What explains the Indian political system’s stunning inability to come out and clearly defend women’s right to leave their home, navigate safe public places and go to work? A series of recent statements on women’s rights from politicians and leaders, especially from those who owe their allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, deserved a firm counterpoint — both from those within the Sangh’s affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who believe in economic growth and modernisation, and from those members of the political class with no ties to the Sangh. A senior minister in the BJP’s government in Madhya Pradesh, Kailash Vijayvargiya, declared that there was a “Lakshman rekha”, a line that women should not cross or else they would be subject to abduction, as Sita was in the Ramayana. Meanwhile, his party’s ideological mentor and the Sangh’s supreme leader, Mohan Bhagwat, said that rapes occur “in India, and not in Bharat”, a crude dismissal of the continuing caste-based assaults on women across north Indian villages. He then went on to explain that relationships between men and women were a contract, which women were capable of breaking, and losing the protection that they gained thereby.
Leaving aside the extremely dubious connection of these claims with facts, it is important to note that it shows the continuing inability of the Sangh and those who owe it allegiance to deal with the fact that much of urban India has taken on elements of what it calls “Western culture”, and made it authentically Indian. If it is Western to have women work, and to enter into equal relationships with men; to not see them as repositories of virtue or as having to meet impossible ethical standards; then much of India is Western already, and proud of it. Mr Vijayvargiya holds the industry portfolio in the Madhya Pradesh government. Many will wonder what sort of development he can promise industries in his state when he clearly imagines half its population is off limits as members of their workforce. Of course, instead of denouncing Mr Bhagwat’s regressive ideas, the BJP has strongly defended him, further denting their reformist credibility.
The BJP can take solace in the fact that not only have very few voices been raised in condemnation of these statements from across the political spectrum, but leaders in the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, and even the Left parties have all displayed streaks of misogyny of late. The backlash against female empowerment is clearly visible. It is odd, though, that few voices are strongly contradicting this view. After all, there are clear political benefits to identifying with the growing constituency that finds such views repugnant. Indeed, any party that believes in India’s growth story should ensure that social sanction for traditional gender roles is broken down. In India’s cities, only 26 per cent of women work; in China’s, the equivalent proportion is 65 per cent. The biggest spurt to growth in the East Asian miracle economies came from women joining the workforce. Reformist voices, economic and social, need to speak up more loudly on this subject.