New Parliament Defiled by Inaction on Sexual Harassment

T K Arun

Failure to keep affairs of the state and religion apart carries the risk of prejudicing the already arduous struggle for equality and gender justice.

Monday’s cartoon by EP Unny in the Indian Express compares the geometry of the new Parliament building with that of Jantar Mantar, for long the national capital’s favourite protest site. The juxtaposition is more than appropriate, given the recent developments. Even as the new Parliament building was being inaugurated, women wrestlers and their supporters protesting against alleged sexual harassment were roughed up and their protest site at Jantar Mantar cleared.

Parliament is the forum for articulating the will of the people in a democratic polity. Prolonged protest by women against sexual harassment is articulation of core democratic concerns: of equality, of the state’s obligation to deliver justice, and the people’s right to gather, assemble, and collectively seek remedial action when justice stands denied. The elaborate inauguration of the new Parliament building, even as the protest by women is quashed, proclaims the triumph of form and the defeat of substance in India’s democracy.

The active presence of priests and holy men in the inaugural ceremony superimposes on the suppression of the women’s protest a dark portent — of the return, to the heart of state authority, of ritual and cant of the kind associated with institutionalized subordination of women in Indian tradition.

It is outrageous that women have had to stage a sit-in protest for two months for the state to take their complaint of sexual harassment seriously. That the women are athletes who have represented the country at the highest level of international competition and won the nation honors adds degrees to the outrage, but is not essential to it. That sexual harassment is not an offence that brings forth immediate investigative and penal action is the outrage.

Gender injustice and democracy

There is a tendency to view sexual harassment as a gender issue that women’s organizations should deal with, while the rest of the populace mumble some support from the sidelines. Of course, it is a matter of gender justice, and it is only natural that women’s organization should be in the lead when it comes to seeking redress. However, it is vital to appreciate that gender injustice constitutes failure of democracy.

The right to equality is a vital component of democracy. If the worth of a citizen were to be linked, in official reckoning, to his or her wealth or educational attainment or caste, we would immediately recognize such linkage as a violation of democracy’s essential promise of equality. When a lower-court judge declared that the accused in a rape case could not have committed the crime because he was solidly middle-class, while the complainant belonged to the lower orders of society, it was not hard to understand the arbitrariness and undemocratic nature of that ruling.

Democratic equality has not come easily to women. When the French Revolution’s emancipatory cry for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity reverberated across Europe and much of the world, it included women only as appendages of men, besides excluding colonial subjects. When the revolutions of mid-19th-century Europe demanded universal adult franchise, they did not think women were fit for franchise. When the American Declaration of Independence thundered that all men are created equal and endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they had white men in mind. Women and black people had to fight long and hard to be brought into the embrace of democratic rights.

Religion and gender inequality

Religion, as the moral-ethical code and presiding philosophy of pre-constitutional times, has been unfair to women across the world and across different faith systems. The Semitic religions see woman as being created from man’s rib, to give him company. Eve led Adam astray, leading him to defy God’s mandate to stay clear of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

The ascetic orders of Buddhism and Jainism share the Catholic monastery’s disdain for women. Na stree swatantryamharhati (woman does not deserve autonomy), decrees the Manusmriti, noting that women are protected by the father in childhood, the husband in youth, and the son in old age. Traditionally, Hindu women could neither inherit property, nor divorce their spouses, even if their men maintained liaison with other women.

The involvement of priests and religious ceremonies in the inauguration of the new Parliament building reinforces the traditional values associated with religion. Failure to keep affairs of the state and religion apart thus carries the risk of prejudicing the already arduous struggle for equality and gender justice.

One of the grouses of the Hindu Right against Nehru and the Congress is that Hindu men’s traditional privileges over women were removed in the law, while male privilege has been preserved for Muslims and Christians via specific personal laws.

Indeed, the personal laws that militate against equality of the genders violate democratic equality in general, and should go. These undermine Democracy, and, thereby, erode Democracy’s guarantee of minority rights.

Where the state fails

Equality of men and women is tough to achieve because it goes against the grain of tradition. Most communities see continuity of lineage through the son, aiding son preference and sex-selective abortions. Mothers favor sons over daughters in bringing up their children. The struggle for gender equality must persevere in the intimate spaces of the family, where the state is absent unless invited in on account of egregious violation of norms.

Sexuality is an integral part of human beings. Popular culture does not expect men to project their sexuality in contexts where it is irrelevant. But popular culture demands constant projection of their sexuality by women, regardless of the context, making specific demands on their clothes and appearance in general. This can be cruel and deforming for young women in their formative years and feed sexual aggression in men. Culture is a sphere of democratic struggle for gender justice, against caste and religious discrimination.

But all this does not absolve state of blame for active abdication of its duty to uphold the law, punish law breakers and deliver justice, in the face of brazen misconduct. The government’s inaction on alleged sexual harassment by a person charged with leading a sport, who also happens to be a Member of Parliament from the ruling BJP, amounts to condonation of sexual harassment. If that stands, democracy is, indeed, just a pretty shell in the country, drained of its life blood.

The article was first published in The Federal as State inaction on wrestlers’ sex assault charges defiles new Parliament building on May 30, 2023.

Read more about the author: Unlocking Defence for Startup Alchemy in New India.