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Activists Reflect on the Rights Implications of India’s New Government

FRIDAY FILE: The result of India’s recent elections was a resounding victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. As Narendra Modi takes over leadership of India’s first majority government in three decades, AWID spoke with rights activists from diverse fields and locations about their reflections and concerns.

By Saira Zuberi[i]

India’s general election for members of the 16th Lok Sabha (House of the People, India’s lower house of parliament) took place in nine phases between April and May 2014. It was a historic election not just for India, but probably for the world—the size of the population eligible to vote increased to over 800 million; and a historic voter turnout of 66.4% (the highest ever recorded in any national election), well over half a billion people actually exercised their franchise, including a huge proportion of the 150 million newly registered voters between 18 and 23.

A surge in voting by women in general, and young women in particular, was observed, and attributed to concern about improved education and employment opportunities and the rising tide of sexual and other violence against them. ‘Women’s empowerment’, though not very clearly defined, and the safety and security of women, was a key electoral issue, and part of the manifestoes of all major national parties. Televised and, on-the-ground, debates about the increasing violence against women, and persistent gender disparities, was central to this election in a way unseen in earlier ones.

Commentators have noted that there is no apparent departure from the former Congress-led government’s economic policies, with unbridled economic growth being the goal, at the expense of the environment or individual and collective rights. With 282 of 543 seats (51.93%) in the Lok Sabha, the BJP now holds power in the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian National Congress (INC), which led the United Progressive Alliance that ruled the country for the past ten years, suffered its worst defeat in history – receiving less than 20% of the popular vote and winning just 44 seats. Despite holding itself up as the main champion of secularism, the Congress was unable to overcome widespread public perception as being ineffective in controlling inflation and rebooting a stagnant economy, turning a blind eye to corruption in its own ranks and in major public services, and being soft on terrorism and crimes against women. Their secular credentials were also badly tarnished by decades of “soft” communalism and opportunistic divide and rule politics[ii]

The election results reflect not only a rejection of Congress rule, but the successful overhauling of the image of Narendra Modi and the country’s most impressive electoral PR campaign to date. Modi was recast from a provincial to a national leader; from the man who presided over genocide to the architect of the “Gujarat Model” symbolizing rapid economic development with clean and efficient governance; and from a rabid fundamentalist to a mature, inclusive national leader. This recasting of Modi was essential since he has never managed to shake off the stigma of being the leader in charge Gujarat state on India’s west coast, where in 2002, some 2,000 Muslims were systematically slaughtered, and countless others tortured, raped, maimed, and over 100,000 homes seriously damaged or destroyed. This history, and the lack of accountability that followed - combined with the more muscular neoliberal policies of the BJP and how these impact labour and economic rights for those who are not beneficiaries--has raised concerns about what the new BJP government will mean at the national level, particularly for religious and ethnic minorities, those at the lower end of the caste system, women, workers, and sexual minorities.

Little surprise at the results

For feminist writer and activist Vasanth Kannabiran, the election results came as no surprise. “There was a clear indication that the wind was blowing that way.” What did perhaps surprise some, was the extent of backlash suffered by Congress. “The sweep and decimation of all other parties was a shock. But, (there is) also a sense that the way the Congress and the Left had bungled along, they deserved it. At least this is the naked truth. We have no secular illusions.”

Veteran women’s rights activist Abha Bhaiya had the sense that this time “the total lack of alliances within so-called secular parties was going to clear the ‎way for BJP. As such, the tremendous finances pumped into the election campaign--‎including an unusually ugly and nearly total take-over of the media and ‎a tremendous support of the aligning fundamentalist fronts--was well orchestrated.”

