New location for this blog

By Editors

This blog has been integrated with the newly revamped website of the Network of Women in Media, India (www.nwmindia.org) and can be found here from now on: Gender, Media and Election Blog Archives – NWM India

Do check out the new posts added from 15 April onwards on the website:

Women, the differently-abled & the vote: Polling day anecdotes from Tamil Nadu – NWM India

How have Bengal’s women fared under Mamata Banerjee? – NWM India

The young and the restless: New age election campaigns – NWM India

Politics in Coastal Kerala: Lives Lost in a Sea of Manifestos – NWM India %

And please follow the blog here from now on: Gender, Media and Election Blog Archives – NWM India

See you there!

Reaching out to women voters

Guest post by Utsa Sarmin

The ongoing 2021 Legislative Assembly election in West Bengal has spawned a campaign called ‘No Vote To BJP’, which includes messaging meant specifically for women in the state.

The campaign was launched by ‘Bengal against Fascist RSS-BJP’, a platform of multiple left, feminist and civil society movements, as well as like-minded citizens, that came into being in the first week of January 2021.  Over the past few months it has been able to reach out to a considerable section of West Bengal’s voters during the high voltage election.  The goal is not only to work towards the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state election but also to reduce its vote share. The campaign does not endorse any other political parties.

One of the main targets of the campaign is women voters. “Like any fascist force, the BJP is anti-woman. Data from BJP-ruled states confirms this. If they win this election, it will negate all the work feminists have done here. We will have to start from scratch,” says Satabdi Das, a feminist activist, writer, and convener of the No Vote To BJP (NVTB) campaign. 

Maroona Murmu, a professor at Jadavpur University and an activist associated with the campaign, echoes this fear: “If the BJP comes to power in West Bengal, it will harm the nature of the state. We do not want to follow UP (Uttar Pradesh). That is certainly not a model state. We don’t want such anti-women forces in our state. Hence, this campaign is targeting women voters among others.”

Those associated with the campaign reveal a deep fear of a party whose leaders have been known to felicitate rapists and who regularly make misogynist comments. To counter this, NVTB has made several videos to complement the rigorous on-ground campaign, which highlight the BJP’s anti-women politics, amongst other issues such as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Farm Bills, and the economy. 

A still from one of the campaign videos.

For example, a video released by NVTB on April 2, titled RSS er Swarup (True Colour of RSS), details the sexist comments and ideas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) towards women. The video refers to the 1960 speech of MS Golwalker, the second sarsangchalak or chief of the RSS, in which he said that women from any caste should bear their first child with a Brahmin man before bearing more children with their husbands. The video also quotes the sexist comments made by the current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, who said women marry to pleasure men in exchange for meals, as well as the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, according to whom women have to be guarded by the men in their lives. The video ends with the question: “They (BJP) are trying to capture West Bengal. If you are a woman or a man with a minimum respect for women, will you let them? “

Another video compares the rate of gender-based violence in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, based on data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). 

A scroll through the NVTB’s Facebook page makes it clear that women voters are at the heart of the campaign. A majority of the videos highlight the plight of women in BJP-ruled states and raise the question of what will happen if the BJP wins in West Bengal. 

A still from one of the campaign videos.

According to Prof Murmu, these videos are also “intersectional in the way they bring in the class question.” For example, in the ‘Amader Katha’ (Our Story) series by NVTB, one of the videos depicts the plight of a female migrant worker. The long march back home endured by India’s migrant workers rendered jobless during the Covid-induced lockdown in 2020 mainstreamed the plight of this largely informal workforce compelled to dwell in the in-between zone of visibility and invisibility. But reports and discussions focused mainly on male migrant workers. So, for NVTB to showcase a female migrant worker requesting people not to vote for the BJP brings a much-needed rupture in the discourse on migration and labour. 

A still from one of the campaign videos.

According to Arjun Gourisaria, a film editor and activist associated with NVTB’s video team, while “It’s true that the majority of migrant workers are men, there are a lot of women migrant workers, too, across the country and their history keeps getting pushed aside. Women migrant labourers endure much worse situations. They go through the double burden of being a care-giver and a worker. During the lockdown, there were striking images of women workers with their children on their shoulders.” Gourisaria believes that the entire ethos of the RSS-BJP is anti-women. “So if we can use women as the face of the campaign anywhere, we will.”  

There are a large number of registered women voters in West Bengal. The final electoral roll published by the Election Commission of India shows that the percentage of female voters in the state is 49.01 per cent. This makes West Bengal the fourth major state after Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, where female participation is high. To tap into that voter base the videos highlight gender based violence in BJP ruled states and other related issues that concern women. 

A still from one of the campaign videos.

The videos are supported by on-the-ground campaigns conducted by activists. According to Shreya Acharjee, an activist associated with the Progressive Democratic Students’ Federation (PDSF) and NVTB, “It is our responsibility to tell more and more women what is happening with women in BJP-ruled states and how the BJP and RSS view women. Not every woman watches videos on Facebook or WhatsApp, especially in rural areas. So when we go to districts for campaigning, we make sure we talk about these issues.”

The activists approach several issues from a gendered angle. One example is the National Register of Citizens (NRC). According to Satabdi Das, convener of the NVTB campaign, during their on-ground campaigns, and especially while talking to women, they often highlight a gendered perspective of the NRC. “We give them the example of the Assam NRC, which left a large section of women excluded from the list due to the non-availability of documents. Many did not have voter cards or school certificates or even their fathers’ names on many documents.” 

In a patriarchal society like India’s, where women’s education and their own genealogy matter less than that of the men they are married to, it is often hard for women to trace documents to prove their citizenship as required by the NRC exercise.  As many as 1.9 million people were excluded from the citizenship list in Assam. 

“Using the Assam NRC exercise as a cautionary tale often resonates with working class women,” says Das. When it was raised during a campaign among domestic workers, she says, “They were intimidated. Most of them do not have their papers in order and, with their demanding workload and schedules, they cannot take days off (to apply for them).

According to Shreya Acharjee, women are also responding to the increase in the price of gas cylinders, an added burden when many women workers are still reeling from the effects of the prolonged lockdown. 

The activists of the NVTB campaign find the responses of women heartening. Shilpak, another activist from PDSF and NVTB, has been extensively campaigning in Kalimpong, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Nadia, North & South 24 Parganas, Howrah, and Hoogly. His reading of women voters from rural areas has energised many. 

“The women are not happy with the aggressive masculinity of the BJP,” says Shilpak. “They are not accustomed to it. For them, that is not the Bengali culture. They think our culture gives respect to women. That statement is, of course, very problematic. Nonetheless, for them, BJP means disrespect for women.”

The activists also came across many women who are fed up with the radicalised men of their villages who chant ”Jai Shree Ram” and even arm themselves. This change in behaviour is gradually making them more aggressive and the women are not ready to welcome that kind of masculinity within their households.

