Kavita Krishnan is not a household name in India, but she is a ubiquitous presence wherever there is a fight for women’s rights or a need to give a voice to the downtrodden and underprivileged. Her voice is also loud when the issue involves fighting against powerful Hindu communal forces.
The 40-year-old activist has become part of India’s popular consciousness with her tireless activism on the issue of women’s rights and violence against women following the gang rape of December 16, 2012, a crime that shook the entire nation. Krishnan was one of the first activists to take to the streets demanding justice for the victim and calling for changes in the laws on crimes against women. From that spark, gender justice has today become a popular point of discourse in India.
The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar met with Krishnan at Jantar Mantar – the protest street of Delhi – on December 16, 2013, where she along with activist friends from different walks of life had come to observe the first anniversary of the shocking incident that claimed the life of a young woman.
What does December 16 mean for India?
Undoubtedly there has been a paradigm shift in the way we look at women since the December 16 incident. This means a lot not only for India but the world outside. The significance is that the shift has lasted and it is visible even after a year of agitation. It’s unprecedented. Clearly the discourse on gender issues has not remained confined to the comfort zone of the drawing room but has captured the headlines of newspapers. That is why the day December 16 is being celebrated with one of the banner headlines in India’s leading English daily, Indian Express, stating charges of sexual assault against a retired Supreme Court judge. This is a remarkable change. It signifies a major change. The headline reflects the mood of the nation when it comes to gender violence. The incident could have been swept under the carpet as has happened in the past in so many cases.
The protest on the street against the Supreme Court’s recent verdict criminalizing gay alliances is also indicative of a significant shift in people’s attitudes towards individual freedom and women’s rights.
The kind of protest that we are having on the streets of the country on the issue of gender discrimination is really significant. I think this is a remarkable achievement and shift.
What needs to be done to take this movement to some kind of logical conclusion?
Fruition is not a question. It is not an achievable commodity. What is important is that the discourse has shifted and this itself is a remarkable thing. We managed to change the whole discourse. The movement has gained traction. We want the government, judiciary and police to change and the movement has managed to change them. Earlier they were resistant to change. There is still a strong section in their ranks who are organizing a backlash to change but they will not succeed. India will not accept that now.
How do you look at the change in the attitude of politicians and government towards gender issues and violence against women?
There is a long way to go. The government and politicians still think that they can create a constituency for a patriarchal backlash and they are banking on the conservative sectors of society. Politicians still issue obnoxious remarks. Look at the snooping incident that involves the BJP government in Gujarat and in turn the government led by the BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. To justify the snooping on a young women the BJP government in Gujarat is saying that they did this to protect the woman. This shows their obnoxious idea of sacrificing women’s freedom at the altar of women’s protection. They think that they can count on a majority for this kind of act and remarks. We want to confront such politicians and not allow them to get away with such degrading remarks. This means we have to make the issue a political issue and teach them a lesson.
How you react to the growing influence of right-wing politics in India? What do you feel will happen if the Hindu right manages to take power in India?
I don’t know politically where the balance of forces will lie. I do, however, feel very strongly that even in secular politics, conservative discourse dominates on the right. The so-called seculars also don’t confront the obnoxious notion of norms and restrictions for women. You have the president of the National Commission for Women (NCW), appointed by a secular government, saying that urbanization is responsible for rape and asking women to follow Indian culture to avoid rape. This kind of talk is very similar to what the Hindu right-wing says. So those who practice a Hindu majoritarianism agenda and a secular Congress-led NCW are speaking in the same language on the issue. What we need, therefore, is an alternative political discourse and to build support for that. I see support for that alternative discourse, but it’s not going to be an easy fight. I am glad the ranks of fighters have swelled and the possibility for change has presented itself.
How optimistic you are that the fight for gender equality will succeed in India?
I am totally confident that India is going to change. All over the world this kind of awakening is happening. I am not saying this is happening in India only; it has been happening internationally for quite some time now. You have seen the SlutWalk protest, you have seen protests against victim blaming in many countries. The shape of the movement will vary from country to country. To somebody sitting in advanced Western countries it may seem that the norms being imposed on women in India are problematic or patriarchal. But they have to look around and see that violence is embedded in their own societies. I think that is the real challenge and this offers scope for solidarity. We will have to fight together for the emancipation of women not only in India but in other parts of the world.
As an activist, do you feel that India is in a transition phase and a new awakening is taking place as far as women’s issues are concerned?
I do believe that. This is undoubtedly the shift that India is witnessing. But I don’t want to say that this is a change only India is witnessing and only India needs. We know that that LGBT rights are not always protected in the U.S. also. There is discrimination there. Even among politicians, there is anti gay discourse. There is a gradual change. The Pope has changed his language and that is a welcome change. If Indian religious leaders feel that they cannot control the discourse and if the Pope feels that discrimination should go, then that is a welcome change. This we feel is important and I feel therefore that the change is happening not only in India but in other parts of the world too.