In January, when my article on silencing Mamata Banerjee was published, I received mainly two kinds of remarks-‘the incident happened out of some political ploys and not due to the gender of the speaker. Just because she is a woman that she has been jeered at is probably not the case’; the other being, ‘Mamata herself is pretty well known to silence any opposition, so I don’t know why she gets to play the woman card.’
After a little more than a month of the incident, Bengal politics is again heated up, now with Mamata Banerjee getting attacked in Nandigram, the constituency from which she has decided to contest the 2021 assembly elections. While AITMC has accused BJP of the attack, leaders of other parties have accused Mamata of planning this attack, herself. This article does not endorse any political party, but it aims to study why it is significant to see this attack on Mamata Banerjee as a gendered act of violence.
In 2014, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) published a book titled Violence Against Women in Politics. The book was based on a study conducted in Nepal, India and Pakistan which analysed the incidents of violence between 2003-13. Besides many other aspects, the book also revealed, “Candidates, their families, as well as voters, have routinely faced violence during elections. The violent nature of politics within South Asia often deters women from participating within the political sphere.” Sixty per cent of women do not participate in politics due to fear of violence.
“Almost 90 per cent of women in these countries feel that violence breaks their resolve to join politics. From our comprehensive review of laws on violence against women, it is clear that none of the three countries has legislation that deals strictly with offenders to prevent violence against women in politics. We know that where laws are in place, prevalence tends to be lower and fewer people think that violence against women in justifiable,” says Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, Representative, UN Women’s Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The attack on Banerjee has occurred not only before the election, but the time is also significant otherwise. From, April 2021 Delhi University’s Miranda House is planning to offer a three-month certificate programme for students who are aspiring to be women politicians. Besides, we celebrated International Women’s Day with great pomp and show just a few days ago. However, more than the attack itself, what followed next came as a shock, or may be not.
Across social media and on other platforms, supporters of the CPM, Congress and BJP trolled Mamata and accused her of conspiring her attack. The CPM used this as an opportunity to draw a comparison between the CM and Aishe Ghosh, saying Bengal would prefer her 25 years old daughter over the 65 year old Mamata. This was to counter ‘Bengal wants its own daughter’: the war-cry of TMC this election season. Interestingly, Aishe Ghosh herself faced a similar troll last year when she was attacked on her campus in JNU. People edited her image to claim that she was faking her attack.
Mamata Banerjee herself has indeed attempted to silence dissent on several occasions by claiming that incidents have been fabricated or conspired. Having said that, do we get to resort to whataboutery when the state’s Chief Minister is attacked amidst such high security? Should it not have alarmed all politicians, irrespective of their political inclination, about women’s safety in politics? Or are we trying to normalise violence in the arena of politics, irrespective of gender? It is the blindfold of male privilege that allows most of these politicians to make such insensitive and rude remarks in the aftermath of the incident.
Normalising violence in politics is an attempt to curb the rising participation of women in politics. Bengal is one of the few states which have the highest percentage of women MLAs, according to this study by ADR in 2019. In the 2019 Assembly elections, of the 78 women MPs, 12 were from Bengal (eleven from AITMC and one from BJP). It is not surprising that Bengal would have such high participation of women when the state is run by a woman. UP which follows next in line, also had a female Chief Minister in Mayawati. AITMC, headed by Banerjee herself, had fielded 40% women candidates in the Parliament election.
An attack on Mamata Banerjee is also an attempt to destabilise the healthy gender ratio in politics, which the state has developed. We cannot ignore the statistics that reflect that Banerjee’s presence in the party and the state encourages and makes way for other women in politics. Violence against women in politics assume many forms; it could be physical, psychological, sexual, economic and semiotic. The first attack on Banerjee has been semiotic, while the second has been physical. However, if we delve deeper, we see that the attack is also an implied psychological attack on young aspiring women politicians.
Most importantly, the reception of such an attack would silence younger politicians; they would contemplate the consequences before calling out the perpetrators. Unlike the worldwide support that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received, we see no such response from the media or senior politicians. Instead, we see politically opportune comments intended to victim shame.
The similarity of treatment meted out to both Aishe Ghosh and Mamata Banerjee on two different occasions show how women in politics are held against higher standards than their male competitors, irrespective of their political inclination. Their very narrative is blatantly falsified, and attempts are made to prove them, liars and fact fabricators. This reminds us how, when women won the right to vote, even then, they were physically attacked and ridiculed. Suffragette Emeline Pankhurst received a postcard written- ‘You set of sickening fools… Why don’t you drown yourselves out of the way?’
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which is an international organisation of national parliaments, stated in 1992 regarding women’s participation in politics- “The concept of democracy will only achieve true and dynamic significance when political policies and national legislation are decided jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population.”
Perhaps, we are at a time when political parties need to work together to agree and adopt a joint code of conduct for candidates, officials, members and politicians. There should be a zero-tolerance policy for gender, caste and religion-based violence and sexual harassment. Party loyalty should take a back seat in matters of such heinous atrocities. The election commissioner should also play a significant role in tackling such sensitive issues before elections. If necessary strict measures are not adopted to curb violence in politics, we will not be able to encourage young women towards a career in politics no matter how many courses are offered by prestigious colleges.
Featured image source: Indian Express