Bhaiya pragmatically concedes that "the fact is they have come with the people’s verdict. Since this is a democratic election in ‎the country, the verdict of the voters has to be accepted, with all my apprehension, I still think.” ‎ For her, the elections marked a defeat of various movements, clearly pointing to the lack of popular support. “We have not been able to build our constituency. We know the reasons for this and this ‎moment in history must be used by us to do serious reflection.” At the same time, she cautions against despair: “Let’s not forget within the screams and high-pitched celebrations of victory for the BJP that it is only 31 to 35 % of the voting population that has voted for the BJP and its allies.” ‎

A disturbing track record

Kannabiran and other women’s rights activists are also deeply concerned by Modi’s track record as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and whether this foreshadows positions that his government will take at the national level. “The long term impact on minority rights and communal relations will have to be watched.” While historical positions on communal relations or women’s rights give little comfort, Kannabiran hopes that, “after his huge victory, he may take care to protect his image internationally at least. He has a team of expert advisors and seems to be taking their advice. So he may… realize that his continuing success is linked to the protection of all rights. That is a hope. On the range of disgusting remarks made in public by politicians[iii], he has not yet reacted and I am not sure whether he will act. That is another test.”

Bhaiya says, “[w]e still need to wait and see how BJP fares on issues of women's rights, minority rights, ‎and communal politics and practices. It appears ‎obvious which side they are going to lean. The fact is that violence against women and girls ‎has never been so brutal, so extensive” In her view, the BJP will continue the neoliberal development model promoted by the Congress, accelerating “the pace of selling the nation to the global market and the ‎corporate sector. The displacement of the ‎poor, tribals, Dalits, … all ‎marginalized [groups] will bear the brunt of this newer dawn of the ‎nation.” ‎

Fears about the impact on rights

Many engaged in rights-based social movements are alarmed by the results of India’s elections. As Kannabiran reflects, “One had a degree of freedom of speech earlier, but we had riots and massacres in the Congress regime, and doublespeak on communal tensions. Now the Intelligence Bureau has submitted a report to the [Prime Minister’s Office (arguing) that foreign-funded NGOs are obstructing development. … So, there will be greater censorship and repression from the police on civil society groups. It is a difficult path ahead, (and our) work has to be very slow and steady. There has to be a rethinking, fresh strategies and a new language to talk to people.”

Maya Ganesh, working from Bangalore with international information rights and advocacy organization Tactical Tech, notes that already impacts are being felt, with international environmental organization Greenpeace targeted in the recent Intelligence Bureau report, as attacking India’s coal sector and threatening development. “Everything we feared has happened so soon. Industry supported Modi and is trying to push their skewed notion of 'development', and the voice of dissent has been targeted.” Already “More than ten people have been arrested for saying ‘defamatory’ things online about Narendra Modi [iv]. When the last government was challenged it was 'freedom of speech', now it is called 'defamation'.”

An activist working at a sexuality rights organization, R. says “The future does not bode well for overall development or rights-related issues --the current government is likely to focus on whetting the middle class' aspirations at the expense of all else - the poor, the environment, and any 'minority' groups..” Bhaiya concurs, saying, “[t]he deadly combination of the fundamentalists and the capitalists is something we are all ‎dreading. The destruction and sale of natural resources is inevitable. We are in ‎for a dark period in history.”

Watching, analyzing and critiquing

For now, R. sees social movements as “watching, analyzing and critiquing, but from all accounts, space for free expression and dissent is also surreptitiously disappearing. However, we have many strong and fearless people who continue to speak up, so there is hope that things will not get too bad.”

A defiant Bhaiya promises, “[a]s feminists, we will continue to struggle and carry on our work. We are not going to stop our work or allow any paralysis, [even though] in fact our tasks are heavier, but [they are] critical. I am an optimist and do believe in ‎people's wisdom."

Feminist researcher-activist Srilatha Batliwala also maintains her optimism: “For the past sixty years, Indians have become used to a high level of civil liberties and democratic space. While many—especially the middle and upper-middle classes—may be willing to surrender some of these in exchange for a high growth rate and less corruption (at least of the kind that affects them), after a while, they or their children will react against a serious curbing of their freedoms. And those from more marginalized groups, who do not benefit much from the current model of development, will not suffer long in silence. Indians are simply too used to protesting and speaking out.”

Further reading

[i] With inputs from Srilatha Batliwala

[ii]The worst example of which was the pogroms against the country’s Sikh population after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the failure to punish those from within its own ranks who fomented this violence.



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