In the aftermath of the Guwahati molestation incident, CPM leader Brinda Karat criticised the National Commission for Women (NCW) for revealing the name of the victim and mishandling the whole issue.
She also said that the government is soft on acting against honour related crimes perhaps because of the vote bank politics. "Because these so called Khap panchayat produce votes, where they need them," said Karat.
Below is the full transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. What are the key lessons to learnt from the horrific incident in Guwahati? That the issue tonight with CPM Politburo member and one of the great champions of women's right, Brinda Karat.
Mrs Karat, let's start with the National Commission for Women. They have been roundly criticised for their response to what happened in Guwahati. Would you say that they have mishandled the situation?
Brinda Karat: I think that should be the way to describe it. It is mishandling of the situation. It was bad.
Karan Thapar: I want to go through with you step by step the issues raised by the NCW handling. They appointed Alka Lamba, a Congress politician without any acknowledged experience, either of women's affairs or legal matters to head the enquiry. In your eyes, was that an inappropriate choice?
Brinda Karat: I don't know about Alka's background. Usually, the NCW can involve the women's organisation in the enquiry they have. I think the person they chose didn't have that experience.
Karan Thapar: And then this particular person Alka Lamba then proceeded to identify the victim, she named the victim in public. In your eyes, was that an unfortunate accident happen to anyone or it was a direct result of her inexperience and her lack of domain knowledge?
Brinda Karat: You cannot do that. It's just totally wrong to name a victim. And to take the victim out of her home and take her to a hotel and spend a night with her and do the counseling. I think it is basically complete lack of experience. Perhaps also cases like this sometimes gets so court up with media reporting every bit of it, that you could see yourself in the centre of it and try to protect the victim and her rights. I have seen that. I have seen that happening many times.
Karan Thapar: If the NCW had appointed someone to head the enquiry who had the experience of handling such situations, do you believe this sort of unfortunate naming of the victim wouldn't have happened?
Brinda Karat: I can't say this, but in enquiry like this, it should not be outsourced. An enquiry like this must be and should be done by senior members of National Commission for Women, who are then accountable because NCW members have a mandate, there are accountable to that mandate and therefore in a case like this the basic decision to outsource it was wrong. I don't want to comment too much on the individual concern. I am sure she learns from this experience and if she does, then it's good.
Karan Thapar: But one further question about Alka Lamba. Someone like her when appointed to head an enquiry, who's not accountable….
Brinda Karat: basically, anybody who is heading an enquiry like this should belong to the institution, which has a responsibility to enquire to it. Then there is a more direct accountability.
Karan Thapar: Mamata Sharma, the Chairman of NCW, has warned young girls of how to dress. She said and I quote, "Aping the west is causing such crime to happen." In your eyes, is that fitting for the chairman of the NCW to lay the blame for molestation on the type of clothes the girl wears?
Brinda Karat: if she has said it, then I think it is absolutely outrageous. She has no business heading that commission. But I don't know she said it because she made a very categorical denial and I would prefer to take her denial at face value.
Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that the newspaper which quoted her stands by it and several of your colleagues like Aruna Roy have accepted the word of the newspaper.
Brinda Karat: No. I can't do that really. I would much prefer her denial at the face value. I hope she did not say it. And certainly she is dissociating herself from that understanding.
Karan Thapar: One of the reasons why people are taking the word of the newspaper rather than her denial because previously, she went public saying the word sexy should not be taken in the negative context, that it wasn't necessarily insulting, wasn't necessarily pejorative.
Brinda Karat: At that time also, I also reacted to it that the issue here not the word sexy as such, but the understanding behind the use of the word, the way, the tone, the context in which such words are used by men who are verbally abusing women or sexually abusing women by words. And therefore my whole point is, why give so much importance to words. The issue is context and why it's being used.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to the incident in Guwahati. The NCW has now made some recommendation. Two of the recommendations are that all pubs across India should be covered by CCTV camera and specifically in Guwhati the pubs outside have police pickets manned by women police officers. In your eyes, are these the solutions we need to solve the problem?
Brinda Karat: I don't think that are the solutions. The solutions are that anybody harassing women has to be sent to the jail. That's the solution, whether it's in a bus, in a pub or in a public street. And my problem is that this incident happened in a public space, it was not in a pub. It's on the road that the horrendous incident happened, a couple of kilometers away from the seat of governance in Guwahati. And where were the cops? So, I don't think this is the solution at all.
Karan Thapar: I will come to the police and I will come to the law in a movement but let us continue for a while to focus on NCW. Many people believe that the NCW handling this horrific incident in Guwahati is proof that it is unable to fulfill its mandate to represent women's interest and to defend their rights. Would you agree with that view?
Brinda Karat: No I don't. I think that's a very very harsh judgement. Because we in all these years faced a lot of criticism. We are the people who fought for it. Women's organistaions really fought for NCW. No people are turning to say, now you fought for it and what have you got. so, I don't think that's the thing. if there is case which has been mishandled, it should be pointed out and they must learn the lesson.
