The death of the Delhi gang rape victim in Singapore (Dec 28, 2012) has created a massive wave of anger and protest. As such after this ghastly act, which took place nearly two weeks ago, the anger and protest of the people came to the streets and one witnessed the unfortunate police action. This gang rape was so horrific that the attention of the people from all the sectors of society was drawn to it, and the rage amongst people was limitless. One cannot describe enough the brutality of this act, which took place in the moving bus in Delhi. The first object of people’s wrath was the Government and the police for their failure to prevent such acts, their inability to prevent such acts and lack of strong laws and for inability to put in place the mechanism for early punishment of the guilty, which can act as the deterrent to such heinous crimes in future. The first demand of protesters was that the guilty should be hanged.

Surely this massive unrest will force the authorities and society to initiate moves which should lead to the better and stronger laws and better norms for policing. One hopes this alone will not be the end of the social and political response to the protest of the people. One has to recognize that punishing the guilty, making stronger laws will merely be addressing the symptoms. The better path will be that in due course the grief of the event should be channelized to look at the phenomenon of rape and sexual violence against women at deeper level. In turn this should lead to efforts to create better social values and atmosphere where women can enjoy equal status and overcome the present chains of patriarchy. It is this prevalent patriarchy which is at the root of looking at women as subordinate secondary beings, who should submit to the wishes of stronger sex. The patriarchal mind set is at the root violence against women.

Today the whole response to the violence against women has to face the obstacle of biased processes, starting from the attitude society, apathetic and sometimes hostile response of the police and the attitude of a large section of judiciary. It goes without saying that all those who have to deal with the crimes against women need to be gender sensitized. Rape as such is a part of the attitude which regards women as secondary beings or worse the property of men. This is what was structural in feudal society. The transition from feudal society to the democratic society is half way arrested in India and during last three decades or so this transition for equality of both sexes has taken a beating with the rise of politics in the name of religion. This ascendance of politics in the name of religion has an all out impact on our system, the culture, the values and social thinking. This ascendance of ideology which, treats women as secondary beings has many negative aspects inbuilt into it.  

At global level Islam has been demonized by US for the goals of control on oil wells, America’s promotion of obscurantist versions of Islam and ultraconservatism in Islam, its propping up of Al Qaeda and coining of the word ‘Islamic terrorism’ has boosted the retrograde forces in Muslim societies. The arrested secularization process supplemented by this political process has promoted patriarchy in many Islamic societies.

On similar grounds the bringing in of religion in political space in India, the coming up Ram temple movement and consequent politics in the name of Hindu religion has also triggered the pushing back of struggles related to gender justice and equality of sexes. As such in India, the rape of Mathura, an Adivasi girl in police custody in late 1970s gave an impetus to the women’s movement which came up as a strong phenomenon raising the issues related to women’s equality, their yearning for half the sky, their aspirations for a world where they are not just confined to Kitchen, Church and Children but are also a part of the full social space in its entirety, the arena of production and creativity. Later women’s movement also engaged itself with the issue of rape of Manorama by army personnel.

In the transition phase from feudal set up to struggle for democratic society many an ideologues who were opposed to this transition did put forward their ideas which regarded women as the property of men. While those for democratic values encouraged women’s equality, those stuck to feudal values, presented their norms under the wrap of religion and opposed the values of gender equality in various forms. The communal politics which developed in India had a great appreciation of norms from Manusmriti or for those Islamic traditions which gave a secondary status to women. One of the ideologues of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar went on to criticize Shivaji’s act of benevolence in which he shows respect for the daughter in law of Subhedar of Kalyan. Shivaji and returns her back to her home with full honors. His army had brought her to him as a part of plunder and as a ‘gift’ for him. The Taliban mindset is not hidden from us, the types of dictates they gave, which led to girls like Malala to stand up against them. The BJP MP B.L.Sharma Prem expressed his ideology when he termed the act of rape of nuns in Jhabua as an act of Nationalism. One recalls George Fernandez, the BJP ally in later part of his life, had gone on to infamously state that ‘what is new about rape’ and refused to take this crime seriously. This he stated in the context of Gujarat carnage where unthinkable sexual crimes took place against Muslim women.

