As Kamala Harris becomes the first woman Vice President of America, Mamata Banerjee (who happens to be the only woman Chief Minister holding office currently) was silenced by chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ in the presence of the Prime Minister of India in the heart of her city, Kolkata. In a programme organised by the Union Ministry of Culture to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, a section of the audience started to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’ as the emcee invited the Chief Minister to say a few words on the ‘auspicious occasion’.
As the crowd ignored the emcee’s plea to ‘calm down’ and to allow Mamata Banerjee to speak, the lady came to the podium and made a dignified statement. In Hindi, she said from the podium, “I think a government programme should have some dignity. This is a government programme, not that of a political party. This is a programme of all parties and of the people.” As she continued, the sloganeering continued. “I thank the Prime Minister and the Union Culture Ministry for holding this programme in Calcutta. But this is unbecoming of you to invite someone and then insult them. In protest, I am not speaking any more. Jai Hind. Jai Bangla.”
Besides Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, Union Ministers Prahlad Patel and Babul Supriyo were also on the stage. All of them acted aloof and continued with the programme without any sign of discomfort. Mamata Banerjee sat through the rest of the programme, and not once again was the chant of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ heard of. Modi, who addressed the audience post this incident, for some thirty minutes neither addressed this incident nor apologised to Mamata. He tried to speak in Bengali to awe his Bengali audience and drew parallels between his dream of Atmanirbhar Bharat and Netaji’s dream of an Azad Hind.
The incident soon turned into a political debate on social media and news channels. While most politicians condemned the behaviour of the audience, most BJP leaders condemned Mamata Banerjee’s behaviour. They were offended that she could not respect the chant. The official BJP account of Bengal BJP even posted a video of Mamata chanting Islamic lines. Few BJP leaders like ex-MLA and spokesman Samik Bhattacharya commented, “The ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan, some are shouting with love, with respect or in protest. But we are not subscribing to such things, that when the Chief Minister is going to speak, you raise such slogans. We don’t support it. It just happened.”
Madhya Pradesh pro-tem speaker commented “Mamata didi’s objection to Lord Ram was not right. Mamata Didi, we expect you to not hate Jai Shri Ram. This country is Lord Ram’s. Every person in this country is Lord Ram’s. Every Chief Minister of this country is in Lord Ram. You belong to West Bengal, the state where the fight for freedom started. The priest from your state left their worshipping to sing ‘Vande Matram’ during the freedom struggle. Aapka Jai Shri Ram ho jayega,” Rameshwar Sharma was reported as saying, in what is clearly a threat to the West Bengal CM.
Interestingly, ‘Jai Shree Ram’, which most BJP leaders have claimed is used as a greeting and not a political slogan, has been the war-cry of the BJP. Ram as a cultural icon has been politicised, and Jai Shree Ram is no longer a mere greeting just as it used to be. Throughout the entire programme on 23 January, only when Mamata Banerjee was on stage, was the war cry heard. If it was to be a greeting, the question arises, why was it not heard during or before the PM’s address, at least as prominently and aggressively as it was heard when Mamata Banerjee was about to speak.
The audience’s laughter as she marked her protest by not speaking cleared their intention further. Sources have revealed that though this was a Central Government programme, a significant number of state BJP leaders and party workers made it to the guest list. BJP MPs reportedly received a high number of invites to attent the programme. The problem, say BJP sources, was many “lower-tier” workers got the cards, like Mandal committee members, who may have been unfamiliar with decorum needed at such events, attributing the hooliganism to class structures, instead of assuming accountability.
This behaviour of silencing female politicians is not new. Mahua Moitra, a TMC MP who shot to limelight with her maiden speech in the Parliament, had to face heckling from her senior male colleagues. Other MPs like Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan and Moon Moon Sen were trolled on social media for their choice of attire. Senior leaders like Smriti Irani, Priyanka Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi too have been criticised either for their professions or their dressing.
These harassments which happen online and offline is common across countries; to further reduce the number of female politicians. A woman in power still discomforts the patriarchal society. Therefore, it does not surprise us that the leaders of BJP, who often boasts of their 56-inch chest and other masculine traits, would wish to silence the only woman Chief Minister that the country currently has.
This was not an act of sexual harassment; neither was there any sexist comment made. However, this was more than just another opposition leader being silenced in a democracy. Mamata Banerjee, in her long political career, has faced several such harassments and threats as well. She had been dragged by her hair and shoved out of the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu’s office, eighteen years before she came to power. Not just during the Left regime, even in 2016, BJP Chief Dilip Ghosh threatened to throw her out of Delhi by ‘grabbing her hair’.
Last year, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez raised her voice against the abusive behaviour of Ted Yoho, she touched a chord among other female politicians who had come out in her support and spoken about their experiences of dealing with sexism and violent remarks. Several times women in politics have not only been morally policed; they have been tone-policed, silenced and mansplained by their colleagues and also by the common public or internet trolls. So even as we are enthralled, and rightfully so, as some young women become mayor and panchayat chief, we need to consider the many voices that are being silenced.
A record number of women were elected to the Parliament in 2019, but men still occupy 86% of the seats. With such inequality, the political space is mostly patriarchal, where men still decide what women would speak, wear or be addressed. As this article shows, Indian female leaders deal with nearly twice as much harassment than their counterparts in the U.K. or the U.S.
Going back to Kamala Harris, as we rejoice at her fortune, we can also take some lesson from her cabinet. The members include 61% women and 54% people of colour. Tokenism and faux feminism will no longer be effective. The mic must be now passed to the women and the marginalised and let them decide what is best for themselves.
However, in a country which is seeing the rising trend of hypermasculinity, this seems like a distant dream.
Featured image source: NDTV.com