Local media on Elections 2016 in West Bengal: development and gender concerns are conspicuous by their absence

In West Bengal, the legislative elections are taking place in six phases spread over 20 districts for a total of 294 seats. They were kicked off on April 4 and April 11 in districts referred to as jangalmahal, and they conclude on May 5. All the results are expected to be out by May 19.

Coverage of corruption, not development
The media reports, once the poll dates were announced, threw the spotlight on the communities’ expectations in addition to electoral issues. However, the collapse of a flyover in a congested area of north Kolkata on March 31 not only crushed many people to death, it also put an end to hopes of any extensive reporting of development and gender-related issues. Though the tragedy brought into focus corruption and the shoddy attempts at giving the city a better look, most dailies, both vernacular and English, have targeted the twin issues of corruption and power first, and stories of violence and lawlessness thereafter. Even with ADR Election reports that there are 52 candidates with serious criminal cases against them, including murder, attempt to murder, theft and crimes against women, we have had no reportage or analysis of these.

Four years earlier, women candidates of each constituency were interviewed to record their aspirations and their roadmap, while citizen journalists were given an opportunity to air their concerns regarding developmental issues such as health, women’s safety, education, infrastructure, and hygiene. This time around such issues seem to have been given a quiet burial.

Some articles on oral triple talaq
However, as a run-up to election issues, two national media houses – Outlook (print) and NDTV 24×7 (electronic) – focused on the practice of oral triple talaq among poor Muslim women in West Bengal at a time when Sharaya Bano has challenged this very practice, resulting in a number of reports and serious comments in the national media of late. Incidentally, Shayara Banu received triple talaq through the post while she was at her parent’s house.

In Dola Mitra’s comprehensive story in Outlook, titled “Mamata, Muslim women and Triple Talaq” (February 3, 2016), she wrote that Muslim women of the state were overjoyed when Mamata Banerjee, a woman, was voted in as Chief Minster.

Khadija Banu, founder-director of the Rokeya Nari Unnayan Samiti is quoted as saying: “When Mamata came to power the Muslim women were overjoyed. They wept with happiness saying ‘finally we have a woman as chief minister and also someone who does not hate Muslims, so now our needs will be taken care of.’ These very women felt let down when the CM announced the stipend for the Imams. Some of them came to me and said, ‘How could she do this? She can pay the Moulavis who don’t need so much money and yet do nothing for us?’”

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the ruling Trinamool Congress have been criticized for “appeasement” of Muslim priests, notably Banerjee’s decision to pay a monthly stipend of Rs 2,500 to the state’s Muslim clerics (imams). “We feel let down and saddened,” is the common refrain of people working for the Muslim community and women’s rights. There is a consensus, cutting across political parties, about the sorry plight of Muslim women.

“It is unfortunate but it is a fact that it (the Muslim community) is a male-dominated society,” admits Adhir Ranjan Choudhury, former union minister of state for Railways and Congress MP from Murshidabad, one of the three Muslim majority districts in the state, in the same report. “It is a fact that political parties don’t pay too much attention to their specific needs because they focus more on the community as a whole. But there really is a need to look at the different set of problems and demands and these should be addressed more conscientiously.”

In the same story, CPI-M member of Parliament and Politburo member Mohammad Salim says, “Though the Left Front had brought in a number of reforms as far as gender equality is concerned including 33 percent reservation for women which has also positively impacted the participation of Muslim women in the electoral process, by and large the decision-making and how a family will vote is ultimately left up to the head of the family, who is more often than not a male member.” However, Salim points out that in comparison to other, namely north Indian, states, West Bengal is more progressive. He claims that as much as 85 percent of the Muslim vote is cast by women.

The report concludes: “In most Muslim communities, especially amongst the poor, illiterate, uneducated and downtrodden, women don’t have any decision-making power.” As observed by Farzana Choudhury, former CPI-M Mayor-in-Council at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, “Sure, they do exercise their franchise and cast their ballot but only in name. In most cases they are told by the male members of the family whom to vote for. ‘Put the stamp beside this and that symbol,’ they are ordered, and they comply.”

In reality, therefore, very few Muslim women of the state really make personal choices or deliberate on candidates and issues before making a choice.

Suatap Deb’s news documentary on NDTV, telecast first on April 15, 2016, trains its lens on how young divorcees in Murshidabad, a Muslim majority district of WB, are battling apathy and penury. She reports on a number of young women victims of the oral triple talaq. They were also victims of child marriage, married before they were 16. Many of them find themselves divorced and abandoned after having a child or two. Khadija Banu, also quoted in the television programme, says that there are a number of schemes to benefit women but the most vulnerable sections are too powerless to access them. Alongside, the programme asks the question: if oral triple talaq is no longer in practice in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, why can’t India do the same?

In fact, Bangladesh, which shares its borders with Murshidabad, has also done away with oral triple talaq which was declared illegal by Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961. The methods of talaq applicable to people governed by Muslim law here are talaq e tawfiz, which makes it mandatory to apply through either pouroshobha or union parishad which forms a three-member committee to see if reunion is desirable between the divorcing couple; if not, they must wait for 90 days before divorce becomes effective and enforceable.

Back in West Bengal, regardless of which party has been in power, not much headway has been made in the re-examination of the Shariat Law, though several NGOs and women’s groups have been working seriously towards this. The only glimmer of hope is that several self help groups are emerging to empower women. However, there is hardly any media coverage in the local media on this work. The online media is doing a tad better.

By and large, however, such issues have disappeared from the election radar with no glimpse of them in the different parties’ election manifestos. As Ruchir Joshi writes in his op-ed column in The Telegraph (April 28, 2016), all that the elections seem to focus on is the Congress-Left jot of snatching power from the ruling TMC, while the TMC is doing all that it can to cling to that power.

Needless to say, the people of Bengal suffer, and disadvantaged groups such as poor Muslim women continue to bear the brunt of a number of inequalities.

Manjira Majumdar with Urmi Rahman
Bengal Network
May 2, 2016
    

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