If you expected more from Modi’s response to BHU students, you’ve forgotten his history of sexism

Can’t change the spots, you see.
Can’t change the spots, you see.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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They say Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is a master of messaging.

If that is true, then his Varanasi trip a few days ago played perfectly with a script he has diligently followed over the years.

Among his engagements in the city was the inauguration of a cattle health fair—the cow and its protection being a major thrust area for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But the otherwise loquacious prime minister (PM) did not utter a word about yet another campus mutiny, this time taking place in his own parliamentary constituency: Woman students at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), one of India’s most respected institutions, have been protesting for days against the sexual harassment they face on campus. They were angry at the disproportionately severe action taken by the administration of BHU against the protesters. This was followed by shockingly disdainful and sexist responses from senior political leaders and even the university vice-chancellor.

The PM’s indifference to the upheaval in BHU is at variance with his government’s much tom-tommed campaign, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Protect the Daughter, Educate the Daughter), which aims to improve the lot of the girl child in India. But those who are tuned in to his astute messaging wouldn’t be surprised at all. It is in line with his attitude which, going by precedent, is really about boxing women into stereotypes and set gender roles.

Making ma-behens out of entrepreneurs and industrialists

In colloquial Hindustani, the term ma-behen (mother-sister) is often used as part of expletives.

Modi, of course, wasn’t taking that line when he went on a rampage with ma and behen at a well-publicised gathering in April 2013. His nearly 50-minute-long address to a group of women in New Delhi was so completely peppered with the two terms that it may have come across as one of the usual political rallies in the Hindi-speaking areas of the country, where speeches almost always begin with “bhaiyon aur behenon” (brothers and sisters).

But Modi was at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry Ladies Organisation (Ficci FLO). Now this is a group of some of India’s most accomplished woman industrialists and captains of the industry. But he simply couldn’t help making “mothers” and “sisters”out of them, instead of just addressing them as women. After all, these are their traditional roles in India, which the BJP’s mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), prefers.

“While women entrepreneurs, well-paid professionals, and high-ranking corporate executives gathered to listen to his speech on woman empowerment, Modi narrated instances of the strength of women with examples of the housewife who burns her finger trying to make chappatis for her husband and of another woman who hastily abandons a sari-sale to run home and save her child from a fire,” Firstpost reported at the time.

Annie Zaidi, a feminist writer, feels this is a reflection of the thoughts of a dominant section in Indian society. “To constantly remind women of who controls their choices, and to constantly remind men of women’s well-being only in the context of ‘your’/’mine,’ is to deny the notion of women being autonomous,” she told Quartz.

You can never win

Even if one doesn’t know that some of history’s greatest and toughest leaders have been women, one wouldn’t want to make a show out of it on the international stage. But then, so grounded is Modi in the RSS worldview that his best efforts at playing India’s PM aren’t always foolproof.

During a speech in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, in June 2015, he heaped praise—or so he thought—on Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of that country, for her government’s efforts against terrorism. In what The Economist called “an especially crass comment,” Modi said, “It is heartening that prime minister of Bangladesh, despite the fact that she is a woman, is openly saying that she has zero tolerance for terrorism. I would like to congratulate Sheikh Hasina for her firmness to deal with the menace.”

He had simply reduced the democratically elected leader of 163 million people into just a gender.

A burden that must be borne

Modi likes to think of himself as an ardent environmentalist. One of his favourite messages over the years has been about planting trees, an appeal he’s made since long before he became the PM.

He said it again in August 2013. “If a daughter is born in your house, plant five trees along your farm and when she’s grown up you can sell the timber to fund her wedding,” he said yet again in January 2014.

Clearly, he feels couching the message in such terms will carry across a country that is already facing acute environmental degradation and remains poor.

“But what was left unsaid? That newborn girls are a financial burden. The spectre of dowry hangs over every Indian urban and rural household, even though the Dowry Prohibition Act came into being in 1961. We make such a big deal of it, as if it’s a historical legacy that we must perpetuate every generation,” Litta Jacob wrote in The Hindu newspaper.

India is not among the world’s best places to be born female. From foeticide to infanticide, malnourishment to discrimination in education, dowry deaths to workplace sexual harassment, rapes to career disparity, they face it all. And then, none less than the country’s PM comes along blithely reinforcing retrograde norms.

Social media shenanigans

That India’s Hindu right-wing social media is given to sexist rhetoric and prone to online violence against women is by now well known. What is also given is the prime minister’s not-so-subtle backing of some of the vilest specimen from this brigade.

But even Modi’s most ardent supporters were left unsettled when a social media meme from the BJP announced the launch of a major electrification programme under his leadership and, as usual, it came in unsavoury packaging. The meme for the Rs16,000 crore Saubhagya project listed “better quality of life, especially for women, in daily chores” among its aims.

The reaction was swift, even from his ardent fans.

A product of our times?

Observers say that while Modi is a product of the Indian patriarchal milieu, he is also astute enough to know that there is a huge constituency out there that will appreciate his approach.

“If you dig a little deeper, you will find a large section of people treating women as if they do not count as equals,” said New Delhi-based Andre Beteille, one of India’s best-known sociologists.

A professor at the Delhi School of Economics at Delhi university, Beteille said women voters were a mixed bag, also affected by the “appeal of strongman.” ”Modi stands for masculinity. And women have a secondary place in such a scheme of things…But it is wrong in terms of the spirit of our constitution,” he said.

But Modi’s utterances and silences rarely take into consideration constitutional niceties or propriety.

In the past, he has been called out for keeping mum in the wake of deadly attacks—often in the name of the cow—on members of the socially backward and minority communities, journalists, rationalists, and social activists. Not the least because the perpetrators of such violence are often suspected to be adherents of his party’s brand of religious nationalism.

As for the BHU row, the identities of the criminals behind the latest episode of campus sexual harassment are unknown as of now. But what’s riled the students and their supporters is the attempt to play down the seriousness of the issue. Add to that authorities’ inept handling of the affair.

“Silence is complicity… If the prime minister of the nation doesn’t see it fit to rebuke them (BHU authorities) and to explicitly distance himself from such sexist attitudes, he is, in effect, aligning himself with them,” said Ammu Joseph, a Bengaluru-based senior journalist and author.

To borrow writer Zaidi’s words, the apple-cart is not to be disturbed. And in Modi’s apple-cart, cows get the place of privilege, not women.

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