Sagarika Ghose: After that shocking Guwahati molestation case, questions have been raised on the role of the National Commission of Women or NCW. Did the NCW fail to show even a modicum of any sensitivity towards the victim when, in a press conference, they revealed her name? Is the NCW simply too politicised to objectively campaign for women? Should the NCW be scrapped because it does not consist of campaigners for women, it consists only of politicians?
Women continue to face violent assault but the National Commission of Women is packed only with politicians. Has the NCW failed to handle the challenges being faced by modern Indian women?
Joining us tonight Poornima Advani, she is former Chairperson of NCW. Joining us Flavia Agnes, lawyer, someone who also advises the NCW. Malvika Rajkotia, lawyer, is also joining us. Also joining us Madhu Mehra, Women's Rights Activist and lawyer.
Madhu Mehra, first and foremost the shocking conduct of the NCW representative. You go to Guwahati for two days. Instead of engaging in rehabilitation of the victim, you revile the victim’s name in a press conference. You double back in less than a day and you simply have waited for a photo opportunity. What was Alka Lamba doing, surely she has shamed the NCW?
Madhu Mehra: You know, there are several things that show the capacity of the NCW in handing or responding to a case like this. For instance this case is one, of a series of cases which we see, of women being striped and paraded in rural India. This case came into our drawing rooms because of the video. Now NCW should have recognised that there is a huge policy gap, there is actually no law to respond to this and yet this is a kind of volition that touches women on regular bases. This is a fear that women live with, this is not unique. Now instead of responding to this policy vacuum, the gap in the law, NCW goes to fire fight when there is actually a mechanism in pace. Now it would be very useful if they went there with very tough questions and purpose. But what do they do there. They do very elementary fact finding. They take with them a woman who has no background or credentials in women’s work. Alka Lamba is a former youth Congress person; she is not associated with NCW. NCW has a lot of women layers in its panel, they are extremely capable of doing something like this (be a part of probe panel). But they take somebody with no orientation, no knowledge, experience and this is what she does. It ends as a pathetic photo opportunity in addition to it, it jeopardises the safely and security of the victim.
Sagarika Ghose: A pathetic photo opportunity which jeopardises the safely and security of a woman at a time when women are facing such severe social justice issues, such severe sexual assault. Why is the NCW trivialising women issues? Let me just quickly bring in Malvika Rajkotia, Malvika Rajkotia is politisation the problem. Alka Lamba as Madhu Mehra pointed out is a Congress member, Mamta Sharma is a Congress politician from Rajasthan, these politicians they are not people who have experience in dealing with women issues, empowerment issues, justice issues and legal issues, therefore, perhaps this body needs to be disbanded because it is simply an extension of politics.
Malvika Rajkoti: Very frankly it is true that it is politicised but actually it is even an embarrassment to the politicians. Because all they are doing is coming out with this ludicrous statement from time to time. Like the Bangalore pub incident where it was suggested by the person, in fact finding person who had gone there, that it is the women who should have protected themselves. Then came the incident of Mamta Sharma talking about sexy being attractive or whatever, something to that effect. You don’t need some specialised knowledge to be able to address a situation with basic competence even that is lacking over here. So they are an embarrassment to everybody and they are taking us all back. Today its very existence is being questioned, when it actually hasn’t started functioning in the manner that it was suppose to.
Sagarika Ghose: Let me put that to Poornima Advani. Poornima Advani, now you are the former chairperson of the NCW, you were considered by many to be close to the BJP, you were also considered to have political leaning. Everybody who is associated with the NCW are considered to have political leanings – now is that a disservice to women? Because when you have people with political leanings as heads of NCW then you are not appointing experts, you are appointing people who are close to Government of the day.
Poornima Advani: Sagarika, three points. Point number one, it is seven years to me having demitted office and not for a single day have I left my practice and been in politics. I’m a active lawyer and professional everyday day in courts and in my office. So please do not unnecessarily create impressions which are incorrect. I agree completely that anyone in the NCW has to be apolitical and handle his office as such. Point number two, let me say this very quickly that NCW has been in existence from January 31, 1992. This is the first instance we have seen of a NCW committee member, she is not a sitting member of the commission, she is a member of a committee which has been appointed, who has blundered in exposing the name of the victim. It is unpardonable the act she has done but there have been commissions setup in the past of eminent members of police force, eminent members of activists.
Sagarika Ghose: But the question, Poornima Advani, is why did she get appointed in the first place? Why did someone like Alka Lamba get appointed in the first place?
Poornima Advani: I completely agree with you, Sagarika, that the choice of members of the committee is extremely crucial. Secondly once the investigation is complete the report is a report of a commission not of an individual committee member. A committee of eminent persons, apolitical, has to submit the report to the commission. The commission then takes its decision and that is the report of NCW. The report of an individual is not te report of NCW. Lets be very clear about it.
