Sexist foul-talk — of the kind that belongs in locker-rooms — continues to enjoy indemnity in Indian politics. Nothing else explains why Mullappally Ramachandran, a veteran leader of the Congress in Kerala, a former Union minister no less, would want to counter a woman’s testimony by shaming her as a “prostitute”. It is this impunity that also emboldened him to discredit the charge that she was raped by several ministers in the former UDF government by insinuating that a woman with “self-respect” would have died rather than be assaulted several times over. Ramachandran forked out an apology after an uproar, but there is more than a whiff of insincerity to it. But his remarks, undeniably, put the Congress national leadership on test. Last month, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Kamal Nath had gotten away with a murmur of disapproval from Rahul Gandhi, even when he called Imarti Devi, a Dalit leader and a former party colleague, an “item”.
The question for the Congress is this: If leaders like Nath and Ramachandran continue to incur zero political cost for rank sexist abuse, for using language that demeans and dehumanises women, for wielding decaying notions of honour and respect against victims of sexual assault, what is its credibility when it campaigns for justice for a Dalit teen raped and murdered in Hathras? That is not to say that this brand of coarseness is limited only to Congress. It is endemic to Indian politics, and used thoughtlessly against women, especially from marginalised communities. Ramachandran’s platitudes about rape victims tap into a larger consensus — fashioned by society, culture and politics — that says that a caged sexuality — owned by men and protected from other men — is what gives women worth.
The regularity with which men stoop to such rhetoric is a direct outcome of gender inequality in Indian politics. With appalling levels of representation of women, across levels and parties, the public sphere has become, by default, a male turf, where toxic speech goes largely unpunished and where pieties of sexual dishonour go uncontested. But till a critical mass of women politicians pushes back against this cheap misogyny, national parties cannot afford to sleep on their watch. It is incumbent on them to detoxify the public space. The Congress must make sure that there are political consequences for Ramachandran’s florid loose talk — and that should be an example for other parties to follow.
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