On Sunday, the actor Alok Nath, known for film and TV roles of the kindly father/uncle who lectures people on Indian culture and values (and also lately for tele-marketing gemstones to suit various superstitions), tweeted a selfie with his daughter with the hashtag #SelfieWithDaughter. This was in response to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call to tweet with that hashtag and share the photographs with him. Soon after that, he responded to a tweet of mine criticising the prime minister, with the words "jail the bitch".
This exchange summarises, in a nutshell, all that's wrong with the government's pet #SelfieWithDaughter campaign. What really is the point of a public display of pride in your daughter if you find it acceptable to shower sexist abuse on women whom you disagree with?
All of Sunday, Modi supporters have showered me - and other critics of the campaign like actress Shruti Seth - with a barrage of abusive tweets, replete with rape threats, racism, and vilest of abuse. The context was that I tweeted to suggest that parents should be careful before sharing selfies with their daughters, with the PM, since he had a history of stalking women. My reference was to the Snoopgate expose, which revealed copious phone transcripts of the then Gujarat home minister Amit Shah instructing police and intelligence personnel to illegally tap the phone of and snoop on a young woman to feed information to "Saheb" (presumably, then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi) who obsessively demanded intimate details of her personal life, conversations and friendships.
In response, I got tweets from Modi supporters that threatened me with rape; threats to insert a sugarcane stalks into me and do to me what was done to Muslim women in the communal riots at Muzaffarnagar; I was called a prostitute, my parents were called dogs, it was suggested I should be raped by dogs, or that I be sexually abused by my father, and so on. Several tweets and Facebook posts called me "daughter of a negro" (referring to my dark complexion) and suggested I (and other women who supported me) were transgender persons or "negro lesbians". The vitriol in defence of the prime minister was a cocktail of gross racism, homophobia, transphobia and graphic violence against women.
|Some of the tweets posted in response to the #SelfieWithDaughter comment.|
I am not complaining. On the contrary I am quite pleased that the active section of Modi's Twitter supporters, spent their time and energy displaying their deep-seated ideological tendency to be violent to women, rather than posturing as feminists with sweet #SelfieWithDaughter and photographs. After all, isn't it true that RSS and BJP supporters have, in fact done to women what they have threatened to do to me? Didn't Modi supporter Babu Bajrangi boast variously of having "rescued" (kidnapped) Hindu women from Muslim husbands, and of having inserted a sword into a pregnant Muslim woman's womb in Gujarat during the communal violence, confident that "Narendrabhai" would protect him? In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, didn't Modi supporters rape Muslim women in Muzaffarnagar and kill Muslims? And didn't Amit Shah, in election meetings addressing the khap panchayat constituency, justify these riots in the name of "protecting Hindu daughters and sisters" from Muslims?
As the examples of Bajrangi and Amit Shah show, violence against Hindu daughters is just as much a hallmark of the politics of the RSS and BJP, as violence against Muslim women. Bajrangi "felt like Maharana Pratap" brutally raping and murdering a Muslim woman in much the same manner that "Nirbhaya" was raped in December 2012. The same Bajrangi advocated coercion and kidnapping of Hindu daughters who loved and married by choice, outside the Hindu community, warning that every daughter who exercised her free will was "like a bomb" who might blow up the family! In his worldview, shaped by the RSS shakhas, a daughter's free choice of partner, was equivalent to an act of terror! Indeed, the RSS fears free women and routinely tries to exercise control over women's clothes, conduct and choice of partner/husband. The Muzaffarnagar riots were orchestrated by the RSS and BJP in cooperation with the Jat khap panchayats that in Western UP and Haryana, routinely murder daughters who choose inter-caste, inter-faith and same gotra marriages. These khaps also impose dress codes on girls and women - in the name of their "safety". Not long ago, the BJP chief minister of Haryana supported these actions of the khap panchayats, saying "Freedom must have limits, girls should dress decently and not lure boys". This is the ideology of bondage (bandhan) of daughters in the name of their protection (raksha) that underlies the RSS' "Rakshabandhan" campaign that Modi has just endorsed and plans to officially celebrate in Yoga Day style. And inevitably, that ideology of protecting/coercing "our" daughters from loving or marrying "other" men, is wedded to ideology of violence against "other" men and women.
Why I have dwelt on this patriarchal ideology displayed by Bajrangi, Amit Shah, the khaps and Khattar, is because this is precisely the ideology deployed by the BJP to defend the illegal snooping by "Saheb" on a young woman. The BJP claimed that the snooping was done in response to a desperate request by the target's father, to "protect" her. Affidavits submitted to the court too claimed that the woman and her father were "grateful" for the snooping. But this does not answer the question: why, if the phone tap and surveillance had a legal and noble motive, did the chief minister, home minister and Gujarat government not find time to secure legal permission for it all?
