| A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission
|(Photo: Girl scavenging at Belagachia dumping ground in Kolkata. Courtesy: Nick Cheesman, AHRC)
( March 08, 2012, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) Today, the world’s largest democracy along with the rest of the world would celebrate international women’s day. The media will reproduce public statements and the promises made. Institutions like the National Commission for Women would reiterate its mandate to protect, promote and guarantee women’s rights and thus ensure gender equality in the country. The President Her Excellency Pratibha Patil, would address the nation on the topic. Perhaps union and state ministers would follow and the governments would advertise in the media enumerating what they have done to ensure gender parity. The debt-ridden and limping with corruption national carrier, Air India, would takeoff from Mumbai and New Delhi to distant destinations with a complete women crew, as a showcase of what the women in India have achieved and are now capable of.
For most of India however, it would be an uneventful day. Women in Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir would continue fearing the uniformed officers deputed to protect them; most mothers living in the rural backdrops of the country would continue to worry how to feed their children and when their family would be saved from the slow and certain death from starvation and malnutrition; girls and women would continue to be raped in hundreds at Budhwar Peth, G. B. Road, Kamathipura, Shivdaspur and Sonagachi; girls will continue working as bonded child labourers across the country – in the rat mines of Jaintia hills in Meghalaya, in middleclass houses in cities like New Delhi and in the granite quarries and paper cracker manufacturing units in Tamil Nadu; and Dalit women will continue sweeping open sewers and clean dry latrines.
Equality is one of the fundamental quotients to guarantee gender rights. It is one of the foundation stones of all rights. Unfortunately in India, equality – legal or cultural – is not the norm. In a country where its justice apparatus is in a dysfunctional state where manipulation is possible at all levels, rights – gender included – do not make any sense. A right that cannot be sought and realized, translated into quantifiable and achievable guarantees in life is no right at all.
Engendering equality is impossible without the architecture of justice. Today, the country’s justice machinery, particularly the police, prosecution and the judiciary are a far cry of what such institutions ought to be in a democratic framework. So much so, getting posted at what is called a ‘women’s cell’ in the police is considered to be punishment since the possibilities of demanding and accepting bribes is the least in such positions. Not because that the parties who approach the women’s cell would not pay bribe. It is because there is hardly any complaint at all. Approaching the police by a woman is considered to be a life-threatening affair in India.
Police stations, yes that very institution maintained by the public exchequer to assist a citizen to seek and obtain her right is one of the unsafe places in the country to be. Perhaps veteran women’s rights activists in the country would agree with this conclusion. Yet there is hardly any concern about this in India. The gender rights movement that has lobbied and worked to bring about commendable legislative changes in the country with a view to ensure gender parity has avoided debating about the despicable nature of the justice institutions. They have however taken law unto their own hands, though on occasions.
The so-called mainstream gender rights movement in the country has ignored the singular and unique protest of Ms. Irom Chanu Sharmila of Manipur. For the past 11 years, Sharmila’s fight to ensure equality has found hardly any assuring resonance from the equal rights activists of the country. One cannot find fault with those who allege that for the majority of the equal rights activists in the country, equality is interpreted as an analogous continuum of racial and regional discrimination practiced for the past 64 years against the people of the northeast. Those who speak about Elizabeth Smith Miller and Lucy Stone in India would not even know who Sharmila is and what she is protesting against.
In countries where equality is protected and cherished as a norm gender based discrimination is today considered an exception. In a country like India where inequality is the norm – read caste based discrimination as one example – gender rights speak is mere empty rhetoric. Rhetoric though would assure no rights.