Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A Line Of Control For Women

A Line Of Control For Women

Ankit Saxena’s murder and khap killings over a woman’s free choice expose society’s anxiety about its property rights

Aftermath Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

The headlines are relentless, every day bringing fresh news of society’s revenge upon women. The image is starkest in parts of India where they were lucky enough to live in the first place. Where gynocide—a genocide of newborn/unborn women—is a silent, ongoing routine. The acts of violence are a way of saying, in incredulity, ‘And then she has the gall to go and develop a free will!’ To think, act and, most of all, to love. Often the revenge takes the form of the object of her desire being crushed. The latest to join the list of young social martyrs is Ankit Saxena. On a list lengthening like a dark shadow over modern Indian life, it’s an intriguing presence: an inversion of the normal ‘love jehad’ pattern of Hindu girl/Muslim boy. Ankit’s killing is a way of saying: our right over our women is supreme; even a minority status won’t change it.

Classic honour killing, in short. Ins­tead of a regional caste, a nat­ional community feels the anger of someone trespassing on property. Love itself is branded as fake and women, of course, deemed unfit to make that choice. So, a father in Delhi ends his young daughter’s romance by slashing the throat of her boyfriend. Ankit’s girlfriend is in hiding, afraid for her life too, a living symbol of what happens to those who transgress. Before the extra seasoning in the episode—the fact that the woman’s father is a Muslim, which both explains the murder and almost became the only way to decipher it—abates, another middle-aged man masturbates on a bus next to a woman, again in the heart of the capital. (As if she was an image, not a living being.) Fresh outrage is triggered, rinse and repeat. In Bhilwara, Rajasthan, a Jat woman dies of TB, but no one turns up for the funeral. She, a widow, had dared to marry a Dalit. No outrage, rinse and repeat.

Out in the country, it was always crystal-clear, by custom and social decree, that women were mere property, things that belonged to someone or the other, pieces of differently-­abled furniture perhaps, exchangeable as a commodity, meant to be pulled into commission for a giant, enslaving machine. Traditional society was built around systematica­lly confining women—to the home, and allied sectors, strictly delimited. And marriage was a vital part of this technology of confinement. Castes and communities came to exist and evolve through endogamy, by controlling female sexuality. Besides all the wars (and ritual immolations) for honour, there was an implicit violence in that stability.

The new violence has a slightly different origin. It comes from the cracks, from the change and instability of traditio­nal society grappling with modernity—with fear, loathing and incomprehension—to the moving of social tectonic plates as women speak and act. It shows up the starkest in the countryside. Witness how Naresh Tikait, leader of one of the infamous Jat khaps, responds to a Supreme Court verdict that chastised his ilk for interfering in love relationships. “We will not give birth to daughters, nor let others do so,” he said. The threat contains within it the promise of that silent gynocide, made absolute. But after Ankit, and similar urban, even elite murders in the past (see ‘Her Hand in the State’s Grip’, p.36), has the city lost its edge over the farm? Is non-­village India entitled to feel morally superior? Look at the countless signs of nervous patriarchy—the dress codes in city colleges, the new phobia of women drinking beer….

Half of humankind is not yet rising up in insurrection—acquiescence among women is a deep-rooted, conditioned reflex. But the old consensus is creaking under the strain. There’s a growing mismatch, a natural tension between the poles represented by the old world and what a scornful western UP farmer calls the ‘momo-jeans culture’, the world of mobile phones and Valentine’s Day. Between what young women—and men—seek and the sort of relationship society would love to impose on them. The egregious violence comes from the refusal of women to be treated as items in a prope­rty transaction. It’s not a sudden eruption of battle—it’s a long war deepening in intensity by the day. It’s death by a thousand cuts—almost every aspect of masculinity clashing with what women want, charging the fraught territory of relationships with an extra veneer of fear.

The degree of possible reconciliation with modernity varies. Jats offer the ­perfect stereotype—having started to forge into city life in just the last 50 years, they hunt down inter-caste or inter-­religious couples with a vengeance. Even so, the ‘liberal’ instinct isn’t absent here. Varnika Kundu, the Chandigarh girl chased on a deserted street by two men last year (all three are Jats), got unexpected support from the Kundu khap. “Nobody emphasised the Jat thing last year because it was ‘Jat versus Jat’,” she says. “Yes, the khap supported me because I’m a Jat. That said, it was a huge thing to back a city girl, for khaps are notorious for banning cell phones, noodles etc. I’ve seen educated households where women don’t have the same privileges as their brothers and also broad-minded families in the villa­ges—what else was Dangal about?”