“Women also cannot tolerate Dilip Ghosh (who heads the BJP in West Bengal) and his sexist comments. Many people in Kolkata might say that Ghosh is trying to attract the non-elite classes with his speeches and only elite women have a problem with them, but that is not the case in my experience,” says Shilpak. “Of course, a certain section of youth enjoys his speeches. But women do not, elite or non-elite. Maybe these women won’t vote for the incumbent Trinamool Congress due to large-scale corruption, but they are definitely not accepting the aggressive masculinity of the BJP.”   

From the videos to social media to ground campaigns, the NVTB platform has managed to reach a wide section of women voters, which has led to the spontaneous involvement of women in the elections. According to Acharjee, a certain kind of mobilisation is always needed but India has just witnessed two huge movements in which women have been prominently involved – the anti-citizenship laws (NRC, the Amendment Act or CAA, and the National Peoples’ Register or NPR) movement and the ongoing anti-Farm Bills movement. “The stage was thus already set for women to come out and protest anti-people policies and laws.  So when we started our campaign, many women spontaneously joined us,” Acharjee explained. 

According to Shilpak, women formed a majority of participants at a rally organised by the NVTB platform on March 10. There was a call for “Kolkata Chalo” and people from many districts came to Kolkata for the rally. Saying that of the 300 people who came for the rally from the Sundarbans, around 250 of them were women. “This shows the campaign is having an impact,” he says. 

The March 10 rally.

“Women are not a homogenous category but the way the campaign is unfolding it will resonate with every class of woman. Be it urban students who will probably relate to videos that talk about the right to love and wear clothes of one’s choice, or be it working class women, like domestic workers, who are afraid of another lockdown, or the NRC, or the increasing gas price, the campaign has reached everybody,” added Afroja Khatun, an associate professor and feminist activist. 

However, according to Prof Murmu, the campaign could be more inclusive while talking about gender. In her opinion it has captured the class perspective expertly but she feels that it can be more inclusive by bringing in women from a wider section of society and initiating a discourse with a wider range of actors not only from various classes but also different communities.

Stencils done at night near the airport in Kolkata. 

For all the activists of the NVTB and the independent citizens associated with it, this is just the beginning of a movement. The platform is not only relatively new one but it is operating with little humanpower and extremely thin financial support, run as it is mainly through crowd-funding. Despite its weaknesses and challenges – such as its inability so far to reach all the targeted places and sections of people – there is hope that a new democratic alternative may arise from the campaign and that, in the near future, post-election, the forum will solidify into a major anti-fascist movement. 

Utsa Sarmin is an independent journalist, researcher and activist based in Kolkata. She has previously worked for Free Press Kashmir in Srinagar and teleSUR English in Ecuador as a journalist.

“Roadside Romeos” play follow the leader in Kolkata

Shikha Mukerjee

Following the examples set by their elders and betters, would-be Romeos on the streets of Kolkata have begun harassing women with catcalls that mimic  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent routine of calling out to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee using a particular tone: “Arrey, Didiiii O Didiiiiiiii.” When additions like “Didi ko kyon gussa ata hai?” are linked to the call, it is a perfect recipe for sexual harassers on the street to follow.

Election time is traditionally a free for all, but some boundaries cannot or, at least, should not, be crossed. According to a First Information Report (FIR) lodged at the Amherst Street Police Station in Central Kolkata on April 11, 2021, by Baban Shome, Debdyuti  Deb, Amrita Mukherjee, Mita Hazra, Anamika Karmakar and Rupa Paul, the “said word” was used in almost every public meeting by the Prime Minister, “with an intent to cause annoyance of others and also caused aggravation to his male party members and followers to cause the said teasing and mockery to common women in society. “ The complainants are young women associated with the Bengal Citizens Forum, which held a demonstration outside the Amherst Street police station on Monday and vowed to raise the matter with the Election Commission. According to the complainants, “Being a leader, it is unfortunate to use the said word which basically aggravated the culture of eve teasing.” They pointed out that this was a penal offence under IPC Section 294.

FIR lodged at the Amherst Street Police Station in Central Kolkata. (Source: eisamay.indiatimes.com)

By reporting the FIR, Bengali media have finally caught up with the story that has been playing out on television and in print for a week and, of course, circulating on social media. The fact is, however,  that the media did not independently work on this story, even though three women leaders of the Trinamool Congress party, Minister for Women and Child Development Sashi Panja, Chairperson of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Ananya Chakraborti, and actor and candidate in the ongoing election June Malia had held a press conference to flag the issue. As Dr Panja said, “The way Modi has been calling out Banerjee’s name qualifies as ‘taunt kata or ‘titkiri mara’.” The Bengali expressions she used refer to men making lewd comments about women.   Pointing out that “this was misogynistic and worrying,” she said, “That the Chief Minister of a state was being humiliated in this way is a matter of grave concern.”  

The police complaint about the growing prevalence of sexual harassment in public areas mimicking the Prime Minister underlines the fact that this is a matter of grave concern, as pointed out by Dr Panja. Failure to maintain due decorum while campaigning and indulging in what the women who lodged the FIR believe is a penal offence effectively encourages  others to follow  the example set by a leading political leader like Narendra Modi.

June Malia, Shashi Panja and Ananya Chakraborti at the media conference on Sunday. (Source: Telegraph)

Reports in the local and national media on the initial “Didi-O-Didi” dig did not focus on the fact that it amounted to catcalling. On the contrary, the media discussed it as Modi’s response to Mamata Banerjee’s earthy attacks on him and the Union Home Minister. National television channels resorted to the vox pop option, with journalists seeking out female voters during the third phase of the eight-phase election and asking for their reaction to the “Didi O Didi” jibe. Since women voters in rural areas did not express outrage and, according to journalists, seemed to have endorsed or been entertained by the expression, it was evidently assumed that women in West Bengal approved of the Prime Minister’s behaviour.

The media appear to have deliberately chosen to avoid the issue of deep-rooted misogyny reflected in what was essentially a catcall. By concluding that women voters did not seem to object, they also avoided confronting the reality of how women are socialised under patriarchy, trained to remain within the norms prescribed by the patriarchal order and made only too aware of the cost of rebelling against it.  Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that they would hesitate to call out catcalling by a powerful male authority figure like the Prime Minister.

By avoiding confronting the ugliness and violence of misogyny, the power of patriarchy over women’s lives, and the ways in which the patriarchal pact  consistently humiliates women and violates their dignity, while reporting  on the mocking words and tone used repeatedly during the ongoing political campaign, the media have undone all the pain,  battles and  scars that preceded the point at which a woman’s body and her dignity became a national issue, after the gang rape and murder of “Nirbhaya” in 2012. The news media, particularly television, seem to have also retreated from the point they had reached when they reported the verdict in the MJ Akbar vs. Priya Ramani case relating to sexual harassment in the workplace in February 2021. Not only was the judgment reported as breaking news, it became the lead story for prime time TV debates, and considerable coverage was given to  the court’s opinion that “the woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.”

