Shame on you sir”, supermodel Shenaz Treasurywala snapped at the Hindu poster boy who boasted about his “54-inch chest” while canvassing for votes before becoming the Prime Minister of India. 'Sir' is, obviously, dipped in sarcasm; her contempt for the premier crystal clear.
“What good are all your speeches in the US or Japan or Australia, Namo [Narendra Modi], if no woman can walk freely in the streets even in broad daylight by herself in the capital of our country? Isn’t this a shame? Shame on you sir”, Treasurywala, who has acted in Bollywood movies and American soap One Life to Live, grimly observed after a woman accused an Uber cab driver of raping her in New Delhi recently.
Besides the Uber rape, three recent newsbreaks underscore the inferior position of women in India — to put it mildly. The PM’s estranged wife Jashodaben’s publicly articulated desire to be reunited with the man who dumped her 43 years ago but refuses to divorce her to end her misery; doctors using bicycle pumps to inflate women’s abdomens for tubectomy at mass sterilisation camps; and disabled females treated worse than animals in mental hospitals revealing that women are still second-class citizens in India.
Of course Jashodaben’s victimisation is no different from what many abandoned wives undergo. Her suffering is not comparable with the agony of poor women treated as guinea pigs by callous doctors in their bid to curb a booming population by any means, including bicycle pumps instead of a medically prescribed device called carbon-dioxide insufflator, or the physical and sexual violence mentally challenged women are subjected to in government hospitals.
Jashodaben’s scars, in that sense, are not physical but emotional. Yet, they are a major cause for concern because she is married to the country’s most powerful man who is expected to be a role model but is not.
Modi publicly declared that he is married to Jashodaben while filing his election nomination earlier this year lest he opened a Pandora’s box marring his prime ministerial prospects. The disclosure threw a national spotlight on his 1968 marriage. He left her three years later. Although he completely forgot her for more than four decades, she said the disclosure showed their marriage was still legally valid. And now in an interview to Mid-Day, Jashodaben has disclosed that she is awaiting Modi’s call to move into the PM’s official residence in Delhi. “I wish to be with him. If he calls me, I am eager to start a new life with him. But it has to be he who calls,” Jashodaben told Mid-Day, displaying all the tell-tale signs of a traditional Hindu wife — sindoor (vermilion in the parting of her hair), and mangalsutra (a special necklace for married women).
In stark contrast, Modi refuses to talk about his personal life even during informal interactions with the press where everything under the sun from Barack Obama to Ebola and Ukraine to migraine is discussed. But there is an embargo on raking up Jashodaben’s desire to be reunited with the man who has publicly acknowledges her as his wife, but will not have anything to do with her!
The supreme irony is that the Special Protection Group, modelled on the Secret Service that guards US presidents, took charge of Jashodaben’s security no sooner than Modi became PM. SPG is responsible for the security of the premier and his family. But in Jashodaben’s case, SPG’s brief is to keep her under surveillance; she has complained of being under pressure not to talk without disclosing who is applying the pressure.
Women’s rights activists are wary of Modi not only because of his wife’s ordeal, but because of his Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s shocking lack of policy vision on women’s issues, despite India’s current ranking in the Worldwide Gender Inequality Index — 133 on a list of 146 countries, behind even war-torn Iraq and Sudan. Highlighting the “glaring absence” of women’s issues from Modi’s 10-point agenda, Brookings Institution says: “Women are a significant part of the electorate, but with fundamentally different concerns. There’s the case of missing women in the population, missing women from the electoral rolls, crimes within and outside the homes, and so on. There’s an urgent case for a comprehensive policy. But it seems to be business as usual with women’s issues relegated to one department and no one knows what it’s doing.”
The really bad news for Jashodaben in particular and women in general is that Modi belongs to the BJP, a patriarchal, masculinised, misogynist outfit that simply does not believe in gender equality. It wants men to call the shots everywhere — at homes, in offices and at political parties. BJP has token women leaders, but Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which controls the BJP, has none.
To be sure, the BJP vehemently opposes women’s independence or sexual autonomy. Writing in Mainstream, political scientist Pallavi Borgohain bemoans the fact that even in this day and age, marital rape is not a crime in India because of “a complete lack of acknowledgement that women are individuals”.
Can Modi ever change his own mindset or the BJP’s? Caring and respect for women, like charity, begins at home. So Modi knows where to begin. But will he?
S.N.M. Abdi is a noted Indian journalist and commentator.