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Political parties need to engage in a deeper way on the question of rape. Here’s how it can be done

Case for political engagement with rape, indeed gender violence overall, is strong; it applies to both ruling and Opposition parties
Last Updated : 13 October 2020, 01:36 IST
Last Updated : 13 October 2020, 01:36 IST

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Should rape be politicised? India’s political parties can’t make up their mind. If they happen to be in power, such politicisation is unwelcome, sensationalist, smacking of cheap one-upmanship. If they happen to be in Opposition, it is a moral and civic obligation. So, we have a peculiar situation where, at one point of time or another, all major political parties have accused rivals of – and been accused by rivals of – politicising rape.

The inconsistency is unacceptable. The case for political engagement with rape, indeed gender violence overall, is strong. And it applies to both ruling and Opposition parties. For this piece, we keep the focus on rape, though much of what is said extends to other forms of gender violence.

Why engagement is a necessity

The misogyny, casteism, and power imbalances underlying rape require intervention both in the social and legal domain. Given their opinion mobilisation capacities and the influence they command over lawmaking and implementation, political parties can have a key role in imagining and realising solutions. Even if they are less proactive than they should be (a distinct possibility), there is little prospect of things shaking up without political buy-ins.

Moreover, political parties are expected, duty-bound really, to engage with rape, the attitudes, vulnerabilities, and structures that allow it to happen – and happen with impunity. While parties in government are responsible for ensuring women’s safety, law and order, early and full prosecution of the guilty, and victim’s dignified rehabilitation, those in the Opposition are responsible for pressuring governments into ensuring these. The confrontation element in this division of labour notwithstanding, the object remains – or, at least, should remain – common: Preventing the crime and ensuring justice for its victims.

The consequences of a ‘consensus’ on not politicising rape will be disastrous. If rulers go silent because crime has been perpetrated under their watch and the Opposition is silent because of this daft consensus, victims and their families would stand further isolated and disillusioned, criminals will be further emboldened, and, we will be on a slippery slope down which would lie many more injustices and conspiracies of silence abetting them.

Finally, the argument that political mobilisation can degenerate into petty politicking and is, therefore, unhelpful holds little water. This is so because the ones making this argument often have questionable motives. It is invariably those in power and in the dock who urge not to politick. What they seek is not space for healing but time for voters to forget, not space for crafting solutions but respite from anger and criticism.

Also, it is important to bear in mind that nothing gets those in power moving more promptly than image concerns. The power of political noise, even if it appears shallow at times, to spur action should not be underestimated. For instance, the little movement the Hathras rape case has seen owes much to the Opposition’s hue and cry.

The danger of fundamental issues being forgotten after the ruling party’s interests have been salvaged or the Opposition has extracted the political mileage it was seeking remains, but the chances of such forgetfulness are higher amidst politically-agreed silences, lower if the din lasts.

Contours of a political concensus on fighting rape

This still leaves us with the question of how episodic and partisan mobilisations – valuable as they are – can be complemented with a more considered, sustained, nonpartisan engagement.

For starters, such nonpartisan engagement could focus on arriving at a set of commitments all parties make. These common commitments could be around specific efforts any party in power should make towards strategising attitudinal resets, ensuring professional and sensitive investigations, and delivering timely convictions.

They should also develop in-party mechanisms for handling charges of gender violence brought against party members and clear outlining of offences which would render individuals ineligible for election tickets and organisational responsibilities.

They should also develop simple, measurable, and verifiable indicators for the above on which all parties agree to regularly self-disclose and be assessed through independent audits.

It won’t be easy. These commitments are challenging to extract in the best of times. They will be particularly tough at this juncture, a time marked by blind loyalty to party and leader, bitter political relations, and collapsing spaces for introspection and dialogue.

In these circumstances, it is overly optimistic to expect political parties to sit together, agree, and sign off on a basic set of commitments, even if – and this is deeply disturbing – the issue happens to directly bear on the safety and well-being of half the nation’s population.

In the tradition of Track II diplomacy, where backroom players set the stage for front room ones unwilling to be seen hobnobbing, the initial stage-setting for a nonpartisan engagement could be done by women’s organizations, think tanks, and other civil society formations. Of course, they would be working with leaders – Dalits, women, and really anyone amenable to privileging conscience over party loyalty – from across party lines to flesh out these commitments, issue them from a neutral platform, and enjoin all political parties to endorse them.

Sustained pursuit and assessment and dissemination of comparative party performance on identified indicators could further build pressure on parties to sign up. As for political parties who remain lukewarm despite all the effort, let them be shamed, let their record be presented in the people’s court. But if fingers are to be credibly raised, others will have to pick up the gauntlet and act before that.

It is time to make a start.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 13 October 2020, 01:36 IST

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