It was supposed to plug a constitutional hole, empower and protect India’s women. Nearly 30 years later, sexist remarks proliferate from National Commission for Women members, who mostly promote narratives of the party that appoints them
New Delhi: When National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Rekha Sharma tweeted a photo with the chief minister of the state that accounts for 15% of all registered crimes against women, it symbolised the Commission’s ignorance of women’s plight.
"Discussed issues related to welfare of women in the state," Sharma tweeted on 20 January 2021.
Highlighting “welfare” of women is far-fetched in a state that is unable to guarantee protection of the most basic rights to its women. Even though Uttar Pradesh holds the record for highest number of crimes against women and girls in the country, Sharma failed to draw the Chief Minister’s attention to it and carefully deflected from the real issue.
Earlier, on 20 October 2020, Sharma had a meeting with the governor of Maharashtra to discuss rising “love jihad” cases, placing it amongst other crimes of gender-based violence, such as rape, even though the organisation she heads has clarified that “no specific data under the category of complaints related to love jihad is maintained by the NCW”.
In October 2018, a Supreme Court-ordered investigation by the National Investigation Agency also did not find evidence of this right-wing conspiracy theory.
Yet Sharma thought it fit to lend credibility to the “love jihad” bogey, when she met governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari to discuss the “rise” in such cases.
Twenty-nine years ago, a long struggle by various women’s rights activists, who highlighted the lack of constitutional machinery to protect women’s agency, led to the formation of the NCW on 31 January, 1992.
The mandate of the National Commission for Women Act, 1990 was to establish an autonomous, statutory body which would have a host of powers and duties. It was expected to not only act as a watchdog for injustices against women, but also to function as a think-tank and facilitate empowerment of women across the country.
Nearly three decades later, this mandate seems to have been lost.
“There was a constant push that there should be a body which looks at issues of gender,” said Kamla Bhasin, one of India’s leading developmental feminist activists and social scientists. “The women’s movement had fought hard for it. I won’t say they have failed, but they haven’t even tried. Unfortunately, today, they are not even serious about being taken seriously.”
In February 2014, the then NCW chief Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar told Hindustan Times that the body she headed was “toothless”. That same year, Maneka Gandhi, then minister for Women and Child Development proposed amendments to bring the Commission at par with the National Human Rights Commission, but the demand was not fulfilled. Earlier still in 2012, journalist Sagarika Ghose alleged an institutional collapse of the national body, calling for it to be scrapped altogether.
How did an autonomous body formed with such hope come to this pass?
In Search Of Answers
I reached out to Sharma several times, beginning on 14 January to interview her and seek answers that are not available in the Commission’s annual reports or the monthly newsletters it publishes.
The annual report for 2019-20 is not available on the NCW website and the newsletters either stopped being published or have not been made available since October 2020. In these reports and newsletters, the Commission is painted as a thriving women’s institution, a success story. Even as the country reports 88 cases of rape on average every day, the October 2020 newsletter claims “successful intervention of C&I [Complaints & Investigation] cell” and “suo-moto cell.”
Sharma texted back on 18 January, “will come back to you”. But as of 22 January I am yet to hear from her. Sharma’s unresponsiveness led me to file an RTI seeking information I was hoping to get from her. Here are some of the questions I have asked:
Was an NCW team on ground when the Hathras gang-rape victim was cremated on 29 September 2020? If yes, then what actions did the team take to stop the cremation that was conducted at 2:30 am without the consent or presence of the victim’s family? Kindly provide a copy of the record.
Was the NCW consulted before the enactment of the Uttar Pradesh’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 and Madhya Pradesh’s Religious Freedom Bill, 2020? If the Commission submitted any report, recommendations or comments on the Ordinance and Bill before their enactment, kindly provide a copy.
Has the NCW submitted any report or comments to the central government on the proposed amendment to the marriageable age for women? If yes, kindly provide a copy.
With regards to Madhya Pradesh chief minister’s proposal for surveillance of working women, has the NCW written to him, made comments or suggestions to the state government about any potential concerns? If yes, kindly provide a copy.
History Of Anti-Women Remarks
The NCW has a history of insensitive, even anti-women, remarks made by those who represent it.
The most recent came in the wake of the brutal gang rape and murder of a 50-year-old anganwadi worker by a priest in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. Upon noticing lapses on the part of the UP Police, the NCW took cognisance of the issue and sent a two-member team to the village to inquire into the matter.