So there’s mobility there. And also a sense of the immoveable—the idea of property. Signifying something inanimate, with no sense perceptions. With literacy, it ought to be an inevitable movement forward, out of that thought-world. And village India is signing on as a conflic­ted recruit—Janus-faced, one face looking back. Last week, the same belt in Manesar, off Gurgaon, reported a moral policing/sexual assault case on a South Korean woman and a village, Naurangpur, that had reversed the female foeticide pattern and registered 1,866 girls to 1,000 boys. But zoom to the other end of the scale—to the #MeToo campaign, or to the chic urbanity of Bollywood, where Kangana Ranaut says independent women are seen as “vamps”. Or the women going home while peeling potatoes on Mumbai suburban trains—liberated enough to participate in the economy (and pay half the bills), but not quite out of domesticity. The two-­facedness persists despite literacy.

It’s also inevitable that women themselves internalise the conflict, soaking up all of society’s neuroses. A 2005-06 National Family Health Survey study in Haryana found that more women than men (46/33 per cent) justified violence by husbands. Even a pan-India study among adolescents in 2012 found that while 57 per cent boys justified wife-­beating, so did 53 per cent girls. And experts deemed that to be an underestimation. And so, in the interpersonal space, a firm anchoring in a sense of identity and self-worth is yet to take root fully—relationships are founded on this loose soil of inner conflict and self-doubt. “That women are considered keen to invest more in relationships and nurture them at all cost is itself a kind of oppression,” says Prof Satish Prakash, a Meerut-based Dalit ideologue. ­“Nobody recognises that she nurtures indiscriminately from a sense of insecurity. She is silent as she does not have any other choice.”

Concrete reasons for this lack of a full singular ­ide­ntity—as if women aren’t ‘complete’ without ­marriage—aren’t hard to find. Their changing ­edu­cational and economic profile has not entitled ­women, in the eyes of family or community, to ownership of property, forget respect. Dowry demands are at an all-time high. One grotesque ­extreme was that of a man in West Bengal recently exposed for having ‘stolen’ his wife’s kidney to ‘recover’ the dowry promised. The equation couldn’t be starker—he was merely selling off a piece of property.

Love Actually

A Bajrang Dal ­protest against Valentine’s Day

Photograph by PTI

The law is supposed to have a modernising force, driving society’s reforming impulse, but this has not happened—that’s at the core of the crisis. In 2006, in Uttar Pradesh, only six per cent of women owned land independently. In Haryana, at around the same time, only 11 per cent households were “female-headed”. Muslim and Christian communities, with a few exceptions, deny women the right to own property. UP, India’s most populous state, continues with the ­Zamindari and Land Reforms Act of 1950 instead of migrating to the new Hindu Succession Act that gives women rights to agricultural land. The older law does not recognise the inheritance rights of widows, daughters and sisters unless all male descendants are dead or gone.

“Even in Haryana, women’s property rights exist only in name,” says Jagmati Sangwan, general secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association, a social activist who has battled khaps for decades. “This is at the root of all conflicts. Women are too scared to demand property and men want girls married by 15 or earlier, so they never attain enough education or independence to demand what’s theirs. After such a long struggle, the Supreme Court said khaps should not threaten couples. And Naresh Tikait says they will stop producing girls! They can’t say anything to the SC directly, so take their anger out against the weakest section, women.”

Even if Tikait’s scary, Malthusian threat does not come to pass, there’s always the everyday punishments of transgression. Or V-Day violence, which has gone way beyond small crowds of rowdies descending suddenly on a theatre or a club and thrashing young, romantically inclined couples. It’s an elaborate, choreographed ritual of social anger, with widening acceptance from institutions. Universities close for the day to preclude chances of love blooming perchance on campuses. Public thrashings, of course, are routine by now. “Under the guise of Valentine’s Day, Muslims befool Hindu women,” says Manoj Saini of the ‘Hindu Yuva Sena’, a rag-tag outfit that did a ‘lathi puja’ to forewarn couples (and establishments that welcome them) in Muzaffarnagar. Xenophobia blends seamlessly into misogyny in his words. “They wear kalava, teeka, and take names like Raju and ­Pappu. Girls don’t realise they are Muslim, and get trapped.”

Love Actually

‘Love Commandos’ rescues couples whose ­families seek to tear them apart

Photograph by

DU professors Tanveer Aijaz and Vineeta, a ‘Hindu-­Muslim’ couple, are concerned over the myths and violence being woven around stories like theirs. When they wanted to marry, their families broached conversion too but they went for the Special Marriages Act (SMA), meant for inter-caste/religious couples. “We foresaw accepting conversion could lead to daily battles,” he says. It helped that they are not “practising” devouts, and both are repelled by notions of groups bound by perimeters that don’t allow mixing.

