In Hindu mythology, there is a monster called Bhasmasura. Whatever he touches is immediately reduced to cinder. But who could have thought that we would find such a Bhasmasura in the prime ministerial position today in India?
In Hindu mythology, there is a monster called Bhasmasura. Whatever he touches is immediately reduced to cinder. But who could have thought that we would find such a Bhasmasura in the prime ministerial position today in India? During the four years while this prime minister has been in office, not only has he broken all the promises that he had made through his massive pre-electoral media campaign, but he has destroyed whatever he has touched. Be it banking, be it agriculture, be it education, be it centre-state relations, be it food security, be it legal- constitutional safeguards for the people, be it inter-community harmony—name it, he has done his best to wreck it through his intervention. The mythical monster could not help doing what earned him his name; our prime minister and his ilk engage in destruction as a matter of conscious policy.
However, this is not a tirade against an individual Modi, because he is but a stooge of the forces that have made him what he is. We owe him in fact to imperialism as a global phenomenon, to crony capitalism, to the Ambanis and the Adanis and the Vijay Mallyas and the Nirav Modis of this world who needed a ‘NaMo’ to save them from crisis and to help them to suck the people dry. We owe him to the new politics of ‘India Shining’ of which he is just the figurehead. What is the insignia of this politics? Did it emerge suddenly in 2014 when Modi came to power? Or did we have earlier warnings of it?
It cannot be denied that this new politics had something to do with the changes that have been taking place in the political economy in our country from the 1990s. At that time, the Congress Government had succumbed to blackmail by international funding agencies and committed themselves to their prescriptions for economic development which, according to the latter, would enable us to hurtle into the 21st century. Willy-nilly we have reached the 21st century, but at what cost?
Even as the above-mentioned prescriptions were implemented, basic rights of our people won through hard battles were cut short, inequality between rich and poor intensified and the forces of retrograde unreason which had been kept in abeyance by some constitutional safeguards so far, reared their hydra-heads once again, putting Dalits, religious minorities, women and other vulnerable groups, in greater danger than ever. But even while admitting this longer history, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that a qualitative break in the political scenario took place in 2014.
The Congress (I), in spite of its sell-out to neo-liberalism, was unable to dismantle legal-constitutional structures with sufficient swiftness to allow global capital to have complete sway over the huge markets in India. But delay could not be tolerated in this and an alternative force which would allow this to happen by pulling out all stops was required. Modi and his party were ready to fill in the blank, even if that party and its guiding spirit RSS had done their best up to that time to split the Indian republic apart. A gigantic campaign, funded largely by corporate powers, was mounted to manipulate and mobilise dissatisfactions and disappointments of large sections of the people who had been led on the neo-liberal path in the earlier regime without being able to enjoy its promised fruits.
It was in the name of development and achche din that ‘Vikash Purush’ Modi led his party to an unprecedented electoral victory in 2014. The vote share remained at 31% however. Once in power, it was of course Modi’s mandate to ensure the absolute supremacy of neo-liberalism in the country. But even from day one, it had been ordained that he could only do so by destroying the democratic fabric of our Republic and through fascistic coercion and terror. It is not any ordinary bourgeois party, but only a force like RSS-BJP, of which Modi is the present face, that can achieve in India what the masters of the world are aiming at.
The extent of the devastation wreaked by him has not been calculated fully so far, but as he completes his fourth year in office, it seems to be a good time to go beyond the mere list of broken promises and take an account of the actual economic, political, social damage done in his regime. Let us not even try to imagine the whole picture, but keep ourselves confined to the Modi-effect on one particular segment of society: the women. Recall the basic objectives of AIDWA’s struggle inscribed on our banner: Equality, Democracy, Women’s Emancipation. These are the very targets of Modi’s engine of destruction.
Even as I sit writing this article, devastation is on. Go to any petrol station. The smiling face of the woman beneficiary of the ‘Ujjwala’ scheme whose dignity as a poor rural woman Modi is said to have retrieved, greets you everywhere. Recall that since she got the connection under the scheme, she has paid or has been paying in instalments Rs.1500 for the stove and one gas cylinder; the subsidy on the refill, out of which she has probably been paying this, has already been curtailed and its price has gone up at least by a whopping 20%. The latest hike is of Rs. 2.34. How is she going to save the much-hyped gas connection she has got?
