As an Indian, I hang my head in shame today. Just over two years after the horrific New Delhi rape, opinion makers in the national capital, New Delhi, and elsewhere have suddenly woken up to the need to protect the country’s honour. The controversy has conveniently been focused on the interview given by a convict on death row to a documentary maker. The uproar over the proposed screening of the documentary “India’ Daughter” on India’s NDTV channel led to its being shelved. A Delhi court has since stayed the exhibition in India of the interview with the convict. To forestall the viewing of the video through social media, the Government of India “requested” Google to remove the video clip from Facebook; anxious to maintain cordial business relations, Google complied, with neither party emerging with credit from the episode, given that thousands of people had already viewed the “offending” video.
Possibly the only issue in question in this entire drama is the legality of the convict’s interview and whether it prejudices his rights, when his appeal is still pending in the Supreme Court. This is a matter that the Supreme Court will decide at the appropriate time. There is, therefore, no reason for the public to get steamed up on legal issues. If any violation of legal rights of the convict is substantiated, action can be taken against those in government who authorised the interview. What is surprising (and, indeed, disturbing) is the jingoistic response of supposedly liberal-minded individuals and the feeling of victimisation that India is being unfairly singled out for what is a worldwide occurrence.
Before analysing the nature of the response to the screening of this documentary, let us look at the position of women in the India of the twenty first century. Girls’ education levels, in spite of social hurdles and less than average service delivery in the public education system, have registered significant improvements in the last two decades, especially in urban areas. The internet and mobile revolution and the phenomenal growth in outsourcing opportunities have created major avenues for employment of women. With the explosion in connectivity, a new vista is unfolding before the Indian woman: she is aware of the freedoms her sisters across the globe enjoy and is keen to be a part of the globalisation process. This has bred considerable insecurity in the Indian male, who finds his age-old dominance over the other sex under serious threat. This insecurity can be viewed from two perspectives.
The first level of insecurity relates to the challenge posed to the traditional patriarchal system by the growing financial and social independence of an increasingly assertive Indian woman, confident of her individuality. The male hierarchy has traditionally viewed women as property, to be protected; the tendency is to elevate her (rather hypocritically) to the status of a goddess, who should confine herself to the temple of the house, serving her husband and bearing children to ensure continuity of the clan. (Spokesmen of the present ruling dispensation have sanctified this view, at least for the majority community, by their exhortation to women to bear at least five to ten children each). This arrangement has been very convenient for the male: he takes very limited responsibility for running the house, with the woman being expected to sacrifice her career, social life and health in attending to the family chores. This situation obtains even where, for economic or other reasons, the woman also works — the man often appropriates her income and she has to juggle home and work duties. Lest there be any misapprehension that this mind-set prevails only in the poorer sections of society, let me unequivocally state that this attitude cuts across caste, religion and income levels. The architects of the Indian Republic were far more progressive than their successors: they adopted universal franchise right at the time of independence, a right that women in the United Kingdom and United States of America had to struggle for generations to get. Contrast this with the attitude of the defence force top brass and their political masters today — women still cannot hope to get permanent commissions in combat formations in the armed forces. Even in 2050, India will not have a full General or Admiral, though she may have had a number of female Presidents and Prime Ministers by then.
The second, rather dangerous level of insecurity ties in with the first — the feeling that the Indian woman has secured education and job openings at the expense of her male counterpart, coupled with difficulties the Indian male has in accepting different cultural norms of dress and behaviour. Added to the limited employment opportunities available, it breeds resentment among young men who find it difficult to stomach the spectacle of women out on their own at the late hours of the night and visiting bars and pubs, long considered an all-male preserve. The statements of the convict and his defence lawyers betray this mind-set, with even violence against women being justified in such scenarios.
Two factors have contributed (and continue to contribute) to what can only be termed a diseased mentality: education systems and the overall social milieu. Knowledge (especially bookish knowledge) and wisdom (the ability to discriminate) are by no means synonymous. The Indian education system operates by rote learning: there is no attempt to develop analytical abilities. An additional factor is the weak base of liberal humanities education in any discipline, whether law, medicine or engineering courses, or even in the humanities disciplines themselves. The individual does not emerge from this system with a broader world-view, nor does he question assumptions handed down to him by flawed education and social systems. The social environment skews the situation still further. The Indian woman runs a steeplechase all her life. Before she is born, parents are going in for sex determination tests to determine whether to allow the new life to exist at all. If they are unsuccessful in this, the newborn is sought to be added to the rising numbers of India’s “missing women”. Poorer health care, nutrition and education (relative to her male siblings) mean that the Indian woman starts off with a significant handicap in life. If she crosses these hurdles, her family (and society) seek to tie her up in matrimony and family responsibilities, which again restrict her expression of her fullest potential: all this, of course, in addition to domestic neglect and violence that is the lot of a large number of women in India. The greatest tragedy is what the educator Paulo Freire termed the “duality of the oppressed”. Having internalised the system of patriarchal domination, many women seek to perpetuate this system: they fear the freedom that a change in the situation will necessarily bring about. The harassment of young brides for dowry (generally with the active involvement of mothers-in-law) is only a case in point.
It is this social environment which inhibits the fullest development of a woman’s individuality that needs to be introspected on. India is not in a ranking competition with other nations in what is a matter of shame for the entire human race. That it exists in other nations is no matter of great satisfaction for us — it is as meaningless as the assertion many years before that corruption is a worldwide phenomenon. To talk about national prestige and not do some agonised soul-searching on why we as a society are what we are is to refuse to face the stark reality that women in India are confronted with on a daily basis. To all those politicians, members of the legal profession and media persons who vehemently pressed for a ban on “India’s Daughter”, my only response would be “That country has no honour which does not honour its women”.
(The writer, a retired civil servant, comments on public affairs and policy and matters of human interest. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and www. vramani.com)