In the landmark People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) verdict of 1997, the Supreme Court set restrictions on the scope of the Indian Telegraph Act that permits phone taps. The concerned section S.5(2) of the Telegraph Act reads:
"On the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety, the Central Government or a State Government or any Officer specially authorised in this behalf by the Central Govt. or a State Government may, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of and offence, for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct that any message clear of messages to or from any person or class of persons, relating to any particular subject, brought for transmission by or transmitted or received by any telegraph, shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detailed, or shall be disclosed to the Government making the order or an officer thereof mentioned in the order."
The PUCL verdict introduced a number of rigorous procedural safeguards, among them,
"1. An order for telephone-tapping in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act shall not be issued except by the Home Secretary, Government of India (Central Government) and Home Secretaries of the State Governments. In an urgent case the power may be delegated to an officer of the Home Department of the Government of India and the State Governments not below the rank of Joint Secretary. Copy of the order shall be sent to the Review Committee concerned within one week of the passing of the order."
Over three months of surveillance, why didn't the Gujarat government procure the requisite legal order which would have made the surveillance legal? The BJP, defending the snooping, has never yet been able to claim that such legal orders were procured. Indeed, if the legal orders existed, the BJP could have silenced us all simply by making public those documents proving the snooping operation to be legal and bonafide. Why, then, was it kept secret and off the records? The facts indicate that this was because its purpose was not to protect a woman or a citizen from a crime, but rather to facilitate a crime: the crime of stalking a woman.
During three months of surveillance, cops snooped not only on the woman but on her family, her would-be-husband, and her acquaintances. If indeed her father and family had requested the snooping and she was grateful for it, why didn't she and her family cooperate with the police in the project of protection? Why did the police have to illegally tap all their phones? These and other questions have been asked and answered in the Snoopgate expose - the result is that the BJP tall tale claiming it was all to protect a daughter in response to her father's plea, just don't add up.
Now, those offended by my tweet have suggested that it was "personal" and "below the belt". I reiterate here that I am least concerned if Modi or any older man (or woman) has an affair with a younger person of any gender. But an illegal phone tap is a matter of public interest. US President Nixon lost his job over illegal political snooping at Watergate. Can we, Indian citizens, not even question our prime minister over illegal snooping using police and demand an answer?
This isn't about whether the woman and her dad today claim that they are okay with having been snooped on. Criminal violations of laws are a crime against society - the state is obliged to take cognisance of it if facts are in the public domain. The facts, leaked to the public, indicate that the Gujarat government illegally conducted surveillance on a citizen, a woman. Yet, the right questions are not being asked, the matter has been suppressed, and Saheb is able to posture as a protector of women and daughters, in his Mann ki Baat speech that was silent on ongoing corruption scandals engulfing his government.
The concept of #SelfieWithDaughter and social media campaigns could be more effective as a propaganda tool to counter sex selective abortion and infanticide than sarkari ads on Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. As a propaganda tool goes, I have nothing much against it. My question is - how to go beyond superficial "we respect women/protect daughters" posturing? After all, today's experience has proved that the same people tweeting #SelfieWithDaughter can also indulge easily in the most horrific verbal violence against women, and can advocate physical violence as a political tool. What's the point of posting selfies with daughters, if you can't oppose honour crimes against daughters? If you can't defend the freedom of every woman to express opinions in public space without being subjected to rape threats? If you can't safeguard the freedom and rights of women to dress as they please and love and marry who they please?
In conclusion, I would like to address those who claims that Modi cannot be responsible for the sexism and violence against women displayed by his supporters on social media. There are several reasons why that is untrue. First, Modi himself has led from the front in such verbal violence and sexism with his speeches on "50 crore ki girlfriend" and "Despite being a woman". Second, his own ministers and MPs have indulged in exactly the same brand of vicious sexism displayed on twitter by his bhakts - recall the "haramzada" (bastards) speech by Modi minister Niranjan Jyoti; Sadhvi Prachi's demand that Hindu women produce "4 children, not 40 puppies like Muslims do"; BJP MP Yogi Adityanath's speech advocating the rape of Muslim corpses just for a sample.
And third, Modi is not only silent on the abuse by his twitter and Facebook supporters, he even encourages violent handles by following some of them. For instance, Modi himself follows @ratigirl who had, in August 2014, indulged in rape-speak aimed at me. Her tweet had said, "Will pray that she (activist Kavitha Krishnan) gets raped by the madrasawalas n is forced the don the hijab permanently".
Now, I don't diss social media campaigns on gender. I found the Why Loiter and #distractinglysexy social media campaigns especially effective. So, I don't diss the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign. But can the social media campaign have the desired effect, if the Prime Minister of India remains silent on or follows handles that defend him by unleashing violence on women who criticise his politics? Surely the prime minister should break his silence, not only on scams by his men and women, but on the abuse and violence done in his name?