An upper-caste politician’s daughter elopes with a Dalit man, allegedly faces death threats, and takes to social media to seek protection from her father’s goons. The dramatic story of 23-year-old Sakshi Mishra has been grabbing national headlines for the past week, particularly in the Hindi media.
The daughter of Rajesh Mishra alias Pappu Bhartaul, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly constituency, Sakshi Mishra eloped with a Dalit man named Ajitesh Kumar on July 4. A week later, the runaway couple released two videos of themselves alleging that they were being threatened with violence and death from her father, her brother Vicky and their aide Rajeev Rana, because of Kumar’s Dalit identity. The young woman asked them to back off and appealed to the police for security.
While the police claimed it could not trace the couple, television news reporters found them and brought them into studios. The couple spoke about their experience of being on the run, while news anchors even attempted to mediate between the MLA and his daughter on live TV. Rajesh Mishra has steadfastly denied the allegations.
On Monday, the Allahabad High Court granted police protection to the couple, but not before Kumar faced an alleged assault by unidentified men.
In much of the media, Mishra and Kumar’s ordeal has been framed as the desperate struggle of an intercaste couple to escape the threat of a so-called honour killing – a term that needs to be discarded since there is nothing honourable about murder.
But this is more than just a love story worthy of a film script. It is also a story of the daily discriminations that the vast majority of Indian women and girls face at home – injustices that are so ubiquitous that their impact is either forgotten, overlooked, or normalised.
‘I had many dreams’
In one interview with news channel Aaj Tak, for instance, Sakshi Mishra was asked if she would like to convey a message to her father. Dissolving into tears, Mishra spent several minutes talking not about her father’s opposition to her relationship with a Dalit man, but about the restrictions that her family had imposed on her throughout her childhood because she was a girl.
“I wanted to study, I had many dreams,” she said in the interview. Since she was not allowed to work outside, Mishra claims she had asked her father if she could help him with his work in his office, and “listen to people’s problems” like her brother, Vicky, did. “But papa never took me seriously, he never let me go out of the house,” she said. Vicky, on the other hand, she bitterly complained, had all the freedom to do what he pleased.
Mishra talked about not being able to choose what she wanted to study, and being “made to do mass communications” in a restrictive college that did not allow mobile phones. She said she wanted her father to change his mindset, and to give as much importance to her and her sister as he does to her brother. “If you think that only a girl’s actions can lead to dishonour, then you think wrong,” she said in her message to her father. “If a boy does something wrong, then that leads to dishonour too.”
Mishra’s description of household gender discrimination is likely to resonate with most Indian women across different caste or class groups. Despite decades of government schemes and policies to promote the health and education of the girl child, daughters continue to be treated differently from sons in Indian homes, getting less nutrition, less freedom of movement, and fewer opportunities to study or work.
As recently as 2018, a report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights found that nearly 40% of adolescent girls in India do not have access to education, mainly because they are expected to shoulder household responsibilities instead. India’s female labour force participation has also been falling in the past decade, and was a mere 26% in 2018. Adult women also have lesser access to mobile phones: a Harvard University study last year found that only 38% of Indian women own cell phones, compared to 71% of men.
Sakshi Mishra may have had to elope because of the taboos surrounding her intercaste relationship, but her decision to run away from home seems to have been informed by years of suppression and discrimination. Cultural attitudes towards women and girls remain regressive in many parts of the country, and the response to Mishra’s elopement and her courageous decision to speak out has only served to reinforce this point.
On social media, several commenters have responded to Mishra’s interviews with vicious attacks, accusing her of ruining her father’s honour, of playing the victim card when it was her father who was suffering, of going against Indian culture and marrying without the approval of elders.
The media has also been attacked for publicising Mishra’s story, with several social media users claiming that media coverage would “give girls a licence to run away”.
On Sunday, BJP leader Gopal Bhargava, who is the leader of opposition in Madhya Pradesh, endorsed this view in a series of tweets. Bhargava claimed that news reports about Mishra’s case would lead to an “unprecedented rise in female infanticide”, a skewed gender ratio and illegal abortions, presumably because parents would rather kill girls at birth than have daughters who don’t abide by their rules.
While most of Mishra’s online detractors are men, it is likely that the widespread regional media coverage of her case resonates more positively with young Indian women. For them, Sakshi Mishra might just be a symbol of hope – that it is possible to call out the everyday patriarchy restricting their lives and to even break free of it.