The Gender Card

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The outrage at the Pollachi sex abuse racket gives Opposition politicians a foothold in the battle to win the trust of women, a constituency methodically cultivated by MGR and Jayalalithaa

ON APRIL 18TH, Tamil Nadu will go to the polls heartbroken. A viral video from Pollachi of a survivor’s attempt to resist her aggressors as they repeat what the police have now established to be a criminal network’s standard technique for blackmailing young women has shaken Tamil society. A month after another victim, the sole complainant in the case, unwittingly walked into a trap by agreeing to meet a Facebook acquaintance in person, the full extent of the extortion racket that may have exploited over 60 women, including teachers, students and housewives, is yet to be gauged. Police have revealed that the gang had been befriending women on social media since 2013 with the intention of luring them to secluded locations where they could assault them and film explicit videos. Tamil Nadu is no stranger to sex rackets, the latest of them involving Nirmala Devi, a former assistant professor at an arts college in Aruppukkottai who stands accused of pimping women students to officials of the Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU) for cash and career opportunities. The Pollachi case, however, stands out as a symptom of a diseased culture where women are being terrorised, raped, beaten, killed and driven to suicide at an alarming rate even as many perpetrators walk away with impunity.

The case may not have come to national attention were it not for an attempt, involving a local All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) functionary, to intimidate the brother of the 19-year-old victim after he confronted her assailants—N Satish, N Sabarirajan, T Vasanthakumar and K Thirunavukkarasu. Thirunavukkarasu allegedly roped in A Nagaraj, a ward secretary of the AIADMK’s Amma Peravai, to beat him up, hoping to spook him into silence. Instead, the family filed an FIR on February 25th, leading to the arrest of the gang of four—they have been booked under the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, IPC Sections 392 and 354(A) and (B), and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act—with a second case being slapped on Nagaraj, who has since been out on bail and stands expelled from primary membership of the party.

“These women, some of them married, were seeking friendship and companionship. But this is unacceptable to our society. They could not go back home and tell their families that they willingly met a man they had exchanged messages with. The gang took advantage of their fear of stigma,” a police officer investigating the case told Open. Victims, struggling against the sweeping shame that surrounds sex abuse, were disinclined to report the incidents. But the police, instead of encouraging them to testify, revealed the complainant’s name on several occasions, as if to warn them of the consequences. “It was not by design that the name was revealed. There is no political angle to this, but yes, we were under pressure to quickly wrap up the investigation. There has been a lot of fake news surrounding the case and the ruling party is worried,” says the police officer, explaining Coimbatore Rural Superintendent of Police R Pandiarajan’s press conference denying any political involvement in the case.

Coming smack dab in the midst of surging electioneering, the controversy has given the Opposition a chance to allege malevolent conspiracy by the ruling party to obstruct justice and to shield a wide network of rapists. The AIADMK has denied involvement in the case and the investigation has been transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, but the damage cannot be easily undone. “Don’t blame us for politicising the issue. It is not our fault that the government only acts once the matter becomes politicised,” said Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Member of Parliament (MP) Kanimozhi in a protest rally organised in Pollachi on March 12th, adding that the incident had brought shame to the state. Even as the Madras High Court rapped the national media for not treating the case on a par with the Nirbhaya trial, Pollachi is emerging as a classic case of marginalising survivor experiences and using women in danger as a narrative device for political benefit. The case offers a suitable moral footing in a state that is otherwise considered relatively safe for women, with 5,847 cases of crimes against women registered in 2015, compared to states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal which recorded over 30,000 cases each.

In 2016, for the first time in Tamil Nadu’s electoral history, more women (21.6 million) cast their votes than men (21.2 million), voting Jayalalithaa back to power in an uncharacteristic show of trust

