Samajwadi leader and Member of Parliament Azam Khan has been a regular offender when it comes to directing cheap comments at women. The tone, tenor and content of these comments are at the level of what women and girls encounter in the streets of this country.
That such discourse would enter Parliament would not have been anticipated by even those who routinely criticise Mr Khan. However, in his first term as parliamentarian, the septuagenarian MP addressed comments to the Chair which was at the time occupied by Deputy Speaker Rama Devi from Bihar, which were lewd, suggestive and deprecated the Chair.
There was immediate outrage and Mr Khan tried to back track from his words by hiding behind the ‘sister’ claim (he said Rama Devi was like his sister). He was given full support by his party supremo Akhilesh Yadav.
And this isn’t the first time.
If Azam Khan is a repeat sexist offender, then Yadav is an enabler. His father’s infamous ‘boys will be boys’ statement seems to have permeated the consciousness of the leader who was projected as the new face of leadership in Uttar Pradesh. However, he seems to subscribe to the same sexist and regressive views that his party and its leadership is known for.
This is not the first time that he has offered defence for Azam Khan. During the run-up to the 2019 General Elections, when Khan referred to the ‘khakhi underwear’ worn by his female challenger, Jaya Prada, the comment caused nationwide outrage but Yadav was quick to jump to his defence.
We see a repeat of the same behaviour and response, only this time in the temple of democracy, Parliament.
When there is enabling, there is also emboldening. Khan is secure in the fact that his party will not take any action against him. As Azam Khan tries to backtrack from the outrage and his appalling comments, let us take a look at how he has dealt with comments that he found ‘disrespectful’ of him.
In 2013, the Dalit writer Kanwal Bharti claimed in news reports that he was hounded by Khan’s men who carried weapons and circled his home. This was because of a post that he had made on social media that met the then UP minister’s disapproval.
In 2015, a school going teenager was arrested by the UP police under the draconian Section 66-A for a post on social media that offended Mr Khan, prompting the Supreme Court to intervene and question the UP police.
Both these instances were during the Samajwadi Party’s term in office in Uttar Pradesh.
Those who speak against Mr Khan have a price to pay, as has been demonstrated. However, he seems to get by with the most insulting comments and his distaste for women extends to Bharat Ma/Mother India as well who he has referred to as a daayan (evil witch/demoness) in the past.
To characterise Mr Khan’s statements as merely cheap would undermine his repertoire of abuse directed at women with regularity. He is deeply misogynistic and has by this latest comment not only outraged the modesty of a senior Member of Parliament but also deprecated the contribution of women in the people’s House.
At 14.58 percent, this may be the Lok Sabha that has the highest number of women (78) members in the House, but it is still an abysmal figure, given the demographic break-up of our population and female participation in voting.
When one speaks to women in politics across generations they will tell you of the sexism they encounter and there are no Vishakha guidelines to protect them from these situations. Few protections are provided to women who enter public life: if anything, women have to face another layer of adversity to ‘make it’ and that is sexism and predatory behaviour.
So whilst we argue for greater female representation in Parliament, we must also question the delay in a response to Azam Khan, apart from expunging the comments.
If he was Azam Khan, the general manager at a company, would he have escaped repercussions by saying he was speaking in a lighter vein and the lady in question was his ‘sister’? There would have been serious and punitive action taken against him.
In this instance, Azam Khan, the MP, addressed his comments to the Chair in Parliament, in the presence of other members and on live television. There is no confusion about his words or his intentions.
Apart from being inappropriate, the comments were in breach of parliamentary privilege as well as they undermined the respect of the Chair of the House and the female Member of Parliament, which caused her embarrassment as well as compromised her ability to discharge her duties with respect and authority.
It is time for Parliament to set an example. As Rama Devi waits for action from Parliament, so do the women of this country.
Advaita Kala is an author, screenwriter and a columnist.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.