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Narendra Bisht
Man's gotta do: Protest at Jantar Mantar
movement: men's rights
Now, Is That Malevolence?
A group of men's right activists claim the feminist agenda has pushed ahead so far that men are now the worst victims.
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In Defence Of Men's Rights...

  • A nationwide group of some 8,000 men, most of them techies and engineers, have formed a "husbands' rights" movement, spearheaded by the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF)
  • They claim they're being victimised, abused and framed by their wives and greedy lawyers, who use laws like the Domestic Violence Act and IPC 498A which deals with dowry harassment, to extort money, grab family property, deny them child custody etc.
  • The movement is active in nine cities, operates a national helpline, has published a Guide to Surviving 498A
  • SIFF says the high ratio of male to female suicides (64:36) is largely due to domestic cruelty against men [National Crime Records Bureau 2005].

***

On August 26 this year, International Women's Equality Day, yet another demonstration was under way at Jantar Mantar, the centre of gravity for social protest in the nation's capital. No one driving by would have spared the protesters a second glance, except that the bunch shouting slogans-- "Hai Hai", "Down Down"-- was an incongruous one: software engineers, corporate managers, officers of the merchant navy and marketing execs. More incredible were the signs they were carrying: 'Stop Legal Terrorism. Stop Husband Suicides', and 'Protect the Elderly from the NCW', NCW being not the National Commission for Women but 'National Criminal Wives'. On Women's Equality Day, the centrestage belonged to one of the most unexpected byproducts of the women's rights movement: a movement for men's rights.

Spearheading it is Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), a front organisation, formed in 2005, the year the Domestic Violence Act came into force for a nationwide group of some 8,000 men. SIFF and their affiliates have a novel view of women's equality in India -- that the feminist agenda has pushed ahead so far that men are now the worst victims.

They view a small cluster of central legislations—including the DV Act and Section 498A of the IPC, which deals with cruelty and dowry harassment—as instruments that allow unscrupulous wives to abuse, manipulate and blackmail husbands and in-laws for money and revenge. Meanwhile, husbands battered by wives receive no protection. The Axis of Evil in this arrangement, they say, comprises Union minister for women's and child development Renuka Chowdhury, NCW chairperson Girija Vyas and Supreme Court senior advocate Indira Jaisingh. For SIFF, the laws they've pushed through and defended from criticism define every domestic squabble as an act of cruelty, and are beginning to undermine the institution of marriage in India.

"Every marital argument will get converted into legal action, and once the trust is gone, the institution of marriage will be destroyed," Sandeep Bhatia, a software engineer and a SIFF member, told Outlook. "More and more children will be raised in single-parent households. A fatherless society really is the direction we're going in."

The reality of the situation is complex. It became grossly obvious in the '70s that simply making violence against women in its many forms—rape, domestic violence, dowry harassment—illegal did not provide sufficient protection for women. Deeply lodged sexism in society, and among the police and magistrates, meant that even the most flagrant cases were dismissed. Before 498A, say women's activists, abused wives were laughed out of police stations when they went to lodge a complaint. The calls for more proactive, forceful legal protection led to the passage of laws in which many conventions of due process were set aside.

Dowry complaints became cognisable, meaning the police could make arrests without warrants, and non-bailable ones at that. The DV Act dramatically expanded the ambit of what could be called violence, who could demand protection, and what kinds of protection they should be given. The proponents argued persuasively that they were necessary to provide thorough protection against ancient social evils. Opponents say they only created new victims—husbands and in-laws—and a new social malady.

And if SIFF's members are any indication, most such victims are well-groomed, earnest, and successful. "Rickshaw-wallahs never face these cases," says SIFF's ebullient spokesman, Swarup Sarkar. "Because there's no question of getting money out of them. But when a husband is an IIT software engineer, the in-laws think—ah, I can screw him!"

But if success be the downfall of these men, it is also their saving grace. After all, who but they—the face of a modern, resurgent India—could have the temerity to claim that, in India, so much has changed that men are now subject to systematic victimisation by women? SIFF members let their appearance—well-groomed, earnest, and successful—win half the argument for them. The fact that they are media-smart and technology-savvy (members run as many as 30 blogs) may help them win the other half. They can tack their way through arguments, sounding like lawyers. They have financial resources. The movement is active in nine cities, operates a 24-hour national helpline and has published a guide to surviving 498A.

But to actually feel sympathy for SIFF's members, you must leave their shrill protests at Jantar Mantar and drop in on their weekly support group meetings, where the men share their stories. On the lawns of Patiala House Court, the group sit around open snack boxes, subdued, plucking at the grass. Some women supporters are also present, mostly their mothers and sisters who are co-accused. The men take long pulls on their cigarettes and share their stories.

