India: A schizophrenic nation that worships the dead and kills the living

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 23, 2018 15:46 hrs
Girls are not Objects

The headline in a leading English daily on 19th January 2018 shouted out “SC rescues Padmavat, orders 4 states to lift ban on screening”. This piece alone occupied approximately half of the front page.

On turning the page, I read about the recently published global Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index which aims to draw up a comprehensive measure of women’s wellbeing by capturing both peace and security and women’s inclusion and justice. The Index evaluated 153 countries and India ranked a poor 131 on it. Whether it was years of schooling, partner violence, employment, financial inclusion, presence in parliament – India fared lower than global average across parameters. Even more shocking were data points that showed 1 in 4 Indian men still think that women shouldn’t work, women’s mean years of schooling is only 5.4 and the son bias continues to be high at 1.11 (male to female ratio at birth). In a nutshell, this survey shows the country’s placement towards the bottom of the index that measures performances on conditions necessary for women’s empowerment and security.

A rank of 131 out of 153 countries is a shame! Especially for a nation like India, which prides itself as being a sleeping tiger that has woken up and is ready to take on the world.

Seeing the WPS Index results, one would assume that the policymakers, the ministers, the judiciary and the intelligentsia would all take serious note of these issues and debate on how the lot of women can be improved in India. After all, any nation that performs so abysmally on indicators pertaining to half its population can never really become a force to reckon with in the global arena. However it was shocking to note that instead of debating these serious issues, the public discussion is centred on different groups threatening to torch halls that show Padmavat, SC challenging the ban by a few States, conflicting, cautious and irresponsible statements by ruling and opposition parties and reports of women threatening self-immolation or jauhar if the movie is released. We all have seen how the mainstream media and social media have been inundated with views and counterviews related to this movie over the last few weeks to the exclusion of anything else.

As a woman born and brought up in India, I read all this and wondered – what is wrong with my fellow Indians? As a working woman, I can count numerous instances where I had to face gender discrimination and sexual harassment, simply because I was not seen as being anything more than my body. The fact that I have a working brain, a good education, emotions, values are of no consideration because at the end of the day, I am a woman – who can be subjected to lewd gestures, vulgar innuendoes, groping etc. Every time I travel on an early morning tour, I and my family pray that I return home unharmed. Why? Because my fellow Indians are more worried about the ‘perceived honour’ of a dead queen, than the risk to life, dignity and respect of a woman living in today’s day and age.

I am an educated, financially independent woman - empowered and equipped to take my own decisions. I thus, belong to less than 10% of the privileged Indian women who lead such a life. Yet I hesitate to step out of my home after dark and am regularly made conscious of the risk my gender exposes me to.

If we spare a thought for the balance 90% who don’t lead this life of privilege, one shudders to think of all the indignities and injustice they must be putting up with. India is a country where unborn girls are killed in the mother’s womb, it has one of the worst records on sex trafficking and crimes against minors and it is estimated that more than 55% rape cases go unreported for fear of social stigma. Has a collective voice been raised to improve their conditions? Piecemeal efforts have been made, but they have been too infrequent, too small and too muted to have made a significant impact. Why hasn’t any political party or NGO or self-appointed protectors of culture taken it upon themselves to shed light on the prevalent hypocrisy and male bias in our society.

Surprisingly despite all this prevalent inequities, men and women have the time, the energy, the will and the mind space to discuss and debate relatively unimportant issues like a movie.

The issue here is not whether Padmavat (or Padmavati in its earlier avtar) should have been made or not. Neither are we discussing if it is an expression or an abuse of creative license, nor whether it is based on historical facts or a work of fiction. That discussion is one which needs to be had only between the parties empowered to do so.

The issue here is why is our country so schizophrenic and so out of touch with the stark reality? The furore over Padmavat is an expression of that schizophrenia. People are willing to break the law for a long departed queen, but are not willing to change the conditions of the women living here. Forget the men – the women are willing to undergo self-immolation in protest, but are not willing to let their daughters study or become financially independent! 300 million women and girls still defecate in the open in India. But nobody protests to safe guard their dignity and lives! Every time a woman goes out to answer the call of nature in the open, she is risking her honour and her life. Why is that not of importance to any of the moral custodians, the political parties or intellectuals?

As I see the build-up happening for India’s 69th Republic Day, I pause and wonder – what is this euphoria all about? Are we progressing as a nation in the basic indices that matter for at least half of the 1.3 billion people who call this nation home? If a country is made up of its citizens, then I fear for this country of mine. A country populated by rabble rousers and hypocrites, where emotions run high for the way a queen has been depicted in a movie, but reports of brutal rape of a 6 year old girl doesn’t even merit a two minute discussion – such a country is truly schizophrenic, unable to identify what are the potent issues that need immediate, sustainable, long term interventions.

By definition, a Republic is a land where a constitution of charter of rights protects certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by anyone. These rights are the same for all citizens living in the Republic- irrespective of gender. 26th Jan honours the date on which the Constitution of India came into effect and India became a sovereign, democratic republic (the words socialist and secular were added later via the 42th Amendment in 1976).

But is India truly a republic for the women who live here? Do we have the rights that the men in this nation have? The preamble to the Constitution lays out ‘justice, liberty, equality and fraternity’ as the rights that must be secured for all its citizens. But women are not treated as equals in this land of ours. Neither do women have access to speedy justice, nor are they allowed the liberty of thought and expression that men are allowed.

Will there be a day when women are no longer treated as chattel or baggage or sexual playthings but as individuals? If that day comes, then India becomes a Republic for the girls and women living here in the true sense of the word. Till such time, possibly we may have to be content fighting over movies than over tangible issues. Maybe the truth is as simple as that - it suits our countrymen to continue being schizophrenic because it is far easier to rouse emotions and threaten to ban screenings, than to cause grass root change in mindsets and combat centuries of cultural and social conditioning.

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Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta, currently she works in the corporate sector. She comes from an army background.