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Sita to Sitharaman-I: Even after 75 years, India 'not on track' for gendered leadership

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

India was never on track towards gender equality even for powerful women from the ancient time of Sita to today’s Sitharaman. Patriarchy is so deep rooted that it is normalised by all genders especially by the submission of the women.
This article, first in a series, seeks to build up a case on how masculine decisions and actions by both men and women in power keeps fuelling and fortifying the patriarchal mindset. Understanding those nuances may be useful to redefine the roles and responsibilities of women in the various social-political affairs particularly leaderships including the forthcoming run-ups to the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha seats.
I take the case of inauguration of the new parliament building in New Delhi as a simple example how discrimination of/on women are normalised by the media, masses, and ministers including women ministers. The new parliament building was inaugurated on May 28th 2023 by the Prime Minister by carefully choosing a date of birth of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar to make a statement to the country importantly to the opposition parties on marking the arrival of the Hindu Rashtra as envisaged by his parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Whatever that Hindu Rashtra may be, the dismal presence and participation of women in the entire inauguration ceremony (and leaving aside the foundation and construction process) of the building is the tale to represent the dismay of the status of women leadership in the country, which implicitly also informs the depressing state of ordinary women of the country.

Two photographs

The first of the two photographs below separating 75 years timespan tells many facts about the men and that one woman of the country in both the times. The photo of ‘then’ is of Jawaharlal Nehru’s first ministry in the independent India in 1947 and the photo of ‘now’ is of Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the new parliament building in 2023.
Discussions went on with the first and the latest parliamentary photoshoots drawing differences, such as, from the westernised then to the Indianized now, from the western educated ministers then to the traditional home-grown educated now, from the secular then to the religious now, from the fully cladded gentlemen then to the top-less (sorry!) saints, from the open socialist thinkers then to the closed thinking now, and many more.
My interest goes beyond how good/bad either the fully cladded educated freedom fighter turned politicians are or the traditionally Hindu educated saints are. What is noticed in both the photos is that ALL MEN (the all-boys club) and only ONE WOMAN continue even after 75 years from then in 1947 to now in 2023. Have we done enough to engendered our parliamentary affairs and even constitution from the ‘all-boys club’? This definitely needs a long discussion on men. For the time being, let me look at what is wrong with this.
Let me bring to your notice on how in the ‘now’ photo, the Minister of Finance, Department of Financial Services, Nirmala Sitharaman (2019- ), is standing next to the male bastion of the New India with folded hands and locked lips. Sitharaman is a brahmin, highly educated, highly powerful woman making it to probably among the 0.1 % of the women of independent India.
The way she is standing (or made to stand by either the men in the photo or by the camera person most likely man/men) at one side, aloof, detached from the men just like how the upper caste crowd usually would do with an untouchable in the country. Although these men (saints) are not parliamentarians but imagining if they were, the gender composition in the parliament will still look similar with only 78 women out of 542 Lok Sabha Members and 24 women out of 224 Rajya Sabha Members.
In the 2023 photo, most of us know the Prime Minister only and do not know (or wish to know) the Hindu traditionally educated saints. None of the media houses took the pain to name the saints in their news except writing their title as, ‘Adheenams’. Adheenams are non-Brahmin Shaivite monastic mutts or its pontiff in Tamil Nadu who run temple complexes worth hundreds of crores.
Why the media did not take the pain to highlight these saints? Simple, because their presence was notional, photographic than their identities for the purpose of parliamentary affairs. What I know and worry is that the saints did not follow and were not obliged to follow the parliamentary protocol to be fully draped and is embarrassing for every woman to meet so many top-less men in a formal setting.
Let me also bring to your notice on how in the (old) India the then (1947-57) Minister of Health and Family Welfare of India, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, is seated among the fully cladded and mostly western educated freedom fighter turned politicians. The photoshoot of the first ministry of the Dominion of India (later the Republic of India) cabinet as on 31 January 1950 consisted of, along with the newly appointed President Rajendra Prasad at the centre, (L to R sitting) BR Ambedkar, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel, John Mathai, Jagjivan Ram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and SP Mukherjee. (L to R standing) Khurshed Lal, RR Diwakar, Mohanlal Saksena, N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, NV Gadgil, KC Neogy, Jairamdas Daulatram, K. Santhanam, Satya Narayan Sinha and BV Keskar.
Let me now push you to imagine the ‘2023’ photo first with ONE MAN standing aloof among ALL WOMEN and then imagine one man standing aloof on one side with folded hands and locked lips among all top-less (sorry!) women. Difficult to anticipate and appreciate, right? Huh! Why is this difficult to imagine? There comes the grand old Indian customs and traditions especially of Hindu, blah blah where, male is gold and female is brass worth; and where, men can get away with doing anything and everything including rape, violence, lie, etc.
I do not wish to anticipate and appreciate, in my lifetime, that we attain a gender reverse photo with ONE MAN seated comfortably among ALL WOMEN as that is also not gender parity. However, with the rise of women education and empowerment, and seeing women scaling new heights in all spheres of life, it is still ok to imagine a 1947 photo of a man comfortably surrounded by all Indo-western educated women but not a 2023 photo of a man surrounded by top-less women in that setting. As the latter is not a Bollywood setting of an item number where actually the man also goes top-less along with the dancing extras.
Thus, by far the (Old) India photo is still better than the New India photo. In that India, atleast I could also see a confident woman, a few Muslims, Christian, Dalit, leaders besides leaders representing various geo-spatial regions of the country. This shows more inclusivity for the only woman and other religions and that may be the influence of the western education. 
In this New India instead, I can see all south Indian men led by a west Indian man, this time all not from any Brahmanical/upper caste (apology to exploit the caste to make a case, otherwise, I do not endorse such discriminatory ways of society) trying to ascertain a new Hindu Rashtra.
I do not endorse either of the parliamentary photo situations of the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of India and New India. This is because of the bleak or rather no presence and participation of women in the country’s social-political and constitutional affairs, apart from the western then and Hindutva indoctrination now. 
However, it is natural and logical to be more upset in the present state of affairs because I live in this time and the past came as a package of history. But it is definitely extremely saddening that we did not change the state of gender in the parliamentary affairs in the long democratic journey of 75 years.

