As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, complaints by at least six women politicians across political parties in Maharashtra about receiving lewd messages and threats have flagged the issue of women’s safety even in the corridors of power.
At least five legislators and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office-bearer have lodged complaints about getting obscene text messages over the past fortnight. They are BJP spokesperson Shaina NC; Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) Varsha Gaikwad from Congress, Dipika Chavan from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Manda Mhatre from BJP; and Members of Legislative Council (MLC) Neelam Gorhe from the Shiv Sena and Vidya Chavan from the NCP.
MLC Vidya Chavan said, “Although this is the first time that I have had to face this kind of an experience, women in public life are easily prone to harassment. Their faces are well known. Their phone numbers and email ids are available in public domain.”
Shaina NC said she received over 580 vulgar text messages from December 2016 before she formally lodged her complaint. “...there are thousands of people who want to communicate with you on social media platforms. When I first got a casual message from an unknown number, saying, “Didi, pranam” (regards to elder sister), I initially ignored it. But the messages that followed were shocking. If a politician can get these kind of messages I fail to think what the woman travelling through the city every day, going to work, returning late, has to go through,” she said.
On Tuesday, the leader launched a round-the-clock helpline for women in Mumbai (18002124434) to talk about incidents of harassment and outraging of modesty. A panel of lawyers and women’s rights activists will go through the grievances and in genuine cases women will be hand-held through the process of lodging a complaint and getting justice, she said.
Shaina NC also faced ample pressure to back down with the accused being found to be a BJP worker from Varanasi, Jayantkumar Singh. “I don’t care which party he belongs to. What matters is the person’s mindset. Irrespective of where he is from action should be taken,” she added.
Sexism and harassment against women politicians is a phenomenon seen across the world. An October 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which surveyed 55 women parliamentarians from 39 countries, showed 81.8% of the women surveyed were affected by psychological violence, with 44.4% saying they received threats of death, rape or beatings.
Gaikwad, an MLA from Dharavi, said she received indecent messages during the recent elections. “During elections, women often get threats and upsetting messages. Even I got such a message and lodged a complaint. These are often deliberate attempts during elections and should stop,” she said.
The legislators say the messages that Dipika Chavan, Vidya Chavan, Gorhe and Mhatre received were identical, threatening rape and murder. The police have arrested Jalgaon-based Deepak Kumar Pyarelal Gupta, supposedly a Right to Information (RTI) activist, for allegedly sending the salacious messages.
Nashik MLA Dipika Chavan, said, “I first got four voice calls from the number that I did not answer and then got a string of text messages. I cannot even speak out the contents, they were so bad.”
Gorhe, however, said this may not be the work of any one person alone. “I had complained to the chief minister too earlier and he took immediate note of it. The messages were sent just before the budget session so that there will be a big ruckus, the police will focus their energies on looking into this and the real thieves and criminals will be ignored,” she said. Belapur MLA Manda Mhatre too said there could be political forces behind this to defame the state home department, which the chief minister heads.
Minister of state for home Ranjit Patil told the media that the government had taken serious note of the incidents and stern action would be taken against the guilty.