Pramod Muthalik, the perpetrator of the ghastly attacks on women outside a Mangalore pub in 2009, was inducted into the BJP for a mere few hours before being shown the door. We watched for a while the inevitable fight between the BJP high-command and its state unit that followed, over who committed this PR blunder. However, Pramod Muthalik’s making the news serves a more useful purpose: the opportunity to seriously assess the status of women in India, and what the key contenders in the race to Delhi’s throne are doing about it.
Today’s India is certainly a far better place for women than it has ever been. Back in 1950, when BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru wanted a drastic expansion in women’s rights through the Hindu Code Bill, there was stiff opposition in Parliament. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, opposed it, as did Vallabhai Patel, who considered such a profound revision premature for India.
Such has been the inevitability of progress that no mainstream politician today, perhaps with the exception of the likes of Pramod Muthalik, would oppose a bill as formative and liberalising as the Hindu Code Bill.
Yet, India on the whole remains stultifying for women by any relevant international standards. Save for a handful of metropolitans, Indian women can barely assert themselves, at home or work. India may have its women heading corporations, editing prominent dailies or even being elected to positions of power, but it also displays extremely low participation of women in the work force (30% in India, as against 70% for both China and Russia). There may be much sexual or marital freedom in South Delhi, South Mumbai or South Bangalore, but village elders in West Bengal still feel comfortable in sentencing a woman to be gang-raped for exercising the most fundamental right of love. Even in 2014, it is unthinkable for a woman to light a cigarette or grab a drink in small town India (and beyond).
Ingrained patriarchy, the reduction of women as monuments of family, caste or community honour is the chief culprit. The father in the typical North Indian small town won’t let his adult daughter out at night, in case neighbours begin to speculate and whisper rumours; a similar culture of shame ensures that in rural circles, getting raped is considered a calamity worse than death itself. In Nazi Germany, it was the tyranny of the state that forced women to stay at home and ‘beautify themselves for their mates’; in India it is the tyranny of cousins that cages women in their own homes, lest their behaviour becomes a dent on their family’s izzat.
The increase in incidents of rape, and the ensuing protests across urban India are the most visible symbol of the tension created when this medieval outlook clashes with modern liberalism.
Thus freedom and rights of women in India cannot only be legally understood and assessed; it has to take into account the context in which they are rooted. Women in India may have the legal right to live their lives as they choose, but the accompanying social pressure and conditioning is simply too great for most to be able to effectively do so.
The purpose of politics should not only be to pass laws but also to become a catalyst for social justice. While plenty of NGOs abound to promote the message of female empowerment, nothing matches the stature of the politician’s bully pulpit, or the considerable resources of the state at his disposal. Yet our political establishment, including the upstarts, tend to shun this opportunity for the sake of mere accommodation.
For one, the Congress missed the boat spectacularly when almost all of its major leaders failed to capitalise on the widespread urban protests following the 2012 Delhi gang-rape. The statesmen would have used the crisis to highlight key issues that women usually face, even in prosperous households – lack of sexual freedom, societal pressure to marry within a certain age etc. Yet, the UPA opted to limit itself to merely making the laws more stringent.
Similarly, Narendra Modi, in keeping with his Hindu chauvinist core base, continues to treat women as ‘sisters and daughters’ that are meant to be taken care of, not as citizens whose rights and freedoms need to be protected. As the ‘mother’, in one of the BJP’s latest advertisements, asks her viewers, “Did I make a mistake by sending my daughter to the city?” This rhetoric presumes two realities. First, that the mother largely defines the boundaries between which her daughter (who presumably is an adult, since she has a job) operates, and second, that ensuring a safe environment for women is first and foremost for the sake of those who dominate them – parents and brothers – so that their daughters and sisters do not get raped. How about putting a young woman out there, struggling to make it on her own, confidently demanding the right to a safe city space at night?
But the real surprise has been the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP has been the David that really did beat the Goliath of the Congress in Delhi. It now wishes to replicate the astounding victory of the underdog on the national stage. Since the party markets itself entirely idealist – a departure from the politics of old – it would have been expected of the AAP to frame problems of patriarchy in society as serious issues of the nation.
Instead, the party has chosen the less difficult path of accommodation. The tacit acceptance of Haryana’s Khap Panchayats – because the AAP wants to win big in that state – is one result. Instead of mounting a social campaign against a feudal order that jealously guards the oppression of women against the liberalising tendencies of modernity, the AAP, like the Congress, has resigned itself to finding flimsy cultural pretext for their existence.
An able and vision-driven party’s policy-platform would have been interested in tackling the roots of oppression of women – a value-system that seeks to deem them impure for the clothes they wear, what they do, what they sip or inhale; or the piercing eyes that follow whenever they try to rejoice in their sexuality.
When Nehru finally decided to push through the Hindu Code Bill through Parliament, he realised that there was a genuine popular antipathy to such a fundamental upgrading of women’s rights. Yet, he persisted. And the result is one of the most formidable legacies of his administration. As Burke once noted, a politician’s duty is not to simply ‘represent’ his constituents, but also to use his judgement to guide them towards enlightenment. Few political actors today have the temerity to live up to such a measure.
Akshat Khandelwal tweets at @akshat_khan.