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When women leaders let down women

The charge sheet has been filed, fast-track courts are being set up, promises of stiffer laws and sterner enforcement have been made, and yet the protests against rapes and the authorities’ poor response to it continue, much as rapes continue.

This is not an on-going cathartic process involving masses of people, especially women. It is a manifestation of scorn at a power establishment which has remained insular to the plight of women – a jibe, a grope, a dowry death and rape, not here and there but almost everywhere.

It is also a refusal to believe that a setup which hitherto faulted women and dealt poorly with them despite their distress can change overnight and play fair with them.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Above all, it is a realisation that their own kind at the helm of power has let them down badly.

Let us look at the roster of some women who failed women, especially in matters of crimes against women.

For one, they have seen the disgrace of a President, Pratibha Patil, a woman, signing orders commuting death sentences to life terms in five cases of rape. The rapes were heinous; in one, a five-year-old child was raped and murdered. Couldn’t she, whose elevation to that office was made much off, because she symbolised the emergence of women power, have just asked the home ministry to boil its head in oil?

No doubt there were legalities.

But being a woman, she had a chance to trigger a crisis following which the government may have done precisely what the outraged women are demanding from the streets with candles in their hand. She blew it away – women don’t like it. So harrowed they are that their demand for summary justice is finding traction in the public mind.

Then we have the most powerful person, also a woman, Sonia Gandhi, the virtual empress of India. She calls the shots, and yet, her supplicant home ministers dared to recommend clemency to the five rapists.

We also have Sushma Swaraj, the vocal Leader of Opposition in Parliament. The day the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which seeks to widen the definition of rape was introduced, she was embattled with a far heavier concern – Foreign Direct Investment. Once past that, there was no demand to even have a discussion on it. Hence it was not even listed for discussion.

Now, we suddenly have Sushma Swaraj demanding a special session of Parliament to discuss rape and punishments for rape. We also have seen her photographs in newspapers apparently wiping away a tear, moved by the tragedy that befell the 23-year-old rape victim.

Then we have a chunk of members of Parliament who together hold 11 percent of the total seats. They make statements but none of them have had the gumption to tell their respective party leaders that given the extent of crimes against women, they would not sit with the male members who have listed crimes against women in their election-time affidavits.

Like the refusal to sign the pardons by Pratibha Patil would have triggered a crisis, the women have the potential to trigger a huge response by being brave. But then, once elected, they answer to the party bosses and the voters are merely a distant statistic.

Then we have Sheila Dikshit, Delhi Chief Minister, who admits that women are unsafe in her city-state, that they do feel insecure, that she did not have the courage to face the victim in the hospital. That sounded very human, but it also betrayed how suddenly a woman wakes up to women’s daily horrors. For 11 years she could not persuade the Centre that women’s safety was a concern, not the protection of VIPs.

In the background we have other leaders, also chief ministers.

One is J Jayalalithaa, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister calls for death penalty and announces a 13-point plan to ensure women’s safety. She could have, being a woman, done this much before. It did not need the outcry from Delhi streets. Rapes are not rare in her state.

We have Mamata Bannerjee, West Bengal’s Chief Minister, who was seen as a Durga who killed the demon, the CPM, suddenly seeing a rape as a conspiracy to hurt her government. Thankfully, realising her folly, she has been silent, more or less.

These boil down to one fact. Simply because we have a representational democracy where you send your own kind to represent you, it does not mean they take up your cause. Once elevated to the ranks of the power elite they forget their own obligations to their own species. This is better understood by the plight of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

When India became a republic, it was mandated that most of the issues troubling the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes would be dealt with appropriately once they were given representation in law-making bodies, at 15 and 7.5 percent, in proportion to their size of the population. It was in education, in jobs, in politics. They remain mostly where they were.

Thus, having women in high places has not served the cause of the women. It may be argued that they have a much smaller share of representation that the share in population warranted.

Given the way the elected representatives at all levels see themselves, would 33 per cent share when the women number about half of the population, make a difference?

Not when you have politicians there. You need women there. Till then, the outrage now seen on the streets may get muted but would simmer. The Delhi protest, leaderless as it is, is an announcement that they don’t like the charade.

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