Why is the protest by Sakshi Malik and Vinesh and Sangeeta Phogat and their allies so important?
First, it’s a high-profile MeToo moment in a country where the sexual abuse of women is normal. It features heroines who are mainstream in every way in this majoritarian moment: they are Hindu, Hindi-speaking, farmers’ daughters. These are rural women; and the kisan’s grip on the nation’s sentimental imagination, as Narendra Modi learnt to his cost during the farmers’ agitation, rivals that of the jawan.
Their sporting achievements are gold-plated even when they come in bronze because of the scarcity of Olympic medallists in India. They have been pictured with the prime minister and virtually every VIP in government, so it is very hard to reduce them to terrorists or anti-national malcontents or ‘toolkit’ artists. They are, in fact, just the people the Bharatiya Janata Party would die to have on its side. Vinesh Phogat looks like she has just walked off a Soviet-style poster lauding the Heroes of the Motherland.
If these women are heroines from central casting, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh could have strolled into Sholay as one of Gabbar’s retinue: the bearded heavy with, allegedly, a sideline in predation. This face-off between brave, striving, successful yet vulnerable women and a hulking, violent neta is not subtle or nuanced: this is a film about good and evil that is so black-and-white that it properly belongs to the silent era when mythologicals ruled, when Krishna triumphed and Kansa died.
And yet the BJP, its troll army, its sadhu brigade, its MPs, its female ministers, its motto-mongering prime minister — beti bachao, beti padhao —remain resolutely in Kansa’s corner, in speech and in silence. A government that has broken every rule in the book to arrest and jail political opponents and civil society activists has morphed into a born-again believer in due process. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s right to the presumption of innocence is the hill it is planning to die on. Why does this monstrously savvy party find itself in this indefensible position?
Nobody believes a word of the narrative that the BJP is trying to peddle, from the allegation that the protesting women were looking for an easy route into Olympic competition, to the claim that this protest was staged to steal Modi’s thunder as he peacocked his way through the new Parliament building with an honour guard of hairy mendicants in sketchy orange uniforms. This is a representative sample of the sort of men who pass as ‘seers’ in desi newspapers, whose Ayodhya chapter was planning a massive demonstration in support of a man accused of being a serial predator. This is the company that the BJP keeps as it tries to persuade voters that the women at the centre of this protest are the real villains of the piece.
It’s not working. Neerja Chowdhury reported that travelling across Haryana, everyone she spoke to, irrespective of caste, community or political affiliation, wanted immediate action against Singh, that there was real rage and anxiety about the security of young women if famous wrestlers can be groped with impunity.
So why has the prime minister’s party rallied around this toxic figure for as long as it has? There are two explanations: one is political, the other, existential. The political explanation is that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh controls the political destiny of half a dozen parliamentary constituencies in his region. Not only has he won elections to Parliament for close to thirty years but his political connections also make an electoral difference in enough races to make him nearly indispensable to the BJP in this heartland state. With mixed results in recent elections and the general elections scheduled for 2024, the party wants to take no chances in Uttar Pradesh.
This is the rational, cynical, explanation. Given the public’s tolerance for legislators who are history sheeters, given the political success of Ajay Bisht, aka Yogi Adityanath, the BJP probably calculated that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s notoriety could be brazened out and would be forgotten by the time the general elections came around. In the context of heartland politics, this was not an unreasonable calculation. But for the gamble to work, the government had to hold its nerve, allow the dharna to continue, accept the criticism that came its way, and wait out the protesting wrestlers.
But the government lost its nerve. It lost its nerve for two reasons. One, the precedent of the farmers’ agitation. A sit-in that lasted indefinitely had already forced Modi to retreat on the farm laws; the government did not want to eat crow again. Two, the decision of the wrestlers to march on Parliament to have their voices heard at the same time as its stage-managed inauguration by Modi stampeded a nervous government into the fatal error of arresting the wrestlers and evicting them from the Jantar Mantar protest site.
Over the nine years of Modi’s prime ministership, the arms of government have remade themselves to pander to his narcissism. For the home ministry and the Delhi Police, the wrestlers’ march was a form of lèse-majesté that demanded punitive action. The government made the elementary error of not factoring in the footage that its strong-arm tactics would generate. That top-down picture of Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat on their backs, struggling against dozens of uniforms, was very likely the moment the government lost this battle in the public’s mind.
But in the end, the government’s support for Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was existential, not political. The sangh rallied around Singh because in its deepest being, it is a patriarchal, misogynistic organisation hardwired to discipline recalcitrant women. Just as the sangh parivar uses the idea of a ‘love jihad’ to police the partner choices of Hindu women, it used the Delhi Police to teach successful, articulate, disobedient women a lesson: rebellion doesn’t pay; learn to be pliable clients.
The perfect visual representation of the position of women in the sangh’s imagination is the posed group photograph of the prime minister and a gaggle of sants. They are all men, in fact, they put the men into mendicant. There is, though, one woman. Nirmala Sitharam stands, a little apart, on the margin of the frame.
But the cautionary tale about women who throw their lot in with the BJP is contained in the clip of Meenakshi Lekhi, MP and minister, running away from a young woman reporter. This was in response to a question: what did she have to say about the wrestlers’ vow to drop their medals into the Ganga? Lekhi doesn’t just walk faster, she gallops away as if she were being pursued by a churail, gasping out a pro forma reply about due process before tumbling into her car and disappearing. That hapless, helter-skelter retreat by a gagged woman too terrified to speak, lest she breach some party line, is the antithesis of the unfettered agency of Malik and the Phogats.
The BJP has lost this battle now. Normally tame newspapers have begun to report that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been gagged and that the proposed rally in his support has been called off. Party operatives will count the cost of this fiasco but for the rest of us, the revelation has been the BJP’s existential terror of independent women.