February-March  2004 
Year 10    No.96

Cover Story

Why women should not vote for the BJP

From the brutal targeting of minority women in communal violence to betraying the cause of women in general where the Women’s Reservation Bill is concerned, the BJP dominated NDA rule since 1999 has cynically marginalised women and gender-related issues


What distinguishes the BJP from every other political party is its intrinsic links with the RSS and its common aim of a Hindu Rashtra. This has a specific impact on women in addition to the threat posed to the existence of a multicultural society like India. Firstly, there is a very specific role assigned to women in the concept of the Hindu Rashtra as defined in numerous RSS publications. The core of this understanding is that the primary role of women is as a mother, preferably of sons, the ideal Hindu family being defined as Shiva Parvathi and their two sons. The role of women as workers, as public-minded, independent citizens is completely negated. Nor is this just at the plane of ideology. Being in government and in control of State power, the BJP has tried to translate this into practice in numerous ways.

Even the India Shining campaign of lies by the government was not up to the task of making claims of how much it had done for women so shameful has its record been as far as gender issues are concerned.

Targeting women in communal violence

There have been thousands of incidents of communal violence in the history of independent India. But the communal carnage in Modi’s Gujarat was unprecedented not only because for two months the State initiated, organised and carried out the most savage attacks on the minority community but also because the violence very specifically targeted women through killings, sexual assault, stripping, beating, using filthy and obscene abuse and through public humiliation. The understanding of the sangh parivar as is the understanding of all fundamentalist and communal forces, is that women are the property of the community, the repository of its "izzat" and thus to assault and humiliate women of the community is the greatest insult to the community and the best way to teach it a "lesson". In inciting communal hatred against the Muslims, the sangh parivar also spread the most atrocious lies that women of the majority community had been attacked. Thus women were targeted both directly and indirectly. The rape and murder of women was followed by a complete subversion of the processes of justice leading even the Supreme Court to indict the Modi government asking it to quit if it should not bring the murderers and rapists to justice. However, the Prime Minister and his government, who were quick to send so-called investigation teams to inquire into the reported breakdown of law and order in opposition ruled states like West Bengal and Bihar, went out of its way to defend the Modi government. Moreover, the attack on minorities is not limited to Gujarat. After the Uma Bharati government was sworn in, there has been a spate of violent attacks on the Christian community in the tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh, including Jhabua. In Orissa, the Bajrang Dal has only recently tonsured seven women, all poor Dalit Christians, because they refused to reconvert to Hinduism on the dictates of the Dal. The attacks on minority rights are accompanied by efforts to disrupt women’s unity for social advance by inciting Hindu women against minority women in the name of religion. This helps maintain the exploitative economic and social status quo. Thus the greatest barrier to women’s advance is the ideology, the policies and practice of the sangh parivar backed BJP and not all its newfound rhetoric of women’s empowerment can hide this reality.

Women’s Reservation Bill

This government and the Prime Minister are personally responsible for the failure to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. For the first time in parliamentary history, the government received written letters of support from the main opposition parties for the passage of the Bill. Yet the government not only refused to put it to vote, it came up with the most insulting formula as a so-called alternative. It suggested that the 180 seats to be reserved for women should be converted into double-member constituencies – as though women are not capable of taking care of a constituency independently. In the name of lack of consensus, the ruling party used the vocal opposition of a handful of MPs to sabotage the Bill. There was no consensus on POTA or any number of laws that the government pushed through. But double standards were used for the Women’s Reservation Bill. On numerous occasions, the Prime Minister personally assured women’s organisations and women MPs that he would put the Bill to vote but when the time came he abdicated from his responsibility of putting the Bill to vote and passed the buck to the Speaker.

