The opposite of ‘divide and rule’, it is also PM Modi’s mission statement
5/11/2018 7:04:06 PM
|written By : M J Akbar|
It is unsurprising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is an avowed disciple of Swami Vivekananda, should have placed gender reform at the heart of governance. The passage of a triple talaq bill in the Lok Sabha and the reinstitution of pilgrimage rights for Muslim women are strong inclusive links in a chain that started within weeks of Modi taking office in 2014. Vivekananda famously described Muhammad as the Prophet of equality in race, caste, colour and gender. It took a disciple to remember that.
Gender emancipation was central to Vivekananda’s vision of a New India – a symbol of national regeneration that he placed into public discourse. “The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women,” said Vivekananda. “When woman is no longer oppressed,” he added during umpteen sermons, “she will become a lion.” He even wanted women to become partners in sacred space, a radical proposition in an age when priesthood had become the jealously guarded preserve of men. Analysing the past, he argued that India began to regress when women were turned into an “object of blame for everything”. In his cosmic and temporal view, the first manifestation of God was the hand that rocked the cradle.
The wheels of change set in motion by Modi in 2014 are on course towards a new horizon. Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas is a doctrine of inclusion, seeking to bring all those who are marginalised because of inherited problems like caste, creed, gender or wealth into the arc of prosperity and social liberation. ‘Sab’ does not merely include women; women are central to this narrative, which believes that they can play a decisive role in elimination of that historic curse, harsh poverty.
The starting point was Jan Dhan, the project that opened bank accounts for over 300 million people who had never seen the inside of a bank before. Jan Dhan minimised the role of middlemen with their sticky fingers in direct benefit transfers, an endemic problem that had substantially depleted actual resources meant for the impoverished.
A transformative element of Jan Dhan’s design was opening the banking system to women who had never seen the inside of a bank before. About 53 per cent of the Jan Dhan accounts or over 162 million, were opened by women at the urban or rural base of the economic pyramid. For the first time women from Dalit, tribal and backward class communities who were struggling for a living, had found the means for an economic empowerment project whose full implications would become clear at the next stage: collateral-free MUDRA loans.
Sensing opportunity and encouraged by the government, women took an astonishing 75 per cent of the total number of Mudra loans to start their own small enterprises, worth well over Rs 2 lakh crore. In the last two years, women of the poorest families also received another Rs 51,000 crore from the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. The PM’s housing plan for the impoverished has a trigger clause: a woman head of family can get a loan in her name. But a man must share ownership of the house with his wife, unless he is a widower or bachelor.
Schemes to improve the health and welfare of women have become signature landmarks of the Modi government. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has improved rural sanitation coverage from 71 per cent to 93 per cent while 1,472 cities have become Open Defecation Free. Separate toilets for girls are being built in all government schools. In his Independence Day speech of 2014, Modi startled the country by talking about the impact of absent toilets on women’s health.
Every pregnant woman and lactating mother (apart from those receiving help within the organised sector) now gets maternity benefits. This has the collateral advantage of persuading mothers to register births, leading to immunisation, life-saving vaccinations and better healthcare. The just amended Maternity Benefit Act extends maternity leave to 26 weeks, and ensures that every company with more than 50 employees has crèche facilities.
More than 3.12 crore indigent women have received free LPG connections, releasing them from the drudgery and danger of smoke-choked kitchens. This number will keep growing. Physical security of women is a major priority. Institutional mechanisms have been created like One Stop Centres; Nirbhaya Fund has been expanded; compensation for victims has been enhanced; railways is working to provide 24-hour security through CCTV at over 900 stations.
The government is pushing for more women in police forces to help victims of violence; eight states have ensured 33 per cent reservation for women in police.
A programme called Gender Champion to encourage gender sensitivity among the young is now part of the curriculum of 100 universities and 145 colleges. The PM has personally led the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative, to address the child sex ratio and promote education for girls so that they can become equal claimants for jobs.
Justice for SC/STs and OBCs is another area where legislation, coupled with administrative action, works towards social justice and economic inclusion. The list of welfare schemes is long. Nor has government hesitated to take tough measures in the interest of the vulnerable.
Our social history is replete with division, along the familiar lines of caste and creed, which our colonial masters were quick to exploit. Unfortunately, this inheritance of ‘divide and rule’ seeped rather quickly after freedom into our democratic polity, encouraged by the first beneficiaries of political power. Gender remained what might be called the ‘silent division’. Modi is multiplying gender opportunity to end this comparative exclusion of women through social and economic empowerment. Sometimes the meaning of a phrase acquires sharper clarity through the mirror image. The opposite of ‘divide and rule’ is, quite obviously, ‘unite and serve’. ‘Unite and serve’ is Modi’s mission statement.