Sakshi Maharaj's speech harms women, hurts Modi govt

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2015 03:56 IST

No matter how hard it tries, like a boat caught in a whirlpool, the Narendra Modi government is being pulled from one controversy to another. As if there wasn't enough on the government's plate, a recent statement by Sakshi Maharaj, the BJP MP from Unnao, that every Hindu woman must produce at least four children, has brought unwarranted attention on the BJP, and by extension on the government.

Sakshi Maharaj's statement

has been justifiably panned for its anti-women views. It is also problematic on other counts. The first aspect is that it disregards issues relating to women's health. It's a no-brainer--family planning and women's health (and empowerment) are interconnected. India's public health centres, where they are functional, are testaments to the crippling public healthcare system in India. The

sterilisation deaths

in Chhattisgarh's Bilaspur district in November, where more than 12 women died, are a peek into the larger horror spectacle that public health in India is.

His call for more children per family comes at a time when India has failed to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health. India's maternal mortality rate, according to at least two reports that were published last year, is among the highest in the world. At 178 deaths per 100,000 live births, it misses the fifth Millennium Development Goal by a mile (India had to reduce it to 109 per 100,000 by 2015). India has the highest number of neonatal deaths in the world--one in three of the babies who die on the first day is in India. Even if the health system was at its best, shouldn't the woman have the power to decide on when and how many children--and not a religious leader?

The second aspect is religious discourse. Of late there has been an increase in

statements by leaders

aimed at polarising society on the lines of religion. This has led to a sort of competitive communalism. From time-to-time, leaders, across the religious spectrum, urge believers to procreate and increase the fold. In Kerala, Christian priests are known to chastise believers for stopping at one or two children. In Tamil Nadu, during a NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation) project in 2006, Muslim women spoke about how clerics asked them to show their love for the religion by having many children.

Thus, the swami's is not a lone voice. But being a part of the ruling party, he has the added responsibility to make intelligent statements. His clarification later that it was made at a religious, and not political, gathering doesn't fool anyone.

The third aspect is that such statements yet again shift the focus away from the BJP-led NDA government's development agenda. Sakshi Maharaj's comment comes at a time when there has been a torrential flow of mindless statements and inflammatory campaigns--from Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti's appalling statement in December to ghar wapsi to love jihad. Such statements and campaigns derail the efforts of any government that wants to work for the people. The BJP may disassociate itself from such statements but it is easier said than done.

And this perhaps is the greatest threat to the BJP faces today. At a time when the Congress is lost in a maze of electoral defeats, and other opposition parties are trying and testing new permutations and combinations, the BJP has an opportunity to prove that it is indeed the party with a difference.

These statements have forced many to ask if the government really wants to go ahead with its development agenda. Or rather, the question is: Will the Right allow Modi to go about with his development agenda?

The government's reiterating that it is focused on development and the nauseatingly frequent polarising statements by the Right is taking farcical dimensions. Even so, the relation between the government and the Right-wing has parallels with the Elizabethan theatre. To break the tension during a tragedy, Elizabethan playwrights were forced to include comic scenes--and the audience loved it. However, the frequent interludes by the Right hampering the smooth functioning of the Modi government are not applauded. The aam aadmi wants development and communal polarisation is not the best stimulus for growth. The likes of Sakshi Maharaj are not helping the government.

Hinduism is not under threat and it does not need the protection of numbers. The best way, perhaps, to serve Hinduism and to propagate it as a wonderful way of life is if the so-called protectors of Hinduism, for a change, try to understand it.

(The views express are personal. Tweet to the writer at @vijucherian.)

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