“I’m unable to have that sense of feeling safe about my daughter as much as my parents had for me”

8 March 2013 | by The Petticoat Journal | NEW DELHI

Her punctuality would of course have contributed to her success, a bit, if not much, in a country where we forget to appreciate punctuality because we are never there to notice. As the clock struck the scheduled hour of our meeting, I wondered, “The countdown begins!”. But the stopwatch stopped at zero! Nirmala Sitharaman, national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was right there with a vibrant “Hi!” dot at the appointed time. For a change, my interview with a dignitary was going to start without the “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long” ‘un’pleasantries.


In the hour that followed, she shared her “sense of feeling unsafe” for her daughter, her fears about days like International Women’s Day fading away into tokenism and stressed on the point that we are not expecting a Golden Age where women are worshiped while men are subservient. Draupadi and Sita had their share of traumas at the hands of men. But saying that “Oh God! The way he (Lord Rama) his wife! I hate that man!” would not be appropriate.” Here’s why:


Shruti Kohli: Recently, we have suddenly seen the country become loud and aggressive about issues affecting women. You were a member of the National Commission for Women (2003-05). Do you think that even then these voices were as intense only that they were under the surface?

Nirmala Sitharaman: It has always been intense and it has always dominated women activists. It certainly was in the minds of leaders, particularly women leaders, of all parties even then as it is now. But the difference between then and now, as I see it, is because of the nature of the crime. Other than the very horrendous rape, it was barbaric and with the media also equally showing the barbaric nature of the recent incident I think the sense of outrage brought people together.


Shruti: But haven’t we seen worse cases?
Nirmala: Yes, of course. There is a pattern in which the reporting of such incidents is done and the way in which media sustains the pressures on these issues.  Today, there is a greater possibility of getting public opinion crystalised at some point. May not be comparable, but I will still take this example as I want to explain this methodology that I am talking about. The Lokpal agitation, much before the Aam Aadmi Party was formed, Lokpal agitation of 2011-12, was a classic case. We all know that the country has been waiting for the Lokpal Bill for over 40 years. Every now and then it has appeared in the Parliament. Every now and then, because of the nature of big ticket corruption people were asking is this now going to be the order of the day. Is there no way of controlling.


Then, with the media, particularly the electronic media, sustaining the pressure through a complete 24X7 visualisation of how more and more people and also people from different cities clamouring for some kind of action. All this brings in an immediate impact on decision makers. And it takes it to the maximum level that is in the case of Lokpal Bill, it took it to the Parliament. In the Delhi rape case, it went to the extent of the government forming the Verma committee. So, to the extent that it can push it to the frontier point after which it becomes the institutions which will have to respond.


The role of sustained campaign by the media together with public outcry all of them bring the whole thing into such sharp focus. Therefore in this particular pattern, the media and its role has been the catalyst which was absent earlier. Print media has always been there. It’s even now active. They’ve continued the campaign. But the impact of print in one-dimensional. You read it, you understand it and you mull over it and then probably respond. The impact of electronic media is the picture. The all-pervasive kind of imagery. It has a lingering and lasting impact.


Shruti: What’s your party’s reaction to the recent post-rape protests?
Nirmala: It was a very very watershed moment for India. The party recognises how a movement without a leader as it were, could gather momentum, could sustain itself, could express the discomfort with the laid back approach of the government. Therefore it’s a very important milestone in the way in which our democracy is maturing. Our party has taken it very seriously. And of course we’ve participated and gave our input to the Verma committee.


Shruti: Do you think the Justice Verma committee report has been taken seriously enough?
Nirmala: It is being taken seriously but in patches. They are probably not taking it in entirety. They wanted to show that they were responding immediately by bringing in the ordinance. The Parliament is still waiting to hear about the Verma committe report. It is expected and it is due and I think it’s only appropriate that the committee’s reports and recommendations be discussed in the Parliament.


Shruti: The BJP does not support the marital rape provision. Why?
Nirmala: We are looking at it as to what impact it is going to have on the family. Women are put to severe trauma in a family but not in every case is the trauma or the complaint of the woman devoid of family’s inputs. It’s a matrix where the woman is part of the family and some members of which are aggressive on her. The entire family is not after her. There can be some members who are against her. There maybe one or two members of the family who may have violated her. We don’t want this provision to cause a complete disruption of the family as a unit itself.


We are cautious of the fact that it might disrupt or cause further damage to the interest of the woman if the entire family itself is, at one stroke, held responsible. So, we have to be sure as to how far it will impact that’s why we have reservations.


Shruti: Then what about the women who are in such situations?
Nirmala: It is still possible to use the existing law to seek justice for the woman without bringing in this dimension of marital rape which, if used, can completely throw families out of the system. In the process of protecting the woman, which is right, in the process of giving justice to the woman which is only right again, we cannot afford to hit at the family as an institution because a family gives a certain sense of security to anybody not just a woman. Therefore, we want to be a bit more cautious about it.