The fact is, with the death of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who like her mentor MG Ramachandran commanded the support and adulation of women even if it did not always manifest in vote share, gender politics in Tamil Nadu is at a crossroads. Women, more than men, will decide the outcome of the elections to the state’s 39 Lok Sabha constituencies, and also seal the fate of the 18 Assembly seats where bypolls will be held simultaneously. In the 2016 Assembly elections, for the first time in Tamil Nadu’s electoral history, more women (21.6 million) cast their votes than men (21.2 million). They delivered a decisive verdict, voting the AIADMK back to power in an uncharacteristic show of trust that is rivalled only by MGR’s consecutive wins in the 1980s. The DMK and allies pocketed 98 seats and the incumbent AIADMK raked in 134, riding on populist schemes that seem to have struck a chord with women. The AIADMK’s vote share among women was 10 percentage points higher than among men, despite the fact that Jayalalithaa, unlike Nitish Kumar, who in Bihar had coasted to victory in 2015 by promising an alcohol ban, only said that her government would progressively cut the number of state-run liquor outlets. The DMK, on the other hand, proposed prohibition—a double-edged sword that the party believes led to its defeat in the 2016 polls. “It is impossible for any leader today to command the kind of following Amma had among women,” insists former minister and head of the AIADMK manifesto committee C Ponnaiyan. “She is still the guiding light of the party. It is her schemes that we continue to take to the people. We believe we can win the support of Tamil women once again.”

As per the latest electoral rolls, women voters outnumber men in 27 of the state’s 32 districts—all except the north-western belt comprising Salem, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri, besides Villupuram and Kanyakumari. In most districts, women are also more likely than men to turn up to vote. In Nagapattinam in southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, 85.41 per cent of women on the rolls voted in 2016, compared to 82.64 per cent men. “Women here vote for themselves, not as part of family units,” says former Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) P Mahalingam, who won the Kilvelur Assembly seat in Nagapattinam by a whisker in 2011. That year, his constituency recorded the highest women’s turnout in Indian electoral history: 95.57 per cent. “This is a DMK fortress and I did not think I would win,” says Mahalingam. From the DMK alliance, the Communist Party of India is likely to contest the Nagapattinam Lok Sabha constituency, a seat reserved for SCs. “People, especially women, see the state government as a stooge of the BJP which has effectively put a stop to MGNREGA work, the only source of livelihood in the district for nine months of the year. One of our key rallying points this time is the anti-women politics in the AIADMK-BJP front. With the state government completely succumbing to the BJP, the spirit of Amma is dead.” In 2014, the AIADMK candidate, K Gopal, won the Nagapattinam MP seat, historically a Left-Congress bastion, riding the Amma wave that swept 37 constituencies in a Modi-vs-‘lady’ showdown. The National Democratic Alliance’s two high-profile candidates, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Pon Radhakrishnan from Kanyakumari and Pattali Makkal Katchi’s Anbumani Ramadoss from Dharmapuri, both former ministers, emerged as face- savers in an election that belonged to Jayalalithaa’s defiant spirit. Backed by her 50 MPs in Parliament, the 29-point memorandum she presented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2016—her last—underlined her thoughts against the National Eligibility- cum-Entrance Test, Goods and Services Tax and the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana, among other issues. Since her death, however, the men who have taken charge of the state, O Panneerselvam and Edappadi K Palaniswami, have given in to the Centre’s impositions, not just diluting the state’s fiscal independence but also the spirit of federalism that both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi stood for.

“Amma gave our girls bicycles and laptops and introduced post-pregnancy care at government hospitals. But more than all this, she gave the poorest women and the mentally-challenged livelihoods,” says Revathi Vijayan, a 32-year-old from Kilvelur who is a beneficiary of the Tamil Nadu Puthu Vaazhvu Thittam, a rural empowerment and poverty alleviation programme introduced in 2005 with partial World Bank assistance. The convenor of Amman Kuzhu, a self-help group (SHG) with 12 members who raise chickens and goats, undertake tailoring and grow cattle fodder, Vijayan, has two daughters, aged 10 and seven, by her mentally challenged husband. The sole bread earner, she says the SHG, which helps her earn Rs 5,000-8,000 a month, rescued her from the brink of despair. Over 180 village panchayats in Nagapattinam, and 200- plus SHGs in Kilvelur alone benefit from the seed money, credit and other social support structures erected as part of the project. About 80 per cent of households covered by the programme reported increased income within a year of joining an SHG. “At our monthly meeting in February, we talked about the upcoming elections. Political parties don’t want women to think; they want us to vote for an election symbol. But when we talk among ourselves, we realise what we really need are not more free goods, but part-time jobs. Women with young children cannot travel to nearby cities for a whole day of work in construction,” Vijayan says. The commentariat ignores the role of SHGs in rallying support for the party in power, and therefore its value as a weapon against anti-incumbency.

