Hindu Yuva Vahini members in their office in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh in this photograph from 2017. | Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

By / Scroll

In May 2014, in his first speech to the Indian Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanded that politicians work together to protect women and girls from violence. Modi reiterated this message in his first Independence Day address, criticising parents for failing to discipline their boys.

Since 2014, state governments run by the Bharatiya Janata Party have taken measures to curtail street harassment through special policing units. Why police street harassment?

By focusing on street harassment and regulating it through a heavily politicised police force, the BJP advances several political goals.

First, the party appeals to women voters by addressing pressing concerns related to mobility and public safety. Second, it focuses attention on the violence women face from unknown men, as opposed to the violence they face from men they know in their homes and workplaces. Finally, it mobilises an institution – the police – that the party can easily control, allowing BJP politicians and affiliated organisations the ability to identify individual instances of harassment and oversee punishments.

An unlikely allegiance

BJP-led efforts to police street harassment are puzzling. The party’s interest in the issue contrasts with key features of its gendered history and policy platforms. The BJP has traditionally been a party of and for men. It enjoys an advantage with male voters and predominantly fields men for political office. It is unclear why such a male-dominated political base and leadership structure would care about women’s safety in public space.

While focusing on women’s rights on the street, the Modi government has undercut women’s rights at home. Since assuming power, the Modi government has repeatedly attacked Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which provides criminal sanctions against domestic violence.

Arguing that women misuse 498A, the Ministry of Home Affairs has proposed making the law negotiable out of court and increasing fines for “false” complaints. As my prior research on domestic violence makes clear, as well as that of prominent lawyers and legal experts, women face significant barriers when claiming rights against domestic violence and require multiple forms of organisational help to make any kind of progress.

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