While the verdict and the terms on which the judicial opinion was framed have been criticised by some, the fact that the media reacted by giving the case and the verdict top billing was a giant step forward. By highlighting the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace and the fact that women found it difficult to report such violations, the media positioned itself as a not-so-timid champion of women’s rights and dignity.

In contrast, media coverage of women in politics and the brutal verbal attacks on them, their bodies and their conduct has been unacceptably non-committal, if not biased. This trend has been evident throughout the current electoral campaign, beginning with the wide and uncritical coverage given to the comment about Mamata Banerjee’s injury by Dilip Ghosh, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, at a public meeting on March 24: “Plaster has been cut, there is now a crepe bandage, and [she] keeps raising her leg and showing everyone.” He later went on to add: “If [she] has to keep her leg out, then why wear a sari, [she] could wear a pair of Bermudas instead so that [it] can be seen clearly.”

Mayawati, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), was viciously attacked as a “character worse than a prostitute” by Daya Shankar Singh, a vice president of the BJP in UP,  in 2016, in the context of his allegation that she had sold nominations in the run-up to the elections.  Fortunately, former Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley apologised to Mayawati for the unpardonable slur on her as a woman. It is also noteworthy that Singh was subsequently removed from his post by the BJP.

However, between 2016 and 2021, the party seems to have acquired absolute immunity from the consequences of abusing women online and offline. There have reportedly been incidents of women journalists being groped at BJP rallies in the course of the ongoing election in the state. 

Instead of connecting all the violations – physical and verbal – as part of a pattern of harassment and violence against women, the media seem to have chosen to overlook such instances and thereby prove itself  unwilling to challenge such conduct by anyone and to do its duty, which is to speak truth to power. Women’s rights to equality and justice seem to have been ignored, if not rejected altogether, by the media when it comes to women in politics. The fear is that once the media concede ground and buckle under the pressure of patriarchal and political power to reflect and perpetuate such vicious attacks on women in politics, the gains achieved through the long struggles that preceded this particular moment will have been voluntarily surrendered.

Going beyond Tamil Nadu’s ‘freebies’ narrative

By Editors

Tamil Nadu’s ‘freebie’ culture has often come under criticism, especially from those who view it from outside the state. Elections in Tamil Nadu have also come to be defined by ‘freebies’. From colour television sets to gas stoves, the offer of ‘freebies’ has often tilted the scales. But are ‘freebies’ alone an important aspect of election manifestos or election exercises? 

While there is a school of thought that is against dismissing ‘freebies’ as electoral promises, arguing  that ‘freebies’ have indeed improved the standard of living of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens (especially the colour television sets and bicycles for girls), Tamil Nadu is not just a ‘freebie’ state. In fact, the state stands out for having put in place a welfare model that has actually worked.

Female voters display their voter identity cards at a polling station in Karur district on Tuesday.  (Photo Credit: M. Srinath/The Hindu)

Successive Dravidian governments in Tamil Nadu have successfully driven welfare-oriented administration. This is what S Narayan, author of “The Dravidian years: Politics and Welfare in Tamil Nadu,” says: “I saw ideology being translated into policies, programmes, and their delivery. I do not think such a change happened elsewhere in India.”  

In this brilliant opinion piece, “Going beyond Tamil Nadu’s ‘freebies’ narrative,” published in The Hindu, Reetika Khera examines the manifestos of some political parties through a similar prism. She argues about the importance of such ‘necessary guarantees’ and wonders why they don’t often make headlines. In doing so, she establishes why Tamil Nadu is perhaps rightly called the pioneer state. The piece puts in perspective the need to look beyond the ‘freebie narrative’ and push a debate on the importance of the guarantees. 

According to Khera, “As a development economist working on social policy, Tamil Nadu is of great interest. From school meals, canteens (or community kitchens) and maternity entitlements, it has pioneered some of the best welfare programmes.”

Viewing various political parties’ manifestos for the just-concluded state Assembly elections through the human development and welfare prism, she writes: “The 17,000-plus word manifesto of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is the most detailed. It mentions “welfare” 55 times, followed through with frequent mentions of education/school (61 times), women/girl/female (60 times), and of food/health/nutrition (17 times). The counts of these words in the manifestos of other parties pale in comparison (see table). In the case of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, there is little difference (e.g., education appears 23-24 times; women 14-15 times).”

An Amma Canteen. The DMK Manifesto promises 500 Kalaigar Canteens (Photo Source: Pinterest/ http://www.way2news.co/)

Going beyond word counts which, as she points out, can only reveal so much, she examines the manifestos closely to get a sense of how substantive the promises are and how deep is the understanding of issues reflected in them. According to her, the DMK manifesto revealed “the most comprehensive, if modest, vision for a welfare state.” 

Interestingly, Young People for Politics, a youth collective, which analysed the policies of four key parties in the state – AIADMK, DMK, MNM and Naam Tamilar Katchi – in terms of their commitment to social justice, appears to have come to a similar conclusion.

Significantly, Khera pays particular attention to what the various manifestos offer to the state’s women and what this reveals about parties’ perceptions of women’s actual needs, beyond the customary ‘freebies’ and sops. 

She also comments on media coverage of elections and manifestos. According to her, “The main reason for dwelling on the details of the manifestos is that the mainstream English media rarely goes beyond the ‘freebies’ narrative: free washing machines, ‘free data’, etc. In earlier elections, free rice, fans and mixer-grinders made news. Other important promises that could touch, and likely improve, the lives of millions rarely make headlines.”

Centenarians, Skirmishes and PPE clad voters: Polling day anecdotes from Kerala

A photo essay by Sarita Mohanan Bhama

Women wait in line to cast their votes at Cotton Hill School, Vazhuthacaud, Thiruvananthapuram.

At least 73.58 per cent of the total 2.74 crore voters in Kerala exercised their franchise during the recent state Assembly elections, going by a preliminary assessment conducted just before polling drew to a close at 7 pm on 6 April 2021, according to the Election Commission of India. An almost equal proportion of men and women turned up at polling booths, with an estimated 73.69 per cent of male voters, 73.48 per cent of female voters and 37.37 per cent of transgender voters casting their votes, as per the preliminary assessment. 

Early voters wait patiently to cast their vote at RKD School Sasthamangalam.