Sagarika Ghose: But what about the credibility of the NCW today as it stands. Flavia Agnes, I’m going to read out words of Lalita Panicker, who is a columnist and has been writing on women issues for a long time. She has written in Hindustan Times, “The NCW as it stands today should be scrapped. It serves no purpose other than provide comfortable sinecures for out-of-work politicians. No doubt, many on its rolls have their heart in the right place but they are rarely heard. Barring a few exceptions, it has never had a chairperson who commanded enough respect or authority for the government to take the commission's recommendations seriously, it is time that this body was consigned to the dustbin." What do you think about that?
Flavia Agnes: I don’t say that it should be scrapped but it can’t continue in a manner it has continued in the last 20 years. This is not an isolated incident. The way the government has to work, whether it is a BJP government and Poornima Advani, whether it is a Congress government, it has continuously pandered to particular women whom the government wants to please and put them there. And it becomes ornamental that we are the commission and this photo you are talking about is continuously there. When the issue is in the from page, they go there they pose for photographs, they have a media conference, they give a statement and after that the issue is forgotten completely. It can be the Shiney Ahuja case, as a domestic maid who ultimately retracted. It could be Gujarat violence, a commission goes there to look at women and say it was all right and it was media which created hype and there were no rape at all. It could be the Karnataka incident. There have been like series of incidents in last 20 years. I’m glad that this has come out in this manner because otherwise NCW was never made accountable. We have been shouting that NCW can’t function in this manner, it is using public money; forget women a statutory body is there at the request of the women’s group. We struggled to say that there should be a statutory body to represent us, to represent our concern to the government. To sanitise what is happening in the society. You tell me sexual violence Bill which is being pending from 2010, what did the government do? NCW was suppose to frame a law for compensation of rape victims and that that has not been done. What has NCW done? Its we who keep shouting that government is not doing anything, bills are lying here with this ministry with that ministry and what does NCW do. Half the time it does not have members, half the times when the members are there they are not interested and what is thee credibility to be there. Unless there is a credibility that you have worked with women issues, you prove a point and that is why you get elected. It is not that BJP has a quota, this party has a quota and that party has a quota and that is why we are sitting in this position. And if that is the way it must continue then I agree with Lalita Panicker, we don’t need a body like this.
Sagarika Ghose: If it is going to be packed with politicians then why do we need NCW? Poornima, respond to what Flavia Agnes is saying, why for example should a Flavia Agnes not become the chairperson of the NCW? Now whether it was you in the BJP government or whether it is Jiraiya Vyas in the Congress government, the fact is that the NCW has become a handmaiden in the political party.
Poornima Advani: I’m an active politician and I’m an active lawyer, please don’t compare the two. Jiraiya, I respect her, she is an active politician but let me also say that this entire debate has gone on the air because of Alka Lamba’s blunder which she has committed. She is not a member of NCW. Now if the Chief Minister of Assam has committed a blunder will you run a program saying that the entire institution of chief ministers should be abolished?
Madhu Mehra: These are very different situations. This is a watchdog body for women; it is the noodle body in the country for women. So we expect much more from NCW, we expect a different mandate. I don’t think we can compare the Chief Minister of Assam with a specialised body on women.
Sagarika Ghose: But nobody is saying that there has not been a political failure. Certainly the Chief Minister is accountable, the police is to be accountable, the journalists are to be accountable, but we are focusing in this program on NCW. I want to pick up what Malvika Rajkoti is saying, chairperson of NCW Mamta Sharma has spoken about how work, you know, sexy… she has spoken about NRI marriages. There seems to be a feeling that women’s issues are being neglected, that they are unimportant, that they are nt taken seriously.
Madhu Mehra: We have come to a point where we are seeing new and emerging trends of violence and discrimination and the body has to keep up with these trends and to analyse them and suggest policy reforms. Instead what we are seeing is the most (*) response. And I am sorry in this case in Guwahati the fact that a press conference was called even that itself shows that there is no understanding of what a fact finding is. You release a report, you don’t call a press conference, before a report there is no need of a press conference. So it is not what was said in the press conference, the very face that they don’t know how to conduct a fact finding is a problem.
Sagarika Ghose: They don’t know how to conduct a fact finding. They don’t know how to take a stand on assault. They even don’t know how to protect a victim.
Madhu Mehra: Correct there is no law on victim protection currently. We know systematically, with in the legal system rape victims become hostile; they are unable to participate because of the threats because of the long proceedings. In this case, what assurance do we have that this young girl is going to have faith in justice and cooperate? The other think is can NCW tell us of the status of all these big cases they have followed up. Do they actually monitor cases right till the end or do they just go in the beginning, when it is buzzy and in the news and diaper later.
Sagarika Ghose: The fact is Poornima Advani that the NCW is a resounding failure. The NCW has failed India’s women. That is the bottom line. The fact is at a time when violence against women is so high, the NCW has failed Indian’s women – is that not a fact.
Poornima Advani: Sagarika, one incidence of Alka Lamba… the NCW has given number of recommendations to the government. The NCW through the length and breadth of the country heard the voices. I have in fact just now 10 minutes before the program attempted to look into the constitution of the present commission. I could read in the website that there is a member who is well versed in legal provisions; there is a member who is well versed in Northeast affairs. I really can’t understand what got into the commission to put up a committee of one or two members who didn’t not know what fact finding is.