One of the members of the team, Chandramukhi Devi, after meeting the family of the victim, said: “Even under any influence, a woman should keep track of time, and should not venture out late. Perhaps, had the victim not gone out in the evening, or gone along with a family member, she could have been saved.”
Following an uproar on social media, Sharma criticised these remarks, but it is unclear if any disciplinary action was taken against Devi.
In 2018, when a Thomson Reuters survey found India to be the most dangerous country for women in the world, Sharma, rejected the finding and said that women “make such complaints [about sexual violence] for claiming compensation or settling property disputes”.
“When they increased money for gangrape in Uttar Pradesh, suddenly the number of complaints increased for gangrape—all in similar areas,” Sharma remarked about the soaring crime rate in the state. “So these things happen, if you study about it.”
Others before Sharma have also caused much disappointment.
Nirmala Venkatesh, a member of the team put together by the NCW to investigate an attack on women in a Mangalore pub in January 2009, commented: “Everybody was dancing wearing so many nude clothes (sic) and all. That is why they did what they did, they (the attackers) said. We women should always try to safeguard ourselves."
In July 2012, Mamata Sharma, the then chairperson of the Commission, said rapes could be reduced if women dressed properly. “Aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen (sic)", she said.
Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the chief of NCW for the term 2014-17 and now a full-fledged member of the BJP, in an interview, claimed without much hesitation that autonomy is a “risk” for “aggressive women”.
The Silence Is Deafening
Section 10 of the NCW Act provides a rather exhaustive list of functions the Commission shall perform. Section 10(1)(f) of the Act categorically provides the Commission the power to look into complaints, take suo moto notice of matters relating to deprivation of women’s rights and take up issues arising out of such matters with appropriate authorities.
However, the Commission chooses to be silent on many significant women’s issues.
Till date, the Commission is yet to make as much as a single statement on the heinous crimes and sexual violence inflicted on women by police and army personnel in the highly militarized areas of Jammu & Kashmir and north-east (here, here and here).
After the abrogation of Article 370, the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights in Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped in October 2019 (see our earlier story here), and over 270 cases of Kashmiri women which had almost reached final judgment were transferred to the NCW. These transferred files have reportedly been lost in transition, leaving hundreds of Kashmiri women stranded.
As per the sections 10(1)(d) and 10(1)(e) of the NCW Act, 1990, the Commission is empowered to review, from time to time and take up cases involving violations of Constitutional provisions and laws affecting women.
It is also one of the stipulated functions of the Commission to recommend to appropriate authorities, amendments to anti-women laws and suggest measures to meet any lacunae in legislation.
The anti-conversion law prevents women of the state from exercising their fundamental rights of faith, liberty, bodily autonomy, and equality (see our story here). It would not be out of place for a National Commission meant to empower women to take note of such a law, but the NCW remains a mute spectator even as fake cases have emerged and arrests made.
The national body is also guilty of failing in its duty to fully implement the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 at its own premises. Instead of practicing what it preaches, the National Commission in 2016, dismissed two women who had filed a complaint about the persistent workplace sexual harassment at NCW itself.
Even as the #MeToo movement picked momentum in the country in 2018, many women gathered the courage to share their stories and spoke out against sexual harassment. Rather than using the Commission’s power to issue suo moto notices to the perpetrators and extending help to the victims, the acting chairperson deferred from registering formal complaints on her own.
“Victims do not want to go beyond naming and shaming the alleged offenders and lodge formal complaints,” she said.
In the wake of women coming forward in the #MeToo movement, the NCW created a dedicated email ID to receive complaints. But even where formal and detailed complaints were filed, victims were reportedly left in the lurch.
Actress Tanushree Dutta, whose complaint against Nana Patekar led to the start of India’s #MeToo movement in Bollywood raised the issue of the NCW’s conduct regarding her allegations, calling the Commission a redundant organisation.
Dutta alleged that the Commission never summoned Patekar even after she had submitted a detailed written complaint along with supporting documents. Many other victims faced setbacks at the hands of the NCW (here, here and here).
This inaction was seen again as the Commission had no comments to make when the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi was accused of workplace sexual harassment. More recently, the Commission has maintained its muteness on the current chief justice’s sexist remarks about women who are at the forefront of the farmers’ protest, even though this led to an outcry (here and here) by women’s rights groups and activists.
“We don’t understand why women are kept in the protests,” said CJI A S Bobde.
