By Nijam Gara:
While much is said about the supposed respect and rights that Indian women receive, the reality is quite different.
One staggering statistic proves this point beyond doubt: around 12 million girls were aborted in India between 1980-2010 according to a study published in Lancet in 2011. If that does not speak for itself, consider this: according to the 2011 census, the child sex ratio is at 914 females to every 1000 males and this is the lowest in decades. How can a country claiming to be a ‘superpower’ afford to forge ahead by discriminating so blatantly against women?
In this background, two issues that happened last week speak volumes about the pitiful state of women in India, particularly in the Hindu religious fold:
The first instance is the Supreme Court judgement in a divorce case filed by a husband. In delivering their verdict, the justices opined that, “a wife is expected to be with the family of the husband after marriage.” They suggested that it is ‘cruel’ on part of the wife to separate the husband from his parents and it is grounds enough to grant divorce. The judgement read: “It is not a common practice or desirable culture for a Hindu son in India to get separated from his parents on getting married at the instance of the wife.” The choice of words is just appalling and makes one wonder if this is a khap panchayat verdict.
How can a court, functioning under the sanction of the Constitution of India, talk about what is “desirable culture” for a “Hindu son”? Clearly the rights of the wife as a female citizen of the country were trampled by the juggernaut called “Hindu son.” If we set the legal ramifications of such a blatantly patriarchal verdict aside, what the judge was saying about Hinduism speaks of larger realities
This is a religion that has had a questionable history of treating women as second-class citizens and perhaps far less than that. Right from Sita being forced to the jungle first and then in to raging fire because of the inane humility of her husband to Draupadi being forced in to wedlock with five brothers, Hindu mythology abounds with examples of the lack of any basic human rights for women. The plight of dark-skinned women (typically shudra, Dalit or tribal women) was much more disdainful in the ‘holy’ books as evidenced, for example, in the case of Surpanakha.
Real life is perhaps far worse with restrictions on menstruating women, omnipresence of dowry, social pressures dictating the appearance and clothes that women ‘can’ wear and curbs on their mobility outside the house. The irony is that, as we look around, it is women that are keeping the ritualistic pyre of Hinduism raging in this day and age. Women throng the temples in utter devotion and worship the same gods under the aegis of the invariably male Brahmin priests that quote from the same scriptures that have kept them as slaves for millennia.
Hindu women are not alone in this phenomenon where people seem to work against their own interests. Similar examples are seen in the way Muslim women embrace their religion despite certain inhuman restrictions they are subjected to or in the utmost Christian piety seen in African-Americans, whose ancestors may have been once kept slaves quoting from the same Bible that they now hold dear to their hearts. The root cause is the ignorance that the powers that be, perpetuate by demanding complete obeisance and demonising any rational forces by labeling them as ‘external threats’ or ‘foreign forces’.
Getting back to the divorce case, the justices used this same age-old tactic and vilified the urge of a woman to live separately with her husband as a manifestation of the evil “western culture.” But alas, these ‘learned’ men were supposed to uphold the Constitution and not act as agents of Manu. Where does the government of the day and the erstwhile opposition party stand on this important issue? We have all seen their penchant for women empowerment in the issue of reservation for women in elected houses but what about this important issue of the status of women in the Hindu religious fold? Where is the media attention on this issue that cuts to the core of institutionalisation of gender discrimination? They all want to play it safe lest they might hurt the sentiments of the majority religion. Talk about appeasement!
The second instance is that of Justice A K Roopanwal decreeing that the revolutionary student Rohith Vemula was not a dalit. More than anything, that conclusion is reflective of blatant disregard for women’s rights. Such an approach summarily ignores the caste of the mother and continues the age-old patriarchy that the edifice of caste Hinduism is built upon.
Described to the minute detail in the press, it has been evident now for several months that Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, was born a Dalit. So, by denying the Dalit roots of Rohith, the justice system, and by extension, the saffron government of India is upholding the tenets of Hinduism but not that of a constitutionally functioning democracy.
Hence if it is disadvantageous to be a woman in this society, to be a Dalit woman is exponentially miserable. What is stunning is the deafening silence of feminists and women’s groups on such an egregiously anti-woman decree by this government. The moment the issue of Dalit rights and Dalit identities enter the picture, the caste feminists seem to look the other way.
While it was considered a great leap ahead for women to gain entry in to the Shani temple (in fact a counter-productive move that further takes women in to the sanctum of the Hindu fold and away from rationalistic revolt against the very religion that denies their rights), where is everybody when the state itself is forcefully denying a mother her rights by automatically assigning her son the caste of his father. Once again, the upholders of the Hindu law are sticking to their scriptures. They are using the Hindu rule book to their advantage by ignoring the actual rule book of the country i.e. the Constitution of India.
This is wrong on so many levels because Dalits were never treated as integral to the Hindu Savarna system. They were regarded as ‘panchamas‘ (outcastes) and today, Savarna rules are being applied to decide on Rohith’s caste! To deny the Dalit woman her due share is nothing short of treachery and double-cross.
These two issues collectively highlight the fact that Dalits and women have been subjugated by Vedic Hinduism for thousands of years and continue to do so even in the digital age. And more and more Dalits and women are becoming impervious to the teachings of such role models as Ambedkar and Savitri Phule. Our economic liberalisation, 24/7 media presence and pervasiveness of social media have not changed the basic reality i.e. socially oppressed groups are being targeted even more viciously.
These two issues should serve as rallying points for a renewed fight against the hegemony of caste Hinduism. It is a pity that we still have to fight the same traditions and entrenched forces that Buddha fought two thousand five hundred years ago.