Women’s temple ban debate rages in India flashpoint vote

Indian women are still divided about the ban on women from entering a Hindu temple. (AFP/File)
Updated 23 April 2019
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Women’s temple ban debate rages in India flashpoint vote

  • Indian Supreme Court ruled the ban on women from entering a Hindu temple as unconstitutional
  • Two of the three candidates for presidency support the ban

PATHANAMTHITTA, India: Voters in a flashpoint constituency in southern India went to the polls Tuesday after a campaign dominated by the fallout from the controversial decision to allow women to enter a Hindu temple.
The district of Pathanamthitta in the state of Kerala includes the Sabarimala Hindu temple, where two women finally defied a longstanding ban on women of menstruating age last year.
Traditionalists were outraged and many women remain divided over the move, which has overshadowed the campaign with candidates staging election parades on the issue.
Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini made history in December when police guided them into the hilltop shrine, after the Supreme Court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional.
Days of pitched battles erupted between traditionalists and activists. The anger has not died down and core issues such as unemployment, health and education have been pushed aside during the campaign.
The whole country is expected to follow the result when it is announced on May 23 after India’s marathon election.
Two of the three main candidates in the election are men who support the ban, while the third is a woman who has tried to dodge the topic.
Veena George, who is standing for the alliance of left wing parties that runs Kerala’s state government cited an election commission advisory to avoid using the temple to get votes.
“We need a revival of job opportunities, agriculture and infrastructure. Educated women need jobs,” she told AFP on the last day of campaigning before Tuesday’s vote.
India’s main opposition Congress party has fielded Anto Antony, who won the last two elections and has backed the traditionalists.
The Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brandished its pro-Hindu credentials as it seeks to make an impact in a state where it has always struggled.
The BJP has fielded K. Surendran, who became the symbol of the massive temple protests across Kerala. He now faces more than 200 police cases related to violence during last year’s Sabarimala protests.
“The Communists have an issue with our prayers and religion but they can’t crush believers’ rights,” Modi told a rally in Kerala last week.
“We won’t tolerate any attack on a tradition that has lasted thousands of years,” Modi added to wild cheers.
Many women have backed the traditionalist cause.
“Local men and women agree. There is only one issue in this election — our faith. And the court shouldn’t have intervened,” Lakshmi, who works at a local hospital, and only uses one name, told AFP.
“I feel hurt as a Hindu when I see things going against our culture and tradition,” added Bindhu, a housewife.
“The temple has always been a place where women could not go. It is not acceptable to see people coming and fighting to enter now,” she added.
Tens of thousands of people, including many women, took part in street marches and protests in support of the ban.
However, uncertainty remains over how many women will vote for their right to enter Sabarimala.
“Women should be free to choose whether to enter or not. To me, women’s safety, here and all over India, is the only issue that is important,” said Ansa S., a medical student.


Indian election reveals role of money, questionable morality

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi listens to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah speak during a press conference at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Friday, May 17, 2019. (AP)
Updated 16 June 2019
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Indian election reveals role of money, questionable morality

  • The report said the Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest spender, accounting for about 45% of the total

NEW DELHI: India’s recent national election delivered a historic victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, but also exposed the influence of money, power and questionable morality on the world’s largest democracy.
Nearly 43% of the new members of the lower house of Parliament that convenes Monday for the first time since the election won despite facing criminal charges. More than a quarter of those relate to rape, murder or attempted murder, according to a report by the civic group Association of Democratic Reforms.
The loophole that allows them to take office is that they have not been convicted — in part because the Indian legal system has a huge backlog of an estimated 30 million cases and trials often last decades. When asked about the charges against them, they invariably accuse a political rival of framing them.
Since such rivalries often lead to false accusations, the main political parties say it would be unfair to bar people from contesting elections unless they have been convicted by court.
Under existing laws, only those who have been sentenced to prison for two years or more can be barred from elections.
Members of Parliament with criminal backgrounds is not a new phenomenon in India, but despite Modi’s campaign vow in 2014 to clean up corruption and the influence of money in politics, the problem appears to be only growing worse.
In the 2004 national election, the percentage of candidates with pending criminal cases was 24%, which rose to 33% in 2009, 34% in 2014 and 43% this year, said Shahabuddin Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner.
The Association of Democratic Reforms found that 116 of the 303 lawmakers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party elected last month face criminal charges, including one for alleged terrorism.
Pragya Singh Thakur, who won a seat from Bhopal in central India, is awaiting trial in connection with a 2008 explosion in Malegaon in western India that killed seven people.
Twenty-nine of the opposition Congress party’s 52 lawmakers face serious charges.
“This trend has been growing in India, leaving no political party untouched. We need to educate voters not to elect these people,” said Jagdeep S. Chhokar, ADR’s founder.
“What the Indian state has been unable to provide, strongmen promise to deliver to people in their area of influence, using gun and money power,” said Lennin Rasghuvanshi, a coordinator with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
Starting in the 1960s and ‘70s, some Indian politicians began turning to the criminal underworld for cash to win votes.
“In due course, the criminals started thinking that these politicians were winning because of their money or crimes so why shouldn’t they become lawmakers themselves? If they are people running from the police, they know that when they became lawmakers, the same police will protect them,” Quraishi said.
In Uttar Pradesh state in northern Indian, former mafia don Mukhtar Ansari has been elected to the state assembly five times despite more than 40 criminal cases pending against him, including murder.
Another don-turned-politician, Hari Shankar Tiwari, also of Uttar Pradesh, has been a member of the legislative assembly for 23 years, even winning an election while being detained on murder charges.
During the campaign, Election Commission officials and government agencies seized mountains of cash, alcohol, gold and silver, saris and expensive watches in the offices of political parties that were intended as gifts in exchange for votes.
The total value of the seized goods was $500 million, including $120 million in cash — nearly three times what was found in the 2014 general election, according to the Election Commission.
Analysts say that political parties seem to prize electability over ethics.
“They think that people with criminal backgrounds have more chances to win because of their money and muscle power,” Qureshi said.
In the days of paper ballots before electronic voting machines were introduced, gangs would use brute force to take over polling stations to rig the vote.
One reason for the increasing number of criminal suspects going into politics is the sheer cost of elections. In the general election that concluded in May, political parties and candidates are estimated to have spent about $8.65 billion. That’s double the amount in the 2014 election, according to a report by the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi.
The report said the Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest spender, accounting for about 45% of the total. The Congress party accounted for between 15% and 20%.
Analysts say a key cause of corruption is the way political parties are funded in India. Parties are permitted to receive foreign funds, any company can donate any amount of money to any political party, and any individual, group or company can donate money anonymously through electoral bonds.
Donors do not need to disclose the party they have donated to, nor does the party have to reveal the source of its money.
Quraishi is calling for more transparency in campaign funding as well as a cap on election spending.
“The people want transparency, the donor wants secrecy. Whose wish should prevail?” he said.