For Nainital-based educationist Kripa, a Syrian Christian married to a Rajput, it wasn’t so smooth. She was unwilling to convert to marry and her prospective in-laws were “the most liberal family possible”. Yet, the SMA was not an option—her father’s signature, required under the SMA, was not forthcoming. The couple went for a temple wedding; she adopted a friend’s gotra. Her church, when it found out, asked her to resign or get her husband to convert. Averse to a conversion of convenience, she res­igned. “The church, I feel, did everything contrary to the message of god,” she says. “The Bible is inclusive, not exclusive. Personally, I feel connected to god even now.”

Kripa, Ankit’s girlfriend, Saini’s potential victims—all are on the same plane. The dread of girls doing their own choosing may now be rearticulated in the terms of conversion, the latest brand of phobia. But it’s an ancient, congenital fear—the idea that our women will be bamboozled out of the fold. “In the 1940s, when untouchables said they are not Hindus, the Hindus felt their numbers would fall,” says Sunil Kumar, who teaches history at Delhi University. “So the fear is not just about Muslims or Christians, it’s more so about Dalits marrying ‘higher’ castes. They have not coined a word for this yet, but they might as well—perhaps it would not be so easy to push it with the electorate.” Kumar, of course, says the whole “love jehad formulation” makes no sense. “The proposition is that a woman is so inept she cannot discern. It’s absurd.”

If smaller histories are the real history of India, it’s worth mentioning that Saini’s opponents are alive—and starting to kick. “In the name of opposing Valentine’s Day, they want to spread chaos. They tell people that Muslims will capture India, and people fall in the trap,” says Shivaji Gautam, a young Dalit activist in rural Muzaffarnagar, a member of an Udham Singh Sena and a Dalit-Muslim Sena. “This year, we’ll go out to oppose them and protect couples if the government does not stop them.”

All About Honour

A khap panchayat in Haryana

“They want Christian/English education for their children, but if some boy hands their daughter a flower on a street-corner, they thrash her,” says Prof Prakash, who wishes courts would intervene. “If they love their culture so much, caste Hindus should bear its weight themselves and hand over their male children to temples and priests. Why do they want women and Dalits to carry this burden?”

One couple-protection force exists in Delhi too—‘Love Commandos’ rescues women (and men) in social crises brought on by love. “We’ve helped 50,000 couples already and still get a steady stream of cases, such are the conditions in our country,” says Sanjay Sachdev, who runs the voluntary outfit. Where do the couples come from? The number one place is Andhra-Telangana, followed by Tamil Nadu, Karna­taka, Pondicherry, Gujarat, Maharashtra. If the Jat belt has khaps, jati and samaj panchayats in Rajasthan, Andhra, Madhya Pradesh et al push couples in the way of danger. “There is no poor or rich, Bania or Brahmin, Jat or Jatav, or Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta difference in the people who seek my help. I can show you the violence of all these groups.”

Muslims, of course, have an elaborate architecture of miso­gyny of their own, including a clergy steeped in patriarchy, Student activist Shehla Rashid had raised a storm rec­ently, asking, fairly pointedly, if Muslims would react differently from Hindutva warriors if a Muslim girl were to marry a non-Muslim. “It’s not like just one religion has fundamentalist elements—both Muslim and Hindu groups suppress women,” she says. Ankit’s corpse came as proof, this week’s Exhibit A. “We have the right to marry anybody we choose, to eat what we like, work in what profession we want.  The right-wing assaults those rights,” she says.

Out in the country, things are moving erratically, two steps forward, one back. Haryana’s sex ratio has inched back up to 950—it was 819/1000 in 2001. And it stands at 912 in UP (894 in urban areas). But the old world is nervous. “Many anxieties we see today, such as over love jehad or inter-caste marriages, are a reflection of old idea of defending honour,” says Jagpal Singh, who teaches at IGNOU.

Honour, of course, is rendered more honourable when it’s systematically linked to property. Judge by a recent instance in Ghaziabad. A Hindu-Muslim couple were engaged to be married. Even their families were happy and willingly participating. Still, the right-wing sought to stop it, in vain. VHP activist Balaraj Doongar, who leads such agitations in the area, laments: “It was love jehad and land jehad rolled into one. The Hindus lost a daughter and crores in property.” All talk of ‘all­owing’ freedom in relationships to women floats on this dark sea. It’s a double deceit. At one level, women are to be denied ancestral property. At another, more fundamental level, women are ancestral property.

By Pragya Singh in New Delhi