Women outnumber men by 8.27 lakh on Kerala’s electoral rolls.  They constitute the largest group of voters in almost all eligible age groups except two:  20-29 and 30-39, while women in the 40-49 age-group account for the largest group of voters among the electorate.  Yet most parties in the state saw fit to allot only about six per cent of the seats they were contesting to female candidates, and just 104 women contested in Tuesday’s elections, making up a mere 11 per cent of the total number of candidates.

Nevertheless, election day in Kerala was not without colour and drama!

101-year-old Kannokkada Ammini Amma after casting her vote in Chottanikkara, Kochi.

Thanks to new, generous norms in the time of pandemic, electoral officers allowed 80-plussers to vote early, in the safety of their own homes.  However, the officials somehow missed 101-year-old Kannokkada Ammini Amma. Not that this lapse was going to stop the centenarian from making good use of the voting privilege she has unflaggingly exercised ever since India became a democracy. This time, Ammini Amma got her grandson to wheel her royally to her polling booth in Kanayanoor school, Chottanikkara. Who did she vote for? A former theatre enthusiast and aesthete, Ammini Amma chose to wear a deadpan expression in answer to that cheeky question.

Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram Arya Rajendran voting.

India’s youngest Mayor, Arya Rajendran, cast her vote in Mudavanmugal LP School, Thiruvananthapuram. Arya, who recently became mayor of the city at 21 years, is simultaneously pursuing her studies, towards a BSc in Maths, at All Saints’ College. No marks for guessing which party Arya voted for. Both her father Rajendran, an electrician, and her mother Sreelatha, an LIC agent, are long-time CPI(M) party workers. Arya Rajendran, an activist of the Student Federation of India (SFI) was the surprise Christmas present that the CPI(M) unwrapped for Kerala’s capital city as its mayor, after the local body polls in December 2020. As the tradition of the city mayors goes, the lady mayor is addressed as the city’s mother, a happy irony for Arya Rajendran, who is the youngest member of the Council. Although Arya is currently busy with college exams, she is keen to set in motion initiatives to address waste-management issues in the heritage city that she heads. “This is the first time I am voting in a full-fledged Assembly election,” she says. 

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s daughter Veena in a PPE suit at a polling booth.

Veena Vijayan, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s daughter and CEO of Bengaluru-based Exalogic Solutions, arrived at the polling booth in the evening, not along with her celebrity parents as she usually does. Recently tested positive for Covid, Veena was wearing a full PPE kit and her customary cheerful countenance was nowhere in sight. Her father is seeking a mandate from Dharmadam in North Kerala, while her husband, PA Mohammed Riyas, is contesting from Beypore in Kozhikode. “Covid positive or not, I cannot let slip an opportunity to vote for my father,” she evidently told the media as she proceeded to cast her vote with all due precautions. Incidentally, both Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Mohammed Riyas tested positive for Covid-19 a day after polling.

A still from a video showing an alleged fracas involving LDF candidate Veena George.

Meanwhile, another Veena with leftist political moorings reportedly got into trouble in South Kerala on election day. This is a still from a video in circulation featuring Veena George, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate in the Aranmula constituency. She alleges that party workers from the Congress heckled and attempted to manhandle her when she was visiting polling booths. She has reportedly complained to the Election Commission about the incident. A television anchor-turned-politician, she had defeated Sivadasan Nair of the Congress in 2016 and is challenging the same rival in the 2021 election, too. The video doing the rounds shows a group of men arguing with and heckling her. “The Election Commission has given all candidates the right to visit polling booths. I can identify the people who tried to assault me. I don’t know why they (Congress) are afraid of me,” she says.

UDF candidate Aritha Babu poses for a pic after voting in Kayamkulam. Photo Source: Aritha Babu’s FB Page

When the topic of fielding young women candidates for the Assembly comes up, the Congress brandishes one of its aces:  26-year-old Aritha Babu, contesting from Kayamkulam consituency. Ahead of polling day she became a talking point for an entirely different reason, thanks – unexpectedly – to the opposite camp. AM Arif, the CPI(M)’s Member of Parliament (MP) from Alapuzha, made a demeaning comment about the Congress candidate, referring to Aritha Babu’s part-time occupation while speaking to a gathering of women in Kayamkulam during the last hours of campaigning. The young candidate, who gets up at 4am to milk her cow and make the rounds to distribute the produce, thereby supporting her parents, also happens to have a postgraduate degree in Social Work. Hailing from a marginalised community, she had been elected to the Alapuzha District Panchayat at the age of 21. Although Kayamkulam constituency has been a long-time bastion of the CPI(M), there are hushed comments, even from leftist activists, that the MP’s remark was in bad taste. “Arif’s words hurt hard. He insulted not just me, as a candidate, but the entire community of people who eke out their living from dairy-related activities. This should shock the Communist party that claims to stand for workers,” Aritha said, after casting her vote at Chulur UP School.

Yawning Gender Gap, Toxic Twitter

By Editors

Two important reports related to gender equity and participation in economic and public life can shed some light on what women politicians face in the battlefield that is the political arena in India today.

The 28-point downgrade of India’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, published on 31 March 2021, should come as no surprise. It is merely one more symptom of the deeply entrenched inequity and push back that women in India face in public life. (The gender gap is the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes. The Global Gender Gap Index aims to measure this gap in four key areas: health, education, economics and politics.)

India has a 62.5% gender gap, down from 66.8% in 2020. In that year’s index, the country had ranked 112th among 153 countries. With a rank of 140 in the 2021 report, India now ranks lower than its South Asian neighbours Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, with only Pakistan and Afghanistan ranked below India.

While the economic gap persists, with women earning less than men, significantly, the gender gap in political empowerment continues to be the largest of the four gaps tracked. Only 22% of the gap has been closed to date, having further widened since the 2020 edition of the report by 2.4 percentage points. Across the 156 countries covered by the index, women represent only 26.1% of some 35,500 parliament seats and just 22.6% of over 3,400 ministers worldwide.

In India, which has regressed 13.5% points to reach a level of gap closed to date of just 27.6%, “The main change that took place this year is the significant decline in the share of women among ministers, which halved, from 23.1% in 2019 to 9.1% in 2021,” says the report.

Given the intimidation, misogyny and downright harassment of women in politics and others who dare to enter the public arena, the abysmal figures are only to be expected.

And this brings us to the second report. “Troll Patrol India: Exposing Online Abuse Faced by Women Politicians in India,” a study conducted by Amnesty International and released in January 2020, found that women politicians in India face a shocking scale of abuse on Twitter. Through crowdsourcing, machine learning and data science, researchers reviewed millions of tweets sent to 95 women politicians. The tweets were collated and analysed by over 1,900 volunteers.

The nature and scale of online abuse was not dependent only on gender, but also upon factors such as religion, caste, marital status and, here’s the thing: how active the woman politician is. Thus, more visibility in public life made female politicians more vulnerable to online abuse.

