Boys will be boys. With these four words, Samajwadi Party (SP) head Mulayam Singh Yadav, who allegedly suggested at an election assembly that rape occurs because women led men on, unleashed a barrage of criticism from all quarters. Questioning the recent death penalty meted out to three men convicted of two gang-rapes in Mumbai, Yadav suggested that the punishment was too harsh, and was defended by the Maharashtra unit chief of the SP, Abu Azmi. Azmi took it a step further saying that women who had live-in relationships or had sex without being married, willingly or unwillingly, should be put to death by hanging.
According to Yadav, “boys” who rape make mistakes and the death penalty is “not fair.” Yadav’s party manifesto contends that there is “large-scale misuse” of the tougher anti-rape law that was instituted after the fatal gang rape of a young Delhi paramedic student in a moving bus in December 2012. At an election rally in Moradabad district of northern Uttar Pradesh state, where he was speaking on Thursday, he reportedly said that he would change the anti-rape law if his party won the elections.
With added scrutiny of the world because of national elections, Yadav and Azmi’s comments come at an especially critical time. India has been reeling from a glaring global focus on rising crimes against women and the deeply misogynistic attitudes that are entrenched in many parts of the country.
But many Indians reacted strongly to these comments.The party leaders’ words raised a maelstrom of angry reactions, from women’s groups, the media and in the blogosphere. The comments have been called everything from “insensitive and unfortunate” to “[sinking] to a new low.” A complaint has been filed against Yadav with the Election Commission and the National Commission for Women.
Yadav has retreated from his stance, claiming that he had been misquoted. While Azmi’s self-defense was less conciliatory, Yadav insisted that he wanted rapists to be punished but still stood by his position that death for rapists was too harsh and that there was need “…to dilute the law that imposes capital punishment on the guilty.”
Azmi, on the other hand, refused to back away from his statement. His son, Farhan Azmi, the Samajwadi candidate for one of Mumbai’s seats, has distanced himself from his father’s comments and apologized for them, while his wife, Bollywood actress Ayesha Takia expressed shame and embarrassment on Twitter, saying that she and her husband did not support such a regressive mindset.
Giving his words his own religious context, Azmi said that Islam did not allow sex outside marriage, and whether Hindu or Muslim, no one wants the women in their families to have pre-marital sex. He stated that Islamic law prohibits sex outside marriage and that the same rule should apply as law of the land. According to him, “Rape is punishable by hanging in Islam. But here, nothing happens to women, only to men. Even the woman is guilty,”
Displaying dismay and affront, Indian political parties including the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemned Yadav and Azmi’s words. BJP leader Uma Bharati exhorted women to not vote for the SP. Others said that this position encourages rapists and marks women who are raped or harassed as being complicit in the act.
India’s Twitterscape exploded with horror and sheer anger. Bollywood stars took to Twitter and released a stream of outrage and disgust. Farhan Akhtar, actor and director called Azmi’s words “pathetic” and asked him to seek medical help. Arjun Rampal, actor found his comments “downright appalling.” Actor Vir Das called Azmi “…a streaming pile of horses***.” At an event, Dia Mirza, actor-producer found Yadav’s words “appalling and saddening.”
But if one were to set the rightful indignation aside, it becomes clear that their positions with respect to rape are contradictory with Yadav wanting to do away with the death penalty while Azmi supports it. Azmi just wants everyone having sex outside the so-called sanctity of marriage to be put to death. What is common between the two leaders’ public discourse is a strong thread of misogyny, a normative position that the perpetration of rape depends on women. According to them, women bear the onus of whether she is raped or not.
Even as they are being excoriated by a majority of Indians, there seems to be little remorse. Yadav continues to support his stance that death penalty for rape is harsh and Azmi staunchly defends his party supremo. How this controversy impacts the results of the ongoing elections will be telling. It will go a long way in indicating how the Indian voting population views issues of crimes against women and the burden of punishment in such cases. It’s a game of wait-and-watch.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay.