India is over the moon about Manushi Chhillar and her Miss World title. She has been declared not just India’s pride, but also Haryana’s pride, for bringing the title back to the country after a 17-year beauty drought. Most of the world has moved on from beauty contests, but our national identity continues to crave international endorsement.
So we have celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor and Yoga tycoon Baba Ramdev stirring the pot together to set a Guinness world record by making 918 kgs of kichidi to promote “Brand India” food. On June 21, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led thousands in a mass display of yoga at Rajpath, an event that was certified as “officially amazing” by Guinness, kindling much national pride.
This is perhaps why the addition of another beauty queen to our stash – six, including Chhillar, equal only with Venezuela – has generated so much excitement, never mind that what it means in effect is another endorsement-driven celebrity, whose life and times will become fodder for the Page 3 sections of newspapers.
No offence meant to Chhillar. Her crown gives her lots of money, nice clothes, many opportunities and a year of touring the world. When that is done, she is certain to be snapped up by Bollywood. And all the best to her, considering how Bollywood is faring these days.
But there has been plenty of discussion since the 1950s on how such contests — where winning or losing hangs by the subjective, cosmetic industry-powered views of a handpicked jury with contentious ideas on the perfect skin colour, weight and height – are exploitative.
After protests in the 1990s, the Miss World organisers had to add personality and intelligence contests to bring the contest up to speed with the new century, but it is no secret that the contest, and other similar ones, are driven by the body-conscious world’s beauty industry.
Women, and women’s bodies have always been used by nation-builders for the construction of identity – to produce future generations, and transmit culture, tradition, language to the next generation. In India, which has not stopped changing since the 1990s, it is no surprise that Miss India (the national crown is a stepping stone to the Miss World contest) is trained to be the perfect embodiment of the “bharitya nari” in which tradition and cosmopolitanism must meet without conflict, seamlessly, just like changing a costume.
Trust Haryana then to show with stunning clarity that Miss World and Mother India do not inhabit the same universe. While ministers in the BJP government in Haryana fell over each other to claim Miss World as the “pride of the state” within minutes of her winning the title, a Haryana BJP functionary offered Rs 10 crore for the “beheading” of Deepika Padukone, who stars in the contentious Padmavati, and its director Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Chhillar’s rigorous training for the Miss India and Miss World contests, and the highly controlled and regulated life she will lead for a whole year as the holder of the title, do not permit her to wade into controversies. She replied with aplomb when asked at the contest what the most highly paid job should be. “A mother’s job”, she said without hesitation. As the new icon of the bharatiya nari, what would she say if she were to be asked about the calls to behead a film star?
Beyond the grand welcome that will surely be given to “Haryana’s pride” when she returns, the State clearly hopes it can bask in her glory. But there are bound to be limits to how much Haryana can hide behind her stunning smile and confidence.
Miss World herself belongs to Haryana’s Jat community, who take as much pride in their conservative and patriarchal views as the Rajputs protesting against Padmavati — even in those parts of Haryana that have turned into sleek steel and glass cities.
Earlier this year, The Indian Express did a series of stories on women sarpanches in Haryana. In 2016, the state had introduced an educational eligibility clause for panchayat elections –the minimum education qualification to contest the panchayat polls was Class 10 pass for men, class 8 pass for women and class 5 pass for Dalits. In many places, where men did not meet the eligibility criteria, eligible women from the family were pitchforked as candidates. Out of 6,186 sarpanches who got elected, 2,565 were women. Hope that office would empower them has proved futile. Women sarpanches and the men in their families and in the village freely spoke about how “it is men’s work”. And purdah is not going away soon, even the women sarpanches wear them.
The 21-year-old Chhillar was born in the same decade that saw Haryana’s sex ratio dip from 879 (as recorded in the 1991 census) to reach a dangerous 820 by the time of the 2001 census. The state had the worst sex ratio in India, because of boy preference and illegal sex selective abortions.
It is only in recent years that the situation has improved, though the jury is still out on the Khattar government’s claims of an extraordinary turnaround after it emerged that officials had been fudging numbers. According to the State 2016-17 Economic survey, it was 879. By January, the government was claiming that it had breached the 900 mark; in March, it was 950; in August there was a downward revision to 909. If this number is right, it still qualifies as a huge improvement for Haryana.
Haryana’s literacy rates for women are 65.9 per cent (State 2016-17 Economic Survey) one percentage point more than the national rate. In the feudal and extremely patriarchal set up of Haryana, any advances made by individual women in education and in the professions are thanks to their own initiative and ambition, and family help wherever it is forthcoming.
In September, a national daily reported on the basis of information obtained under RTI that around 140 government schools in Haryana do not have girls’ toilet. Of these, seven were government girls’ schools, and the rest government co-educational schools. The report estimated that 5,000 girl students as well as hundreds of female teachers and other staff were affected by this. The absence of toilets for girls is one reason why there is a high rate of girl drop puts from school, even though in Class 12, girls fare better than boys in a state where only 62-65 per cent students pass
As for the Sonepat girls’ medical college where Chhillar is a student, it did not have enough faculty to show for an MCI inspection last year. ‘The Indian Express’ reported then that the Health department hurriedly sent 15 doctors to tide over the inspection.
Meanwhile Haryana scores high on cow vigilantism (9 incidents in 2017, just below UP’s 10); and increasing attacks on Dalits. According to NCRB 2015 data released in 2016, attacks on Dalits have risen seven fold in the last 15 years:117 in 2000; 229 in 2001; 243 in 2002; 195 in 2003; 217 in 2004; 288 in 2005; 283 in 2006; 227 in 2007; 341 in 2008; 303 in 2009; 380 in 2010; 408 in 2011; 252 in 2012; 493 in 2013; and, 830 in 2014.
But let’s celebrate Manushi Chhillar’s Miss World title. That’s the world ranking that really counts.