On the last day of 2023, India received the news of the three young men accused of gang-raping the 20-year-old woman B Tech student of IIT-BHU at gunpoint two months earlier, being finally arrested. The three men were Kunal Pandey, Saksham Patel and Anand Chauhan, all associated with the BJP’s Varanasi IT cell – the first two, in fact the convenor and co-convenor of the IT cell. The social media accounts of the arrested, which was deleted soon after their arrest, bore ample witness to the close connections of the arrested with the BJP top brass including PM Narendra Modi, CM Yogi Adityanath, BJP President JP Nadda and women and child welfare minister Smriti Irani. The three were perhaps not arrested earlier because of the elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In fact, they had made good their escape from Varanasi to Madhya Pradesh to campaign for the BJP in MP elections.
Huge protests had erupted in early November in the IIT-BHU campus forcing the police to file an FIR. The initial FIR had sought to downplay the degree of crime and it was only after the victim made a statement before the Magistrate that gang-rape charges were included. Clearly, the initial response of the university authorities and the police administration was to try and hush up the incident. Student organisations active in Varanasi, including AISA and Bhagat Singh Chhatra Morcha, women’s organisations and local units of several opposition parties have repeatedly protested against the culture of misogyny and thuggish violence practised by the Sangh brigade, but the state has only been busy suppressing the protests. In fact, in this case, the ABVP, in connivance with the university and police, sought to derail the protests by implicating AISA and BCM activists. But for once, the truth could not be suppressed and the true colours of the Sangh brigade’s ‘sanskari culture’ have been exposed for the whole world to see.
Varanasi is the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. BHU is an iconic academic institution of the city, and ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ is a key slogan of the government. Many of the Modi government’s flagship schemes from ‘Swachh Bharat’ to ‘Ujjwala Yojana’ have been projected as steps towards women’s empowerment. Just the other day the government called a special session of Parliament, the first one in the new building, to pass the women’s reservation bill calling it the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’, a worship offering to women’s power! When the safety of a girl student is so brazenly violated in IIT-BHU and the perpetrators turn out to be key functionaries of the BJP’s own IT cell, it should be seen as a matter of the deepest shame for the Modi government. But the government could evidently not care less!
Indeed, if we look at the status of Indian women on the ground, the present regime should be described as a reign of growing insecurity with the perpetrators of anti-women violence often being protected and promoted by the ruling party. The message was delivered loud and clear on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence when the convicted rapists of Bilkis Bano in the Gujarat pogroms of 2002 were granted a premature release from jail as a special independence day gift and accorded a hero’s welcome ahead of the Gujarat elections. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has now revoked this selective remission charging the Gujarat government of suppression of facts and usurpation and abuse of power.
The horrific scale of violence against women and children in Manipur has shocked the whole world, but the Modi government has refused to take any measure to restore any kind of normalcy in the state. And under the double engine Modi-Yogi government, India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh has emerged as a key laboratory of anti-women violence and oppression. According to NCRB figures, Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 65,743 registered FIRs of crimes against women in 2022. There were as many as 62 registered cases of ‘murder with rape or gang-rape’. Dalit women in particular have been targeted for some of the most horrific atrocities.
The BJP today has the highest number of sitting MPs or MLAs with cases of crime against women – according to the ADR’s National Election Watch Report 2023, the figure is as high as 44, with seven facing rape charges. And we know how the BJP backs them to the hilt. The likes of Kuldeep Singh Sengar (former MLA from Unnao) and Ramdular Gond (BJP MLA from Duddhi, Sonbhadra sentenced to 25 years in jail for rape of a minor girl) were defended till the very end. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh continues to roam free as the BJP MP from Gonda, despite having serious charges of sexual harassment levelled by India’s award-winning women wrestlers and corroborated by Delhi police in its primary investigation. And this is not restricted to India: Balesh Dhankhar, founder-president of the Overseas Friends of BJP in Australia is currently facing trial in Australia on charges of serial rapes and assaults on women.
The slogan of security and empowerment of women has lost all meaning with the worst perpetrators of misogyny and crimes against women enjoying the highest level of patronage in the Sangh-BJP establishment. An ideology rooted in Manusmriti can only try and enforce social inequality and slavery by all means and when it has the backing of political power it becomes so much more dangerous. As the people of India celebrated the pioneer of women’s education and anti-caste social justice Savitribai Phule’s legacy on 3rd January, it was clearer than ever that, as Savitribai taught us, the fight for women’s education and empowerment in India calls for an emphatic rejection of the misogynistic Brahminical ideology of Manusmriti. Today, this also requires the decisive political defeat of the regime which enforces its violent prescriptions from the citadels of power.