Why love is a four letter word

TIME TO SPEAK UP: The December 16, 2012 gang rape in Delhi saw angry, voluble Indian women increasingly showing no reluctance in taking journalists, slum dwellers, uncles, fathers, judges and teachers to the court, or before sexual harassment committees. Picture shows students protesting in Chandigarh against rape. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar   | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

The current jihad against love — for that is indeed what has gripped the imaginative fervour of the Hindu Right and its luxuriant undergrowths and counterparts — is only the latest and most visible instance of a virulent Indian misogyny. From its beginnings in the south to its tentacular spread in the north, the thick smoke screen of “love jihad” — by which Muslim men are alleged to have designs on Hindu women of an entirely dishonourable kind — disguises a far more familiar face, one that even many Muslims will recognise. It is a deep-seated fear among many sections of Indian men that too many Indian women have taken control of their lives at a much faster pace than expected, show little patience for the strictures of the past, and therefore need to be taught a quick lesson and kept in place. What better strategy than to create a fear which will unite a seriously fractured society, and bring it back to its familiar, hierarchical whole?

Two developments

At least two sets of recent developments have stoked the fears of an Indian patriarchy that is firmly entrenched in the rich soils of religion, caste or region, and class. December 16, 2012 ended the silence of women about sexual violence and harassment in schools, colleges, workplaces, roads: angry, voluble Indian women increasingly showed no reluctance in taking journalists, slum dwellers, uncles, fathers, judges and teachers to court, or before sexual harassment committees. She talked, she argued, she wrote, and she organised against that which had for too long been cloaked in the mysteries of silence.

Even more difficult for not only men but for some women too to accept were the recent signs of men and women breaking free of the stifling binds of official kinship. There was the much publicised violence with which the khap panchayat reinserted women, and some men, into kinship relations which they had rejected. To take some liberties with Foucault, an older “symbolics of blood” appeared to be giving way, slowly but surely, to a new “analytics of sex.” The bloody violence of the khap panchayat has been a warfare between generations and also between genders — beleaguered older and very Hindu patriarchs versus the young men and women who risked a great deal in dreaming of caring, sharing partners and a less hierarchical life. The ferocity of khap panchayat attacks on these men and women, and the prevarications of a state which did not doubt the moral authority of these actions, has done little to deter these daily transgressions.

These kinds of developments could not have come at a worse time for those whose generational and gender authority is being challenged. The time was ripe for fostering a new and more threatening fantasy to bring the strays back to the fold. As long as the fantasies of inter-caste or cross-class relationships were confined to the silver screens, women’s khushi was not interrupted. Real women are another matter — they are often “loved” to death by men who, once spurned, wield the axe, knife or acid bottle with deadly skill. Indian cinema has nurtured this version of loving, a unidirectional flow of feeling from man to woman, whose outcomes — eventual female acquiescence — are always predictable.

Makers of meaning

On the other hand, Indian feminism’s very success has produced some contradictory outcomes. An ever-eager and sophisticated state has altered its laws, policies and plans to accommodate the language of women’s aspirations. The corporate world has found it convenient to borrow the language of feminism to reach a large and ready pool of independent consumers — for some time now, International Women’s Day has been another hallmark moment. For a while, even Hindu Right wing parties chose to adopt the slogans and battle cries of Indian feminism. Yet, our public life is replete with irresponsible utterances and outrageous actions: no protocols of political correctness are observed by loose-lipped parliamentarians or legislators, judges or journalists, since there is no accompanying political cost.

Quite simply, many Indian women are no longer the passive bearers of caste, religious, ethnic or other meaning — but the makers of meaning. That is surely a cause for dismay among those who feel their grip is loosening. Large numbers of women have gained a measure of independence, freedom from domestic tyrannies, and have won some economic and legal liberty. Straw polls, discouraging editorials and sensational headlines notwithstanding, these hard-won gains will not be diminished.

Hence the need for a clarion call to place all Hindu women under a protection they did not demand; back to a lock up where they will be safe from the dangers of independent thinking and action. We should therefore take heart in these difficult times from the courage shown by judges of the Delhi High Court in naming a clear and present danger to married women: the matrimonial home. The judges, who have noted the frequency with which husbands are convicted for murder — no less than one in ten murder cases — have declared that even the streets of a dangerous city like Delhi may be safer for women than the private sphere of the home. This is a damning indictment indeed of a space which is currently being saved from the vividly imagined dangers of “love” and companionship.

(Janaki Nair is Professor of History at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.)

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 11:30:28 PM |

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