On Monday, the Congress’s youth wing took to the streets demanding the resignation of Union Minister M J Akbar over allegations of sexual assault and harassment but behind that photo-op, there is a sense of disquiet — and some disconnect — in the political establishment.
Parties have found themselves caught in a debate they have rarely had and are now fumbling to find a language for. So on Tuesday, even as the #MeToo movement quickened the exit of Fairoz Khan, head of the Congress’s student wing, over charges of sexual misconduct, the Congress party itself preferred to play safe.
Sushmita Dev, Lok Sabha MP and head of Mahila Congress, said that the movement should not be politicised. “Everything can’t be Congress vs BJP. There are some causes, some issues which simply can’t be politicised and this is one of them. This is a people’s movement. So Sushmita Dev can speak as an individual, Rahul Gandhi can say what his views are, I wish Prime Minister Modi had given his views…but I feel this is one issue which should not be politicised,” she said.
The BJP, a section of its leaders said, has decided to wait and watch if it can tide over the Akbar storm. This caution isn’t a surprise. Be it BJP, Congress or CPI(M), none of them has implemented one of the key provisions of the sexual harassment prevention law: an internal complaints committee (ICC), a redressal mechanism to deal with complaints of sexual harassment as mandated in 1997 by the Supreme Court (Vishakha) and in 2013 by the Statute, at their main offices.
In fact, in the recent cases of Khan and CPI(M) Kerala MLA P K Sasi, their respective parties set up ad hoc internal committees – without an external member as mandated by the Act – to probe the charges. The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013 defines workplace as any private sector organization or private venture, undertaking, enterprise, institution, establishment, society, trust, non-governmental organization, unit or service provider carrying on commercial, professional, vocational, educational, entertainment, industrial, health services.
CPM Politburo member Subhashini Ali said that all parties and members “are very aware” that the political establishment has got the most “predators.” “So active women in politics are not speaking out. It is really shameful. Maneka Gandhi is the only person who has actually taken a clear stand – I am saying outside the CPM – I don’t see anybody else making any statements or saying anything. It is really shameful as women are taking a huge risk by sticking their necks out like this and they have to be supported by powerful women,” Ali told The Indian Express.
AICC general secretary in charge of administration Motilal Vora told The Indian Express that there is no such committee in the party. “I agree that there is a hierarchy and, therefore, someone reports to someone. And that kind of a relationship exists but strictly speaking…whether it applies or not I don’t know. But I think it is a healthy exercise…there should be a committee,” another senior Congress office bearer said.
CPM’s women wing AIDWA called for justice for victims of sexual harassment last week but the CPM’s reaction has been confined to demanding Akbar’s resignation. Congress president Rahul Gandhi did tweet his support for the #MeToo movement but the party has been focusing its attention on attacking the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi over Akbar. Sushmita Dev said many people had suggested to her that the Mahila Congress should organise protests but she said no. “There are hundreds of MJs…#MeToo is not about evidence….it is something which we accept that happens to us. It is about speaking about it without shame and fear. The thing that the political class can do is to make sure that laws are enforced…that is where we are failing the nation…we keep on passing laws…”
READ | Mr Akbar must go
Both Dev and Ali said they were not sure whether offices of political parties fall within the ambit of the workplace. “As far as the Act is concerned, there are some grey areas. We talk about people who are employees; it is usually a place of employment, that is a point which has to be expanded,” said Ali.
The BJP is maintaining a distance from even questions related to #MeToo campaign and the need for an ICC in the party. Party’s mahila morcha national president Vijaya Rahatkar did not respond. Asked about the ICC, BJP Mahila Morcha national general secretary Kamlawati Singh said there is a disciplinary committee in the party and the mahila morcha has not received any complaint of harassment. However, she added that she would request Rahatkar to suggest the idea of forming such a core committee.
BJP Mahila Morcha national vice-president Latika Sharma said that she was not well-versed with the #MeToo campaign. She said that matters of women workers are addressed by the mahila morcha itself.