Delhi’s Women and Child Development Minister Sandeep Kumar grew up in Sarangthal village in Haryana, the state with the country’s lowest female sex ratio in the 2011 Census. He can claim to have come a long way.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, the 34-year-old minister had thanked wife Ritu for the “sacrifices” she had made for him, and, to thunderous applause from a packed auditorium at the Delhi Secretariat, added, “Main roz subah inke pair chhoota hoon (I touch her feet every morning).”
A fortnight later, Kumar smiles that he has been following the practice since Ritu, 29, and he got married on April 5, 2011. “Sometimes she says ‘khoob tarakki karo (be very successful)’, but mostly she just smiles. My friends sometimes ask jokingly if she says ‘sada suhagan raho (Have a long, married life)’.”
Adds Ritu, “I can only smile when he touches my feet. I wish him good luck and success in all he does.”
The two first met at Delhi’s Dyal Singh College and courted for eight years before tying the knot. Kumar says he still remembers the day he saw Ritu. “It was July 16, 2003. I was in third year of BA and she had joined college in the first year of B.Com. We ragged her and asked her to sing a song.”
Ritu recalls singing, but not which song. “At that time I never thought that someday I would marry Sandeep. But there was attraction,” she adds.
Kumar, who was a pugilist and a volleyball player in college, also confesses to being “very emotional”. “Some people think I must be very aggressive. Maybe I look like that. But I always follow my heart,” he says.
However, the romance was not all smooth going. The youngest of eight siblings, Kumar comes from a humble background and the couple faced stiff opposition from some of Ritu’s family members.
“My father was a subedar in the Army. We have a very small house in Sultanpuri. Our financial backgrounds were very different. Ritu lived in Defence Colony,” says Kumar.
But he was determined not to let anything stand in the way. “I never thought Ritu and I were different from each other. It was like getting married to myself. I had told her ‘Aishwarya Rai kyoon na aa jaye, shaadi to main aap hi se karunga (Aishwarya Rai may come, but I will get married to you alone)’.”
Beaming, the minister adds, that on some days, they had only chutney and roti to eat but Ritu never complained.
Ritu admits the transition wasn’t easy. “Sultanpuri is a remote place. A bahu had to cover her head with a dupatta. These were things I had never done,” she says, adding that the smallest of things involving them would often become the talk of the neighbourhood. If Kumar was seen buying food for example, people would ask if his wife didn’t know how to cook, she recalls.
“But Sandeep was always supportive. I completed my studies in law after marriage. In Sultanpur Majra, Kumar’s Assembly constituency, there are a lot of cases of domestic violence and dowry harassment. I offer help to such women in need,” she says.
Kumar’s parents now live in Sonepat, since his father’s retirement.
Explaining why he started touching Ritu’s feet, Kumar says, “I touch my parents’ feet because they brought me into this world, raised me and gave me a good education. But after them, it is my wife who has been with me through thick and thin and I respect her just as much.”
Since his March 8 speech recounting this, Kumar has been getting phone calls from across the country. “A 93-year-old uncle from Meghalaya said he was happy to hear what I had said. But there were others who were angry. They asked me how I could make such statements in a male-dominated society. I told them that it is this mentality they have to change. A person who does not respect women has no right to be called a human being,” Kumar says.
Ritu talks about a distant relative who even landed up at their house. “He said Sandeep’s statement had hurt the honour of the family. We told them they had no right to interfere in our lives.”
One of Ritu’s aims is to try and bridge the gap between boys and girls. “We must make all schools co-eds. Since a very young age, girls and boys should not see each other as different.”
But does she touch her husband’s feet too? “Yes I do,” she says. “I touch his feet on Karva Chauth.”