By John B Monteiro
Jul 8: From empowering women to them over-powering themselves is an alarming development as reflected in two entities sabre-rattling to get actor Salman Khan on his knees. One of them, Maharashtra State Women Commission (MSWC) summoned Salman on July 7 in Mumbai (which he missed) while the National Women Commission (NWC) has summoned him to appear before it in Delhi on July 8. We will leave aside for a while the incongruity of two entities chasing the same shadow concurrently except to say that it is a case of being power-drunk and misreading their mandate given in good faith.
There is a saying in various vernacular languages - like in Kannada: “Manganige manike kotta hage”. (Like giving precious stone to the monkey). It does not know what its value is or what to do with it. The equivalent in English is: “Do not cast pearls before swine”. Rooted in the Bible, it means do not give something valuable to someone who does not understand or appreciates its value – and how to handle it. This seems to be happening in India in the case of empowerment of statutory entities designed to promote and protect the rights of women. But first the facts.
In the latest instance, reported from Jaipur on June 30, the Rajasthan State Women Commission member, Somya Gurjar, clicked selfie with a rape victim and has courted controversy prompting the chairperson of the commission to seek a written explanation – and finally, as per later reports, dismissing her. Interestingly, the Chairperson, Suman Sharma, was also in the selfie along with the offending member. The selfie was clicked by Gurjar when she, along with chairperson, had gone to meet the rape victim in Mahila police station. In a shocking incident in Alwar district, the 30-year-old woman was allegedly raped by her husband and his two brothers who tattooed expletives on her forehead and hands for not giving Rs 51,000 as dowry. A FIR was registered and an investigation in the case had been initiated.
"I was talking to the victim when the member of the commission clicked these selfies. I am not aware when she clicked. I do not favour such act and has sought a written explanation from her", Sharma told PTI. Interestingly, two photos, in which Gurjar was seen clicking the selfie, got viral on WhatsApp. Both Gurjar and Sharma are in the frame of the selfie and the photos of the act were clicked by someone standing near them in the chamber of the police officer. In the pictures, Gurjar is seen holding the mobile device and the Chairperson is also looking into the frame.
This is a clear case of state empowerment of women protection agencies chasing shadows instead of substance – all to hit media headlines rather than protecting women who become pawns in the game. That such misadventures rebound on the Women’s rights/protection mission is reflected the way Salman Khan’s rape analogy was distorted to reap media coverage. But, once again, the facts.
According to a PTI report from Mumbai dated June 21, Salman Khan landed himself in a controversy after he reportedly compared himself with a raped woman when quizzed about the gruelling "Sultan" shoot. Salman had to undergo rigorous training for the wrestling drama and in his interview to online entertainment portal Spotboye, he said that after shooting a scene, he used to feel like a "raped woman"."While shooting, during those six hours, there'd be so much of lifting and thrusting on the ground. That was tough for me because if I was lifting, I'd have to lift the same 120-kilo guy 10 times for 10 different angles. And likewise, get thrown that many times on the ground.This act is not repeated that many times in the real fights in the ring. When I used to walk out of the ring, after the shoot, I used to feel like a raped woman. I couldn't walk straight. I would eat and then head right back to training. That couldn't stop.". To be fair, realising his folly, Salman immediately added, “I don’t think I should have...”
Now enter women protection commissions both at the central and state levels, apparently to grab some headlines in the print and electronic media taking advantage of Salman’s popularity and his current fallen status on account of two court cases about a motor accident in Mumbai, now in Supreme Court on State appeal against acquittal by Bombay High Court, and shooting protected animal in Rajasthan for which he underwent a week in prison recently. Easy to kick a fallen dog!
All hell broke loose and the commissions, NCW and MSCW, came down on him like a tonne of bricks. Here is a short resume of what happened next.
According to a PTI report of June 29, the two organisations that protect and promote women’s rights in India issued Salman a notice to clarify his statement and apologise for it by June 29. Khan responded by sending a letter through his lawyer to both the organisations, albeit without an apology.
On June 29, news channel India Today got hold of a copy of Khan’s reply to NCW, in which Salman confessed to being “conscious of the traumatising nature of rape" and mentioned having the “greatest respect for women". At the same time his response also reflected that NCW was making a mountain out of a molehill by dwelling on his remark.
NCW chief, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, revealed that the four-page-long legal letter was “not conciliatory". The organisation is now taking legal advice on the action that can be taken against the star. “We will not take a very soft stand," she said, adding that NCW will take the case as far as it can. If Khan does not appear on July 8 (he had already skipped an appearance at the MSWC earlier), the NCW is likely to explore legal options.
Meanwhile, Salman’s lawyer wrote to MSWC saying that since the case is already with NCW, it should be called off from its end. However, MSWC has emphasised that the matter can be heard at the state level as well. The body has asked Salman to appear in the MSWC office on July 7, while NCW has summoned him to appear before it on July 8.
At this stage, it is relevant to go back to the genesis of NCW (and its State versions). It is a statutory body of the Government of India, generally concerned with advising the government on all policy matters affecting women. It was established in January 1992 under the provisions of the Indian Constitution as defined in the 1990 National Commission for Women Act. The objective of the NCW is to represent the rights of women in India and to provide a voice for their issues and concerns. The subjects of its campaigns have included dowry, politics, religion, equal representation for women in jobs, and the exploitation of women for labour. It has also discussed police abuses against women.
This is not the first time that these women’s rights protection entities have got into controversies. In December 2006 and January 2007, the NCW found itself at the centre of a controversy over its insistence that Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code not be changed to make adulterous wives equally prosecutable by their husbands. But the grounds on which it resisted the logic of making this a criminal offence — particularly for women, as often recommended — were not as encouraging. It was averse to holding the adulterous woman equally culpable as the adulterous man because women, it argued, are never offenders. They are always the victims.
The NCW had demanded that women should not be punished for adultery, as a woman was "the victim and not an offender" in such cases. It had also advocated the amendment of Section 198 of the CrPC to allow women to file complaints against unfaithful husbands and prosecute them for their promiscuous behaviour. This was in response to "loopholes" in the Indian Penal Code that allowed men to file adultery charges against other men who have engaged in illicit relations but does not allow women to file charges against their husbands.
The NCW also came under sharp criticism for its response to the attack by forty male members of the Hindu right-wing Sri Ram Sena on eight women in a bar in Mangalore in late January 2009. Video from the attack showed the women were punched, pulled by their hair, and thrown out of the pub. NCW member, Nirmala Venkatesh, was sent to assess the situation, and said in an interview that the pub did not have adequate security and that the women should have protected themselves. On February 6, the NCW said it had decided not to accept Venkatesh's report but would not be sending a new team to Mangalore. On February 27, PMO approved the removal of Nirmala Venkatesh on disciplinary grounds.
The NCW came under fire again after the molestation of a 17-year-old girl by a gang of men outside a pub in Guwahati on July 9, 2012. NCW member, Alka Lamba, was accused of leaking the name of the minor victim to the media, and was subsequently removed from the fact-finding committee. The following week, NCW chairperson, Mamta Sharma, made comments suggesting that women "be careful how you dress", which invited criticism that she was guilty of victim blaming. The controversy led activists to call for a restructuring of the commission.
Or, is there a case for abolishing these busybodies – literally and metaphorically?
Postscript: Apology under guillotine?
According to a PTI report on July 3, Salman Khan’s father, 80-year-old veteran script-writer, Salim Khan, said that it does not make sense to force someone to apologise. Salim, who had himself apologised on his son’s behalf, said: "What is the meaning of getting an apology from a person under the guillotine, who knows rightly or wrongly that he has not committed a crime?"