Women will decide the fate of all but five districts in the state. But will they continue to vote for Jayalalithaa’s populist schemes, including bicycles and laptops for girls and maternity kits at government hospitals?

Kilvelur Zonal Deputy Tehsildar Girija Devi says voter awareness drives are the reason behind the high turnout in the constituency, which recorded over 84 per cent polling in 2016 despite heavy rain. In this small constituency with 163,370 voters, no towns but for the Christian pilgrim centre of Velankanni, low literacy, rain-fed agriculture and no industry, poverty is more than a material condition. Conversations with women in Kilvelur reveal how persistent poverty sows the seeds of a life of loneliness. The men migrate to the textile hub of Tiruppur or work in construction in Tiruvarur, half-an-hour away. Often, they live off a small plot and drink themselves into an early grave. “Deaths and accidents due to alcoholism are rampant,” says Kilvelur MLA U Mathivanan of the DMK. “Since we share a border with Karaikal, we have to battle not just TASMACs [government liquor shops] but also the threat of illegally brewed country liquor that ruins lives.” While he cannot explicitly address the issue of prohibition, Mathivanan says he has been talking in village-level meetings about a level-playing field for women in agriculture. “Women are paid no more than Rs 150-200 for a day’s work, while men can earn twice the sum. This wage differential has to be done away with. Families depend on the earnings of women, they will do just fine without men.”

Jayalalithaa understood well the social costs of being a lone woman. Ahead of the 2016 polls, she picked out N Meena, a 35-year-old first-time MLA aspirant, to contest against Mathivanan. “She asked me why I was single and I replied that I wanted to devote my time to the people. She just smiled,” says Meena, who is hoping to contest on an AIADMK ticket from Nagapattinam MP constituency. Less than a tenth of the elected MLAs in 2016, however, were women: 16 from the AIADMK, four from the DMK and one from the Congress. Even fewer contested: 323 of the 3,787 candidates fielded across the state.

“We have always targeted women voters. While at larger public meetings we may talk about farmer loan waivers, the issue of hydrocarbon projects and Modi’s foreign policy, when we go door-to-door campaigning it’s the everyday needs we address: roads, drinking water, a house in the name of the woman,” says M Kumar, the local DMK engineering association secretary. At a special voter-enrollment camp at Anjuvattathamman Government Higher Secondary School near the Kilvelur bus stand, Kumar and his AIADMK counterpart occupy two benches where they pore over the list of new voters enlisted this year, sort them by booth and ensure all members of the household are registered. “They are the eyes and ears of the revenue department. There is no difference between the DMK and AIADMK at the ground level—they both help women in need, with money or in kind,” says K Habibunnisa, 40, who waits for the revenue department official to enrol her 20-year-old son, who works at TVS in Chennai.

In November last year, when cyclone Gaja struck the coast of Tamil Nadu, laying waste to thousands of houses and farms, women and children were the worst-hit. In Vizhunthamavadi, a village south of Velankanni, they are still piecing their lives together. “All the thatched huts were blown away. Water flooded homes and fields. Our mango and coconut trees haven’t come back to life after that,” says R Anandi, 39. The settlement of about 4,500 families resembles a refugee camp, with bare fields of brinjal and dead coconut trees, children scampering in and out of tarpaulin shelters, and old women regarding the world uncertainly through broken windows. “Most men have migrated to cities after the cyclone. There is no work here, no life,” says Anandi, whose husband went to Malaysia to work in a quarry, leaving their five-month- old daughter in her care. “He sends home Rs 15,000 a month but I don’t know how much longer we can live like this, all alone. If you ask me, I believe that women will vote for someone who has time to sit down with them on the threshold and listen to their problems.” Government officials in Kilvelur worked efficiently in the aftermath of the cyclone to restore power and communications, say villagers, while alleging compensation hadn’t reached everyone. “Poor women in Tamil Nadu no longer want to have children—or they stop at one,” says Anandi. “You see, we can no longer depend on the weather, on our men or our politicians.”