What is women’s commission doing, ask angry activists

By Azera Rahman, IANS,

New Delhi : The National Commission for Women (NCW) is a “toothless body”, say activists, students and lawyers alike as they fume over its laidback reaction after Hindu rightwing activists attacked young women at a Mangalore pub.

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Many point out that the NCW – set up in 1992 as “the apex national level organisation of India with the mandate of protecting and promoting the interests of women” – has done very little even in the past and has few powers.

“The NCW is like an ineffectual body. At best, offenders get away with a rap on the knuckles,” Pragya Vats of Action Aid, an international NGO, told IANS.

“When we approached the NCW for its support, their response was ‘we will see what we can do’. Here’s an organisation to protect the rights of women and when we are trying to set a precedent to discourage self-appointed moral police, they simply back out,” Rituparna Borah of the NGO Nirantar told IANS.

Nirantar organised a protest against the Mangalore incident in the capital.

“Besides protesting against the incident and moral vigilantism that is rampant in Karnataka we also submitted a memorandum to the resident deputy commissioner of the Karnataka Bhavan asking for the re-arrest of the accused who are out on bail,” said a furious Borah.

Public anger has been mounting over the Jan 24 incident in Mangalore – a city in Karnataka – in which Hindu radicals from the group Shri Ram Sena, in the name of protecting Indian culture, barged into a pub called Amnesia and physically abused women, dragging them by their hair and beating those who tried to resist. The accused in the incident are out on bail.

The NCW’s initial reaction was surprisingly muted. Nirmala Venkatesh of the NCW who led the team to probe events said the pub did “not have enough security” and that “women have to safeguard themselves”.

Although the commission subsequently distanced itself from Venkatesh’s remarks and dubbed her report “null and void”, the damage was already done.

“How can she (Venkatesh) justify the violence that was inflicted upon the women? The bitter reality is that in India women cannot seek justice even from mechanisms that were created to uphold their rights,” said Leona John, a lawyer and social activist.

Pointing out some past instances – such as “Operation Majnu” in December 2005 when couples sitting in a park were pummelled in the open by Uttar Pradesh police – activists and students reiterated that even then the NCW had done nothing.

Despite its intervention, moral policing in the state and elsewhere has not stopped, they said.

In yet another instance, after several cases of harassment of northeastern women working in BPOs hit headlines last year, the Northeast Support Centre approached the NCW for help. But even after a year, nothing concrete seems to have emerged.

Girija Vyas, the NCW chairperson, was quick to offer an explanation: “Last year we took notice of northeastern women being harassed at work and wrote to the BPOs asking them to frame proper guidelines and strictly implement them.

“However, these problems have started cropping up again. We will have to take a serious look at it.

The NCW has five other members, besides Vyas. They are all political appointees, picked by the government. The NCW’s powers are restricted to making recommendations which are not binding.

Vyas said: “The commission has always taken up the cause of women whose rights have been violated and given them all kinds of help possible, be it counselling or legal assistance. We have been doing our duty.”

But many point out that the NCW’s efforts haven’t amounted to much.

“Issuing notices, suggestions and recommendations by the NCW hasn’t gone very far in actually upholding and protecting the rights of women. What happened after the NCW took up the case of moral policing in Meerut when cops roughed up women in parks for hanging around with men?” asked Rashi Verma, a student of law in Delhi University.

Some have even said that time has come for a stronger women’s body which can actually take concrete steps to safeguard the rights of women.

However, Vats of Action Aid suggested: “Instead of another body, more powers should be given to the existing one and make it more representative.”

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at [email protected] )