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An ugly remark, an uglier response

I regard Rita Bahuguna Joshi's remarks as deeply reprehensible. I have never met her and I condemn her remarks. But more significant than those remarks is what followed: a misuse of the law and order machinery and the worst kind of goondagiri and arson. All justified in the name of Dalit honour, when the issue had nothing to do with caste, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2009 22:32 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I can’t be the only person to be dismayed by the turn that the Rita Bahuguna Joshi case has taken. Let me say straight out that, like most sensible people, I regard her remarks as deeply reprehensible. Rape cannot become the subject of political jousting. And to talk about the hypothetical rape of any individual is indefensible.

By throwing the subject of rape around, Mrs Joshi has done all women a dis-service. And she has made a mockery of the Congress’s efforts to advance the cause of women: the woman President, the woman Lok Sabha Speaker etc. Her remarks would have sounded crude and offensive if they had been made by a man. But coming from a woman, they seem doubly shocking.

But however wrong Mrs Joshi was to speak that way, let’s clear up the misconceptions. She did not offer Rs 1 crore to anybody who raped Mayawati as some BSP leaders are claiming. She did not encourage anyone to rape Mayawati. She did not support rape in any form.

What she meant was this: Mayawati acts as though it is enough to pay compensation of Rs 50,000 or Rs 75,000 to women who have been raped. If money is all it takes, then women should ask Mayawati how she herself would feel if she was given a crore of rupees to make up for being raped.

It was a silly thing to say. It was offensive and insensitive. But it was not any of the things the BSP is now suggesting it was.

Let’s also remember that Mrs Joshi’s remarks did not emerge out of a vacuum. However shocking we find them, such statements are part of political discourse in UP. The day after Mrs Joshi was arrested, TV channels played an old clip of Mayawati saying, more or less, exactly the same sort of thing about the Mulayam Singh Yadav government’s efforts to pay compensation to rape victims.

Both statements — Mrs Joshi’s and Mayawati’s — were offensive. But Mayawati had faced no censure when she had made her remarks.

Two further questions remain.

If somebody makes an insensitive statement, how does the State respond? Many of us would argue that it is enough if the person who said the stupid thing apologises and pays the political price (losing her job or whatever).

But Mayawati feels that this sort of statement should attract the full force of the law. Mrs Joshi has been arrested and has been charged with non-bailable offences. Several criminal cases have been filed against her.

Does it make any sense to set the police on a woman who makes an ill-chosen remark? Is this what the law was meant for? Would Mrs Joshi have faced the wrath of the State if her remarks had not been directed at Mayawati but at somebody else? And why is it okay for Mayawati to make this sort of statement but not okay for Rita Joshi to say the same thing?

The second question has to do with caste.

Did Rita Joshi make a casteist remark? As far as I can tell the offence was one of lack of respect for gender. It had nothing to do with caste. Mrs Joshi’s remark could equally have been directed at a Brahmin or a Rajput. That Mayawati is a Dalit was irrelevant.

So why then has she been charged under a law that is specifically drafted to prevent oppression of scheduled castes? Why is Mayawati claiming that Dalits have been insulted? Why are her spokespeople talking in terms of upper and lower castes?

The answer seems to be that because Mayawati is a Dalit, anything that any of us says about her is an insult to Dalits. Thus, if I say she is a fat crook then apparently I will be attacking India’s Dalits. If I say she is the worst chief minister in India then I am being casteist.

When we praise her, we are praising Mayawati. When we attack her, we are attacking Dalits.

That, at least, is how Mayawati sees it.

If Mrs Joshi has, as a woman, insulted all women by talking so loosely about rape then hasn’t Mayawati, as a Dalit, insulted all Dalits by taking on the mantle of caste victimhood to settle a few political scores?

Which one of them has behaved worse? The woman who used a stupid parallel to make a larger point about women and rape? Or the woman who cynically used caste to persecute her Congress rival?

Of course, there’s another dimension to the whole incident. Mrs Joshi’s point really wasn’t about some hypothetical rape. It was about the collapse of law and order in UP, about the way in which nobody was safe and about how women were at the mercy of hoodlums.

Here’s the irony: How do you suppose the BSP responded?

Well, it sent hoodlums to her home. When they could not find her, they torched her cars and burnt her house.

All this, a stone’s throw from the chief minister’s house. And with no sign of the police.

If the President of the UP Congress — the ruling party in India — is not safe in Mayawati’s UP, then which woman is safe in the state?

Bizarrely, the BSP’s response has proved Mrs Joshi’s point. I hold no brief for Mrs Joshi. I have never met her and I condemn her remarks. But more significant than those remarks is what followed: a misuse of the law and order machinery and the worst kind of goondagiri and arson. All justified in the name of Dalit honour, when the issue had nothing to do with caste.

India’s Dalits deserve better than leaders who misuse their suffering for their own gain. UP deserves better — at the very least, it deserves a functioning government.

And India deserves better than politicians who will stop at nothing to settle political scores.