By Minakshi Bujarbaruah for Youth Ki Awaaz:
From Thatcher to Hina Rabbani Khar, women in politics have had to face the brunt of serious sexism, often victimised and discussed on parameters like beauty, sense of fashion, etc which their male counterparts hardly ever experience.
Several studies point out the misogyny and sexism women in politics have faced over time. Sam Bennett, CEO of Women’s Campaign Forum Foundation had once said, “Politics remains one of the most rampant breeding grounds for misogyny.”
In a lesser known part of the world, in Assam, a young BJP MLA Angoorlata Deka, who won from Batadroba constituency in the latest Assembly Elections, was not spared from the same. From sleazy, allegedly morphed photographs that went viral, to sexist tweets (from Ram Gopal Varma to several others), this young MLA has had to face it from the minute she was elected. Voyeuristic news pieces and blatant objectification with many calling her ‘the hottest woman MLA’ continue alongside online trolling, while her political worth and victory are sidelined. Out of the six female candidates who were given tickets to contest for elections, Deka is one of the two female candidates (the other being Suman Haripriya, daughter of Bijoya Chakraborty, sitting MP from BJP) to have won the Assembly Elections.
When I spoke to Deka and asked her about the sexist onslaught, she expressed how disturbing it had all been for her, but that she was undeterred by it: “Whatever has happened is really unfortunate and I am sure this must have been equally disturbing for the other woman, whose pictures were used and passed on as mine. It is sad that women have always been compared to ‘ideal’ standards of beauty. Since this unfortunate episode has caught national attention, I have urged our party to take action, instead of me taking individual action, although, I too, have raised my voice against it. I also urge the other woman whose pictures have been used to raise her voice.”
In Assam, the months from September to March are abuzz with the excitement of the mobile theatre that has had a long heritage and given a unique identity to the state. Theatre artists move across different corners of the state and perform acts that are widely watched by a diverse audience, from the intellectual to the least educated. Villages host theatre groups and artists in locations that are remote and sometimes, these stays extend up to several months. The plays cover a wide range of issues from religion and political satires to social practices and other matters of micro and macro societal concerns. Angoorlata was widely applauded across Assam for her role as Benazir Bhutto in one of the mobile theatre productions.
And this is where it all began for now-MLA Angoorlata Deka from Batadroba Constituency in Assam.
Having travelled extensively across Assam through the medium of mobile theatre, more commonly known as Bhramyomaan in Assam, Deka was exposed to the grassroot realities of rural Assam where many villages still continue to be deprived of basic amenities, livelihood options, education, electricity and water. Until a couple of years back, only 16% of rural households were electrified, which has now increased to about 50%. As per the 2011 Census, the literacy rate of the state stands below the national average at 72.19% with certain districts like Dhubri, Darrang and Chirang remain somewhere between 58-64 %.
Born in Nalbari in Lower Assam, Angoorlata Deka recalls, “Ours was a typical Assamese family leading a simple life and we would have our dinner and be in bed by 9pm, like most families in rural Assam. There was no one in the family who had a cultural background nor anyone in politics. I had some training in dance and then in 2001, I did a cameo in the film ‘Prem Bhora Sokulu’, by Lt. Chakradhar Deka. Gradually people started appreciating me in films and then later, having joined Bhramyomaan, I got the opportunity to extensively travel across Assam and witness the hardships of common people. It also dawned on me at this point that the glorified idea of a ‘Xoonor Axom’ (Golden Assam) is largely a myth and there is a lot to be done in order to make that a reality.”
This is when Deka decided to join politics, “I, along with my husband Akashdeep, who also hails from the same professional background as mine, discussed with a few of our like-minded friends, the possibilities of committing ourselves to working for people through the medium of politics. This, we felt, would be possible only through the larger vision of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and thus in December 2015, I joined the party.”
The win by Deka has come as a surprise for many, given the fact that Batadroba is a Muslim-dominated constituency which was expected to support the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), founded by perfume baron Badaruddin Ajmal. Nevertheless, Deka’s win, clearly suggests a change in perception among the people and perhaps even an acceptance of a fresh face from popular culture that has jolted the traditional hegemony of parties like the Congress and AIUDF.
Some like Pramod Kalita, a senior journalist at Bismoi and regular contributor to a number of Assamese dailies and zines, who has closely been associated with Deka for years now, says that it is her, “commitment and hardwork” that have earned her this victory, as opposed to someone like Suman Haripriya, who he feels has an advantage of having a family history in politics.
This view is echoed by many others like Abhijit Bhattacharjee, noted drama director/playwright, Tapan Lahkar, producer, and others who have closely worked with Deka. Interestingly, it was originally her husband Akashdeep who was struggling for a ticket for the elections from this constituency, but it was Deka who not only managed to win a ticket but also came out victorious. Jatin Bora, celebrated actor of the Assam film industry who has worked with Deka in films like Hiya Diba Kaak, recalls from the experiences of working with her that she always had a “rebellious nature” and would want things to be done in the “best possible manner.” Bora, while happy for Deka’s win, also expects her to raise issues of the Assamese film industry which is almost on the verge of fading away.
Deka, herself, recalls that the urge to bring about change in small and big ways has been in her since her school and college days. “In my school days, I did not have many friends and would mostly stay alone. On most occasions, I would observe the ones who were in leadership positions and make note of things that could be done for the school. Later, after joining Mahendra Narayan Choudhury Girls College in Nalbari, I contested in the college elections and was elected as the Cultural Secretary, Vice President and General Secretary respectively for three consecutive years,” she shares.
Among other things, Deka has to deal with a fairly popular perception in the region that refuses to take actors seriously in politics.
In the case of Assam, not many from a cultural background have been too successful in politics. Although some like Jatin Bora express that Deka’s win has altered this mass perception, many others like Abhijeet Bhattacharjee, a known playwriter, feel Deka has a long journey to traverse given her nascent and novice juncture in the field of politics. Bhattacharjee feels that there are several factors that influenced this win for Deka which has come as a surprise. He suggests that the entire trajectory of this year’s Assam Assembly elections has been very different, more so, the influence of the Modi wave nationally, the despise of the common Assamese over the then-reigning Congress and the crave for ‘change’ or ‘development/poriborton‘ which perhaps could have influenced the shift in decision making. Hence, according to Bhattacharjee the prime focus for Deka now should be to focus solely on her constituency and usher in developmental work in the region. It is through her work that she has to prove and alter the larger perception that cultural figures too, can bring in change and excel in the domain of politics.
For Deka too, the development of Batadroba is her primary focus and agenda at the moment as she says to me. And while only time will tell how successful she proves to be as a politician, her story is yet another example of what a woman is subject to, if she enters traditionally male bastions; sexism being the most obvious one.