Infamous for his crass statements on women, religion and even the Constitution, Uttara Kannada MP Anantkumar Hegde outdid himself on Sunday. In a display of crude Islamophobia and misogyny, Anantkumar Hegde targeted Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President Dinesh Gundu Rao's wife in a tweet.
"I shall definitely answer this guy Dinesh Gundu Rao's queries, before which could he please reveal himself as to who he is along with his achievements? I only know him as a guy who ran behind a Muslim lady," Anantkumar Hegde tweeted.
The two politicians have been engaged in a war of words ever since Gundu Rao objected to Anantkumar Hegde's recent speech in Kodagu.
"Taj Mahal was originally a Shiv Mandir that was built by King Paramatheertha, which was known as Tejo Mahalaya. If we keep sleeping like this, most of our houses will also be renamed as masjids. In future, Lord Ram will be called Jahapana and Sita will become Bibi. There should be a fundamental shift in our thinking. We should keenly observe what’s happening around us. Regardless of caste and religion, a hand that touches a Hindu girl should not exist," Anantkumar had said at an event.
In a tweet, Gundu Rao questioned Anantkumar about his "contributions for Karnataka's development" as a Minister of State and an MP. He also attached a news story about Anantkumar's misogynistic statement about women. Following this, Anantkumar Hegde put out a distasteful tweet about Gundu Rao's wife.
In response to Anantkumar's tweet about his wife Tabassum, Dinesh Gundu Rao said, "Sad to see Anantkumar Hegde stoop to such low levels as to bring in personal issues. Guess it’s his lack of culture. Guess he hasn’t learnt from our Hindu scriptures. Time hasn’t run out, he can still try and become a more dignified human."
However, this is not the first time that a BJP leader has targeted the inter-faith couple. In 2017, Udupi-Chikkamagaluru BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje had made a similar statement about Dinesh Gundu Rao having married a Muslim woman.
Not the only one
Anantkumar Hegde's problematic statements crop up every now and then and surprise nobody. Commenting on the Sabarimala row, Anantkumar had asked for the women who go to the temple to be buried alive.
In a tweet, Congressman Brijesh Kalappa said, "Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde today exhorted society to bury alive women who go to Sabarimala. This is blatant contempt of the Supreme Court of India. This Minister must be brought to book and punished to set an example to establish the majesty of Law."
But, it's important to note that Anantkumar is not alone in this crude display of misogyny. For decades, several right-wing outfits in Karnataka's coastal districts have polarised the vote bank by peddling Hindutva. Historical, mythological and contemporary narratives have been woven together for years in order to peddle the idea that women are vulnerable creatures, who do not have the capacity to make informed decisions and must always be protected either by a father, a husband or any male member of the family.
And the most potent tactic adopted by the right, which they have held on to for ages, is the condemnation of inter-faith couples through their attempts to curb the agency of women to choose their own path. The narrative has also been used to deliberately drive a deeper wedge between communities.
Inter-faith couples in India are, on an average, not vocal about the nature of their marriages, fearing backlash. According to a study conducted by Princeton University in 2011 (the latest available data), only 2.1% marriages in India are inter-faith. The remaining marry into members from their respective communities and 90% of them marry into the same caste. The study also recommends that inter-faith marriages must be promoted in order to eradicate the existing system. But, that is easier said than done simply because the couples are hunted down and in many instances killed. In several cases, like Hadiya's in Kerala, the relationship must endure months of house arrest and court hearings just so two people can exercise their right to choose.
If the woman ends up defying the men in her community, she is branded wretched, condemned for her decision to make choices and is more often than not subjected to abuse either verbal or physical.
Anantkumar Hegde's statement that "any hand that touches a Hindu girl must be cut" is just another reminder of how these outfits have encouraged patriarchal systems, despite their tall claims of "respecting women's choices".
For instance, Karnataka's Mangaluru district is a hotbed for several Hindutva groups, who resort to vigilantism. They scout the streets for inter-faith couples and in many instances, have resorted to violence against these couples. Following massive pressure from a right-wing group, a 20-year-old Hindu woman was forced to break off her relationship with a Muslim man in Mangaluru in 2017. Members of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad “counselled” Priya* the woman, alleging that her boyfriend Naveed* was a drug peddler. In the same year, an inter-faith couple was denied entry into a lodging facility in Bengaluru simply because the manager disapproved of a Hindu woman being married to a Muslim man. In April 2016, a group of men claiming to be Bajrang Dal activists entered the home of a young woman in Haveri district, who was to marry a Muslim man. The activists demanded that the wedding be called off, despite the woman's family asking them to back off. The "love jihad" bogey spread like wildfire and the entire village was against the wedding.
Leaders like Ananthkumar Hegde, whose words have the power to influence minds, must be stopped from peddling misogynistic ideas without any sense of accountability. It isn't free speech if it curtails the freedom of other people - and in this case, women, who form nearly half the population of the country.
*Views expressed are the author's own.