Here are the key findings of the study:

  1. One in every 7 tweets that mentioned women politicians in India was ‘problematic’ or ‘abusive’, amounting to 1 million problematic or abusive mentions or over 10,000 problematic or abusive tweets every day.
  2. Indian women politicians experienced substantially higher abuse than their UK and USA counterparts.
  3. Women politicians prominent on Twitter were targeted more.
  4. The more visible the politician is, the more abuse she received.
  5. 1 in every 5 problematic or abusive tweets were sexist or misogynistic.
  6. Sexism was experienced by women across all spectrums of political ideology and affiliation, religion, caste, race, age, marital status and election outcome.
  7. Muslim women politicians received 94.1% more ethnic or religious slurs than those from other religions.
  8. Women politicians belonging to marginalised castes received 59% more caste-based abuse compared to women from other castes (caste identity is, more often than not, a key element of problematic or abusive content for women belonging to marginalised castes.)
  9. Women politicians from ‘parties other than Bharatiya Janata Party’ experienced more abuse.

Amnesty International India’s Recommendations to Twitter

  • Publicly sharing comprehensive, meaningful and disaggregated information about the nature and levels of online abuse against women on a country-by-country basis, as well as other groups, on the platform, and how they respond to it.
  • Improving its reporting mechanisms to ensure consistent application and better response to complaints of violence and abuse.
  • Providing more clarity about how it interprets and identifies violence and abuse on the platform and how it handles reports of such abuse.

A quick look at some of Kerala’s women candidates

By Varsha Pillai

Kerala is one of the five states going to the polls today. This time too Kerala’s political partieshave displayed a very poor record of fielding women candidates, despite public revolts from women politicians (read more here) when the lists were first announced. Following some very fast shuffling from the parties Kerala parties produced a mere 40 women candidates contesting today, just 9% of the total 420 candidates. Meet some of these candidates.

Contesting from what was once a Congress stronghold, 60–year–old Padmaja Venugopal, daughter of late Congress veteran leader K Karunakaran, is seeking to reclaim the Thrissur seat. Recently appointed as Vice-President of the Congress party in Kerala, Venugopal has seen mixed success in electoral politics.  This time round she is facing off with P Balachandran, the Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate, and actor and Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi, fielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A familiar face in  Thrissur district, Venugopal is hoping to focus on the United Democratic Front’s mantra of development to defeat what the Congress calls its opponents’ politics of violence and communalism. After her loss during her electoral debut in 2004, she stayed away from electoral politics even as her elder brother, Muraleedharan, swiftly moved to become Congress state President and has had multiple terms as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and Parliament (MP). Venugopal’s slogan, “Along with Thrissur,” goes with her promise to plan a complete makeover of the town, beginning with a women’s only marketplace and  an IT park.  She has also said she would address drinking water problems.

Daleema Jojo,  famous for her playback singing, was  chosen  by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), to run in the Panchayat (Local Self Government) elections in Kerala in 2015. She was elected  Vice President of the Alappuzha District Panchayat Council. In the 2021Assembly elections, she is contesting from the constituency of Aroor.

Noorbeena Rasheed is the first woman candidate of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in 25 years. She is credited with being the first Muslim woman to move the Supreme Court against the criminalisation of  triple talaq after the 2019 law came into effect. She is contesting from the Kozhikode South constituency. A former criminal lawyer, she stood for the 1995 municipal corporation election  and worked as a municipal councillor for 10 years. During her time as a municipal councillor she established the Women’s League, the women’s wing of the IUML. Today she is the national general secretary of the Women’s League. She has  also been demanding better representation for women in all party forums and believes that all political parties need to give adequate electoral space for women. Pitted against her in the Kozhikode South constituency is Left Democratic Front’s Ahammed Devarkovil and Navya Haridas of the BJP. Rasheed wishes to work towards providing safety and security for the women in her constituency.

The CPI’s CK Asha is contesting for a second term from the Vaikom constitutency, seen as a CPI bastion. She stands against Congress’s Dr PR Sona of the Congress party, Ajitha Sabu of the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and independent candidate Kuttan Kattachira.

KK Shailaja Teacher has earned the nickname, COVID rockstar, thanks to her work as the Kerala’s Minister for Health and Social Welfare  during the 2020-21 pandemic. She was  honoured by the United Nations, among others, for her efficient handling of the situation. Fondly called Shailaja Teacher, because of her former role as a teacher, she was featured in the Financial Times’ list of most influential women in 2020. Contesting as a CPI(M) candidate from the constituency of Mattannur, the place where she grew up and completed school and college, 65-year-old Shailaja, a.k.a the Cororonavirus slayer, joined politics full time in 2004. She earned fame due to her work during the Nipah Virus outbreak in Kerala in 2018. Owing to her proactive work during the Nipah and  Covid crises, she has become a household name across the country. UDF candidate Illikakal Augusthy, who belongs to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), is pitted against her.

Shanimol Osman, an advocate by profession, is one of the first female leaders from Kerala to become the Secretary of the All India Congress Committee. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, she lost to AM Ariff of the CPI, also an advocate. However, in the Assembly 2019 by–election in Aroor she defeated the CPI(M) leader, Manu Pulickal. At a recent meeting of the Congress Political Affairs Committee (PAC), Osman had criticised  party leaders and their style of functioning and  asked tough questions about what the party leadership had done to keep its vote base intact! She is contesting the Assembly elections from the constituency of Aroor. 

Padmaja S Menon is the BJP-NDA candidate contesting from Ernakulam against Shaji George (Independent) and T. J. Vinod (Congress). The former journalist and daughter of union leader SCS Menon, she started her political foray in 2014. Previously  President of the Mahila Morcha,she is currently State General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Mahila Morcha. Menon has claimed that her priority will be to address the basic needs of women; she has promised a 24X7 helpline for women.

Bindhu Krishna is the UDF candidate from Kollam. A law advocate by qualification, Krishna is the President of the District Congress Committee and enjoys tremendous support from women, especially from the coastal communities who saw to it that Krishna would be the Congress party’s candidate. Krishna joined the Kerala Students Union at the age of 15 and soon became the unit secretary at SN College for Women, Kollam. In 2011, she became the state president of the Mahila Congress.  She was also appointed a national vice-president of the Youth Congress after a talent hunt launched by Rahul Gandhi.

Lathika Subhash, former president of the Kerala Pradesh Mahila Congress, is contesting as an independent candidate from Ettumanur constituency in the upcoming Assembly elections. After being denied a ticket, 56–year–old Subhash, who has four decades of political experience, lodged her protest in a dramatic manner by not only resigning from her post as the state president of the Mahila Congress but also tonsuring her head outside the head office of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) in Thiruvananthapuram. Subhash also protested against the party’s decision to field only ten women in the current elections.