Think of the latest breath-taking hike in prices of diesel and petrol. Kerosene, the poor man’s fuel, is no more protected from this vicious process. Even without recalling the plight of millions of poor families who are not covered under the above-mentioned scheme, suppose our Ujjwala beneficiary to be the wife or the mother of one of the millions of transport workers all over the country liable to lose their livelihoods as more and more buses and taxis are withdrawn as a result of the on-going hike in oil prices. Think also how that price-rise will affect the market-prices of all commodities that have to be transported. Does the scheme help her at all?
What use is fuel without something to cook on it? Our Ujjwala beneficiary will probably have to make cuts in the family budget on food or withdraw her daughter from the school to save her gas connection; perhaps she will have to pour out the last bit of her energy to earn more as a beedi-worker, a domestic worker or a part-time seamstress. What is subsidy for the poor if it is not compensation for inequity? But here we find only its mockery, which not just intensifies inequality, but projects it as an inevitable condition of our existence.
I have dwelt on this scheme because it was specially devised for women. But look at another much-hyped scheme, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the special significance of which for women is always emphasized in the campaign. I am not just referring to the fact that the declared target is far from being fulfilled, that even what appears on record is to some extent cooked up. I am referring to the fact that this was a scheme for the poor meant to address a need for access to basic amenities that might counter inequality and also to the fact that it was meant to release manual scavengers, men and women, from social inequity of the worst kind and give them option to other means of livelihood.
But what do we see? The ban on manual scavenging notwithstanding, over 300 people engaged in this job died in 2017 alone. The last budget allotted a measly 20 crores for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Attacks on Dalits all over the country have increased by 40% between 2012 and 2015, rapes of Dalit women from 1349 in 2010 to 2326 in 2015. Data from 2016 tells us that in 90% cases of crimes against Dalits and Adivasis no redress has been found. Even the Supreme Court seems to be bent on diluting the law for their protection. Is it a wonder then that manual scavengers, who are among the most deprived sections of the Dalits, should be cheated of the benefits of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? Is not the state itself committing a crime against them?
But this is not all. The poor whom the scheme is supposed to benefit, in particular women among them, are finding that it is being used as a rod to beat them with. They are being subjected to public shaming and ‘toilet vigilantism’ leading to the death at least of one man, because they did not have the means to install operational toilets at home. Moreover, for no fault of theirs, they are being quite illegally deprived in some states of free rice in PDS and of the right to contest elections for the same reason. Poor women of course are even more vulnerable than poor men in all these matters. Ironically, what should have given them greater equality is throwing them into the outer darkness of fear and indignity. Such is the Modi touch.
Equality and democracy are not unrelated. Ideally democracy helps to reduce inequality by providing inclusive opportunities, by decentralising power and resources and by relying on negotiations rather than force in governance. Never since Independence have we seen such blatant exclusionism, such arrogant concentration of power at the centre and so much use of force and fraud to retain power as in the Modi-regime. This is reflected in the fact that India is unparalleled today in the whole world in the speed at which the gap between the richest 1% and the poorest 70% has been growing. In 2014, the former had 49% of GDP under their control, which rose to 58.4% by 2016 and during the last year, to 73% of all additional wealth created in that year. The latter on the other hand, owned but 7% in 2016, half of what it had been in 2010.
How was this ‘achieved’? On one hand, we may say, by squeezing the poor to the maximum extent. In agriculture and related areas, which employ more than half our work-force, per capita real income came down by 2.02% between 2013-4 and 2017-8. In January 2018, agricultural wages were lowest in 3 years. By making the ‘Aadhar Card’ and biometric verification mandatory not just for banking but for various benefits like PDS and health services, large numbers of hungry and sick people were pushed out of the so-called ‘safety net’. Suicides of debt-trapped farmers, denied remunerative prices, increased by 42% in the first 3 years of Modi, 61.28% of this being in BJP-ruled states. And these things happened not by acts of omission, but acts of commission which violate the basic premises of participatory, inclusive democracy. And it is precisely to fulfil these objectives that all democratic institutions including the Parliament and even the judiciary also had to be weakened.