Karan Thapar: So, your view if I understand correctly is to criticise the NCW when it mishandles something, we are upfront and honest in that criticism but don't throe the baby out with the bath water.
Brinda Karat: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: There have voices that have called for the scrapping of the NCW. You, therefore, don't endorse that view at all.
Brinda Karat: Not at all. Why should they do that? The NCW is an extremely important mandate; basically it is to look after the government policy. The NCW is not a litigating body. It is basically a body which has to be consulted on all policies concerning women by the government, which is not being done.
Karan Thapar: This incident apart, what is your verdict on the functioning of the NCW, which is now just 21 or 22 years old?
Brinda Karat: I think the NCW in its course of its history has taken very important initiatives. And I think the NCW strengthened when it uses the experience of the women movement in India. And it is when the NCW distances itself from that, the grass root women activists with experience, that's when they really get into trouble. And I hope the present NCW members will reestablish the links with women's organisations and movements, instead of very selective.
Karan Thapar: I want to take up on your last thought. You said that the NCW functions best when it is aware of its connections and its links with grass root activists. I look at the NCW and I see, more often than not, the Chairperson and many of members are actually politicians, not professional, not activists. In fact the present chairperson and the last two before her have all been Congress politician. Is it wrong for that sort of politicians with links with political parties and if I should add in that Purnima Advani was considered to be close to BJP, although she specifically denied it. Are those political linkages wrong?
Brinda Karat: I don't look at it that way. There is no ban on having a political person as the chairperson of NCW as long as she doesn't put her party's interest before the interest of the commission and its mandate.
Karan Thapar: Is it possible for her to distinguish between the two?
Brinda Karat: She has to and people have done it. I would say that there have been many instances that many imminent women who are in politics have taken a mandate of the commission forward. And I can't brush aside just because of one or two mistakes which have been made. But I do believe that the commission has to relook at its mandate and play a much more proactive role. I am disappointed with this functioning. There is no doubt about it.
Karan Thapar: Are you disappointed with its functioning?
Brinda Karat: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: In other words, it needs to be much assertive about its mandate. And it needs to go there and fight more for women's rights rather than reactive and responsive.
Brinda Karat: Right.
Karan Thapar: What about the sort of person that's appointed the chairperson, and sort of person to the commission? Do we need to relook either at the type of people appointed or the appointing mechanism?
Brinda Karat: The appointing mechanism has to change. Because we were very clear and that time also we said, you must have a broad panel of experts to be able to get the best person to head the commission. And it cannot be just the parking place for the people you ant to get out of the active politics. It should not be that. It should not be a position to reward a person. So there is a weakness in the commission, law at present which does not ensure that the best person gets the job.
Karan Thapar: Should the appointing mechanism be left to the government or the day you need an independent body separate from the government, in which the government may have a role, but separate from it?
Brinda Karat: We have always held that. Women's organisations have always said that it must be a separate appointing body.
Karan Thapar: Let's now come to the law. As of now, the molestation cases like the horrific cases in Guwahati come under section 354 of the Indian Penal code but that section has to do with what is called outraging the modesty of women but not assault. Secondly, it's bailable offence. Thirdly, the punishment at the very minimum is just a fine and at the most it's just about 2 years in jail. Do we need a tougher law, one that focus more accurately on assault rather than the vague term of outraging the modesty of a woman?
Brinda Karat: It's not only vague, it is objectionable. It's not only modesty, what about human modesty. Modesty is akin to say you have to be chased woman, you have to be "modest" woman, and otherwise you are going to get what comes to you. So, the whole approach is wrong, the whole language is wrong because it reflects I would say a wrong mentally. Having said that, we have a women's organisation drafted a very good law on sexual assault and different types of sexual assault, including sexual harassment. And now it seems the government has looked at that bill. You know the main person who drafted it Kirti Singh.
Karan Thapar: And your draft also has tougher punishment?
Brinda Karat: Not only tougher punishment, it has a very clear cut understanding of – what is this modesty business- this is just sexual harassment and assault.
Karan Thapar: Now the truth is that you said the government begun to look at the proposals and the petitions that have been brought by your group and by several other women groups but they have only just woken up to that now. Eight years the UPA government has been petitioned successively by the women groups demanding toughening of the law and there has been no response. And yet Mr Chidambaram does not miss an opportunity to talk about national security. Do you think his understanding of women's security is somewhat different?
Brinda Karat: Absolutely. There is no doubt about it. And I think Mr Chidambaram on many occasions have displayed great insensitivity of the different kinds of crime women face. And for example, on all these issues of honour killings and honour crimes, Mr Chidambaram does not seem to think that you stand a law for that. And across the parliament there is a consensus on that. But the Home Minister does not think so. Why? Perhaps because of the vote bank politics. Because these so called Khap panchayat produce votes, where they need them.