Sagarika Ghose: Why haven’t they sent people like Flavia Agnes, Madhu Mehra and Malvika Rajkoti? But let me bring in Flavia, do you want to come in.
Flavia Agnes: When Poornima Advani was the chairperson, when the Gujarat riot happened and so many women were brutally sexually violated, there was a commission sent by the NCW which went there and gave a clean report to the Gujarat government. It is not one Alka Lamba, what happened since then. There is one case that finally got convicted because of individual people who worked on it. But did the NCW pickup this issue because it was BJP and Poornima Advani was the chairperson and it is a close proximity to the government that came out with this report which all of us were horrified to look at. So it is not a question of one Flavia Agnes, one Madhu Mehra to be there. It is the politics the NCW.
Sagarika Ghose: The politics of NCW. Should the NCW be scrapped, if not how should it reinvent itself.
Madhu Mehra: I think we are all concerned about national watchdog body for women not being able to perform and flounder each time. So we certainly need a national watchdog body, there is too much going interms of discrimination and violence against women. At this point, I think, it would be valuables if NCW called for an evaluation to recognise the mistakes and gapes and to understand collectively with women’s groups how to make amends, how to work here on and insure the appointments… We need a functioning body; we can’t do away with women’s commission. We need a functioning effective women’s commission that responds to the realities today. We don’t want case to case fire fighting, we need policies interventions.
Sagarika Ghose: And We don’t need sought of ritual mourners going here and there and not doing anything else. Is it turning into political ladies kitty party. Malvika Rajkoti, what should the NCW do in order to rehabilitate to become functioning organisation?
Malvika Rajkoti: You know, we are just talking about basic sharp intelligence which will obviously happen with orientation and education, some kind of specialised knowledge you are dealing with. But that is not difficult…
Sagarika Ghose: Should the politicians be taken out?
Malvika Rajkoti: See when politicians head ministries they do a decent job, it just comes from basic impartial integrity heading a national commission for women. A degree of compassion and resonance with regards to the issues you are dealing with.
Sagarika Ghose: But some of the people appointed don’t seem to take their jobs seriously.
Malvika Rajkoti: They will have to (take their job seriously) but you can’t scrap an institution. Very frankly I can think of many worst institutions who are also being eroded and are decaying. Nobody talks about scrapping them because we can’t. Same think has to be done here. You have to as Madhu said do an accounting, do some introspection. I did a case where NCW was a party; I was a petitioner representing some teachers from a well known school who were sexually harassed. The NCW gave me no support what so ever, even though we had approached them. All they did was do a press conference which turned out to be counter productive because the limelight seeking compromised the rights of the other people so called accused. And eventually there was no lawyer appearing in the court for the NCW, and then somebody appeared to say he had lost the file and eventually we had to carry the case with out the help of NCW. So they are an embarrassment but that doesn’t mean you scrap a statutory body.
Sagarika Ghose: Flavia Agnes, scrap or how should we rescue? Ok Poornima Advani first and then Flavia.
Poornima Advani: Sagarika there is no question of scrapping a body that is a result of labour of women across the country to put it in place, number one. Number two, there should be from time to time audit evaluation of the commissions in the country including the NCW. Number three; there is a Parliamentary committee on women and child which should from time to time interact with the commission and inform the government what else is required. And I will again say the commission should have non-political persons.
Sagarika Ghose: NCW should have non-political persons. Flavia Agnes, I’m giving you the last word.
Flavia Agnes: I think the commission functions has to be transparent. What money they are getting, where are they spending this money. It is not an ornamental position, it is not for power. You have to find out where they are spending the money and what kind of press conference they are constantly doing. The publications they are bringing out is self promoting, every page has the chairpersons photograph be it Jiraiya Vyas, be it who so ever. You have to use transparent mechanism to find where the money is going and what are they spending the money on.
Sagarika Ghose: Very strong words are being used against NCW. It is not transparent, it’s ornamental, it is looking for photo opportunity, it is packed with politicians. NCW is in a crisis, it has failed Indian women, it needs to be rebooted, it needs a complete makeover. Thank you very much indeed, Flavia Agnes, Malvika Rajkoti, Poornima Advani, Madhu Mehra.
As we come to the end of the program lets remind you of a CNN-IBN campaign. Yesterday we had Sonali Mukherjee on our show. She is that brave girl from Ranchi who has been a victim of an acid attack. 26-year-old Sonali was sprayed with acid 9 years ago by three males when she resisted sexual abuse. Today she is totally disfigured, blind and partially deaf. Her family has lost everything in giving her treatment. We are running a campaign to gather help for Sonali.
You too can help Sonali to rebuild her life - just send in your donations to Chandi Das Mukherjee, A/C - 0612000103217964
Punjab National Bank,
You can also contact her family:
Brother Devashish Mukherjee: 09437638600
Father: Chandi Das Mukherjee: 09210022919