Communal violence is again a site of contestation which also takes place on women’s bodies. Not only are the bodies of minority women targeted, the rumors regarding cutting of the breasts of ‘our women’ by the others has been a standard rumor used to instigate the people to attack the others. The matters have gone to such horrific extent that women themselves have helped ‘their’ men folk to commit such atrocities on the women from other religion. This has been the experience of Mumbai 1992-93 Mumbai violence and 2002 Gujarat carnage. Rape has also been used as a weapon against the weaker sections of society where Dalit or Adivasi women are subjected to this ignominy to punish that community; Khairlanji will always be etched in memory as an example of this.

The association of rape with clothes of women has been propped up by various police officials and communalists at times. The Khap psychology of controlling the lives of women in the name of Gotra is another aspect which we need to eradicate from our society. Many of these things have become stronger during last few decades and some contribution to patriarchal thinking has been promoted by the serials like the Saas bhi Kabhi… or films belonging to this genre of values. The cultural and religious space is also dominated various expressions, which promote the same. This is an outcome of retrograde politics and in turn further corrupts the political-cultural space to promote the obscurantist gender equations.

All this emerges from the patriarchal value system, which is an accompaniment of sectarian politics. While demanding for strong punishment against the criminals, one hopes the issues raised by this upsurge will be channelized to go to the deeper causes of this phenomenon and will also come to challenge the politics which is based on caste and gender hierarchy, the communal politics. This politics, which can come in the garb of any religion, is detrimental to the rights and status of women. The need is not to look at women as someone who need protection and respect as the subordinate being, but to work towards a society where women have control over their lives, where women are not the weaker sex, but one amongst the two equal sexes. One wishes the infinite pain and anguish of this upsurge will come to challenge the deep set norms of patriarchy in our society. Lets hope we don’t have to hang our head in shame again.

Issues in Secular Politics

I January 2013




Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Parliament and patriarchy


Taking its cue from an earlier generation of lawmakers who gave women the vote, abolished untouchability and reformed personal laws, Parliament must pass the Women’s Reservation Bill

The Hindu ends its moving front-page editorial on the 23-year-old rape victim with this pointed and very pertinent plea: “The Congress and the Opposition should forget about playing to the gallery. If they are serious about the rights of women, they should quickly pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. Let the presence of at least 181 female MPs in the next Lok Sabha — and the political mobilisation of women this will slowly catalyse — be Parliament’s way of honouring the death of the Unknown Citizen.” (“No turning back now,” December 30, 2012)

Although widely used, “tragic” is too tame a word to describe an event that has shaken a nation. “Horrific” and “barbaric” may be more accurate. As the anger and the outrage slowly stirs an apathetic citizenry — and a still more apathetic political class — and as we understand how the barbarism and brutality that manifested itself on that Delhi bus on a single evening is reproduced daily in hundreds of locations across the country, The Hindu has done well to offer a concrete solution. How best might we take it forward?

Past attempts
We might begin with looking backwards, at past political attempts to undo or at least undermine the patriarchal biases of Indian society and civilisation.

The first such attempt was through the Constituent Assembly, a largely male body that met between December 1946 and December 1949 to draft a new Constitution for the nation. One conservative member complained that the document finally adopted gave them the “music of the English band,” when what they had hoped for instead was “the music of [the] Veena or Sitar.”

In fact, in at least two fundamental respects, the Constitution departed most radically from both western and Indian models.
The first was the provision of affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, through the 15 per cent of all legislative seats and government jobs reserved for Dalits, and the 7.5 per cent reserved for tribals. The second was the granting of the right to vote to all women who turned 21.

Both provisions aimed at reversing historic processes of discrimination and disadvantage. The suppression of former ‘Untouchables’ and the marginalisation of adivasis were encoded into the social practice of Hinduism, while the relegation of women to an inferior status was mandated by the social practices of both Hinduism and Islam. However, while the revolutionary nature of affirmative action for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes has been noted by historians and legal scholars, the fact that the granting of equal rights to women was an equally radical act has perhaps not attracted the same attention.

In the West, the franchise was granted in phases. First, only men of property enjoyed the vote. Then, educated men were added on to the roster. Eventually, after a long struggle by the working class, all men were allowed to vote. It took an even braver struggle by the ‘suffragettes’ to get the males to grant women the vote.

This phased process was followed in every western democracy. In some cantons of Switzerland, women did not have the right to vote as late as 1971. On the other hand, in the first elections held under the Indian Constitution, all adults, regardless of class, education, property, and (most crucially) gender, were given the right freely to elect their political representatives.