Naveen, an engineer with an MBA, is one of them. Gaunt, balding and downcast, he told Outlook how his wife abused him and his elderly mother. His wife, he says, was a volatile, raging individual—one night, he recounts, she sent him to hospital with a black eye. When he filed for divorce, she approached the Crimes Against Women Cell. Suddenly, he found himself accused of dowry harassment, as were his mother and sister, who had never lived with them. Naveen says he had to go into hiding and pay off the police while he tried to obtain bail. In accordance with the DV Act, he and his mother were evicted from their home so his wife could live there. Then she filed for maintenance. "I'm lucky I haven't had a heart attack," he says. "I'm lucky my mother is still alive, although she's a mental wreck. And my wife is sitting in our matrimonial home, with a government job, and fighting for maintenance. That's the beauty of this law."

Then, Naveen contacted SIFF on their helpline. On their advice, he began recording the calls his wife made to his cellphone as evidence. And slowly drifted into the support group meetings.

There is no reason to think Naveen is lying. The legal community acknowledges that 498A and the DV Act are misapplied, whether by necessity or by malice. The laws have been overtly criticised by some judges in the Delhi High Court, even though women activists are quick to point out how the judges themselves have records of making chauvinistic remarks in court or penning eccentric books on the perils of marrying intellectual women. Still, the fact remains—that there are husbands and their families who have suffered the consequences of hard-hitting laws. The legal process alone is purgatory: a long, heavy drag through police stations, lawyers' meetings and courts, while their careers, reputations and finances crack around them. Parents and young siblings are charged, sometimes evicted from their home, sometimes jailed for years.

Men's rights activists, pointing to the high rate of male suicides, say these are overwhelmingly motivated by unhappy domestic lives. They cite Crime Bureau statistics to indicate that, in the age groups where most victims can be presumed married, the male-to-female suicide ratio is 64:36. Of course, women activists point to the report's contradictory conclusion: that "social and economic causes have led most of the males to commit suicide whereas emotional and personal causes have mainly driven females to end their lives".

At their weekly meet, SIFF sometimes receives husbands on the brink of taking that drastic step, and urges them back. But claiming that 30,000 Indian men are driven to suicide by wives every year, there are too many they cannot help. Sarkar, in fact, goes on to claim that even Vidarbha's farmers are committing suicides "because their wives give them no mental peace at home".

Of course, the movement is not without its share of rhetoric. While arguing against dowry laws, the original problem of dowry for Sarkar is little more than a figment of the feminist imagination, a profitable conspiracy between greedy lawyers and unscrupulous wives.

To Sarkar, the motives of the women's rights activists are clear. "Why did we oppose TADA and POTA," he asks, "but not this? Nobody in the legal community has an interest in fixing the law. This is bread and butter for the likes of Indira Jaisingh."

With these sweeping statements and chauvinist reactions, SIFF has fenced off the middle ground that it might have shared with the women's activists. Many of their concerns are the same: for instance, if only 2% of cases booked under 498A lead to convictions, it may mean that most of the people being booked are innocent, but it also means that most of the guilty are not being booked. What could have been a cooperative movement to design fair laws is now a vicious contest: you are either pro-husband or pro-wife.

At first pass, the idea of men anywhere in India being abused by their wives seems paranoid. It does not help their case when a prominent complaint on the SIFF website has to do with Levis Ads, starring Sushmita Sen, which objectify semi-nude male models as furniture. Or when they comment on the laws being "Made for Sitas, used by Surpanakhas."

On November 19, SIFF was back at Jantar Mantar, trying to kick off a tradition of International Men's Day (a regrettable choice of date, as one member remarked, as it was also Indira Gandhi's birthday). Akhilesh Kumar, a Delhi University professor, held forth animatedly to the crowd, which included a few bemused foreign tourists: "Jo women's activists hain, wo shaadi-shuda nahin hain, ghar unka toota hua hai." They, he said, were like animal activists who secretly eat mutton in restaurants. Sarkar took the mike to predict a day when, like the polio drive, the NCW would go door-to-door to flush out husbands; then he led a rousing chorus of "Renuka Chaudhury Bharat Chhodo!" The foreign tourists took pictures to show to friends back home: of Indian men who oppose anti-dowry laws. They probably got a photo of Naveen, who had spoken the other day of tiredness, incomprehension, and pain—sounding, for all the world, like a battered woman.

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