Karan Thapar: You really think the Home Minister, who is an eminent lawyer could have influenced on the issue of women security by vote bank politics?
Brinda Karat: There is no doubt about it. Why there is a delay on a law against honour crimes?
Karan Thapar: Would you also say that if the UPA which is now in power for over 8 years had acted on the petitions of the women organizations earlier and toughened the law earlier, perhaps instances like Guwahati might not have happened?
Brinda Karat: I can't really say that. The law is one thing and the implementation is entirely different. So, I won't so fast to say if they done it, there would not be Guwahati. But I think yes it is a display of lack of political will and understanding as to the importance of addressing these crimes against women, which is absent.
Karan Thapar: Does the UPA government own Indian women an apology for not having given priority concerning these issues?
Brinda Karat: Certainly. The government needs to give an explanation as to why it has delayed bringing so many legislations concerning women. It is so quick to bring whole lot of so many legislations which are of no use to the people of India.
Karan Thapar: Let's approach to the horrific Guwahati incident in a slightly different manner. At the movement, four of the most important people in the country are women – Pratibha Patil, Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Meira Kumar. But one of them has anything substantive to say about the trauma that was afflicted on a young teenage girl in Guwahati. What do you make on that silence?
Brinda Karat: You will have to ask them, I don't know.
Karan Thapar: But are you surprised?
Brinda Karat: Not really. In parliament when issues are raised, they do speak. And Pratibha has certainly spoken out for women. And I don't know why she didn't speak about Guwahati.
Karan Thapar: We are talking about the President of the country, the chairperson of the UPA which rules the country, the leader of the opposition, the speaker. is it not incumbent on them to term of the office they hold that they should have spoken out?
Brinda Karat: Karan, a woman in India raped every three minute. This is the reality. And these women in position have power and they are the women who are supposed to be helping the political agendas. Whether they make a statement on Guwahati or not, but my major concern is where are we going as far as this increasing crime against women. India is not safe for young women.
Karan Thapar: And although all those four important persons are women, you are also suggesting that they have done nothing to address this question of crime against women?
Brinda Karat: I am saying there is no political agenda. Address the issue with priority.
Karan Thapar: And whether its women in position in power make no difference?
Brinda Karat: it's women or men, who's setting the agenda.
Karan Thapar: Women in power make no difference to the action of the government when women suffer?
Brinda Karat: I am not saying that. What I am saying as a political agenda, it is not on the priority of the UPA. That is the truth and that is how facts speak. All the legislations for women are in the cold storage today.
Karan Thapar: The majority, if not all the attackers in Guwahati were in their 20s or early 30s. what is it tell you about these young men in India who are considered the future of this country?
Brinda Karat: Fortunately there are many young men in India who were outraged. So, I am glad to see that not all young men are like that. But those men should be taught a strong lesson and one of them is to send them to jail and other would be social disapproval, if not boycott. the institutions were they are, the work places they are, the message has to go that what have done is totally un acceptable.
Karan Thapar: The police claim that they are not an ATM to react instantly. In your eyes, is that a sad truth or it is an insensitive that reveals the police in a very poor light?
Brinda Karat: The police have acted with criminal negligence. We have asked for action against the police. It's absolutely essential.
Karan Thapar: This comment which I quoted that we are not an ATM to response instantly was allegedly said by Jayanto Chowdhary, the Director General of Police quoted by the The Times of India on the 14th of July. Do you think that the person like Chowdhary should continue as DGP?
Brinda Karat: I think he should be sent back to training school to be taught that this not the way we expect from the DGP of a state, who is supposed to be maintaining law and order on the streets of Guwahati.
Karan Thapar: Finally the media. There has been lot of criticism of the fact that rather than come to the rescue of the girl, they either chose to continue to film of what was happening or to broadcast it without protecting her identity. Do you share that criticism?
Brinda Karat: I think we need to get little more evidence about it because there are conflicting reports. I would say if it's the case that they were just doing it to get a good story and to get a high TRP, which I think what they are saying, and then it is a shame. But I am not sure whether this was the case.
Karan Thapar: If I understand your position on the media, you believe we need to know more. There are many questions that have been raised. There are worrying questions which we can't answer in a one way or another until we know more.
Brinda Karat: I think so.
Karan Thapar: But you are also saying that in the light of those questions the media needs to think carefully about how it response in such cases in future.
Brinda Karat: Absolutely, it has happened where we see a young woman being pulled by a hair by a cop and in the media was just filming and not trying to prevent that happening. So there have been instances where media have been motivated by getting a story which they think will sell.
Karan Thapar: And that should never happen.
Brinda Karat: It should never happen.
Karan Thapar: Thanks Mrs Karat, it's a pleasure talking to you.
Brinda Karat: Thank you.