Now, what is it about the Samajwadi Party-nominated Rajya Sabha MP Jaya Bachchan, also an influential 1970s Bollywood actor, and her utterances about women and sexual violence that gets everybody hot under the collar?
For starters, her reaction to the recent Hyderabad gangrape and murder is archaic, primitive and ludicrous.
Bachchan was in the House today and raised the issue of sexual crimes and violence against women, something that’s been agitating parliamentarians and ministers of the Narendra Modi government. This is four days after after the brutal gangrape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad. In the Lok Sabha, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh pledged that the government was prepared to enact the strongest provision in the law to control and eliminate such heinous crimes. In the Rajya Sabha, Bachchan stood up to express her outrage against rape.
Addressing Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, Bachchan wearily remarked she cannot count how many times she has stood up to talk about heinous sexual crimes — from Nirbhaya to Kathua to the recent Hyderabad murder. She said it was time for the government to give a definite answer on whether justice has been done. She then said there are some countries where the public gives justice to the victims on its own, and suggested that the perpetrators of such crimes be brought out and lynched.
Even Venkaiah Naidu gasped at the term “lynched”, and hastily moved to the next speaker.
This must be the biggest gaffe for a two-time parliamentarian to make in the House. To suggest that the public be incited to take the law in their own hands shows that Bachchan has no idea what the primary role of a parliamentarian is — that of a lawmaker, not a law-breaker.
Social media, of course, exploded with outrage against Bachchan’s public call for lynching. Yet, there were more who agreed with her emotional outburst calling for mob fury and lynching.
However, can we explain to Bachchan that there are several problems with her lynch call? Start with the fact that she cannot ask the public to act with the same brutal violence that she is protesting against. Bachchan’s appetite for mob punishment may be a passionate reaction but as the cliché goes, an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
More importantly, as a responsible parliamentarian, shouldn’t Bachchan look beyond the headline-grabbing rapes and murders and look at the thousands of women — both marginalised and privileged, from Dalits and Adivasis to the urbane female workforce — and ask why the police force isn’t more responsive? Police investigations are not speedy and prompt too; they are archaic and tardy, without the requisite scientific and forensic tools to probe the cases. Also, the courts are slow and the trials are laggardly.
In December 2012, after the Nirbhaya rape and murder, Bachchan broke down in the House again and sobbed uncontrollably about the heinousness of the crime. But her shock and grief did not move either Parliament or the law for any new reforms of the system.
So, instead of calling for street justice, which has no place in a civilised world, here are five ways the former cinestar can effectively perform the role and responsibilities of her position:
1. For starters, Bachchan should move heaven and earth to become a member of one of the all-powerful parliamentary committees. These interact with civil society members, academics, experts and even citizens to critically evaluate public policies and their effectiveness — which in turn helps ministries and departments formulate their programmes.
2. As an influential cine artist, she can work constructively to change the way women are portrayed in popular culture, including Bollywood films. This includes insisting on deleting lurid and vulgar lyrics, pushing for movies where the Heroine is not just arm candy for the Hero or an object of violence, but an equal, whether as daughter, sister, girlfriend, wife or mother. Conversely, the Hero is not someone with a sense of entitlement and privilege, but must be seen as actively collaborating with the Heroine to banish that social benefit and boon.
3. Can Bachchan please do everyone a favour by not lamenting the horror of the memory of the violence and assault, and how the scars will be forever ingrained in the “victim”, and how the mental torture will plague her for life? In fact, it was just when she was saying this that Bachchan broke down in Parliament in 2012. She then demanded to know how the government would repay the young victim who was assaulted.
Today, she’s baying for mob justice. But is this the time for revenge and retribution? Instead, it would do better to offer words of courage and fortitude, give firm assurances to the public that with good counselling, proper police investigations, and judicial speed and fairness, victims of assault and battery can once again lead a confident life of productivity and dignity.
4. As a Rajya Sabha MP, Bachchan can be productive by taking a proactive role in channelling citizen groups with government agencies (to which she has access) and take matters into her own hands. As a beginning, she can divert her outrage and helplessness by declaring her intentions publicly and invite citizen groups to chart a course of action to make the country safe.
Most women complain of poor or the absence of street lighting, police pickets, and so on — and these would be a good place to start. Or how about bringing in legislation — not for castration, mob lynching or the death sentence — but to strengthen existing laws for more convictions?
5. Bachchan would also do well to brush up on her book on parliamentary responsibilities and duties. In 2012, she had tearily declared that she would use her Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme for Nirbhaya’s treatment in a better hospital — which she cannot do outside the state that nominated her! So, it would be best to read up on how she can use institutions and policy committees to chart out a serious and meaningful protocol and strategy in perpetuity, rather than coming up in fits and starts.
Perhaps, she can start with asking the Modi government what it intends to do with 20 and more BJP parliamentarians and legislators who are facing rape and sexual violence charges, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms.
If not, she’ll continue to be perceived as just a Bollywood star parliamentarian.