Patriarchy, feudalism and modernity: Talibanisation of India

Five hundred killed in Jharkhand and elsewhere over the last decade after being branded as witches or practitioners of black magic. In Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh 500 or more young couples killed or threatened with death or forced out of their villages by khap panchayats over just five years since 2007.

 Just a few days ago, Mahasweta Devi expressed shock that three women had been lynched by villagers of Dubrajpur in Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, after they declared them to be witches. Self-appointed moral police Ram Sene thrash young girls and boys in a Bangalore pub. And in Mumbai even the enforcers of law resort to arresting young people enjoying a drink or dancing. The Bajrang Dal ‘orders’ girls not to wear jeans to colleges. Faces of faculty members and students of M S University in Baroda are blackened because some were offended by their paintings. Films and books banned.

Mushirul Hasan hounded out of the Jamia Millia for a comment on Salman Rushdie. M F Hussain driven out of the country and several galleries vandalised for exhibiting his paintings. Cartoonists and doctors charged with sedition. The list goes on.

 And while in Afghanistan the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, our very own sangh parivar did no less when it demolished the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya a year later. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad continues to carry a list of some 2,000 mosques that it says must meet Babri Masjid’s fate.

Going by newspaper headlines and endless television debates, which are more often than not just shouting matches, corruption has become the main national obsession. And politicians and their kith and kin will no doubt continue to oblige by taking every opportunity to amass more and more wealth, preferably in as short a time as possible.

Despite this current focus on greed there is simply no doubt whatsoever that the loot will continue. But what about the signs of Talibanisation of India in which the ‘aam janta’ is an active partner?

While the nation is mesmerised by the unveiling of one scandal after another, there is little more than a murmur and a day’s worth of newspaper headlines when young couples are murdered, often by their own parents and siblings. The uncle of a 19-year old Asha was murdered along with her 21-year-old lover – they had eloped and wanted to get married. The main suspect, an uncle of the girl was quoted as having said he had ‘no regrets’ and would ‘do it again’ as the couple had “brought shame on the family”. Clearly, from his point of view murder does not bring shame. But a girl who has run away from home does.

In the name of honour

Europe had its share of witch burning and till the mid-late nineteenth century ‘gentlemen’ fought duels – sometimes to the finish – in the name of ‘honour.’

Patriarchy and a new feudalism (politicians and their relatives are the new zamindars, masters of all the land they grab) are emerging as the biggest social threats that could push India back to the Middle Ages. Female infanticide continues unabated. So called ‘honour killings, child marriages, killing of ‘witches,’ the shenanigans of the self-appointed moral police and the easily hurt religious sentiments of Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikhs are playing havoc with the very idea of an aspiring modern, democratic and constitutional India.

Why is it that while in Pakistan 14-year old Malala has caught the imagination of the people, in India a young Asha, suspected to be killed in cold blood, not by the barbaric Taliban but her own family members, has not?

‘Tradition’ and ‘custom’ are strong binding forces in the rural countryside. And they are coming into direct conflict with modern and democratic India’s new values: gender equality and the effort to put into place affirmative discrimination that will, hopefully, make some dent on the entrenched hierarchical caste pyramid.  While the social environment is changing fast – by law 50 per cent of elected representatives at the local level are now women – there seems to be a strong patriarchal backlash that is reasserting male supremacy, at least within the family.

As Nehru noted, in India people continue to live at many levels and in several centuries at the same time. The man-pulled rickshaw coexists with the Mercedes Benz on India’s urban roads and in the villages the bullock-cart continues to serve farmers even as tractors have become a common sight. A cowdung cake is what is still the commonest fuel that lights the kitchen fire.

The ‘suited-booted’ computer savvy males working in air-conditioned offices continue to use the stick at home to keep their wives and daughters in line, sometimes even in cases where the wife herself earns well. Wife-beating is very common indeed among the urban poor and not so uncommon among the elite.

Tradition and modernity are in conflict. And it will be a long while before the tension is resolved. Lives of ordinary people are being battered by diktats of khap panchayats, morality guardians or rank communalists citing hurt religious sentiment. Modernity with its new and more equitable social order threatens the old privileges of caste, patriarchy and feudalism. Those affected are fighting back and hard in the name of tradition.

Virginia Woolf put her finger on the problem: “...the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in its place, is a sad one.” In India the process is not just sad, it is barbaric and brutal.

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