V Bhagyavathi is contesting as an independent candidate from Dharmadom constituency, standing against Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. She is the mother of the two minor Dalit sisters who were sexually assaulted and murdered in Walayar Town in Palakkad. In 2017, her daughters, aged 13 and 9, were found dead in their house. The autopsy reports revealed that the girls had been sexually assaulted. The “Walayar Mother,” as she is known, has been demanding justice for her daughters and launched a protest against the delay in the process by tonsuring her head in February 2021. She demanded that action to be taken against police officials who had allegedly botched the investigation. She has been on a Neethi Yatra (journey for justice) from Kasaragod to Thiruvanathapuram from 9 March to 4 April, demanding justice and protesting against the government’s inaction over the case.

Veena George is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate from Aranmula. A former journalist, George is the current legislator from the constituency and wants to win this time, too, since she believes that the government has worked hard and taken great strides towards change, especially with regard to the construction and renovation of roads and restoration of the VarattarRiver, among other development works. She has promised to continue working to improving the status of the communities who are currently classified as below the poverty line (BPL).

J Mercykutty Amma, of the CPI(M), is presently one of two women ministers in the Pinarayi Vijayan government. She is also fighting for a second term in Kundara constituency in the ongoing election. A renowned leader, especially among fish, coir and cashew traders in Kollam, 65–year–old Mercykutty was earlier also a leader of the Centre of Trade Unions (CITU). She faces former Congress MLA Vishnunath in her constituency.

Kanathil  Jameela is the CPI(M) candidate from Koyilandy and the party is banking on her tremendous experience in running local self-government bodies: she  headed the Kozhikode District Panchayat twice.  She has been credited with being responsible for ensuring the successful implementation of the Sneha Sparsham project meant to assist people suffering from kidney diseases, apart from many other successful development works. Jameela entered electoral politics during the Thalakulathoor Grama Panchayat polls in 1995 and became GP president.

Sobha Surendran is the BJP candidate from Kazhakkootam constituency, Thiruvananthapuram district. The 47-year-old Vice President of the  state unit of the BJP impressed the party’s central leadership by spearheading the protests against the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala shrine. She joined the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha when she was 21 and later worked with the party’s Mahila Morcha, becoming its state vice president in 2004. Surendran had expressed solidarity and empathy with  Congress Leader Lathika Subhash and her tonsure protest against gender bias in politics.

At 26, Aritha Babu, contesting from Kayamkulam, is the youngest Congress candidate. A Commerce graduate  currently pursuing post-graduate studies in social work, Babu entered politics through the Kerala Students’ Union and was elected to the Alappuzha District Panchayat when she was 21. She supports her family by selling milk and was recently  at the receiving end of a demeaning remark by AM Ariff, the CPI(M) MP from Alappuzha, who said, “This is not an election to the milk society but for the Kerala Assembly.”

Ansajitha Ressal is the Congress (UDF) candidate from Parassala, Thiruvananthapuram district. A former District Panchayat member, Russel plans to prioritise working for women’s welfare, and will also work towards ensuring drinking water for local communities, apart from pressing for the completion of the pending hill highway stretch.

KK Rema is contesting  for the second time from Vadakara constituency, representing the  Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), supported by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Wife of deceased Marxist leader TP Chandrasekharan, who later founded his own party, the RMP,  Rema entered politics after Chandrasekharan’s death. She has often spoken out against political violence.

Will these candidates change Kerala’s chequered history in the political representation of women? We will know soon.

Varsha Pillai is Associate Director, Communications and Advocacy, Dream A Dream, and a volunteer at Shakti, a public pressure group to increase the political representation of women.

Drop in number of women candidates in Assam Assembly polls

By Durba Ghosh    

This year, political parties in Assam have made promises galore to woo women — 49.35 per cent of the electorate. The promises range from giving Rs 2,000 per month to housewives, Rs 365 as daily wages to tea garden workers, and increasing financial assistance to pregnant tea garden workers and households led by women to providing free cycles and scooters to schoolgirls and college women. But having fielded only 74 women candidates in the three-phased Assam assembly polls in 2021, they have registered a significant decrease in the representation of women among electoral candidates, even when compared to the last Assembly election. In fact, in 2016, there were 91 candidates — eight of whom won. And in 2011, 85 women contested and 14 won, the highest to date.

The 74 candidates fielded this time, make up a mere 7.82 per cent of the total of 946 candidates. Political parties have barely paid any attention to the 33 per cent reservation mark.  

A Minister of the outgoing government and member of the Assembly from the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), three former Congress Ministers and a former Deputy Speaker of the Assembly are in the fray. The BPF Minister, Pramila Rani Brahma, also the oldest woman candidate at 71 years, is contesting from Kokrajhar (East) constituency in a bid to retain the seat for the seventh consecutive term. The BPF was an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but they had severed ties before the polls, although the ministers continued in office saying that they will remain part of the present government until the new one is formed.

Pramila Rani Brahma (Source: nenow.in)

A former, powerful Congress Minister, Ajanta Neog, left the oldest party to join the BJP before the elections and contested from Golaghat constituency, which she has represented since 2001. Two other former Congress Ministers, Pranati Phukan and Bismita Gogoi, are also contesting from the seats they had represented earlier. Renupama Rajkhowa, a former Deputy Speaker of the Assembly, and a sitting MLA from the regional party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), is also contesting to retain her seat. The BJP has no ministers in the outgoing government but its two sitting MLAs, former actress Angoorlata Deka and filmmaker Suman Haripriya, have been renominated from the same seats. Among other women in the fray are Congress candidate Ashima Bardaloi, grand-daughter of Assam’s first Chief Minister and Bharat Ratna, Gopinath Bordoloi. Popular Bhojpuri singer Kalpana Patowary is also contesting on an AGP ticket.

Ashima Bardaloi. (Source: Twitter page of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee)

Many of Assam’s districts have been undertaking Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programmes to improve turnout by women voters. There are polling stations where all the officials and security personnel are women and voter awareness ads appear on gas cylinders. Despite their poor representation among candidates, women have come out in large numbers in all constituencies in Assam so far, outnumbering men in the 47 constituencies that went to the polls in the first phase polls. While 76.07 per cent of the female electorate exercised their franchise, male voters made up 75.79 per cent and those registered as trans voters constituted 11.29 per cent of the citizens who cast their vote. Further, in the 39 constituencies of the second phase, women were a mere 0.06 per cent behind men, with 80.94 of the female electorate exercising their franchise as against 81 per cent of the male electorate and 5.9 per cent of voters registered as trans persons.

Women waiting to cast their votes during the second phase of polling on April 1. (Source: keralakaumudi.com)

The 40 constituencies in the third phase, scheduled to go to polls on April 6, 2021 will be a significant indicator of how women from marginalized communities vote this year since most of the seats are in minority-dominated areas of Lower Assam (where the exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens had a significant impact on people’s lives) and in the tribal districts of the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).