This weakening of democracy, particularly the centralisation of governance, again facilitated the other side of Modi’s ‘achievement’: the massive tributes the rich were allowed to garner. Corporate write-offs during Modi’s years in office amount to Rs. 2,39,082 crores. Even the de-monetisation move, initiated without any consultations, not only brought distress to petty producers and small traders, but allowed owners of black money an opportunity surreptitiously to launder it back into the open economy. Plans for recapitalisation of public sector banks, reeling under ‘bad debts’ incurred by corporates, were but devices to force their bailing-out by ordinary Indian depositors.
The Finance Bill was used as a cover to amend the FCRA, RBI Act, Income Tax Act and Representation of People Act without any reference to the Parliament, so that there might be free flow of corporate money into party coffers. Looting of land and other natural resources by predatory corporate capital, without any regard for rights of residents or environmental concerns, was freed of all checks. The recent opening of fire by the AIDMK Government on peaceful protesters against the Sterlite Copper Company in Tuticorin is entirely in tune with the above-mentioned general policy of their ally, the BJP.
Women cannot remain untouched by these rampant attacks on equality and democracy. At Tuticorin, women joined the protest; at least one even laid down her life. These attacks on all dissent affect them as women, but as exclusion and subversion of democracy hit different segments of the people, women feel it not only as women, but as Dalits, as Muslims, as Adivasis, as residents of Kashmir Valley or of Bastar. It is significant under these circumstances that even while deprivation and repression continues with respect to men and women in all such segments, the Government sees it fit to bring out, in 2016, a brand-new Policy for the Empowerment of Women. There could hardly be a more glaring instance of the Government’s bad faith.
‘Empowerment’ is a very safe word, having been in use for many years now in official documents at the national and the international level. But empowerment of any kind through government action implies a broadening of democracy and improved access to basic opportunities. We become aware of a gross disconnect with reality when the policy document speaks of increasing the outreach of schemes like Asha and ICDS, but adequate outlay is denied in the budget and efforts are on to destroy the ICDS system by handing them over to profit-greedy food-processing companies or ‘religious’ corporates; the policy document vows to implement the Right to Education Act for increased enrolment and retention of girl children, but in the meantime it is found that state-aided schools in thousands are being closed down in BJP-ruled states. Through UGC directives, access is being made more difficult for under-privileged students in centrally-funded universities. Growing student suicides say something about the vicious atmosphere prevailing within such institutions.
The document expresses concern about the declining labour force participation of women and ‘growing informalization’ of women’s work and promises to bring them into the formal economy; but how? By creating part-time jobs with ‘flexi-hours’ for women in the organized sector, so that more full-time jobs can be put into the back-burner and less needs to be paid in wages. Isn’t this proposal on a par with the other more recent plan to replace permanent jobs by ‘fixed-term’ appointments? The document talks of more jobs for women in the IT sector when in reality this sector is already hit by acute job-loss. It talks of enhancing nutrition to women of all ages even while women are actually being thrown outside the food security net in millions by Government dictats.
In the document there is talk of 33% reservation for women in Parliament and assemblies and 50% in panchayats; this seems quite shameless when we consider that the Government has deliberately sidelined the Reservation Bill over the last 4 years; additionally, women’s participation in panchayats in BJP-ruled states is being jeopardized by introduction of unconstitutional conditions like having operational toilets! The policy says, women’s rights must be recognized under the Forest Rights Act, but the Government in the meantime is diluting the Act arbitrarily to benefit contractors and land-sharks!
In policy, everything will be done to strengthen social security and availability of pensions, subsidies, crèches, hostels, shelter homes etc. In practice, budgetary support for all this is being severely curtailed! The document talks of correcting child sex ratio imbalance by implementation of PCPNDT Act and awareness generation; but the latest data show a dip in CSR in 17 out of 21 states, knocking the bottom out of government claims about the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padao’ scheme. On paper, there is much talk of taking steps to monitor investigation agencies to effectively curb crimes against women, in practice the government is diluting 498A, and slashing funds meant for prevention and redress. The much-bruited Nirbhaya funds lie largely unutilised. What I want to emphasize here again is that the gap between the document and the reality does not just consist in failure to fulfil promises, but it is villainous double-talk, hypocrisy of the worst kind, feeding on brute majority and unconstitutional power-play. That it gets further fortified by the immense hegemonic power of corporate media can be seen with bare eyes even without referring to the Cobrapost.