Budgeting women out

Successive budgets of the Vajpayee government have shown lack of concern for women. Price rise of essential commodities including foodgrains, sugar, edible oil apart from the hikes in diesel prices which have led to an all-round increase in prices, have played havoc with family budgets. Women have had to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Cuts in social sector spending and privatisation also affect women most of all, such as charging of high user fees for what should be essential government services such as water supplies, sanitation, medical services, schools. Privatisation of the health and education sector have had a very negative impact. In the budget, government expenditure on what are known as women specific schemes has been coming down. In three years of the Vajpayee government from 1999 to 2002, the percentage of expenditure on women related schemes to total public expenditure came down from 1.02 per cent to 0.94 per cent, to a meagre 0.87 per cent. Whereas the government has enough money for its advertising campaign calculated at over Rs. 500 crore, the entire expenditure for economic services for women, that is, for income generating activities was just Rs. 153.70 crore. Even money for the so-called women’s empowerment model of micro-credit savings group was cut by the government when the nodal agency, namely the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh budget was slashed from a low of Rs. 3 crore to just Rs. 1 crore. Shamefully, the per capita nutritional support for mid-day meal schemes for children was cut to under Rs. 6 per month. The per capita expenditure on elementary education has also seen cuts with less money being spent on girls than boys. The only scheme under any ministry that received a big increase in real terms was the Family Planning ministry, to promote the government’s anti-women coercive population policies.

Attack on women’s economic rights and on working women

Ø The period of the Vajpayee government has seen the most intensified assault on women’s economic rights thereby further devaluing women’s status. The rate of employment for women has come down drastically in the last decade from around eight per cent to less than two per cent. In the last three years it has come down even further. The limited jobs available for women in the IT or service sector have been little compensation for the massive loss of jobs in the government and public sector, which are the biggest employers of women. Not only is there a ban on recruitment in these sectors, but women are forced to accept retirement, making it the largest involuntary retirement scheme. In the banking industry alone, more than 45,000 women have lost their jobs. Under the Vajpayee government, the most gender discriminatory scheme is being implemented in the coal industry with more than 9,000 women being retrenched. In some of the private sector industries in the export zones where women work, such as food processing, garments or electronics, work conditions have worsened with the Vajpayee government virtually suspending labour laws. In spite of the Supreme Court guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace, the government has refused to bring in appropriate legislation.

Ø The worst affected have been the poor rural women and landless women, the large majority of whom are Dalit and Adivasi women. Hunger and increased poverty has led to a big increase in trafficking in women and girl children. This is a direct result of the sharp decrease in workdays in agriculture and the utter failure of the government to provide jobs to rural women. Even as the Vajpayee government refused to enact the national minimum agricultural workers minimum wage bill, women are forced to work with unequal wages. Leave alone the meagre pittance they get from landlords in most parts of India, even in central government projects women are working for less than the minimum wage and getting at least one-third less than men for similar work. There is a huge increase in rural unemployment among women. Far from ensuring that at least 30 per cent of workdays created in government schemes should be guaranteed for women, government assessments themselves admit that women got less than 15 per cent of the greatly reduced workdays created. As a result of unemployment and food insecurity caused by the central government bankrupt food policies, the health of poor rural women has further declined with over 80 per cent women in the reproductive age group in rural India suffering from anaemia and over 70 per cent from malnutrition.

Ø The largest number of women work in the unorganised sector yet, in spite of ILO recommendations, the government has refused to bring any protection for the millions of women in this sector. Pushed out of the organised sector, more and more women are forced into casual, daily or home based work with no minimum wage guarantees. Women who form a majority of workers in the bidi sector, the handloom sector and many other traditional sectors have been worst hit by liberalisation policies followed by the government, which have thrown these industries into a spiralling crisis. Cynically, to cover up its failure on this issue, it has announced an insurance scheme for workers in the unorganised sector but without budgeting for the necessary funds. Thus it is nothing but a hoax.

Attitude to violence against women

Ø The BJP supports and promotes backward practices and violence against women in the name of tradition as in the Roop Kanwar sati murder case in Rajasthan. BJP leaders who were accused of glorifying the case include newly elected MLAs and leaders of the youth morcha of the BJP. Extending patronage to them, the present BJP government in Rajasthan has refused to appeal against the recent shameful verdict of the so-called special court, which has challenged the very basis of the anti-sati legislation, exonerating all the accused. Thus the present BJP leadership has put its seal of approval on widow murder in the name of sati tradition.