The decline in the number of women in the fray has not gone down well with women activists who assert that time and again political parties have failed women by not ensuring that the promise of 33 per cent seats in elected bodies, among the other, less significant promises made in their manifestos, is implemented. Activists and writers have criticised the parties for neglecting women’s representation despite their excellent record in public life as well as governance.

In March 2021, women’s organisations in Assam had released a women’s manifesto, highlighting the specific issues that needs to be included in the policies of the next government (Read more about the manifesto here), but most parties have ignored such matters and concentrated mostly on doling out the usual sops for women, without any concrete measures for their actual economic, social and political empowerment.

Durba Ghosh is a senior journalist with PTI and has covered Assam for 23 years.

The gender gap in Puducherry

Guest Post

By Vidyaa Ramkumar

We would make better leaders. If we can control the finances and home so efficiently, why not a state”? asked the wife of a minister.

Though the number of women voters in Puducherry is high, when it comes to representation of women in the Assembly, it is highly disappointing. I was denied a seat this time, too.  I have decided to quit politics,” says a seasoned lady politician.

“I wanted to cast my first ever vote for a female candidate but there’s no one I can find,” says a first-time voter.

 “We long for women leaders, we are fed up with men who don’t give an ear to our issues like dowry harassment, domestic violence or alcoholism. They favour our husbands,”  — statement from a Self Help Group in Villianur village.

The above are a few statements which stood out for me while I was interviewing women on the topic, “Women in Politics in the Union Territory of Puducherry.” The situation would more or less the same throughout India but, for now, I’ll stick to my observations about the quaint little town of Puducherry, to which I belong.

Puducherry is a Union Territory (UT) in South India which includes four enclaves – Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam and Puducherry itself (the capital).  In 1674,  the French East India Company set up a trading centre in what was then known as Pondicherry and this outpost eventually became the chief French settlement in India. Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry and generally known as ‘Pondy’) was under French rule until 1954. A few residents still speak French (and English with French accents) though the predominant local language depends on the state proximate to each enclave: Tamil Nadu in the case of Puducherry and Karaikal, Andhra Pradesh in the case of Yanam and Kerala in the case of Mahe. 

Map showing the four enclaves that together make up the Union Territory of Puducherry. (Source: Website of the Election Commission of India)

The political, economic, social as well as cultural habits of the enclaves are, therefore, aligned to the districts adjacent to each of them.  Differences in mindset resonate with respect to matters of governance, too. However, although socio-economic practices as well as cultural beliefs are dissimilar in the four enclaves, there is significant uniformity with respect to their treatment of women and children, as indicated by  responses to burning issues  linked to gender equality and children’s rights.

According to a professor of political science in a government college in Puducherry, “When one looks into women’s participation in politics, it’s not something that is related only to whether they have a right to vote but also their involvement in the decision-making process of the parties, political activism, political consciousness and many more rights that they’re being periodically denied.”

Even after over half a century of the UT’s political history and 12 elections to the territorial Assembly, women’s participation in political activities and  elections remains low. Although women voters outnumber men in Puducherry, they are hardly visible as representatives of the people, whether as Members of the Assembly (MLAs) or Members of Parliament (MPs). This situation is, of course, similar to what prevails in many Indian states.

All India NR Congress candidate for Puducherry, B. Kobiga. (Source: News7 Tamil)

As an activist who wishes to remain unnamed said, “In the history of Puducherry since independence, since in 1963, only 11 women have become MLAs. Of them, only Renuka Appadurai, a Congress leader, was made an Education Minister in 1980 in the then DMK-Congress coalition government. Since then, no women legislators have become ministers.” In fact, there were no women MLAs in Puducherry from 2001 to 2016. The situation improved when four women were elected during the 2016 elections to the 33-member Assembly (which includes three members nominated by the Central Government).

For the Assembly elections scheduled on April 6, 2021, women voters wish to see more female nominees but  that seems to be a distant dream. Women voters outnumber men in all Puducherry constituencies: out of a total of 10,03,681 voters, 5,30,828 are women. Yet, in the current election, out of a total of 324 candidates, only 36 are women. A majority of the female candidates have either been fielded by the Naam Tamilar Katchi party or are independent candidates. It appears that women have been largely ignored by political parties all along, from nominations to the Assembly. Many activists are of the opinion that Puducherry’s cabinet, which currently comprises just six members, should be bigger for better governance, especially in view of the far-flung enclaves (Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam). 

According to one teacher from Mahe, “Political parties in Kerala, currently governed by the CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front, have groomed the next line of young women candidates as contestants for  panchayat and local body elections, with some parties nominating almost 60% female candidates, which augurs well for  facilitating a role for women in governance at various levels. Incidentally, the credit for being the youngest Mayor of Trivandrum Corporation goes to a woman who is just 21. The Mayor’s post was reserved for women this time. It was the ruling party’s strategy to thank youngsters who had stood with them. Such a welcome move should be emulated by all the political parties in Puducherry.”

“By being silent, we aspiring women leaders of Puducherry, irrespective of political parties (which have great ideologies), are surrendering to the wishes of these parties and thereby giving a silent burial to our dreams/goals of entering the political arena. We work equally hard, like the men, leaving our families to fend for themselves. It is such an inexcusable situation in a democracy that women are still considered unequal,”lamented a woman politician who was denied a seat by a mainstream political party. 

All India NR Congress candidate for Karaikal, S. ChandiraPriyanga. (Source:  News7 Tamil)

According to a Pondicherry University student, “My friends and I would like to work for the Student Federation of India (SFI) but our parents are not supportive. They fear that we will not concentrate on our studies and careers. It is true that families come in our way. Men have called the shots but things have changed: women are more aggressive and assertive nowadays. Nationally (and in most states) we find capable women leaders in many political parties, even though they may be very few. We voice our opinions and are strong enough to face problems head on. Although some families are supportive enough about our decisions regarding studies, careers and marriage, when it comes to entering politics, it’s a big NO.  For women who have a political background, with grandparents, fathers or in-laws in various political parties, holding high office, entry to the higher echelons of power is relatively easy and this means they are also respected and able to survive. But what about people like us without such connections who aspire to enter politics and be leaders some day?”

According to a few women politicians, the reason why they or members of the next generation are likely to opt out of politics is that they find men holding positions in political parties very judgemental, patriarchal, chauvinistic and misogynistic.

One aspirant suggested that the new generation of women should be able to overcome their fears concerning social media trolls and tweets, which are often blaringly sexist, targeting both their gender and their bodies. At present they remain voiceless within their parties. According to her, no one would be forthcoming in terms of listening to a woman’s point of view about harassment; nor would they take up the cudgels for them unless they think they can use the allegation as a weapon to subdue others.

