Protesters hold a candle-light vigil in Ahmedabad, in support of rape victims following horrific attacks in Jammu and Uttar Pradesh. Photo: AFP/ Sam Panthaky

Basavanna, a 12th-century philosopher of Lingayatism, became a topic of national debate in India’s Parliament on Friday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him the real father of democracy in the country.

At a program in London on April 18, Modi stressed the need for a “traditional and cultural vision” in democracy. The day was Basavanna’s birth anniversary, and Modi spoke about his Anubhava Mantap  concept, meaning a space for religious and spiritual deliberation irrespective of the barriers of caste, religion and gender. He said that India needed to inculcate the values of social conscience, democracy, and empowerment of women as Basavanna stood for them.

Modi might have expressed a deep will for India to learn and instill Basavanna’s value system, but the goal of women’s empowerment looks far-fetched in contemporary times.

A historical verification of Modi’s answer suggests that Basavanna is known for his ideas on women’s emancipation and not on women’s empowerment. There is ample difference between liberating women and empowering them without freeing them from patriarchal shackles.

Basaveshwara or Basavanna stood for equality of participation of both men and women in religious and spiritual spheres. A careful look at Basaveshwara’s notions indicate an irony in the reference by Modi, as he was antithetical to all forms of exploitation and discrimination against women – even the ritual of barring women from religious places during menstruation.

He didn’t stand for emancipation of women in a vacuum; rather he founded Lingayatism as a movement of self-respect, dignity and a larger framework of human rights. The active involvement of men and women in the discourse of spiritual deliberation was called Anubhava Mantapa.

Modi is definitely right to say that discussions at Anubhava Mantapa were held on an equal footing between men and women, but how far India is moving toward that vision remains a question.

We are living in times when women have to take to the streets to seek justice against rape, sexual harassment, discrimination, violence, abuse and generally vile conditions

We are living in times when women have to take to the streets to seek justice against rape, sexual harassment, discrimination, violence, abuse and generally vile conditions.

It might be too late now, but it is critical to ask oneself the meaning of “empowerment” in modern India. The election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 reflected the following agendas: a 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies, a national campaign against female feticide called Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save the girl child, educate the girl child), several campaigns for changing attitudes toward girls and their financial empowerment, using information technology for women’s safety, an All Women Mobile Bank, and dedicated clusters of small and medium-sized enterprises run by women in every district. Apart from this, there was an agenda to draft a uniform civil code to ensure gender equality.

A closer look at these campaigns shows how they turned into mere loud and hollow campaigns like “Selfie with Daughter.” Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General reveal that the much-touted Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign has been unable to achieve its objectives.

Data by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare show that of 161 selected districts, 57 don’t even show improving trends, while the remaining 104 signal some initial improvements. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development indicated that 380 million rupees (US$5.6 million) of the total amount of 430 million rupees set aside for the campaign in fiscal year 2016-17 remains unutilized.

Had Basavanna been alive in the 21st century, the term “empowerment” itself would have been a cause of agitation.

It is pertinent to comprehend that we are dealing with patriarchal and chauvinist sensibilities not only in our social settings but in political manifolds as well. The reservation of 33% of the seats in Parliament for women has not become a point of discussion so far for the BJP government. An economic survey of 2017 shows women are becoming independent decision makers, but the preference for a son is still prevalent and going strong.

Employment levels of women show a dip of 12% over a period of 10 years, while their education shows an increase of 13%. This just goes to portray that women do have the capacities needed in a modern society but only if they are allowed to give birth and then, needless to say, given opportunities to express these capacities.

It is a dim day to write this in the 21st century when the ground for it was set back in 12th century, not for women’s empowerment but women’s emancipation.

Manisha Chachra

Manisha Chachra is pursuing an MPhil in political studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She has previously worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a non-profit organization.