Modi Gaffe: Despite Being a Man, I take a Hard Line on Hypocrisy
I am not one for conspiracy theories, least of all the view that global media barons are at the edge of their seats, waiting to malign the world’s largest democracy. But where Narendra Modi is concerned, I’m turning into a believer.
Ever since the Gujarat riots of 2002, Modi (despite being cleared of all wrongdoing in court) has been the target of a campaign to portray him as intolerant and dangerous: the notion that as Hitler was to Jews in Europe, so too is Modi to Muslims in the Subcontinent. I'm not saying he is being unfairly targeted (though, the Hitler comparisons are definitely over the top; let's remember that Bush and Obama are responsible for harm to way more Muslims.) That said, in inking a historic border deal, over the weekend, with Bangladesh, an Islamic neighbor, which no predecessor had accomplished, his detractors were momentarily silenced. An acknowledgment of the achievement was reported recently, albeit grudgingly by some.
And then came his awkwardly worded statement, yesterday: "I am happy that the prime minister of Bangladesh, despite being a woman, is openly saying that she has zero tolerance for terrorism. I would like to congratulate Sheikh Hasina for her courage to deal with terrorism with zero tolerance."
They were off to the races, the talking heads, the professionally outraged – portraying Modi as intolerant or worse: laughable. This time, it was chauvinism, Modi having visited religious monuments without controversy. The issue perhaps is more expedient for his opponents. Modi had cultivated a pro-women stance during the election, campaigning against sexual assault and violence against women. He was the only Prime Ministerial candidate to do so in recent years, maybe in history. In fact, without giving figures, several media concerns such as India Today and Outlook, have stated Modi enjoyed more popularity among women than men in the run up to the 2014 election, and this surely contributed to his success in the polls.
The statement provided the opportunity for opponents to chip away at Modi’s popularity among women. It has provoked a frenzy of twitter posts under the hashtag: #despitebeingawoman.
Let's remember, Modi is not the most erudite man in the English language - and this is to be expected: he was a tea-seller, who made his bones in the local politics of Gujarat before that state's economic success story and riot controversy vaulted him to the national stage. As regards spoken English: a Winston Churchill, he is not. As I recall, Churchill was not known for his progressive views on the emancipation of women for that matter. In that way, Modi, too, seems to differ, despite his gaffe.
People have tweeted things like, how dare you (say such things) when India had a female Prime Minister before most other countries, etcetera. They’re missing the point. It is tremendously difficult for a woman in an Islamic country to take a hard line against Islamic extremism. Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan perennially caved into extremism until 9/11. Then she took stood up against it – and was assassinated.
Bangladesh is perhaps an even more challenging environment. After years of instability (there was a caretaker govt. installed from 2006-2008 followed by a fractious coalition and a majority whose legitimacy was challenged) trailed by 85 days of organized strikes, a provisional government was installed in 2013. Within 90 days an election was scheduled in early 2014, which resulted in widespread violence and 21 deaths. An 18-party opposition alliance announced a non-stop blockade of roads, railways and waterways across the country from 1st January, 2014 in order to resist the scheduled election. Hasina’s Awami League won a majority due largely to the boycott and remains insecure.
The opposition alliance are led by right-wing factions including the extremist Jamat-e-Islami, which has links to Islamic terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, The Taliban and ISIS. The party calls for reunification with Pakistan, and expulsion of the approximately 20 million non-Muslim Bangladeshis. It and other extremist organizations are backed by Saudi money, infiltrated by Pakistan’s spy service, the ISI and is responsible for Bangladesh’s increasing radicalization. Many of its leaders are accused of war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal and one leader was hanged in April by the Government.
A brutal attack by meat cleaver of an atheist blogger and his wife at a book fair a few months ago demonstrates how dangerous it is for people to challenge extremist ideology.
Bangladesh National Party leader, Khaleda Zia (also a woman) has survived by cooperating with these extremist elements; and this has been stated by the US Institute of Peace, no less. In his report entitled, 'The Rise of Islamic Militancy in Bangladesh', noted academic Sumit Ganguly, on behalf of USIP writes,"There is little doubt that the Khaleda Zia coalition regime in particular, has tacitly permitted these (militant) groups to pursue their activities without much hindrance." For Hasina, whose father was assassinated by Islamic extremists, taking a stand against them is not only politically difficult but perilous to her person.
So, yes, ‘despite being a woman,' - or better put, despite being a female leader of an Islamic country, Hasina has put herself in jeopardy by taking a hard line against Islamic terrorism unlike her opposition counterpart; her position demonstrates courage that should be lauded – and this is what Modi was trying to say but his limitation in the language betrayed his intent.
So, before a reactionary media ornamented by tweets, gets a second wind in their spirited attack on Modi, my suggestion is they should all do a bit of reading, and examine the statement in the context that it was made. Then, maybe they will understand how, if awkwardly worded, it was actually quite reasonable.
Moreover, such voices are conspicuously quiet about the anti-female policies of so called liberal leaders. Indian females in politics haven’t been particularly feminist, and nobody seems to want to talk or write (or tweet) about this. After the famous Delhi gang-rape and murder about which the controversial film, ‘India’s Daughter’ was made, female politicians like the NCP’s Dr. Asha Mirje have blamed women for rape.
Just across the border from Bangladesh, West Bengal’s first woman Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee has a record of being soft on terrorism to cultivate the Muslim vote, and she is not known for policies that are particularly favorable to women. What she has been known for is an inexplicable reluctance to condemn crimes directed against females. Last year, when questioned about why she hadn’t done more to safeguard women in the state, she responded by saying she was a leader of people, not a leader of women. In Janurary, 2015, she was criticized on her silence when West Bengal police allegedly tortured a woman in the jungle near her village to extract information. There was no ‘silence on female torture’ hashtag set up for outraged women and people in the media to vent, afterwards. That's because such acts by female leaders don't provoke outrage - and when they do, it's not at all visceral. Take Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar's statement in 2012. Belonging to the same political party as Banerjee, she denied that the infamous Park Street Rape Case of 2012 was a crime at all, calling it a deal gone sour. This too, failed to provoke the ire of the 'Twitterati'. The intensity of 'outrage' culminated in noted writer-social activist and feminist, Mahasweta Devi terming the remark "improper".
Despite being women, these women’s statements (or silence in some cases) do damage to the cause of equal rights and protections for those less privileged members of their gender in the Republic of India. Placed in that context, the outrage against Modi seems not only misplaced but also quite hypocritical - possibly even organized to extract political gain.
The media would do well to end their hypocrisy on the reporting of issues related to women’s rights and protections in South Asia, and do their job – which is to bring to light facts, expose truths, and provoke debate to move society forward. Sensationalizing a poorly worded but contextually apt remark does little to move the plight of women forward. Rather, it distracts from the cause doing damage to it.
Despite being a man who has supported the cause of women's rights since my college days, I must speak out against the mob - and take a hard line on hypocrisy.