Members of Puducherry Mahila Congress on the campaign trail. (Source: Twitter page of the Puducherry Mahila Congress)

Committees with the ultimate high power in political parties may condemn such wrongdoers, but the  punishment meted out is never stringent, which makes women even more vulnerable.  As a budding woman student leader said, we need men who will enable us to grow by merit, who will value and respect us, motivate us to act and support our endeavours.

In an effort to increase women’s participation in politics in India,  the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution that came into effect in 1993 mandated that one-third of seats in panchayats and municipalities be reserved for women. Reservation is implemented through a process of rotation to different constituencies. It also provides for random reservation for the post of panchayat chairpersons for women, and studies have shown women’s concerns get fairer play in panchayats headed by women. At the level of state legislative Assemblies and Parliament, Constitutional Amendment Bills providing for reservation of seats for women were introduced in 1996, 1998 and 1999; however, all three Bills lapsed. At present, the Women’s Reservation Bill 2008 (which seeks to provide 33 per cent reservation for women in state Assemblies and the national Parliament) was passed by the Rajya Sabha but is still pending in the Lok Sabha.  

Women’s movements have reflected a belief in the right for women’s voices to be heard. Women possess skills, knowledge and talent but are generally overlooked by the male-dominated political system. Women leaders belonging to different political parties and ideologies have excelled in identifying problems and solving them. They are often more accountable, quick at decision making and implementation, good at drawing support from the public and gender-sensitive in terms of addressing and negotiating issues pertaining to women and children.

Let us hope that, with younger generations of women opting for politics, one can look forward to better representation of women in this arena, and thereby ensure fuller, fairer and more meaningful political representation  in the world’s largest democracy.

Dr. Vidyaa Ramkumar was till recently Chairperson, District Local Level Complaints Committee – Sexual Harassment at Workplace for Women, Government of Puducherry. She has also been Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee and Independent Member, State Security Commission of the Union Home Ministry for Union Territory of Puducherry.

Bengali protest songs, past and present

By Shrabonti Bagchi

Growing up in a Bengali household in the 1980s, cassette tapes were as essential a part of ‘learning about culture’ as bound volumes of Tagore’s works and novels by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay – many of them wedding gifts to my parents at a time when gifting sets of serious books to newlyweds was a beautiful and glorious tradition. Among the many cassette tapes that littered our home, along with Rabindrasangeet and copious amounts of Hindi film music (my mother was not snobbish), was a curious little album called ‘Ghum Bhangar Gaan’ (loosely, ‘Waking Up Songs’). When I was very young, I thought it was a special weapon in my parents’ arsenal to get me to wake up early to get ready for school. 

It was only when I was much older that I realised these were protest songs; songs about poverty and freedom and capitalism and activism.

Childhood memories of Amader Nanan Mote.

Produced by the Calcutta Youth Choir, a choral band of protest and ‘andolan’ (revolution) music formed by Salil Chowdhury, his wife Sabita, and actor and singer Ruma Guha Thakurta, the album contained songs that mostly went over the head of a 10-year-old. But something of their spirit evidently lingered because I can hum most of them even today – such as the lines ‘jokhon proshno othe juddho ki shanti, amader becche nite hoy nako bhranti, amra jobab di shanti shanti shanti’ from the song Amader Nanan Mote (We are divided in our views, but when the choice is between war and peace, we always choose peace’). It is only now that I understand that this particular song captured an immensely complex and sophisticated idea – that as liberals, feminists, activists and others in favour of social justice, we may have divergent views on a lot of things, but there are some ideas that unite us, and one of them is peace.  

Protest songs have been a part of the Bengali cultural milieu since before Independence, and they were mainstream in a way that even a somewhat Anglicised, Enid Blyton-reading, sausages-and-mash craving child growing up in Bihar was not unexposed to them. The protest song riding the airwaves today, Nijeder Mawte Nijeder Gaan, produced by a bunch of actors and musicians from the Bengali theatre, film and television industry, is very much a part of that tradition. It embodies the belief that music can express strong, contrary and complex ideas, that it can stir and move and energise. The day the song was released, someone tweeted that he heard it while driving back from work and had to pull over because his eyes had misted and he couldn’t see for his tears.

Adult performers of Nijeder Mawte Nijeder Gaan listening to a young girl singing off-stage: “I shall reside in India, my eternal motherland.”

It is a powerful song. Without actually naming any particular political party (though the headlines interspersed through the video don’t leave any room for doubt) and released almost on the eve of an extremely fraught election in West Bengal, it is bristling with criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It doesn’t mince words in calling out fascism for what it is – “Ami Goebbels er ayenaye, thik tomakei dekhe felechhi” (I have seen your reflection in Goebbels’s mirror) – and while it is an attack on fascist ideas and tactics irrespective of time and place, in many ways it is also intensely specific to the present, as when it accuses the adversary of “measuring everything in terms of Pakistan”.

Disapproval of misogyny and support for patriarchy is also revealed in several segments in the video, including one in which a pointed reference is made to the statement of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to the effect that women need protection, not freedom, and that their male relatives should “channelise” their energy because “a protected woman’s energy gives birth to great men” (giving birth to great men is of course a woman’s supreme duty). The song ends with a young girl, a balloon seller, coming on to the stage and joining the chorus.  As the credits roll, the Preamble to the Indian Constitution forms a backdrop for her silhouette — she is at once the country’s past and its future, the montage indicates. A bit mawkish, some might say, but like the best cliches, it works. 

The young balloon seller holding Rabindranath Tagore’s Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders)
and the national flag.

An unfortunate (though thankfully minor) side effect of the song’s popularity is the nudge it has given to Bengali jingoism and exceptionalism. “Only Bongs can do this”, “Only Bengali actors would have the guts to stand up”, “Dude, Bongs have spine” are some of the sentiments one has heard often over the past several days – and one knows this not to be true. Our farmers are still protesting, our activists – from Stan Swamy to Sudha Bharadwaj and Anand Teltumbde – are in jail; very few of them, as far as I know, are Bengali.

But perhaps the sentiment arises from the resentment and disappointment people have felt as their real heroes, and of course by that I mean big Bollywood stars, have abstained from commenting on the growing fascism of the Indian state. Compared to that silence, Bengal’s ‘buddhijibi’ (intellectual) class has, indeed, made a difference with this song, a collaborative effort that cuts across gender and age (though not, alas, caste, as a glance through the credits list makes clear).

But this turn is not new. Salil Choudhury composed romantic songs of immense sweetness, and he also gave music and words to poignant and rousing songs of revolution and protest: “O Alor Pothojatri, e je ratri, ekhane themo na” (O travellers on the path of light, it is night right now, but you can’t stop your journey here).