A working woman in Madhya Pradesh’s Itarsi town, Silvia Peter is familiar with the experience of feeling unsafe. Since 2017, when she co-founded an organisation to educate women and children from Adivasi brick worker communities, she has received multiple threats – both open and veiled – from men who did not want her out in the field.

But on January 12, when she read reports about Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s plans for ensuring women’s safety in the state, Peter felt more angry than reassured. In addition to setting up panic buttons in public vehicles and an emergency distress helpline, Chouhan claimed that a system would be put in place where a woman moving out of her home for work would register herself at the local police station, and would be tracked for her safety.

Reports of this statement sparked immediate outrage on social media. While Peter echoed the views of many women online, she could not help but take it more personally.

“I have faced threats because of my work, but I will never register myself if the state government implements this,” said Peter, 33, the founder of Burning Candle, her non-profit organisation. “The CM seems to think that a woman who want safety should be collared and tracked like dogs, so that she is watched wherever she goes and is judged for whatever she does.”

Peter believes that Chouhan’s announcement of these plans are a result of the pressure that Madhya Pradesh’s Bharatiya Janata Party government is facing to address the high rates of violent crimes against women in the state. “But people in MP have a degraded mentality towards women. Through such plans they just want to police women,” said Peter. “Who knows, women who defy societal expectations might be deliberately targeted through tracking. And women who don’t register will be blamed if anything happens to them.”

On January 13, the Chief Minister’s office clarified that the state’s proposed system for registering people was applicable to both women and men leaving the state for work, and was meant for the “security of the youth”. But Peter’s fears about how such a system might target women are not unfounded.

A paternalistic state

In recent months, various institutions across the country have passed laws or made comments that reiterate India’s deep-rooted misogyny and patronising attitude towards women.

On Wednesday, for instance, Madhya Pradesh Congress legislator Sajjan Singh Verma claimed that a woman’s minimum age for marriage should not be increased from 18 to 21, because “a girl is ready for reproduction by the age of 15”.

Earlier, on January 11, the Supreme Court angered women farmers by remarking that “old people and women” were being “kept” in the ongoing protests by thousands of farmers outside Delhi’s borders.

“We have our own free will and we are choosing to protest along with our men – no one is ‘keeping’ us here,” said Gurpreet Kaur Tadiwal, a farmer who grows wheat and rice in rural Ludhiana on her family’s 11-acre farm. Tadiwal has been protesting at the Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana for the past month, along with 30 other women from her village. “It makes me angry when people talk about women as if we don’t know anything, especially the Supreme Court.”

The most blatant display of State paternalism has come in the form of laws against the bogie of “love jihad” – a term coined by Hindutva right-wing groups who accuse Muslim men of seducing women with the intention of converting them to Islam through marriage. While Haryana, Karnataka and Assam have proposed such laws, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have already introduced them: laws against forced religious conversions that are merely a pretext to crackdown on inter-faith marriages and alleged “love jihad”.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan during the inauguration of an awareness campaign on crime against women in Bhopal on January 11. Credit: Shivraj Singh Chouhan/ Twitter

No agency in love

In Uttar Pradesh, where this law was passed as an ordinance in November 2020, at least 14 cases were filed in just one month, with 49 people – predominantly Muslim men – jailed. In the majority of these cases, the women who were alleged victims of love jihad were not the ones filing the case. In fact, many of the women insisted they were marrying of their own free will, but their voices have been ignored.

In a heart-rending viral video from Aligarh, police can be seen dragging a young woman into a car despite her screams that she was in love with her Muslim boyfriend and wanted to marry him.

“The government thinks women cannot think or choose for themselves who they want to marry – they always assume she is being brainwashed by the man,” said Nandini Verma, a 23-year-old law student from Lucknow.

This denial of women’s agency extends far beyond “love jihad”, says Verma. She cites the example of “anti-Romeo squads” that the Uttar Pradesh police introduced in 2017 to crackdown on young couples wandering in public.

“These squads would always arrest the men for taking ‘advantage’ of women. And the women would be dropped home in police vans and handed over to their families,” said Verma. “In fact in UP, many girls stop dating at the age of 22 or 23 and start preparing for arranged marriage. Because if a girl tells her parents she wants to marry their boyfriend, she will be denied her basic freedom to go out of the house and study.”

‘Register men instead’

According to Silvia Peter, when it comes to the treatment of women, the atmosphere in Madhya Pradesh is no different from that in Uttar Pradesh.

Despite this, some working women from Madhya Pradesh support the idea of women being registered with the police and tracked for their safety.

“If a woman is working outside the home, then I don’t think there is anything wrong in registering her with the police,” said Garima Namdeo, a dentist from MP’s Sihor district who has worked in Gwalior, Bhopal and Jabalpur before moving to Mumbai in 2012. “If a woman is out and needs any kind of help, she would be able to get it if she was registered.”

Unlike Namdeo, however, other women would much rather be left free by the State.

“It is important to create a safe work environment for women, but by tracking us, our freedoms will be compromised, and we will always feel watched,” said Swarnalata Chheniya, 40, an administrator at a private school in Itarsi. “Instead of doing surveillance for women, why can’t they register all men with a history of criminal behaviour and keep them under strict surveillance? They are the ones who should be controlled.”