The next major legislative challenge to Indian patriarchy involved the abolition of traditional religious laws prohibiting women from choosing their marriage partners, divorcing brutal or neglectful husbands, or inheriting property. This was a more arduous process. A Bill drafted to enact these changes for the majority community (Hindus) failed to pass through the Constitutional Assembly or the Provisional Parliament that succeeded it. Sundry sants and sadhus organised dozens of demonstrations outside Parliament condemning the Bill as an affront to Hindu society. Effigies of the Prime Minister and the Law Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar respectively) were regularly burnt.

Several years later, the reforms were finally passed by the first Parliament based on adult franchise. This was an important first step to the Common Civil Code promised in the Constitution. However, given the sensitive aftermath of Partition, it was deemed prudent not to extend the core of this legislation to the Muslim minority. But both Nehru and Ambedkar had no doubt that this too would have to happen. The moment came in 1986, when the Supreme Court, in the Shah Bano case, asked the husband who had abandoned Shah Bano to continue paying her an allowance, commenting further that it was past time that the Constitutional promise of a common, gender-sensitive, civil code be finally redeemed.

The Congress of Jawaharlal Nehru was bold enough to resist the challenge of reactionary sants. Tragically, the Congress of Rajiv Gandhi failed, 30 years later, to resist the challenge of reactionary mullahs. Despite many Muslim intellectuals and activists being in favour of the Supreme Court judgment, the 400-odd ruling party MPs, who could and should have been used to pass a common civil code, were instead instructed to support a bill overturning the court verdict. This foolish and callous act set back the cause of women’s emancipation by decades, even as it helped stoke years of intense communal polarisation and sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims.

In a speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar famously described democracy as ‘top-dressing’ on Indian soil. Custom, tradition, social practice and religious laws were all heavily loaded against the idea that all citizens should have equal rights. When Ambedkar said this, he had the practice of caste discrimination largely in mind. But his remarks apply equally to discrimination against women.

Three times in the past have Indian parliamentarians been asked to take sides on a major question of gender equality. Twice they have braved public opinion and taken the right side. On a third occasion, with Muslim opinion divided, and non-Muslim opinion largely in favour of a uniform civil code, they caved in to the fundamentalists. Now a fourth major question of gender equality confronts them. Which side will they take?

From Rammohan Roy on through M. K. Gandhi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, B.R. Ambedkar, and beyond, social radicals have had to battle against reaction and orthodoxy. The politicians who drafted the Constitution, who prescribed universal adult franchise, the abolition of untouchability, and the reform of patriarchal personal laws, were far in advance of public opinion. Now the situation has somewhat changed. In the third week of December, I was in deepest Kathiawar, tracking the places where the young Mohandas Gandhi lived and studied. In the small town of Morbi, I saw a group of young college and schoolgirls demonstrating against the barbaric events in Delhi. In 1947, there would have been no women in Morbi asking for the right to vote. In 1957, there would have been no women in Morbi demanding the right to choose their marriage partner or inherit their father’s property.

Amplify the signals
As the intense, widespread, ongoing, demonstrations across India show, in 2012 large sections of the urban public at least have shed many of their past prejudices when it comes to women’s emancipation. Now it is for the legislators to pick up and amplify the signals. The Women’s Reservation Bill would be a fine way to start. For, as the experience of Dalits shows, affirmative action in legislatures is an empowering and enabling tool, that can hasten (even if slowly, and haltingly) the creation of a more just and less unequal society.

The Hindu editorial rightly calls for a proactive partnership in this respect between the Congress and the Opposition. Now, before Parliament reconvenes, a series of facilitating conversations between the major leaders of both parties is called for — between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, between the UPA Chairperson and other BJP leaders. The Left parties have long indicated their support for this progressive legislation. The AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party are all led by women, who must surely wish to have greater representation of women in Parliament. The numbers are there — so is a large swathe of public sentiment. And, not least, the example of the visionary reformers of the past, who, in an even more inhospitable climate, took the first, tortuous steps towards gender equality.

(Ramachandra Guha is the author, most recently, of Patriots and Partisans. He can be contacted at ramachandraguha@yahoo.in)
courtesy : “The Hindu”, 31.12.2012

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features