Two Very Different Women Tell One Big Story About India

Protesters during a march on Oct. 5 to condemn the alleged gang rape and death of a 19-year-old woman in Uttar Pradesh.

Photographer: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a punishing year for women in India—and not just because Covid-19 has made life and work a daily crisis. The barriers remain stark in 2020: economic, cultural, legal, political, even journalistic. The summer saw some of the country’s television channels and newspapers demonizing a Bollywood actress who was accused of everything from black magic to murder after her actor boyfriend reportedly killed himself in June. When autumn arrived, media became fixated on another woman—a teenager belonging to India’s lowest caste, the Dalit community, who was allegedly gang-raped by members of a higher caste and died on Sept. 29.

The caste violence and the Bollywood scandal are from different ends of India’s social spectrum: One involved a woman oppressed by religious tradition in the depths of society; the other a free-spirited female member of the country’s popular entertainment community. Yet the fate of the unnamed 19-year-old rape victim and the plight of the 28-year-old film star, Rhea Chakraborty, paint a bleak picture of the status of women in India today. Together the two incidents reveal the way many politicians, including members of the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and much of the country’s hyperactive social media envision a woman’s place in India: subservient to the bounds of traditional mores. If women remain second-class citizens in the world’s biggest democracy, the effects on the country’s struggling economy will be dire.

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Actress Rhea Chakraborty on Aug. 7 after being questioned by authorities in Mumbai about the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput.

Photographer: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

I come to this enormous issue from my admittedly personal interest in a legal battle that got under way in the fallout from one of India’s most high-profile #MeToo cases . My BloombergQuint colleague Priya Ramani is fighting a defamation suit by M.J. Akbar, a prominent newspaper and magazine editor who became a cabinet minister in July 2016 in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He resigned in 2018 after Ramani, I, and several other women who had worked with him accused him of sexual harassment. Defamation is a criminal charge in India, with a penalty as long as two years in prison. It’s often used by powerful people to silence accusers. The verdict had been expected at any moment, but on Oct. 13 the “fast-track” court that had been hearing the case for two years cited a 2-year-old Supreme Court of India order and said it had to be transferred to a local tribunal. If that happens, the case could be delayed for months or years and result in the final arguments having to be made all over again. The judicial system has effectively become a deterrent to women contending against powerful men. Ramani’s lawyer has been working pro bono.

Crimes against women in India increased about 7% in 2019 from the previous year, and Uttar Pradesh, where the young Dalit woman was raped, topped the list of states with the worst rates. After her death, protests erupted across the country, with opposition politicians and activists calling for justice and accusing Modi’s government, as well as local officials and police, of trying to cover up the crime. According to news reports, the Uttar Pradesh government hired a public-relations agency to contest that she was raped. The victim’s family said police hurriedly cremated her in the middle of the night against their wishes. Her alleged rapists are all members of a higher caste, to which Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, also belongs. The chief minister, who’s also a BJP member, stayed silent for days, and spoke out and promised an investigation only when protests escalated.

BJP spokesman Rajeev Chandrasekhar said in an email, “No one in BJP will claim that that all problems in our criminal justice system—accrued over decades—have been fixed” but says that the party, which ruled from 1998-2004 and from 2014 to the present, has a mandate to reform it. He added that the party’s policy is “zero tolerance” for such abuses. He said the BJP has in the past expelled members for violations. As for the increase in crime, he said, “crime reporting is on the increase now—where in the past, crimes against women and children were not registered.” Chandrasekhar said anti-human trafficking units have been set up across the country, and a helpline established three years ago has so far rescued and rehabilitated about 5.4 million women.

Far away from Uttar Pradesh, both geographically and culturally, is Bollywood, a place for women with opinionated public profiles who often become the focus of conservative ire in traditional and social media. In that sense, Chakraborty was a natural target: an up-and-coming actress openly living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Her ordeal began when her boyfriend, actor Sushant Singh Rajput, 34, apparently killed himself in June. Mumbai police declared it a suicide. And a panel of doctors from India’s top medical institute unanimously concluded the same, lead doctor Sudhir Gupta told India Today. Rajput’s family, however, accused Chakraborty of stealing his money, drugging him, and murdering him. She denied all the allegations. But authorities put Chakraborty behind bars on charges of procuring drugs including marijuana, which is illegal, for Rajput, citing statements from alleged drug peddlers. The TV coverage of the story over the summer was all-consuming. “India has seen this kind of media frenzy before, but not on this scale,” says Kaveree Bamzai, a film critic and former editor of India Today.

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A billboard with Sushant Singh Rajput in Mumbai on Sept. 28.

Photographer: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

In purely demographic terms, India had an audience waiting for the Rajput-Chakraborty soap opera. Bollywood—the symbol of India’s estimated $25.7 billion media and entertainment industry—had been shut down by the pandemic, resulting in a paucity of new fare on TV for an estimated audience of 197 million households. Locked down by Covid-19, Indians turned their attention to the news channels just when the scandal broke, driving up the ratings of shows focused on the Bollywood story, according to data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC). News shows went from 7% of total viewership before the lockdown to a high of 21% over the summer. Republic TV led the most vocal campaign against Chakraborty, with editor-in-chief and co-founder Arnab Goswami calling for her arrest. It’s India’s most-watched English- and Hindi-language news network, BARC data showed.

