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Kanika Datta: Sometimes, rhetoric matters

Commentators have dissected the many progressive things Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his Independence Day speech. But may I submit, admittedly with some bias, that his observations on rape were the most significant part of this speech. “Today when we hear about these rapes, our heads hang in shame,” Mr Modi said from the ramparts of the Red Fort in a trend-breaking discourse.

It says much about the average Indian politician’s concern for half its population that it took more than half a century of independence for a leader to stand up in front of the watching world – and Mr Modi’s maiden speech attracted global cynosure – and talk openly about a crime for which India had developed a worldwide reputation.

“I want to ask parents when your daughter turns 10 or 12 years old, you ask, ‘Where are you going? When will you return?’,” he said, adding, “do the parents dare to ask their sons, ‘Where are you going? Why are you going? Who are your friends?’ After all, the rapist is also someone’s son.”

Together with his points about nurturing the girl child and the need for a toilet revolution, Mr Modi captured in one shot what lofty Independence Day speeches have studiously ignored before. Cynics have suggested that the provocation for this admission is to send a message to the global community. Perhaps. But it took courage, and the identity of the messenger, not just his gender, enhanced its importance.

Mr Modi consciously addresses a conservative constituency of what we are wont to call “aspirational” young Indians cutting across caste lines. He wields far more personal influence on an important section of the population than almost any of India’s former executive leaders (with the possible exception of Jawaharlal Nehru, though in quite a different way). Even a casual glance at the animated daily discourse on social media indicates that Mr Modi likes to lead by personal example and there is no shortage of people who admire his somewhat Spartan lifestyle. So in condemning rape unequivocally, Mr Modi has sent a powerful message to a section of people who may not be inclined to apply their minds to issues such as gender equality.

Contrast this with the political approach so far, which has ricocheted between studied silence, clumsy sympathy, cynical women-focused “schemes” and outright inhumanity. In this, women politicians have been as guilty as their male counterparts.

This fact was dismally on display after the December 16, 2012, tragedy when United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi chose the stealth approach when peaceful protests erupted on Raisina Hill. Where she could easily have come out and spoken to the protestors, she stood by when Delhi’s police callously bombarded them with water cannons. Then she and her son, the same person who affected to have so much sympathy for oppressed women, made it worse by choosing to speak to a select group of protestors in the dead of the night at No 10, Janpath.

Sheila Dixit, then Delhi’s chief minister with a well-deserved reputation for a retrograde attitude to working women, made some disingenuously sympathetic comments to Barkha Dutt on TV. No wonder she was heckled when she finally decided to speak to the Raisina Hill protestors.

Not that they are exceptions. Mamata Banerjee, Bengal’s first female chief minister, thought nothing of dismissing rape complaints as “politics” and even suggested that one victim had no business to be in a bar on her own. When female politicians can be so indifferent, it is no surprise that people like Tapas Paul felt bold enough to openly threaten to kill opposition politicians and have their women raped. And who can blame Mulayam Singh Yadav and his henchmen in a state as backward as Uttar Pradesh from suggesting that rape was acceptable behaviour (“boys will be boys”, remember?) and that women were kicking up a fuss for little reason.

Though Parliament did pass more stringent rape laws after December 2012, rape and gender issues have rarely been upfront on party agendas – it is the much-maligned “westernised” media that keeps the issue alive. The political “solutions” have either been ill-advised ones like reserving seats for women in Parliament or silly token ones like P Chidambaram’s allocation for a “Nirbhaya fund” for women’s safety and the setting up of a women’s bank.

Mr Modi, who had hitherto displayed a disturbing approach to gender issues (his treatment of his wife and Phonegate being two examples), grasped the essential issue: an unambiguous public condemnation of rape transmits a far more potent lesson than any scheme or reservation system.

The danger now is that this agenda can be hijacked by lumpen local politicians to serve communal ends. The “love jihad“, which the Bharatiya Janata Party has wisely jettisoned in Uttar Pradesh, was one such blatant attempt. Rape is religion-agnostic and a testimony to India’s social backwardness. No doubt, Mr Modi gets that. It is vital that the various adjutants of the Parivar get it too.

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