Issues and concerns related to minorities under the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the centre have dominated the media glare ever since the 2014 general elections. The supporters of the government have called protests based on such issues a fabrication of the opposition, while those taking part in these have labeled them as their only option.
Right or wrong, most of these have been related to minorities of one kind or the other, that is, based on religion, caste, language etc. These have not only dominated the spotlight at times, pushing various governments on the back foot but also brought areas they were held in to a halt. For example, the Patidars in Gujarat, Rajputs in Rajasthan or religious minorities in different states.
For all the troubles these might have caused those in power, they should be thankful that one of the largest sections of society that can make a strong case of discrimination against them has chosen not to hit the streets like other groups.
And though in terms of population women may not be a minority in the conventional sense, in a patriarchal society like India, where irrespective of their population when it comes to their roles in religion, culture and society, crimes against them, treatment as dependents etc., they can clearly be considered a minority.
In fact, women suffer twice. First as a part of a minority group and then again a minority within a minority. While government's steps such as promoting Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, lauding #Selfiewithdaughter campaign among others, noble in nature, leave much to be desired when it comes to the ground reality of empowering women.
While issues related to these are constantly in the news, a look at three steps related to women by those in power shows how far away decision-making authorities continue to be from understanding how women are treated in India.
Sanitary napkins taxation
As the new scheme of indirect taxation, Goods and Services Tax (GST) became a reality for the whole country from July 1 this year, tax rates for almost all categories of items were placed under various slabs of nil, 5, 12, 18 or 28 per cent.
One of these was sanitary napkins used by women, which are a necessity to them and not a luxury, during their menstrual cycles. The tax rates for them were increased from 5 to 12 per cent. When by all conventional logic they should not be taxed at all, the government has ended up increasing the tax levied on them.
While this might seem a small issue to those in power, that is, if the matter ever comes to their attention, it clearly shows how out of touch those involved in the running of the country seem to be with the women themselves and the issues of their everyday lives.
The defenders of such a step have pointed to such essentials being a luxury of those who can afford it while the majority of women in the country use cloth instead. They seem to forget that the cost of this product along with a lack of awareness have been the main reasons behind them not being used by all women.
Even though they are hygienic and healthier choice compared to cloth, this seems too difficult to grasp for those in power. As can be seen from the fact that while condoms have been exempted from tax under GST, and rightly so, the same was not done for sanitary napkins.
Instead of making an attempt at creating awareness and increasing affordability of the better option, somehow those making decisions have made such tasks even more difficult.
Ban on "Lipstick under my Burkha"
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) of Indian cinema, or what is popularly known as the censor board, has been engrossed in many issues related to its decision on, what and how the visuals on screens are to be watched.
And one of the latest ones was based on a decision by the chairman of the board Pahlaj Nihalani, appointed by the Narendra Modi government, regarding issues that the board found with the women oriented movie titled Lipstick Under My Burkha.
The concerns of the board were apparently severe enough that they chose to ban the release of the film. Reasons given for such a step include the film being and having content which according to the board is "lady-oriented," with "continuous sexual scenes," a "fantasy above life," "women's fantasies," and for its "sexual content, abusive words and audio pornography," among others.
This led to the filmmakers approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) which allowed the release of the film while recommending an adult certification for the film and also pulled up the board for its decision by examining that its members "misdirected themselves in denying certification on the ground that the story of the film is women oriented."
Though the episode might get lost in the midst of controversies that the board seems to find itself in on a regular basis, the idea that women oriented movies which depict them having human emotions and problems can be banned based on sexist views of a body whose members are closely associated with those in power, goes to show how deep and high up the problem of misunderstanding women issues goes along with the lack of knowledge and total apathy towards issues that concern them.
Women's reservation in Parliament
In 2010, the Women's Reservation Bill, to ensure a 33 per cent quota for women in Parliament was passed in Rajya Sabha among much fan fare. Since then it has not seen any movement in Lok Sabha, the house where it also needs to be passed for it to effect as a law of the land. In fact, the bill has been pending in Parliament for more than two-decades ever since it was first introduced in 1996 by the government under the then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda.
The demand has been rejuvenated recently as women's rights groups from across the country, have come together, and raised the demand for the passage of the Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament. Not only this, women activists are now demanding 50 per cent reservation.
Though the demand for half the seats to be reserved might be an ask that even those making it do not expect to be granted, the idea behind it seems to be that in order to raise the issue and for those who matter to take it seriously, something of this nature is required.
The current protests seem to be based on the thinking that political presence is the only way to safeguard women's rights in the country. According to figures, women hold a mere 12 per cent of the seats in Parliament and nine per cent in state assemblies, informed the director of the Centre for Social Research, Ranjana Kumari. "Unless there are more women in politics, their concerns cannot be addressed effectively," she added.
But the BJP, which is leading the current government and has enough numbers in Lok Sabha to ensure the passage of the Bill, and who according to Director of the Joint Women's Programme, Jyotsna Chatterjee, had committed support to the bill in its manifesto for the 2014 general elections, has shown no initiative on this front since. She said, "It is high time to prove what they had declared in their election manifesto. The government says 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' (save girls, educate girls), but what about her political rights?"
Politics in India like almost all others fields is seen as a domain of men, who have taken a stranglehold on law making and running of governments in the country. This comes out in the case of the reservation Bill not only in terms of not passing it, but also from the fact that there seems to be a total lack of debate on it. With there seemingly being an unwritten writ by those in power, that the matter needs to be kept in an informal abeyance, as can be seen by the two-decade long inaction on the Bill.
Men in society have to be held responsible
Such demands of reservation seem to be based on the overall neglect of women issues that the country has seen since it got independence. A few examples include female feticide, increased number of rapes and crime against women, harassment at the family unit and in society. And such ground level difficulties are compounded and brought to the fore by the apathy of those in power who make decisions such as the ban, lack of debate on reservation and taxes etc.
As to the answer to why such a situation exists in the first place, though not concrete answer can be given to this, a look at them in terms of how minorities are treated in a society where the majority chooses to take away from the rest every right that it intends to, gives a glimpse into it. The majority in this case, the men in society have to be held responsible for this.
This leads to the question as to how such a situation might change as those who have till now been guilty, if not directly committing such injustice, then of allowing it, are the ones who can help solve it.
But the chances of this seem slim, especially so, given the way things have gone when it comes to those who are in power continuing to take decisions which when it comes to issues related to women, treat them as second class citizens. As can be seen in three examples mentioned.
A delay in changing the status quo and providing justice would come at a huge risk, given that when minority goes on strike or decides to hit the roads, the society as a whole goes into a crisis. The mere thought of the largest minority made up of women finally losing patience and taking similar steps should make governments at the centre and in the states deliver on promises that are time and again made but never fulfilled.