The live show

There was a minute-by-minute live telecast of the entire event of the inauguration of the new parliament building like the Independence Day and the Republic Day parades. Then, the ‘aaha’ moment was announced when a symbolic stick ‘Sengol’ was walked by the Prime Minister and his men through the aisle of the new parliament building as a procession followed by its installation next to the speaker’s seat.
The speaker wasn’t even given a chance to touch the stick until installed. If the Sengol holds significance as a sacred symbol of power and connects the glorious traditions of pre-colonial India to the future of independent (now new) India, then sadly the manifestation of power (of men) to be more powerful is un called for.
The live telecast scripted the event look more like a ‘tamasha’ of a coronation of a king (like Lord Ram) than like a swearing in ceremony (which was also not the occasion anyway). During this entire live telecast, one thing again stood out clear, the total absence or a customary presence of Sita in the form of Sitharaman. Do you see a woman in the left corner of the photo with all saints standing (chanting) on the two sides while the speaker and the Prime Minister are on the podium? Is this the state of women we have to accept in the New India?
D Padma Subrahmanyam who initiated the Sengol Saga now to the Prime Minister has indirectly/unintentionally(?) endorsed patriarchy as well as authoritarianism. Since despite knowing that the symbolic transfer of power then in 1947 is not required now in independent India. Saying that the stick is a notion to rule the country has been unfortunately misinterpreted by the ruling party.
We are not ruled anymore, but governed. I wish we the people and those in power realise the difference. Also, there is a difference when Cholas were ruling then the governance by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). With the sheer enactment of Sengol installation, there was an attempt to announce the arrival of the New India, a Hindu Rashtra. 
Although Sengol also manifests justice, neither Dr Padma ushers anything on the injustice to the women in the country nor the Prime Minister acknowledges her role in scripting this saga of its installation. I wonder whether she was invited to experience the whole saga as the new parliament hall has more seats to be seated atleast for the ceremony.
Among those seated in the parliament hall, there were only handful of women. It is unclear though as how was the new parliament building full-house on the inauguration day when the ministers of around 19 opposition parties protested against the new parliament building inauguration by the Prime Minister and boycotted the event. Since, they demanded (rightfully, constitutionally) the inauguration of the building by the Honourable President of India, Draupadi Murmu, a woman (ofcourse).
According to Advocate CR Jaya Sukin who filed petition for the President to inaugurate, the plea mentions Article 79 on President being integral part of Parliament and that her absence is against the basic principles of Natural justice and violation of Article 21, 79, 87 of the Indian Constitution. The famous-historic old Parliament building was inaugurated nearly a century ago on January 18, 1927, by the then Viceroy Lord Irwin.
Inauguration by our 2nd woman President of the country (out of 15 Presidents since the independence) was a distant dream in our new democracy, she was just informed about the event and thus chose to be absent in the ceremony. This can be directly related to the fact that those saints and the Prime Minister still hold a distinct discriminative idea of gender but importantly of the casteism and marriage status. 
So, Draupadi Murmu, a woman from a tribal community designated as Scheduled Tribe and a widow are way too many constrains to get acceptance of the men to lead an inauguration ceremony. Imagining if she was inaugurating the new parliament building which is constitutionally the right of the President of India, it would not have been digested well by the men of the ruling party and most men of the country besides for the media she may not be a big news for their TRP.

