The Narendra Modi government managed to push through the Triple Talaq Bill in the Rajya Sabha this week, making it a criminal offence for Muslim men to give an instant divorce to their wives. But the government remains afraid of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which guarantees 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
Because the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010, it will remain alive. This means that the Modi government, with a majority in the Lok Sabha (303 seats) can pass the pro-women-in-politics legislation in a heartbeat.
It is significant that it hasn’t. All through its first tenure – the proposed law was one of the BJP’s promises in 2014 manifesto – as well as today, the Modi government undertook no discussion or reference or mention of this path-breaking potential legislation. The BJP continues to give the bill a very cold shoulder.
It is easy to see why. Giving up 150 seats to women of all castes and religions in a House of 545 is a huge step. It will mean overhauling the politics that has dominated Parliament at least since the Mandal days, and before that, since Independence.
There is no one in the BJP, not even PM Modi, with the courage to reinvent politics that has the potential to impact a much wider population. Instead, the Modi government has tinkered around with a raft of legislation in the hope that it will embellish its pro-women reputation.
But it has protected its own male preserve with certain aggression, as seen in the BJP’s defence of Uttar Pradesh’s Bangarmau MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar, the alleged rapist of the Unnao teenager.
Sengar won on a BJP ticket in 2017. He is considered influential enough to command the backing of his Thakur caste vote. Nobody wanted to stir the pot these last couple of years – not when the girl was raped in 2017, and not in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, which noted chauvinist Sakshi Maharaj won hands down to enter Parliament from Unnao.
In fact, Sakshi Maharaj even went to meet Sengar in Sitapur jail, where he has been lodged since his arrest in April 2018, to “thank him” for the support from inside the prison.
It took a car accident in which the Unnao rape victim was severely injured, and is on a ventilator, for the BJP to take action. In fact, it took five days of public outrage after the accident, which the CBI is now treating as a case of murder and has booked Sengar and 10 others before party president Amit Shah finally relented and expelled Sengar.
The decision came after much dilly-dallying, with the BJP realising that it was better to cut its losses, like it had done with Rajya Sabha MP M.J. Akbar, whom it let quit from the post of junior external affairs minister last October following accusations of sexual harassment and rape by several women journalists.
But Akbar has neither lost his party affiliation, nor his Rajya Sabha seat, and prominently sits on the bench behind Home Minister Amit Shah.
It is significant that the Modi government has tried to push the narrative that it is pro-women. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s pro-women Budget announcements drew loud applause. And when Samajwadi Party MP Azam Khan’s comments on BJP MP Rama Devi during the debate on the Triple Talaq Bill were censored, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani rightfully pointed out that Khan’s remarks “were a blot on all legislators, including men.”
In the new 17th Lok Sabha, there are as many as 78 women members, the highest ever, of which 41 belong to the BJP. On average, the women members are as much as six years younger than their male counterparts. Even in Uttar Pradesh’s 403-member assembly, there are 38 women, of which 32 belong to the BJP.
But it is the remarkable energy and determination with which the Modi government rammed through the Triple Talaq Bill in the Rajya Sabha, by dividing and ruling over the Opposition, that will be remembered.
The BJP’s partner in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United), opposed the bill on the floor of the House, but abstained from voting. The AIADMK and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi walked out of the House before voting, effectively bringing the strength down, as did several members of the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the Samajwadi Party. The Biju Janata Dal extended support to the BJP.
The Modi-led NDA coalition, which doesn’t have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, won the vote 99-84.
But what about Modi’s statement last April when, in reference to the Unnao rape and the Kathua rape-murder of a child, he had said that the “culprit will not be spared” and “our daughters will get justice”?
As they wait for their daughter to get better, perhaps this is something the Unnao girl’s family can hang on to.
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