Sunday, June 28, 2009

Prime Time rape

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 28, 2009


It began as a routine crime report. An actor had been charged with raping his domestic help and had been taken into custody. But within a day it became front-page news. Because the actor, Shiney Ahuja, was reasonably well known and the domestic help had registered the complaint within hours of the alleged rape.

The predictable feeding frenzy of the media led to regular updates from the police, even as the case was being investigated, being published. At the same time, the denials and certificates of good character for the actor were also faithfully reported.

Trial by media

Even before the case was filed in court, the trial was on. The chairperson of the National Commission of Women announced, after meeting the domestic help involved, that the accused was guilty and should be punished. On the other side, the actor’s wife declared on major television channels that her husband was innocent and that this was a frame-up. When asked how she had concluded that it was a frame-up, she could not answer except to reiterate that she believed her husband could never do such a thing. Friends and supporters spoke of how much of a gentleman he was, what a good father, and that they too believed he was innocent.

The domestic help, of course, could not speak for herself. She cannot defend the charge made by Ahuja’s wife that this was a frame-up. Rape victims generally do not want to go public and according to the law, the media too has to ensure that neither the name, nor any hint that could reveal the identity of a woman raped, is published. Despite this, at least one television channel and a newspaper ran a photograph of the young woman with her face covered. What did they gain by doing this? Many newspapers also gave details such as the village where she lived, what her father did and several other clues that would determine her identity. Fortunately for her, the media did not pursue this side of the story as the actor’s story was more interesting and would grab more eyeballs.

(To read the rest, click on the link above)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A law with flaws

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 14, 2009


Here we go again. Even those who feel most passionately on this subject must now feel weary at hearing the same set of arguments repeated for and against the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill. While across party lines women politicians are convinced that the Bill must go through — the notable exceptions being Jaya Prada of the Samajwadi Party and Uma Bharati of the Bharatiya Janashakti Party — the same set of male politicians who opposed it in the past continue to do so.

Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United), who will long be remembered for his remark that the Bill would bring into Parliament more women with short hair, has once again staked his claim to notoriety by threatening to drink poison rather than allow the Bill to pass. Although he has retracted this comment, his penchant for the dramatic remains unaltered over the years. Of the other Yadavs, Mulayam sets out the same arguments as Sharad, about a separate quota for Backward Castes, while Lalu, after initially maintaining a diplomatic silence, has now aligned himself with Mulayam and Sharad. And interestingly, while the BJP is whole-heartedly supporting the Bill, its allies, JD (U) and Shiv Sena are opposing it.

Real possibility

The major difference this time from the episodes in the past when the Bill was introduced and then pushed to committee in the face of opposition is that the government has enough support to get two-thirds of the votes in Parliament. Thus, regardless of the threats and noises made by those who oppose it, the Bill could be passed.

It will not happen overnight or even within the 100 days promised by the government because it is still in committee and that committee has to be reconstituted. Given the way these processes work, even setting up a new Committee on Law and Justice will take some time. So the earliest we could see the Bill emerge again would be in the winter session of Parliament. A great deal can happen before that eventuality.

In its anxiety to push through the Bill, the government could brush aside genuine reservations about the current draft of the law and place it before the House unchanged. If there is a constructive debate, something that is not at all guaranteed, then once again the Bill could go into committee to incorporate recommendations. If there is no debate but disruption, as in the past, the government might withdraw it and send it to committee. Or if there is some debate but little opposition, the Bill could go through in its current form.

The last outcome would be the most unsatisfactory. For, if the government fails to take on board some of the constructive suggestions that have been made on the draft, the Bill that is placed in Parliament and somehow pushed through might not serve the purpose for which it has been conceived. The main reason for advocating a quota for women in Parliament is because women do not have a level playing field in the world of politics. Even though political parties have promised to field more women candidates, in fact their numbers have not increased. More women were elected to the 15th Lok Sabha because women’s success rate is much higher than that of men. Given this, if political parties had ensured that at least a third of their candidates were women, it is possible that their number in Parliament would have seen a dramatic increase. That this has not happened illustrates the problem women face, particularly those without family connections, to find a place in the political arena.

A quota will automatically bring up the numbers. But will it make a difference? Who are the women who will get elected? The Yadavs believe that this will only empower the “elite class” of women. That can only be proven if tested.

(To read the rest, click on the link above)