Shruti: What has it been like for you as a woman to grow to this position in a party like BJP which is generally seen as a conservative party?
Nirmala: Actually, I think the perception is completely baseless. If anything, BJP has been far more accommodative of women, BJP has been far more encouraging of women, in that we were the first ones to give 33 per cent reservation in all the organisational posts to women. Much before the Congress party, which is otherwise considered to be liberal and progressive, even thought of it, BJP has implemented it. In fact, my presence in this party, thanks to the 33 percent reservation, otherwise I wouldn’t have found a place in the party. In 2008, party took a conscious decision in its national executive to give 33 per cent positions to women. And that is not just at the top level. It applies from the grassroots level, from the panchayat level, to the national executive level. It was a conscious decision of the BJP. So, that’s one. Second …it is seen as a conservative party! I have not come across any such situation.


The communists, who have taken the entire contract on being liberal and progressive, had a fight five years ago on the issue of having women in the polit-bureau. Brinda Karat found a place for herself in the politbureau after a rigorous fight. Politbureau, the highest decision making body within the party had to have their own cadre member, who has significantly done much for the party, fight and demand for a role! Is that a very progressive party?


Come to Congress. You’ve had all sorts of nonsense spoken about women by top leaders of Congress. Women have been murdered by Congress ministers. Rajasthan is a classic case. Women still don’t have many positions in Congress in spite of it being headed by a lady. Very progressive!


So, I think in this country we have been living comfortably on perceptions which have no basis. We’ve reached a stage where I think we have to look at hitting at certain reinforced saturated images of parties.
Tell me why don’t they want to bring the bill on women’s reservation? We were the first ones to support it in the Rajya Sabha. You saw the ugly scenes which were created by smaller regional parties. They are the alliance partners of UPA. Why were they not able to convince them?


We supported and in spite of heavy odds, it was passed in the RS. But now they are not bringing it in! And every March 8, I am giving statements like “No, no we are there but Congress is not doing it.” Yesterday, the cabinet had a meeting. They had lots of discussions on pending bills. Women’s reservation bill was not even discussed! Now that it is passed in the RS, you have only one year to go before the election, bring it, we are there with you. Your alliance partners themselves are against you on this. You are not able to convince them on this. And what was that tokenism …’we’ve given a woman speaker’…’earlier the President was a woman’? What’s this? Tokenism is important because you do need to place women in important places. That’s good! But you are not moving forward on this! This, in spite of Pratibha Patil’s speech that within 100 days we will do something about it. 100 days? Entire term is over!


Shruti: What about the BJP-ruled states? How would you look at them when it comes to women’s safety and empowerment?
Nirmala: With an exception of Gujarat, most states don’t give you the sense of security you need as a woman. West Bengal! Till about a few months back, you must have heard about quite a few attacks on women. This state, which is otherwise considered a totally progressive state seeing women as saints, is also having problems. If after 30 years of Left rule, it should have become progressive it should be behaving that way today even. So, speak about human nature, just because it’s a BJP ruled state people become backward and traditional or anything else, doesn’t work. In a larger context, women are in general, wherever you go in the country, there is a sense of increasing violence against women. But some cities have a far more aggressive kind of way.


It maybe petty nuisance or what maybe broadly defined as teasing, but in general, our urban places have become completely intolerant of women. This has to be prevented and after that if there is more crime, you have to have very clear, firm prosecution and quick conviction happening otherwise there will be no deterrent to prospective misbehaving men. It’s time now for actually putting more resources in place. Have more policewo/men, fast track courts, be sure that the moment a case is reported, whether the woman goes to the police station and files FIR or not, the police should immediately take action. You can’t expect a violated woman, carrying her trauma with her, to go the police station to file a report. The case should be passed quickly to a fast track court. These should be automated processes otherwise you are just going to have “Oh! Nobody complained” kind of an answer.


Shruti: What’s the difference between your upbringing and that of your daughter?
Nirmala: Well, I never lived in metropolitan towns. I lived in what’s called tier-II towns, district headquartered to a large extent. At that time there was a lot more confidence in our parents about our safety. So, we could use a lot more spaces for ourselves whether it is public space or moving around with your friends or going to colleges. There was a lot more sense of “No, she has to go.” But now, whether it’s metropolitan or any other town, although I will not stop my daughter from going anywhere, but I’ll keep monitoring “where are you?” “how long will it take for you to reach home?” which I think is a bit retrograde but I have no answers for it. I am unable to have that “sense of feeling safe” about my daughter as much as my parents had for me. But I think in spite of that, she is a lot stronger than what I was at her age. And I see most of her classmates and friends also showing that sense of camaraderie that “we have to protect our home, our friends and other people.” There’s a greater sense of responsibility among youngsters now.


