A few weeks ago Anitha, a 20-year-old woman was stripped, ruthlessly beaten and paraded naked in Wardhannapet, Telangana. All of this was done publicly, and not a single person present did or said anything to stop the horrific event. The entire village continued to stand by mutely, as an entire family held Anitha down and burnt her genitals to ‘teach her a lesson’.
In seeking to protect ourselves from this bitter reality of India, all of us will invariably (and very quickly) dismiss incidents – such as this – as isolated ones, or argue that they’re specific to some distant and backward region of the nation. Hiding behind our fig leaves, we don’t realise that mobs routinely take law into their hands, to mete out what they believe is justice.
Consider how in January this year, two young women in Aurangabad were first stripped and then had their genitals smeared with chilly. This happened inside a police station and the police themselves were the perpetrators. Their crime? They had dared to slap a drunk man who tried to rape them. Similarly, in August 2015 (in Madhya Pradesh), a 45 year old Dalit woman was stripped and forced to consume urine simply for purchasing land formerly owned by an upper caste family. Women throughout India have been stripped, raped, humiliated and beaten to within an inch of their lives. None of them incited, or invited these vile assaults on their liberty or life.
The worst thing is that in a number of these incidents, as the community sought to imprint these ‘lessons’ on the minds of intransigent women, the administration stood by silently and in some cases, actively facilitated the perpetrators. The reason for this selective application of the rule of law is because the local officialdom is drawn from amidst the community, and is also acculturised to believing that the law in the land is greater than the law of the land.
The ‘lessons’ these dominant communities seek to ram in are not just for Anitha or any of the other victims. They are for all those “would be-transgressors” who may try to violate the set of norms by which the vast majority of India exists (law in the land). To them, these rules determine what forms of conduct and speech are right and wrong, and ultimately, what is ethical and what is not. Completely antithetical to the idea of India, these primordial rules guarantee neither freedom of expression or speech and certainly not the right to human dignity. It is adherence to these that makes normally decent and honourable individuals extremely vicious (even more so when they act like a collective).
In oft quoting the Manusmriti’s “yatr naryasto pojyantay, ramantay tatr devta”, apologists argue that women are provided place of honour in Hinduism. What they conveniently overlook is the harsh reality of women in India. A large number of women have little to no control over either the personal or the public space, they are constantly reminded (not just by their families, but socially and also through popular culture) that their primary domain is the home, and if they step out or dare to assert themselves, they can count on being treated as nothing more than commodities. Needless to say, access to opportunities continues to be a luxury for women. In the face of overwhelming pressure, women internalise these discriminations as facts of life.
For a country so fixated on growth and global leadership, it’s extremely counterproductive to suppress half our talent pool (contrary to a Chhattisgarh textbook which claimed that working women are a cause of rising unemployment). It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that talent is distributed evenly across all social groups. Therefore in continuing to exclude women, India loses out on a vast reservoir of diverse talents and hence, outputs. Such a view would likely appeal to a sizeable section of society, however insensitive it may be in its sheer instrumentality. The larger question is this: is our conscience not revolted at the shocking insensitivity and lack of compassion that these mobs (who are but an extension of us all) exhibit? Why do we continue to make our homes cesspools of hierarchy and inequality? As a society, are we so indifferent to basic human dignity? India simply must realise that if women are continued to be subjugated, not only are we denying them opportunities for fullness of life (that our Constitution guarantees), but also condemning them to a life of servitude. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves”. On this Women’s Day, we’d do well to remember that.