Ø The last five years have seen a 15 per cent increase in atrocities against women, mainly in cases of domestic violence. Yet the government introduced a Bill that set a world record because it was not actually a prevention of domestic violence Bill but its definitions were such as to be a protection of domestic violence bill. It was the only such Bill in the world that actually provided loopholes for the perpetrators in the name of self-protection. It also considered domestic violence a crime only if it could be proved to be habitual. This, of course, is well in tune with the ideological understanding of the RSS, of the subordinate woman who must "adjust" to being beaten so as to preserve the ideal "Hindu" family! After strong protests from women’s organisations and Left MPs, a Select Committee of Parliament was set up to redraft the Bill but even its limited recommendations were not accepted and the government preferred not to have any legal measures to prevent domestic violence.

Ø The Law Commission had made many important recommendations pointing to the need for a reform in the laws on sexual violence and more particularly against child sexual abuse. Today almost half of all cases of rape are against minors yet India is one of the few countries that have no special laws to deal with such terrible cases against children. At a time when such violence is increasing, the BJP refused to take any measures for legal reform. On the contrary, even private members Bills moved by Left MPs on this issue went unheeded.

Ø The retrograde attitude towards women has also been clearly revealed in the current moves of the HRD Ministry to sabotage the Women’s Studies programmes in colleges and universities that have played a positive role in sensitising academics to the pioneering role of women in various fields, which have been ignored by mainstream social studies syllabi. To further its backward understanding denying women an independent identity, the proposal is to rename Women’s Studies as Family Studies and to shift the focus away from analysis of gender discrimination. Another example has been some of the outrageous formulations added in new textbooks in social studies that decry women’s legal rights as the reason why families are being destroyed. This is the formulation made in a textbook authored by BJP-appointed writers in Uttar Pradesh.

Anti-women population policies

Ø Whereas the government has no money to invest in the health and education of women, it has increased its expenditure on population control policies. The National Population Policy, which was adopted as a result of women’s struggles against anti-women population policies, was a welcome step in the right direction against coercive methods of fulfilling population quotas. However, in practice, the government has continued quota driven policies and has encouraged state governments to put in place coercive population policies that punish the poor for their poverty. The central government has supported the coercive measures to deny poor people the right to stand for elections to panchayats if they have more than three children. This at a time when the infant mortality rate among the poorer sections like Dalits and Adivasis and rural poor is as high as between 82 and 85 for every 1,000 children born in areas where they live. The national infant mortality rate is still as high as 72.

The big decrease in sex ratios in the 0-6 year group as revealed in the last census from 945 females for every 1,000 males in 1991 to 927 females to every 1,000 males in 2001, should have been a red alert for the government to take emergency measures at every level, social, political and economic to ensure that this extremely disturbing phenomenon could be checked. Instead, the current population policies and the pattern of so-called development sans social and gender justice are only accelerating the elimination of the girl child through female foeticide.

At the same time, under the liberalised regime, the Vajpayee government has allowed the import and sale of hazardous contraceptives that are being promoted through the government health sector. In addition, in a shocking and highly objectionable move, the Vajpayee government has permitted multinational corporations to go in for clinical trials of their drugs using poor Indians, men and women, as guinea pigs. This step is extremely detrimental for the health of our people.

It is not as if Indian women had made great gains under other bourgeois regimes in the past. But what has happened during the six years of BJP rule is not only an intensification of previous forms of exploitation and oppression as a result of liberalisation policies but also a communalisation of the polity, which has had the worst impact on women. In such a situation, criminal and lumpen elements flourish, further polluting the security environment as far as women are concerned.

Clearly, the six years of BJP rule have negatively impacted on women’s rights, leading to further disempowerment. The elections provide women the opportunity to make the government, the ruling party and its allies accountable to women and to make them pay for their broken pledges.

Vote the BJP and its allies out – Save Women’s Rights! n

(Brinda Karat is general secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association, AIDWA).


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