What happened at the ‘non-political’ meet organised by women’s groups in Delhi

What happened at the ‘non-political’ meet organised by women’s groups in Delhi

A number of sucked and dried mango seeds were on display. These represented the state of the country since 2014, according to the organisers.

By Sucharita Ganguly

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On Monday, the Press Club of India was decked up with posters that questioned and mocked our aam-loving incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Also on display were a number of sucked and dried mango seeds. According to the organisers, these represented the state of the country since 2014.

Questions and posters at the Press Club of India.

Mangoes on display.

Women activists addressing the gathering.

The organisers of the press conference were taking a dig at Modi’s recent non-political interview with Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar. Some of the people behind the presser included Anjali Bhardwaj, Shabnam Hashmi, Dipta Bhog, Purnima Gupta and Amrita Johri. These women were also part of the Women March for Change protest that took place on April 4.

Two things that stood out about the meet included the concerns and questions raised as well as the absence of any representation from mainstream media houses. A total of 56 questions were posed—one for each inch of the prime minister’s chest size. Some of these questions were:

  • Why has the government stopped publishing data on farmer suicides since 2015? Why does the government fail to address this issue?
  • Who is funding the Bharatiya Janata Party? Why did the BJP introduce electoral bonds which allow for anonymous donations to political parties?
  • Why has the prime minister not addressed a single press conference in the last five years? (A press conference/interview where the questions are not pre-screened.)
  • Why has there been deafening silence from the government on the rising hate crimes against minorities, especially Muslims?

Opening the presser, Shabnam Hashmi, one of the organisers said: “Badkismati toh ye hain ki Modiji ko ye bhi nahi malum ki Hindustan mein toh aam bhi vibhinn prakar ke hote hain. Aamo mein bhi diversity hoti hain (It is unfortunate that Modiji is unaware of the different types of mangoes that are found in India. There is diversity, even in the types of mangoes).” Hashmi also took on Akshay Kumar and Modi for their non-political interview. She said while Modi was trying to distract people from real issues, the presser organised by several women’s group would address these issues.

Shabnam Hashmi speaking at the presser

Subsequently, at least seven women who depend on government subsidies came forward to share their struggles. This included their concerns about employee pensions, state-sanctioned rations and healthcare, among others.

Fifty-year-old Sheela from New Delhi’s Jagadamba Camp does not get enough ration for her family. “Paanch kilo chawal milta hai, isse toh do parivar ka 15 din bhi nai chalega. (We get 5 kg rice, this is not enough for even 15 days).”

Laxmi from Swami Nagar has not received her pension even after 14 years of struggle. Sudha from Kusumpur Pahari is distraught about seeing her graduate kids struggle to secure a job.  

The reason behind their struggle, said Amrita Johri, one of the organisers, was the way in which the systems were being run. She said: “…yahi tarkeeb hai ki usko itni kharab tareeke se chalao ki log ana hi band kr de (the ploy is to run the system so poorly that people stop coming)”. This system, the organisers pointed out, forces people to buy ration from alternative sources, sometimes far above the stated price. This points at the dysfunctional distribution system, one of the organisers added.

Questions were also raised about the steady decline in the education budget. The education budget in 2014-15 was 4.5 per cent of the total budget, while in 2018-19 it forms only 3.5 per cent. The organisers also addressed the reduction in the healthcare budget and addressed several government schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Ayushmaan Bharat.

The other questions addressed issues such as the curb on free speech and expression, the increase in the rate of unemployment, the killing of more than 40 public intellectuals and journalists, among others.

Anjali Bhardwaj, one of the organisers, challenged the prime minister to answer at least one of the questions posed by the group. As she was speaking, a monkey jumped in and grabbed one of the many mangoes that were placed on the table. Bhardwaj was quick to add that although both the monkey and Modi can eat mangoes, only one can answer the stated questions.

Anjali Bhardwaj

Purnima Gupta, a women’s rights activist, spoke about the Modi’s government’s portrayal of women in their promotion of the Ujjawala scheme. Comparing women’s portrayal in Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and the Ujjwala scheme, she said, while advertisements of the former encourage families to educate their girl child, the latter pitches women in the kitchen. She said while the entire campaign is pegged at giving “mahilaon ka samman”, it publicly displays the idea of a woman that the government holds—that cooking for her family provides her with “dignity” and her only chance at earning “due respect”.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Gupta says the government has tried to prop up a pro-women image by fielding some women candidates this election. Among them is 2008 Malegaon blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur. She adds that the government did not want to pitch incumbent candidates because that would “highlight all the failures and the things the present MPs have not done”. Gupta believes that a great deal is achieved by pitching a woman as a vulnerable candidate and repeating lies until people consider it the truth. “The only saving grace could be informing the public well.”

Speaking about the media’s role, Shabnam Hashmi said, “I sympathise with a lot of people in the mainstream media because not everyone is sold off. There are people within each media channel, each newspaper, who come, who file stories. They are not carried, and they are also suppressed, or if they try to raise questions they are thrown out.” She added, “One would have expected the national media to have some spine which unfortunately they don’t and the journalists who do, they are either not heard within the channels and newspapers or they are pushed out—and so many of our very good friends have been pushed out.”

The charcha ended with chai and a performance by comedian and theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao. Her performance was about the role of a gair-rajnaitik (non-political) Modi considering his retirement plans.