We have always highlighted emancipation of women more than empowerment. How do we perceive the difference between the two? As we see it, the latter allows those who have remained under-privileged for a long time to have more opportunities to participate in the system. But emancipation enables them to participate actively in changing the unequal system itself. However, in the last 4 years, we have been witnessing the system changing from above rather than below as a result of which the change is towards retrogression, ironing out whatever possibility there had been within it to ensure even empowerment through the broadening of participatory democracy. Emancipation recedes to the distance as fear and fraud reign, and the government itself promotes unreason.
I am not just thinking here of those in governmental seats of power bluffing about the miraculous advances made by science and technology in ‘Hindu’ India and challenging Darwin. I am rather raising alarm about the fact that similar people are occupying seats of power in almost all national and state institutions, even universities and research bodies which are supposed to enjoy some autonomy; that they are themselves sponsoring educational and research institutions; that the Yamuna plains are being destroyed with impunity by a great ‘guru’ today in the name of holding a cultural programme; that even Adityanath of UP is finding a match in Baba Ramdev, whom he, as Chief Minister, must keep happy; that thugs like Ram Rahim of Dera Saccha Sauda and Asharam Bapu are allowed to grow and flourish until the rot becomes too evident to cover.
Some people have been under the illusion that this time BJP having come to power by highlighting the agenda of development, they would play down the RSS slogan of making a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ of India, since that would mean retracting from the objective of building a supra-modern state moving on the path of development. But even if we rarely find RSS-BJP opposing global modernity in the name of ‘swadeshi’ ideals these days, their use of religion as a political weapon to dominate, discriminate and divide raising the cry of ‘Hindu Nationalism’ has reached new levels of sophistication. It is not as if the Congress had never played the religious card for political purposes when they had been in power. But by constructing the Muslim as the satanic ‘other’, the RSS-BJP forces have ensured that the model of development upheld by them remains exclusive, inequitable and oppressive as the neo-liberal model has to be. Women, dalits, adivasis are but the sites on which this model is tested out.
The Kathua case demonstrates the monstrous consequences of this. The communal angle is glaring here. A female child of the minority community is brutally attacked and killed with the purpose of frightening away the members of the entire community from their usual grazing-grounds. In some basic ways, it is reminiscent of the ‘Gujrat-model’ of 2002, when murder, arson, rape and mayhem were used to oust affluent Muslim traders in Ahmedabad and other cities from their traditional position of influence, although in the Kathua case, the affected community, even as such, is economically and socially deprived.
The state makes the best effort to cover it up, a section of educated votaries of ‘Hindutva’ publicly support the accused and it is only national outrage that enables the case even to come to Court. Victims of the Gujrat carnage are still fighting for justice, how can quick justice be ensured to the wronged of Kathua? Attack on a girl-child of a minority community, intensifying the atmosphere of terror, is part of the same story as increasing fake encounter deaths in UP, so-called ‘cow-vigilantism’, legal interventions banning or restricting cattle trade, detention of innocent Muslim youth on false charges and on the other hand, release of members of Hindutva outfits charged with acts of terrorism. Can Modi, by remaining silent, wipe out the complicity of the state in all these?
The Modi-government is now targeting women of the Muslim community in yet another subtly different way. Women’s organisations like AIDWA and organisations of progressives within Muslim society had been agitating for the banning of instant triple talaq for quite some time. Recently, on the basis of a case lodged in the Apex Court, an order in favour of this demand was issued. Modi’s government immediately appropriated the results of this long movement as their own credit and proceeded to set themselves up as the saviours of Muslim women from Islamic fundamentalism. This was done specifically to marginalise progressives within Muslim society and also to isolate and demonise the Muslim community as a whole, to inspire a self-righteous mood among Hindus encouraging them to mobilise against Muslims.
The hypocrisy of such crocodile-tears being shed for Muslim women becomes fully evident when we observe the anomaly in the treatment meted out by this government to non-Muslim women in the country. There are millions of such women who are in the same plight as the victims of triple talaq, having been deserted and left destitute by their husbands. Is Hindu society today so very enlightened that in the last 4 years no move needed to be made to ensure marital property rights for Hindu women too? Horrors of rising communal and caste fundamentalism within Hindu society are revealed in growing incidents of honour crimes in Modi’s 4 years (79% rise just in one year, 2014-2015). If Modi is a champion of women’s causes, how is it that he has not moved a finger to bring in stringent legal measures against such crimes? How is it that his henchmen keep on mouthing words of praise for caste-based khap panchayats? How is it that his law minister responds to a women’s delegation demanding such a law with the words that it is likely to be misused by women in the same manner as, according to him, they ‘misuse’ 498A of IPC?
Certainly, nobody would claim that even from earlier years, the rising trend in crimes against women had not been noted. Nor would anyone say that all such crimes are being perpetrated by persons associated with RSS-BJP, although even such direct links may be detected in many cases. But it is not a pure coincidence that between 2012 -15 there was 34% increase in crimes against women with the largest share coming from BJP-ruled states and TMC-ruled West Bengal, and that in the single year 2016-17, there was 2.9% increase again. In the same year, there was 13.6% increase in crimes against children and 83% increase in child rape. Recent moves to impose death penalty for child rape only indicate efforts to cover up the complete neglect of necessary measures to ensure proper investigation, speedy trial, increased conviction and full re-integration into society of the rape survivor. The failure of justice in such cases is aggravated in Modi’s regime by severe ideological regression.
The ideology propagated by the Sangh Parivar which dominates BJP regards women to be naturally subservient or fit to be empowered only when they are being mobilised against the ‘enemy’; through promotion of prejudices relating to ‘purity of blood’ or ‘the need to produce male children’, women come to be set up as essentially degraded creatures who must be kept on leash and be punished if that fails. Crimes against women are bound to increase when the retrograde patriarchal desire to control or to punish them is allowed to run loose. The failure of justice mentioned earlier is but a reflection of this ideological backtracking which contradicts not just the Constitution, but all traditions of rational thought in our country. RSS-linked bodies like Arogya Bharati are allowed to preach their obscurantist ‘Garbh-Vigyan’ professing to help women produce ‘quality babies’ having the desired sex. On the other hand, the myth of ‘love jihad’ is propagated creating anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit paranoia.
Muslims can only remain in India when they have been brought to their knees. Women, Dalits, Adivasis have to be subjugated and Hinduised before one can even talk about their basic rights. Does Modi’s public vaunting about development or his silence at appropriate moments indicate that he has moved away even one inch from this repeatedly announced fascistic RSS agenda in all these 4 years? No. This is because he is confident that in order to fulfil the agenda his masters have set for him the cult of hatred, the cult of absolute authority and the cult of unreason are actually weapons at his command.
Nationalistic fanaticism based on religion, caste, gender, ethnicity can be used both to mobilise and to isolate in order to push though that agenda. Modi’s real enemies then are rational thinking and progressive ideology. Pansare, Davolkar, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh are his enemies, as are Marxists. But so far as we are concerned, our highest goal, that is, the emancipation of women can only be reached through the agency of rational progressive thinking. This alone can counteract the fanaticism that is tearing us apart and lead us back to the discourse of equality and participatory democracy and thence to a change in the social-economic system from below. Anything less will not do.
In the last few months, Modi’s aura has diminished to some extent. His dreams of setting up a RSS-BJP empire from one end of India to another has received some severe electoral jolts as regional and national parties, paying heed to the rumblings of disaffection from below, have succeeded in patching up their differences and presenting something like a unified position against the BJP in some of the states. Even BJP’s short-term success in fomenting communal trouble and horse-trading is not yielding sufficient results in the long run. The question of what will happen in the 2019 parliamentary elections is looming large in everybody’s mind. Modi’s return is no longer an absolute certainty.
However, a patched-up formation of disparate political forces may prevent Modi and BJP from getting a second term in office, but it is certainly not enough to undo the massive damage of the last 4 years that we have tried to indicate here. Those who have made this damage an occasion for their own higher profit will find other agents to do their dirty work unless we can ensure that anti-BJP political forces are united by a common commitment to repair the damage done to the people of our country, to the poor, to Dalits, to Adivasis, to minorities and of course to women in all these segments of the population.