Opinion

MODI FINALLY SPOKE ON RAPE, BUT WHAT DID HE SAY?

http://goseetheeclipse.com/wp-json/oembed/1.0/embed?url=http://goseetheeclipse.com/idaho/ In London last week India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had an interaction with the Indian diaspora in the UK. During the carefully orchestrated programme Mr. Modi answered (sanitised and pre-screened) audience questions, interspersed with comments, including the recitation of panegyric poems, by a milquetoast anchor. The anchor, a government-appointed head of India’s film censor board, dutifully displayed his gratitude by genuflecting before Mr. Modi. Soon this became the matter of chatter on the social networks where among many others one cartoon showed the milquetoast telling Mr. Modi, “Now a tough question, sir!” while brandishing a pair of scissors whose blades were made of feather.

here The hapless government appointee’s hagiographic style of conducting the interaction is understandable. He was, after all, dealing with his super boss. That can’t be said for some of Mr. Modi’s own responses and statements. Indeed, much of what the Prime Minister said was old hat, platitudinous and inconsequential. He repeated the now-knackered story of beginning life as a railway station tea boy and making it to the top job; of how he had dedicated his life to the people of India; and the by-now familiar claim of what he has achieved in four years relative to the previous ten years is like comparing heaven and earth. He also debuted a few new-ish Modi-isms. One example (the interpretation of which is beyond me; I leave it to readers to make their own): “When a glass is half full of water, some say it is half-empty; others say it is half full; I always say it is half full of water and half full of air.”

go The London event, held at the Central Hall Westminster (capacity: 2,300), was filled to the brim and the crowd was enthusiastic, clapping and chanting “Modi! Modi! Modi!” as India’s diaspora wherever Mr. Modi goes is wont to do. But the event took place at a time when back in India, people are roiled over several recent incidents of violent rapes and murders, two of which—at Kathua in Jammu & Kashmir, and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh—have been particularly barbaric. In one, an eight-year-old child was abducted, raped and killed in what was an ostensible attempt to scare away a community of Muslim settlers; and, in the other, the minor victim attempted suicide and her father, reportedly beaten up by the family of the accused, died in a police station.

Though these incidents and the outrage surrounding them have been making the headlines internationally, notably in the UK where many protests greeted Mr. Modi when he arrived, neither his milquetoast anchor nor his doting audience asked him to comment. But, replying to another question, Mr. Modi himself referred to them. He said: “A rape is a rape. How can we tolerate this torture with our daughters? You are always questioning your daughters, why don’t you ask the same questions to your sons? I believe this is the evil of not just the individual but also of the society,” he said, adding that it was wrong to politicise such acts of violence or compare the number of instances during one political regime with another.

There are several problems with what the Prime Minister said but the first is his comment about politicising such issues. Mr. Modi said such acts of violence ought not to be politicised. In the Kathua incident, in which those accused includes a Hindu priest, when members of local Hindu community protested the charges, two state ministers from Mr. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined them. The two have since resigned but not before the state’s chief minister, whose People’s Democratic Party is in power in a coalition with the BJP, had to intervene and speak to the Prime Minister. In the Kathua incident, the main accused is a state legislator also from Mr. Modi’s party who has been charged but not yet arrested. Neither Mr. Modi nor his confidant and president of the BJP, Mr. Amit Shah, has publicly referred to these partymen or condemned them.

The other problem with what Mr. Modi said is his reference to asking questions of “sons”. Mr. Modi spoke in Hindi at the London event but if you praphrase what he said it is this: “If you can ask your daughters, where did you go? What did you do? Who were you with? Why don’t you ask your sons the same questions?” Perhaps Mr. Modi has chosen not to acknowledge the seriousness of what has been happening in Indian society. The sexual crimes over which there is uproar in India (at least two more such barbaric instances have come to the fore since then) are not ones that can be curbed by parents asking their sons where they were or what they did. It would be simplistic and naïve to think of that as a solution. The malaise that afflicts Indian society and leads to such instances lies deep and requires much greater efforts to eradicate. To begin with it is the prevailing attitude towards women and the lack of awareness and education about sex and relationships. This must change.

Efforts to introduce sex education in schools that could sensitise India’s youth have been repeatedly scuppered by political parties and vested interests that feel such initiatives are un-Indian. Discussions about sex are largely considered taboo and the baggage of social stigma that comes with the subject makes parents unwilling to talk about it with their children. Whenever there have been suggestions for including sex education in school curriculums, there has been resistance.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of that has come from Mr. Modi’s own party, many of whose members consider themselves flagbearers of Indian heritage and values. States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala (the first six are ruled by Mr. Modi’s party) have banned sex education believing that it is against Indian traditional values and could corrupt youth. The influential BJP leader, Mr. Ram Madhav, has called sex education unfit for Indian society, proposing instead workshops to warn adults against promiscuity.

When Mr. Modi says parents should also question their sons about their whereabouts and what they’ve been up to as they do their daughters, he should also add that parents should talk and encourage teachers to talk to their children about sex; about mutual respect for genders, particularly about respect for girls and women. In a country where a 78-year-old governor of a state thinks nothing of patting a woman journalist’s cheek during a press conference (it happened recently in Tamil Nadu), there is a huge chasm in our attitudes towards women that needs to be bridged. Awareness about what is right; what is wrong; and mutual respect for genders, particularly women, has to be inculcated in Indians when they are very young. This actually is a subject that Mr. Modi, who has often demonstrated his predilection for being candid with his audiences, ought to speak about. Perhaps he could, in one of his monthly Mann Ki Baat addresses to the people of India.

 

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