As I set out to write this article, I intended to analyse the frightening rise in the physical abuse of women in India and their glorification as repositories of a family’s or clan’s honour. But then the Rajput agitation against Padmaavat turned violent, leading to the stoning of a bus full of schoolchildren. Since the Republic Day was coming and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just flown back after preaching peace on earth and goodwill to all in Davos, I changed my mind.
It is rather senseless at this moment to debate whether the sovereign state of India remains liberal or, as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat insisted, has gone Hindu. India is supposed to be a democracy whose Constitution bans gender-based discrimination. Yet, vandals feeling slighted by a movie about a fictional character rule the streets with near-impunity and rewards are announced for disfiguring an actress who dared dance as a Rajput queen. What needs to be debated today, therefore, is how proudly male the Indian society and state apparatus are. If this were not true, women would have freedom of movement and speech, privacy, authority and resources on par with men. Forced sex and immolation in the name of honour would have been, if not absent, rare, and punished quickly and severely.
Many Rajput women may differ from the loud, silly assertions about their community’s honour being made by male politicians, ex-nobility and even a few Bollywood luminaries who claim a royal lineage. But whom do these dissident women being ordered by male leaders to commit mass jauhar in protest against a Bollywood movie – which ironically celebrates jauhar – approach? Not the police, or politicians. By now there’s little doubt that police and politicians are not above discriminatory mindset, especially when it comes to women. In his earlier avatar as Mumbai’s top cop, for example, Minister of State for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh had remarked that on one hand the liberals wanted a promiscuous culture and on the other they sought a safe and secure environment for people (read women). Should couples be allowed to kiss in public? Singh had asked. Should they be allowed to indulge in “all obscene things”?
In 1987, a young woman named Roop Kanwar was burnt on her husband’s pyre in Rajasthan despite the law banning this practice of sati. In an interview to an English weekly, Kalyan Singh Kalvi, state chief of the Janata Party at the time and later a minister in Chandra Shekhar’s government, defended the sati. “How can you change public opinion through acts and ordinances?” he challenged the interviewer. “If we don’t worship a faithful woman, should we revere those who deceive their husbands and murder them?” The interview brought him instant fame. Kalvi is the father of Lokendra Singh Kalvi, self-professed founder patron of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, which has spearheaded the violent agitation against Padmaavat.
Kanwar’s was not an isolated incident. The ’80s and ’90s witnessed many similar cases of atrocities against the women. In 1992, again in Rajasthan, a social activist named Bhanwari Devi was gang raped for trying to prevent child marriages. Going by the state’s failure to contain the violent agitation against Padmaavat, not much seems to have changed in the last three decades: no matter which party is in power, our state apparatus, steeped in gender-based hierarchy, functions to not just preserve the mechanisms perpetuating male dominance over women, but strengthen them. This is the crucible from which spawn the likes of Bajrang Dal, Sriram Sene, Karni Sena, cow vigilantes.
Silence as consent
Satyapal Singh, the honourable minister, may not be entirely wrong for rejecting humans’ evolutionary links with apes. For we, in India at least, are indeed quite unlike apes. Ape clans are built and led by their most powerful members, male or female. Female apes seldom have more than two children. Male apes do not rape their females to humiliate them or their clans, nor does the male force his females to commit suicide if he loses the fight for the clan’s leadership to a stronger rival. Nor are there instances of male apes killing females for “clan honour”.
In the ape-dissociated India today, women are offered only two paths to equality. One is for them to maintain gender neutrality. That is, they should accept the system as it is to get a sort of honorary malehood, as is the case of women in government service. Two, they can seek special benefits or protections. But if they choose the second option, debates about maternity versus paternity leave, menstrual inconvenience and cheap sanitary pads, will be something of a doctrinal embarrassment.
Sexual objectification of women, symbolised by sati as much as by Padmaavat and the anger against it, and not economic disparity is central to all hierarchies in India. The abusive practices invented to subdue women provide a template for men to use power to dominate and bully all weaker sections of the society, the largest of which of course consists of women. As such, weaker sections have been physically and economically exploited, sexually objectified, denied a voice and even excluded from representing their own interests in public life. Men as men, unless they are Dalit or gay or from a minority tribe or community, generally do not experience such cruelty from other men.
In case of women, and by extension other weaker groups, coercion is legitimised, often through obfuscation and even silence, including by the media. Not rarely, silence becomes consent. When that happens, institutional rot sets in. The judgement the Bhanwari gang rape case, delivered by a Jaipur district court in 1995 and quoted by Mala Sen in her book Death by Fire, is instructive: “The Court is of the opinion that Indian culture has not fallen to such low depths that someone who is brought up in it; an innocent rustic man; will turn into a man of evil conduct who disregards caste and age differences and becomes animal enough to assault a woman.”
Conflicts emerging out of caste, class and gender breed, what Michael Wolff calls, “a certain looseness with truth”. In time, this looseness may fracture a nation’s sociopolitical and legal systems. Should the nation’s institutions then only strive to maintain the sociopolitical status quo as is now happening in India? The haunting question Marveladov asks in Crime and Punishment may hold a clue: “Do you understand, dear sir, do you understand what it means when there is absolutely nowhere to go?”