Be it the #MeToo case involving M.J. Akbar or Avni killing, Maneka Gandhi has spoken her mind, demanding punishment for the ‘guilty’.
New Delhi: The Modi government would have liked the controversy over tigress Avni’s killing in Maharashtra to die down as quietly as possible. But one of its ministers has ensured that does not happen.
Hours after the ‘man-eating’ tigress, or T1 — as she was referred to — was shot dead last week, Union minister and animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi jumped into the fray, calling Avni’s killing “a brutal murder” and demanding Maharashtra environment minister Sudhir Mungantiwar’s removal.
Last week, Gandhi shot off an angry letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, requesting him to consider Mungantiwar’s removal.
“As ministers, we need to exhibit the highest standard of sensitivity to the constituencies that we serve,” she said in her letter.
“If the environment and forest minister resorts to killing of animals instead of protecting them, he is definitely failing in his duty. This is something like the WCD minister working for child traffickers,” she wrote.
Days later, Gandhi alleged that the BJP-led government in Maharashtra is giving away forests to cronies at throwaway prices.
Meanwhile, the rest of the government, including the Union minister for environment, Dr Harsh Vardhan maintained a studied silence on the issue, while Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari, who is from Maharashtra, has come out in support of Mungantiwar.
Also read: Italian luxury brand could face legal trouble after Maneka Gandhi’s letter for probe
Gandhi sticks to animal rights cause
A source close to the Gandhi, who is women and child development minister in the Modi cabinet, said that it would be unfair to read too much into the controversy since her stand on Avni’s killing is consistent with her commitment to the cause of animal rights for four decades.
“It would be hypocritical to leave a stand so sacred to you just because you’re part of a government,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“Everyone in the party, including the BJP president, laughed off the matter because they know her commitment to this issue is sacred…So it would be incorrect to paint her as a rebel because as someone who is the mother of the animal rights movement in the country, it would have been surprising if she did not say anything,” the source added.
While Gandhi has always been known for her animal rights activism, Avni’s death is far from an exception. In a government, whose ministers make more news for their silence than for their statements, Gandhi is the unmissable rebel.
The lone government voice on #MeToo
Last month, when most ministers remained tight-lipped over allegations of sexual harassment against former junior external affairs minister M.J. Akbar, Gandhi was the only minister to take a strong, unequivocal stand against him.
While her female colleagues such as defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, textiles minister Smriti Irani, and drinking water and sanitation minister Uma Bharti made some non-committal statements on the issue, Gandhi was the only cabinet minister to call for a probe against Akbar.
“There should be an investigation. Men in position of power often do this. This applies to media, politics and seniors working in companies. Now that women have started speaking out, we should take it seriously,” she told India Today when asked about the allegations against the former editor.
Further, as allegations of sexual harassment mounted in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Gandhi promptly announced the constitution of a committee of retired judges to advise the government on the cases — only for it to be overturned by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
“I believe in the pain and trauma behind every single complaint. Cases of sexual harassment at work must be dealt with a policy of zero tolerance,” she said in a statement.
Sources in the government said the PMO expressed disapproval given that she had not sought its permission before announcing the commission. The message was clear: Even though four retired judges were on board, the commission could not be put in place.
The government instead constituted a group of ministers (GoM) led by home minister Rajnath Singh to strengthen laws and institutional frameworks to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. A month after it was formed, the GoM is yet to meet even once.
Also read: Maneka Gandhi wants minors to be able to report sexual abusers at any age, experts split
On triple talaq
Gandhi does not make her positions on issues clear only through the statements she makes — sometimes she reveals them through her silence.
Last year, when the government made a big political statement by bringing in a controversial bill criminalising the practice of triple talaq, Gandhi refused to utter a word on the bill or the ordinance that followed.
In fact, Gandhi was not part of the group of ministers which drafted the controversial bill.
Her exclusion from the GoM was not accidental — Gandhi is known to have never been convinced about the government’s position on triple talaq. The government, she is known to believe, was approaching the issue concerning the Muslim community “politically”, and therefore, she deemed it fit to not comment on the issue.
When the draft bill was circulated among ministries concerned for responses, WCD was the only ministry to dissent and flag certain issues with the bill.
Other contentious issues
While Gandhi had explicitly said that the government would ban the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community, if the community does not end it voluntarily, sources say she was asked by the Prime Minister, who is known to be close to the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, to not take an unfavourable position on the issue.
After this exchange, Gandhi never commented on the issue of FGM publicly, even as the government argued against banning the practice in the Supreme Court recently.
Similarly, when the Supreme Court allowed in September the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple, Gandhi promptly welcomed the judgment, saying it would make Hindu religion more inclusive. “It opens up the way forward for Hinduism to become even more inclusive and not a property of one caste or one sex,” she said.
However, as the BJP raised the pitch against the Supreme Court judgment, Gandhi retreated into silence refusing to comment on the issue again.
Most recently, Gandhi has directed her ministry to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet ‘Direct Benefit Transfer’ scheme, which she believes would cause hardship to women and children.
The scheme was supposed to replace the practice of providing nutritious take-home rations to children below three years of age, pregnant women and lactating mothers with direct cash transfers.
Also read: Animal welfare body wants Modi govt to tell Maneka Gandhi to stay away from its affairs
‘Uchit sthan, uchit samay’
Asked how she manages to get away with going against the party line, a senior BJP member said it is mainly because the party does not like to go back on its decisions once they’re taken. “She’s already a minister, so right now, the party high command will just look the other way, but it is certainly not being appreciated,” said the BJP member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Our party believes in the culture of uchit sthan, uchit samay, which means things should be said at the right time and in the right forum, so if she’s breaking that tradition, she will slowly but surely be sidelined.”
However, Gandhi being sidelined within the party would be a loss for the BJP as well, the senior BJP member added. “It will be unfortunate for the party because she’s extremely talented — an effective minister and administrator, who is given to issues…But if she publicly goes against her own party, it will backfire in the next election, if not immediately.”
A fiery past
However, none of this is new for Gandhi. She has always been an agenda-setting politician and doesn’t quite care about whether her colleagues rally for her causes. After she was ejected from the Indira Gandhi family, she didn’t quite retreat into the shadows. She edited a powerful political magazine called Surya in the 1980s.
As minister of environment and forests between 1989 and 1991, she turned a sleepy ministry — mostly devoted to planting trees, setting up biogas plants and saving the tiger — into a change-activist den. She became a star in the international media when she tore into the rich countries for their inaction on the ozone layer agreement.
She was India’s first politician with a green agenda and articulated her issues in the new vocabulary of the international environmental activism.
Throughout the 1990s, Indian media routinely played up stories about her so-called temperamental outbursts, and tough talk with the bureaucrats.
While her own colleagues in the government think of her as an unpredictable, sometimes even politically unreliable leader, Gandhi is known to be secure of her future political prospects.
A seven-time Lok Sabha MP and an ousted bahu of the Gandhi family, her presence in the BJP — even if on the peripheries — remains symbolically crucial for the party. But there are some in the BJP who are not sure if she will return to government when, as they foresee, the party wins a second term next year.
A rare shaft of sunlight amidst leaden skies.
With due respect for the minister, I must point out a FACT of life: every numb-witted person is outspoken. That in itself is no virtue.
On one issue a minister of women’s affairs should have been expected to be outspoken is the issue of RAPES in our society. This heart wrenching reality has produced nothing but cowardly, clever, and hateful SILENCE from this “outspoken” minister. If things were beyond her control, then instead of watching helplessly she should have at least resigned — and become an activist on behalf of helpless women instead of a murderous animal.
Comments are closed.