The saga of the Commission’s silence does not end here. Speaking about the unexpended and almost defunct Nirbhaya Fund, Sharma, said that it is not the NCW’s responsibility to follow up on the various schemes. She stood by her statement even though Section 10 of the NCW Act, 1990 specifically lists making “reports” and “recommendations” to the central government for the effective implementation of safeguards provided for women.
Reactive, Not Proactive
It is not that the National Commission does nothing—it has made efforts, though belatedly, on various women’s issues.
For example, in 2017, the Commission was “ready” to submit its report on Triple Talaq, but only if the Supreme Court asked, not otherwise.
The Commission also asked the Delhi Police to identify unsafe or vulnerable areas in the city and give better protection to women by increasing patrolling and installing more CCTVs at such spots. Contrary to the position taken by many academics that the use of surveillance and CCTV cameras does not translate to crime prevention, the Commission chose to put forth this recommendation.
Moreover, in reaction to a surge in cyber crimes against women, the National Commission collaborated with Facebook to launch a 'Digital Literacy Programme' to provide training to women on safe and responsible use of the internet and social media.
Despite having organised digital literacy drives, screenshots of several misogynistic and sexist old tweets posted by Rekha Sharma went viral in October 2020. She made vile remarks against senior leaders of the Opposition party, and even wished rape upon a man’s family.
Shortly after her tweets were out in the public, Sharma claimed that her account had been hacked. The said tweets, however, were posted between 2012-14.
During the lockdown, the Commission did create a dedicated phone helpline to deal with a reported increase in domestic violence (see our story here) so that women could call about their grievances, although no physical help could be extended to victims who were stuck within the confines of their homes with their abusers.
The data about the spike in domestic violence reported in the press was attributed to the NCW, despite Sharma and, later, minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani’s denial.
Sharma claimed that the “increase in domestic violence complaints shows a spike in reporting, not necessarily a rise in such incidents or crimes.”
To cite another example of the National Commission’s retrospective efforts, much after the Uttar Pradesh Police had cremated the body of Hathras gang-rape victim and once all was done and dusted, the Commission condemned the manner in which the victim was cremated. It even sought an explanation from the UP Police.
Most significantly, as the Central Information Commission remarked, the Commission also does the work of a “post office”—forwarding complaints from one department to another.
Where Political Ideology Holds Sway
If precedent is any indicator, only those who prove allegiance to the governing party’s politics become members of the NCW. This holds true for almost all of the eight chairpersons appointed so far.
Prior to her appointment as chairperson of the NCW, Sharma was the BJP district secretary and media in-charge in Haryana.
Mamata Sharma was appointed chairperson in 2011 by the Congress-led UPA government and was a two-term member of the Rajasthan Legislative Assembly in 1998 and 2003.
Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the chairperson between 2014-17, was previously a BJP national secretary.
Girija Vyas had long been associated with the Indian National Congress before she was appointed chairperson.
In the past, many have complained (here, here and here) that the National Commission’s inaction, or action in selective cases, is largely based on the ideology adopted by the ruling party. It has been accused of being a political stooge, failing to act in favour of women when most needed.
Kamla Bhasin who has worked for gender justice for over five decades said, “If there is any country in south Asia that has it all–feminist lawyers, feminist journalists, feminist academics–it is India. In every state, we have them. Yet, with the exception of one or two, most members of the Commission come with very little or no background in women’s issues.
“The Commission should be kept away from party politics,” she added.
The fact that all members of the Commission are nominated by the party in power explains this position, and it is the reason why the Commission is rendered largely spineless.
Journalist Ghose in the piece referred to earlier criticised political meddling. “Amidst the serious challenges faced by the modern Indian woman today sits the National Commission of Women, like a slothful octopus chained to the ruling party, feeding off political and government largesse,” she said.
In a matter pertaining to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the Supreme Court in 2014 had directed the government to remove political discretion from the selection process, which ultimately led to rules for appointments being amended.
It is a promising prospect that an amendment to the selection process prescribed under the National Commission for Women Act, 1990, may eventually see the light of day. Such a move could inspire much-needed confidence in the institution and add more teeth to it going forward.
As Sharma is on her way to complete her term in August, one can hope that she will acknowledge the aberrations and move on to live up to the aspirations of the women who fought hard for the establishment of the Commission she now heads.
(Mani Chander is a practicing lawyer based in New Delhi.)