Shruti: Today is International Women’s day. Any message?
Nirmala: (Nods for a ‘no’) … (pause) Last year’s and this year’s Women’s Day doesn’t seem any different. Or even the one before it doesn’t seem any different from this year. I’m worried that even these days are becoming very symbolic. Just token days. We have to account for what is being done. We have to account for how each one of us is contributing towards it. Systematically, with certain regularity, we seem to be celebrating International Women’s Day. So, at the end of the day you feel that the intensity with which all of us felt and wanted to make sure that something is done for women. Since 1975, when the International Conference for Women, Beijing, was organised, we are talking the same things.


I will give you are very to the point observation. Phulrenu Guha* documented a report in which the status of women was recorded. That report was the basis on which the National Commission for Women was formed and Government of India started doing a lot of activities. I took that report a few days ago just to see where we stand from then. It’s a very actual report, very threadbare account of the status of women then. The Government of India went on a very big way to form commissions, ministries and see how the department will be energised and so on. But, the issues with which the status of women in India in different parts were described, if I have to do so, I will probably do the same description even today.


I’m not saying that no progress has been made. We have made some progress there’s no doubt. But in India, we have situations like committees were formed for police reforms but no reforms really happened. Lokpal! Did we do anything on it? In panchayats in some states, women representatives are now not just 33 per cent but 50 per cent because they are performing well and all states thought it fit to have greater representation given to women at the panchayat level and also at the municipal corporation level and local bodies level. You have 50 percent women now. But their hands are tied because financial allocation which was also part of the 73rd Amendment Act, has not been evolved. We’ve not allocated resources directly to them. Directly in the sense that at some stage they should have the authority to decide on how to use the money they have for themselves. They are elected representatives but they are waiting for their money to come from somewhere else.


So I’m talking about Phulrenu Guha’s report on the status of women in India, I’m talking of subsequently 73rd Amendment Act coming through, subsequently enhancing women’s reservation from 33 per cent to 50 percent in local elected bodies. Progress has been made. But where the crunch lies, we’ve not done anything. We are not giving them financial autonomy nor are we talking about many other issues which matter to women like security, policing, preventing violence against women, making sure convictions happen in case of crimes against women.


Even as we are talking of all this, you will have a section of society including political leaders, saying 498A (Dowry) should become a bailable offence. What’s that? 498A is a very important IPC section which when invoked will lead to the arrest of those complained against the moment the complaint is filed because it’s a non-bailable offence. There is a section of a society which says that it is being misused, to what extent I cannot elaborate, and hence it should be made bailable. This is an attempt to dilute those few provisions that as woman has as a strong weapon to protect herself from further violence and to seek justice. So, there is a confusing signal coming out in this regard.


There are fantastic lot of women in India. Not just this generation, but earlier generations also, who have done brilliant pioneering work in their own fields. So, notwithstanding what I have said, I still think India is a fantastic country for women. We may have had information of such horrific incidents of violence against women, which we are working to curb, but  we must notice those women who have done fantastic work in urban areas, rural areas, whether they are educated or uneducated. They maybe uneducated women but they have had fantastic ideas about how to start a cooperative with women and make a success of it.
So, as a country to project that men are all waiting to rape a woman, may also not be fair. At the same time, to think that women are only cribbers and losers and they want only protection and security all the time because we hear some men say that, is not fair. We must also show where successes of women lie.


Understood, that we have had Draupadi and Sita who were treated badly. But let us not forget that it is the same culture which is stating it without hiding, doesn’t put things under the carpet. Their behaviours have been completely captured in words. Actually, it’s like a pendulum. It’s not that you are going to have a Golden Age where women will all be worshipped and men are just going to be subservient. No. We don’t want that either. We want a system where everyone has their own space, everyone is given their due. Each yuga has had its own compulsions. Each character… let’s look at Purushottama (Rama), he also had his own compulsions in his era as a king. We cannot take anything out of context and say, “Oh God! The way he treated his wife! I hate that man!” You can’t say that. You may not be privy to his decision making. Although the narrator tells you what Dharma he followed and why he did that.


So, there is no Golden Age that we are looking at even in the future. As long as human beings live, all these violations, abiding by certain norms, religions, respect, all these qualities will intermingle. We have to be prepared for it. But at the same time we have to make sure that the transgressions of rights come down, sanity prevails and restore some order with which everybody feels “yes, I’m safe.” We can’t really think there is an extremely purist world for women towards which we have to march with our fist held high.


Shruti: What do you think about initiatives like The Petticoat Journal?
Nirmala: Such a platform was much-awaited and needed. I’m glad that someone should have started such a journal. I really wish all the luck to The Petticoat Journal.


In 1973, the central government headed by PM Indira Gandhi, set up a broad-based Status of Women committee, chaired by Phulrenu Guha. The committee submitted its report, Towards Equality, to the government in 1974.



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