India's rape victims lost in political row

A war of words over compensation for rape victims has overshadowed the real issue, of violence against poor women

By Kanishk Tharoor

Indians have long grown used to tawdry eruptions and interruptions in their politics, when the contentious core of Indian political life surfaces in the most grisly, unflattering light. From corruption to sex to murder, the "world's largest democracy" is no stranger to the dirty imbroglio.

But the latest scandal to sweep through newspapers is striking in the depths of cynicism and coarseness it reveals. Rita Bahugana Joshi – a politician in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, affiliated with India's ruling Congress party – has been jailed after she made inflammatory comments regarding the state's chief minister, Mayawati. Deriding the latter's attempts to compensate victims of rape, Joshi tactlessly urged victims to "throw the money at Mayawati's face and tell her 'you should also be raped and I will give you 10m rupees'".

The response was swift and emphatic. Political rivals and allies condemned her ill-chosen words. Uttar Pradesh's authorities, with Mayawati's urging, flung Joshi into jail under a raft of charges, notable among them the crime of "insulting a person of a lower caste" (Mayawati is a Dalit, a member of the marginalised Hindu caste formerly known as "untouchables"). Joshi apologised for her remarks, but at the time of writing had not yet been granted bail. Her mood is unlikely to have improved with the news that her house has been set on fire.

Trading in such cheap, demeaning jibes is certainly reprehensible. But did they warrant the intervention of police and the courts? Mayawati's many opponents have added further fuel to the fire, claiming that her rule in Uttar Pradesh had ushered in the "law of the jungle".

But amid all this fiery uproar, the real outrage is how easily a serious issue – violence against poor women – can get lost in the muck of political mudslinging.

The calculating politics of the incident are sadly predictable. Mayawati is a populist leader who rose remarkably to the fore of the political scene at the helm of the Bahujan Samaj party, a movement of largely "low-caste" people. While her grip on Uttar Pradesh (India's most populous state with 191 million inhabitants, the same size as Brazil) remains strong, she has to fend off the resurgence of the Congress party in the state. Her much-publicised programme of compensation for Dalit victims of rape was itself aimed at solidifying a base of poor, largely rural support. Joshi's gaffe provided a juicy opportunity for further political theatrics and point-scoring.

Depressingly, Mayawati and Uttar Pradesh have plumbed these depths plumbed before. Two years ago, she sparked controversy by attacking Mulayam Yadav, then chief minister, for his own plan to compensate Muslim rape victims, calling on Muslims to pay hefty compensation to Yadav's daughter if she were raped. The furore sparked by those remarks then (and by Joshi's now) reminds Indians of gaping remove of politics from real life. In both cases, politicians vie for constituencies, for "vote banks" of Muslims or Dalits, not by wrestling over issues, but by wrestling over how politicians wrestle over issues. Joshi and Mayawati were effectively fighting over shadows.

Rape in India is a crisis of substance, not murk. On average, a woman is raped every hour in the country, a stunning and damning statistic. Only one in 70 cases gets reported. Though India's proliferating media has increasingly shone light on the deplorable frequency of rape, such stories tend to focus on the urban educated, or on crimes linked to celebrities, like the case of Shiney Ahuja. Yet it is among the oft-neglected rural poor that cases of rape and domestic violence are particularly rampant. It is an indictment of the cupidity of certain leaders, and of a media soundbite culture that privileges accusation over investigation, that the problem of violence against poor women rises to public attention only to be obscured in petty politics.



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