In the broadest perspective, the controversy fits into the national narrative pushed by Modi’s ruling political establishment: that of aspirational outsiders confronting entrenched insiders. It’s a vision that’s split India into seemingly irreconcilable populist and elitist camps—and one that has helped maintain high approval levels for the prime minister. In tabloid rendition, as Bamzai lays it out, Rajput came from a small town in the impoverished state of Bihar to Mumbai, the city of Bollywood dreams, trying to rise by merit and hard work against the established dynasties of film families. He was finding success—until he met the “gold-digger” Chakraborty in Mumbai.

According to Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a New Delhi-based political analyst and Modi biographer, the BJP government sees mainstream cinema as opposed to religion and the party’s brand of Hindu cultural nationalism. Says Mukhopadhyay: “They want to control the space of culture, have their kind of pro-Hindu, nationalistic movies that don’t look at society in other, more clinical ways.” Anna M.M. Vetticad, a journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic, says the scandal reflects a broader societal attitude. “The witch hunt against Rhea Chakraborty has arisen from attitudes to women in general, not women actors alone,” she says.

At Republic TV, where Goswami is a vocal supporter of Modi’s ruling party, two journalists resigned recently, citing their moral opposition to the biased coverage of news. One of them, Shantasree Sarkar, wrote on Twitter that her employer wanted her to “sell my morals to vilify a woman.” Emails and calls to Republic TV seeking comment have gone unanswered.

Elements of the BJP have made it clear they’re on Team Rajput. In the actor’s home state of Bihar, local party organizers have put up posters promising to seek justice for him, implying he was murdered. A University of Michigan study into the social media trends in the Rajput-Chakraborty saga found that BJP politicians were twice as active in tweeting about the case compared with the Indian National Congress party. The BJP “shows a strong discernible pattern of preferring ‘murder’ over ‘suicide’” and using the case to project Bollywood in a negative light, the study found. Of the Bihar posters and their implication of murder, BJP spokesman Chandrasekhar said in the email, “regrettably the statement is half fact” and that the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hadn’t yet published its official findings.

The BJP denies it has a negative record on women’s rights. Through the six years of Modi’s rule, said party spokesman Chandrasekhar, “The BJP is the party that is transforming and modernizing and empowering the Indian woman.” One of Modi’s slogans for women is beti bachao, beti padhao, which translates from Hindi as “educate your daughter and save her.”

However, some critics say that many BJP members believe a woman’s college degree is just a way to improve her marriage prospects. It’s “not to ensure she thinks for herself and lives freely,” Mukhopadhyay says. In the aftermath of the death of the Uttar Pradesh teen, BJP politician Surendra Singh said rapes would stop if parents instilled good values in their daughters. Said spokesman Chandrasekhar: “This alleged statement, if true, is at best a personal view of a person. No one can deny the person the right to his thought—however much we disagree with him.” As for the notions of critics such as Mukhopadhyay, the spokesman dismissed them as “unadulterated nonsense” and “silly.”

The BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, doesn’t allow women to be members. Modi and Yogi Adityanath are both RSS members. Women can join affiliated groups like the Rashtra Sevika Samiti but aren’t included in core decision-making. The government’s latest figures show women in 2019 accounted for 10.5% of the central council of ministers, India’s key decision-making body. Their representation fell from 12.2% in the previous year. A bill to ensure one-third of parliamentarians are women was passed by the upper house of Parliament in 2010 but is still waiting for the lower house to pass it into law. The low representation of women legislators in Indian politics is a historic problem, not just one of the BJP, says economist Devaki Jain. But, she says, there’s been a revival of traditionalism and patriarchy that is “quite dramatic.”

Politics has parallels in the economy. Women’s participation in the workforce fell to 17.5% in the financial year 2018, from 22.5% in 2016, and Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on female employment. Women with jobs before the pandemic were 20% less likely to be employed immediately post-lockdown, according to a study from Ashoka University on the early effects on labor of Covid-19. “While women have suffered disproportionately more job losses, risky, hazardous and stigmatized jobs are exclusively their preserve,” says the study’s chief researcher Ashwini Deshpande. India’s gross domestic product posted a 23.9% decline in the last quarter, the worst among the world’s largest economies. Raising women’s participation in the workforce to that of men can boost India’s GDP by as much as 27%, according to a 2018 International Monetary Fund paper.

There’s little incentive for women to raise their public profile. A number of prominent women, including Swara Bhaskar, star of the hit film Veere Di Wedding, and journalist Rana Ayyub, say they’re beset by name-calling trolls who threaten rape and death. Bollywood is fighting back with defamation suits of its own. A host of leading actors and film producers have sued two TV channels for their portrayal of the industry following the death of Rajput. Chakraborty is planning action, too, according to her lawyer.

The actress is now out on bail. But before her arrest, she pointedly sported a black T-shirt reading “Roses are red,/Violets are blue,/Let’s fight patriarchy/Me and you.” Thousands of women posted the photograph on their Instagram accounts and shared it via WhatsApp.

Mahua Moitra, who gave up a career in investment banking at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to join an opposition party, has put the Uttar Pradesh and Bollywood controversies side by side. She tweeted a photograph of the rape victim’s midnight cremation with the caption, “Once the ModiMedia stops obsessing over Bollywood dramas maybe they’ll ask the @BJP government questions about what really matters.” —With Archana Chaudhary
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