countries, maternity provisions are partially funded by the state, which is not the case in India, so they will only benefit the minority of women who work in the formal (and mainly public) sector and may come at the cost of even lower job growth for other women. The concept of reproductive labour and any associated rights is all but absent in a country second in population in the world.

The MUDRA scheme, said to be specially designed to benefit rural female entrepreneurs, has done nothing to mitigate the situation. Neither has the introduction of the controversial goods and services tax, which bankrupted or impoverished many small business owners, including women. Female hygiene products were also subject to the tax initially, with tampons and sanitary pads being exempted only after year-long battles by activists.

The female labour force is largely invisible in Indian society. The impact of demonetisation has made it more so, wiping out the meagre savings of thousands in the informal sector – money hard earned and squirrelled away from husbands as a safety net by women. Unprecedented job losses were recorded, affecting rural women in particular.

Female-led businesses, especially those involved in small businesses, stalls, cottage industries and trades suffered major setbacks during demonetisation; many lost almost all their life savings in one stroke. Women’s savings include not only cash savings but also gold or stridhan (jewellery a woman obtains during her wedding), on which the government imposes a ceiling of 500 grams for married women and 250 for unmarried women. These restrictions, and the fact that a married woman is still allowed to keep twice the amount of gold as an unmarried one, are indicative of the government’s refusal to reduce the distinction in the status of women based on their marital circumstances.

The battle with tradition

The slogan ‘Matri Shakti, Rashtra Shakti’ (Mother’s Power, Nation’s Power) used by the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana maternity benefits programme highlights this imbalance. The government is doing little to dismantle the traditional Indian viewpoint equating women and femininity solely with motherhood, and women’s roles are largely defined by their participation in reproductive labour, leading straight to right-wing stereotypes of Bharat Mataa (the nation deified as mother).

The preference for male heirs and the dehumanising elements of traditional patriarchal households, which still refuse to contemplate educating girls or even stalling their marriages until they have come of age, are yet to be substantially addressed. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme is poorly executed in comparison with a similar scheme initiated by chief minister Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, that of the Kanyashree Prakalpa, where poor households come under a conditional cash transfer scheme to help educate girl children.

The government also falls woefully short in ensuring women’s participation in politics. The rise of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal is in sharp contrast to the largely male-dominated party at the helm. The BJP has never been particularly women-centric, and characters of little political credibility or sense, such as the extreme-right leader Uma Bharti, have further eroded its image. While some women have been granted considerable status in the cabinet under Modi, with Nirmala Sitharaman given the defence portfolio and Sushma Swaraj the external affairs ministry, the overall scenario with regard to women’s political participation is hardly commendable.

This can be seen clearly in the case of former soap opera star Smriti Irani, who was given charge of the Ministry of Human Resource Development despite complete lack of qualification. Smriti Irani’s conflict with higher education institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University shed some light on the BJP’s women’s wing, Mahila Morcha. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, chief minister of Rajasthan, for example, is, on the one hand, eminently interested in modern education programmes, even while appearing to have regular rituals and yagnas conducted in her home state to bring rainfall. It is difficult to take the BJP’s women’s wing seriously, since they exhibit a curiously appropriated state of being, with rationality, a sense of social justice and equitable goals frequently giving way to atavistic social and ideological practices and statements, often publicly made.

Lastly, the most debilitating failure of the government under Narendra Modi is its shying away from pushing the women’s reservation bill that sought to reserve one third of seats for women in the Indian parliament’s lower house (Lok Sabha) and state legislative assemblies. The bill had proposed that one third of the seats reserved for scheduled castes and tribes would also be reserved for women of those groups in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies. The lapsed bill had been introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2008 and would have not only ensured political participation of women, it would have meant women from the disempowered communities have their voices heard amidst the singular chorus of male baritone.

Gender parity in politics is inextricably linked with the socio-economic development of women in the country. The way forward is to not merely have women who are either scions or representatives of powerful political families (Maneka Gandhi, Vasundhara Raje) or puppet politicians forwarded by their errant lords (Rabri Devi). The deep-rooted crisis of women, who bear the unfortunate legacy of being second-sexed in any and every arena in the nation, can only to be surmounted by a successful execution of astute policies and decision-making in their favour. As of now, in the war between tradition and policy, tradition is the undisputed champion, with women more disadvantaged today than they were in the pre-demonetisation era.

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