The religious tantra and mantra

Along with the continued gender disparity, the present system is working hard to bring back religion into the mainstream political-parliamentary affairs which was then subverted with pushing the secular values in the fight for freedom and in the free India through its constitution. Most ministers in the present times are either endorsing a political religion by shifting parties or playing religious politics by singing Ram, Krishna, Banjrangbali.
Playing religious politics is unfortunately dominated by Hinduism with layers of casteism. Religion runs in them so deep that they see everything through religious lenses. Ministers are using the mythologies to the extent of spreading myths in the parliamentary affairs, election rallies, in all good and bad.
Well, if everything is so much about Hinduism and being religious, let me bring your attention to the religious activities that took place and request to look through a gender lens. First of all, celebrating ‘a’ religion in the parliamentary affairs is already against the constitutional ethos of the secular nation. Then, the religious ceremonies of the inauguration signalled clearly that the presence and participation of women can be ignored and avoided totally.
The new parliament building inauguration was celebrated through the Hindu customs, the focus was on Tamil Nadu Hinduism. The saints chanted Sanskrit religious hymns to their loudest voice (atleast on media) to recapture the imagination of every citizen about Hindu kingdoms of the historical past like the Cholas.
The focus now on Lord Shiva, much to the likes of the preparation of the forthcoming Lok Sabha election and the Tamil Nadu Rajya Sabha election is totally understandable especially now that Ram is already exploited in 2019, Bajrang Bali did not go well in Karnataka 2023, and Krishna may have been reserved for 2024 with the Mathura episode (his birthplace) already put in the furnace to fire at the required time.
Let me now bring your notice that in Hindu religious ceremonies, a married man is supposed to sit alongside his wife. Ram, during his coronation, chose to have a gold statue of Sita in her absence. Here, in this photo of the inauguration puja, first of all it is again all-boys club, then the men chanting mantras are most likely unmarried as Brahmacharis, and then the two married men, the Speaker and the Prime Minister, accompanying each other without their better halves (wives) performing the puja. Is this puja then religiously authentic or it is a religious convenience? The act of puja is thus neither constitutional nor religious, then what is this? It pushes me to say that men can do anything and everything for power, position, and paisa.

Gendered lense

Thus, these parliamentary and political affairs are concerning from constitutional as well as religious aspects when looked through the gendered lens. Missing women from the puja is against the religious rituals apart from the fact that the entire inauguration is unconstitutional and gender blind. This patriarchal and unconstitutional acts in the new parliament building inauguration were unfortunately forced upon us to swallow.
Thanks to the efforts of the Hindu men (in the ministry, media and enmasse’) for holding tight on to the Hindu traditions and manipulating them as per convenience. I am sure many women (and men) who follow parliamentary and political affairs do not agree to this ‘crafted’ narrative of coronation in a democracy.
However, since many do not want to rage conflict given that the ED, IT, UAPA, NSA, etc. are hyper active to the dissenters. Slowly, there is an implicit submission developing among even the righteous people to ignore the wrongs, forget trying to correct those.
What happened in the new parliament building inauguration was also noticed in the foundation ceremony of the parliament building besides the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Without Sita, there is no Ramayana but the men in power keep boasting on Ram and the temple of his. Likewise, without representation of the 50% of the population, the constitution, the parliament, the country is not really a country.
Even if one considers the inauguration of the parliament building as a trivial activity, the explicit message to the opposition parties was loud and clear, however, I wonder whether the implicit message of masculinity sent across to the womenfolk is noticed by we the women. The endorsement of the entire episode by Sitharaman and the absence of the other women parliamentarians and the President of India are of concern atleast to me when I think of role and responsibilities of women in Indian leadership.
Therefore, in my understanding such trivial acts with deep impacts must rage every educated woman as all the past efforts of women empowerment will be jeopardised systematically through such convenient based Hindu traditions, constitution, law and order. 
If men (in power and in general) want to worship Mother India but at the same time want to see women as stoned-silenced objects to exploit standing at one corner almost out of the photo frame and the context; as women, we are in difficult times to get acknowledged and appreciated for our presence and participation especially in the social-political construction of the country. It should even be extended as a matter of dignity and decision making for women in leadership.
What is a way forward for the women to engender political and parliamentary affairs? Well, history does not have answer/s to this. As women, we have to be innovative and motivated to push the gender parity issues in the public realm, public sectors, political and parliamentary affairs. Importantly the women in power have to take it more seriously than ever. We also need sensitive and sensible men to raise the gender issue.
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*Entrepreneur | researcher | educator | speaker | mentor | political observer. More info on her learning and sharing are at, www.mansee.in and www.wforw.in. Articles on women by the author:

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