November 11, 2004
At a time when so much is being said about the criminals in politics, there is almost a conspiracy of silence concerning the more pervasive criminality in society at large. The degree of equanimity with which female infanticide is tolerated is a case in point. When the Shrimoni Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee elected its new president, a couple of months ago, some of her rivals called her kuri maar (daughter killer). The term is so common among a section of the Sikhs in Punjab over the past couple of centuries that it hardly attracts much notice.
Census 2001 data has yet again pointed to the high incidence of cases of female foeticide. Medical technology is seen as the principal reason for this trend. But this, in effect, shifts attention away from the inherent criminality in the society and the medieval biases against the girl child. If only one were to revisit some of the methods “traditionally” used in terminating the nascent lives in parts of north India, the full horror of it all becomes patent. They ranged from starving the new-born baby to stuffing her mouth with whatever came handy, or drowning her in a tub of water.
There is plenty to suggest that the administration during the British days confronted the problem far better than has been done since independence. The cases of female infanticide were first spotted among Rajkoomar Rajputs in Oudh in 1789. Jonathan Duncan’s report on the subject lifted the veil on the problem, as it were. It took a while for the reality to sink in. A couple of decades later, as more reports started coming in from other parts of north India, the authorities began to take note. It was in 1805 that Col Alexander Walker, who had been sent to Kathiawar in Gujarat to settle a local dispute, noticed that there were far fewer women among the Jahreja Rajputs. Inquiries pointed to the prevalence of female infanticide among the Jahrejas. They told Walker that the practice of female infanticide had been introduced to prevent their women from falling into the hands of Muslim invaders. They had initially tried hiding their female folk, but as that proved ineffective, they had resorted to killing their young girls to spare themselves the stigma. A sample survey in 1841 reported that there were 5,760 males to 1,370 females (a sex ratio of 420 to 100) in Kathiawar. Neighbouring Kutch recorded a sex ratio of 784 males to 100 women. It could get as bad as in the case of some settlements of the Chauhans in central India who did not have any surviving daughters.
The practice of seeing the female child as a potential source of humiliation persisted in other ways as well. It was a member of the well placed Bedis among the Sikhs who having to suffer humiliation as his daughter had to be married to someone of inferior status, introduced the practice of female infanticide among his community. Those that disagreed were to face social boycott. Even more shockingly, the practice having started with the highly regarded Bedis, others such as the Sodhis soon started emulating them. Growing urbanisation and rise of the middle class in the 20th century alongside greater alienation and economic competitiveness made dowry another factor disfavouring the girl child. Places such as Mysore and Madras, which used to be relatively free from the menace, began to catch up subsequently.
The district collectors in British India used to visit the villages on horseback, which made them more accessible to the hinterland and better disposed to inter-personal communication. Independent India’s administrators do it in white ambassadors behind dark tinted windows. Not surprisingly, the mai-baaps of the raj did better in terms of effective action at the local level than their successors of the swaraj. A success story from the British was the Northwestern Province where the sex ratio among the juvenile population was found to be 231 males per 100 females in 1874. From then on, the administration earmarked villages prone to the practice, monitored them and meted out collective punishments under the 1870 Female Infanticide Act. By 1890, the juvenile sex ratio here had evened out. That this province later lapsed back into its old ways and is among the worst performing provinces in Pakistan today tells a story.
One valuable lesson to be drawn from the British Indian experience is the importance of local level action and a pro-active approach. One of the myths perpetrated by the establishment in independent India is that law will take its own course. The law, in reality, takes no course — especially when it is situated between entrenched social practices and impersonal administrators.
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