Friday, May 15, 2009
The district court building happens to be barely five minutes walk from my parental home in Chandigarh. Outside this house of justice, I witnessed the kidnapping of a young woman who had come there seeking justice.
The violence of the act — and how it was accepted by so many as natural, just and “for her own good” — revealed the ugliness of the City Beautiful. What I saw is very much on my mind as I think about the recent protests to defend women’s right to go to pubs. I wonder if all the pink chaddis the protestors sent to shame the hoodlums of the Hindu Right have anything meaningful to offer to that poor woman in Chandigarh.
It was early February when I came to Chandigarh for a short visit. I was walking past the high court building on my way to the market around midday. A woman was walking in my direction. I would have passed her by without noticing her, but suddenly I heard her scream. Before I could figure out what the matter was, she began to run in the opposite direction. Just then I saw a huge white van stop by the curb. Burly young men — four or five of them — stepped out, and began to run after the woman. Within a matter of seconds, they had grabbed hold of the woman who was screaming and struggling. I saw them drag her by her hair into the van. Before I could unfreeze myself and try to take down the license number, they were gone.
Soon a crowd gathered. One of us discovered the woman’s handbag that had fallen off in the scuffle. The bag contained a cell phone which was dead, an attested copy of her school-leaving certificate (which put her around 20 years of age), some money and few knickknacks. We decided that we should take the bag to the police station nearby.
Then a middle-aged Sikh man who was in the crowd spoke up. He told us that it was all right, it was all a ghar ki baat and nothing bad was going to happen to the woman. He claimed that he was her father and it was her brothers and cousins who had “taken her home”.
“How can you allow your own daughter to be treated like this? What kind of a father are you? Have you no shame?” I asked.
This is what he offered by way of an explanation: His daughter was having an affair with a Muslim man and that was not acceptable to him. She was a bright girl, he said, an engineering student, but this Muslim man was ruining her life. He said something garbled about a lawsuit the couple had filed against the family. It appears that she had come to the court in connection with the lawsuit and the family had been waiting for her.
It seemed to me that many in the crowd cooled down after they heard this “explanation”. But there were four-five young men who agreed with me that we have to take this man to the police station and report the kidnapping.
We narrated what we had seen to the policemen on duty. Then the old man started talking about the affair with the Muslim man, as if it were a crime. To show that he was not narrow-minded, he said that he would have had no objection to a chura-chamar (derogatory reference to “untouchable” communities) but he could not accept the idea of his daughter marrying a Muslim.
His story had an immediate and a dramatic effect. The policemen were far more interested in the old man’s travails over this supposedly wayward daughter than the violence she had been subjected to. My pleas that the victim was past the age of consent and had the full right to choose her partner were met with total incomprehension. Madam, you don’t understand these matters, the cops told me. How can this poor man let his daughter marry a Muslim? Would I let such a thing happen to my daughter, they asked, without heeding my affirmative answer.
It was self-evident to these guardians of law and order that respectable women from Sikh and Hindu families should not marry Muslim men. In their eyes, the old man did the right thing by having his own daughter kidnapped.
It was also self-evident that these cops were not going to do anything to help. I insisted that they take me to their chief. By now, our group of eyewitnesses had dwindled to just two: myself and a young man. I pleaded with the inspector that for all we know, this kidnapping could be the first step toward an honour killing. I threatened to get the media involved if the police did not make all efforts to find the woman and to ensure that no harm came to her. After receiving assurances of action, I took down the inspector’s phone number and left.
Later that day, the police inspector called to tell me that the woman wanted to stay with her family out of her own free will. He put her on the phone to me: she dutifully told me that the misunderstanding had been cleared, her family was treating her well and that she wanted to stay with her family. I gave her my cell phone number and asked her to call if she needed any help. This clearly was an unreported re-enactment of the script of the 2007 Rizwanur case from Kolkata.
I can’t get this young woman out of my mind as I watch the recent wave of protests against the spate of violence against women unleashed by Sri Ram Sene and other hoodlums in Mangalore and elsewhere. While I fully support their right to choose to go to a pub and make other lifestyle choices, I worry that they are defining their freedoms way too narrowly.
Why, I wonder, did it take this ugly incidence in a pub in Mangalore to create a sense of crisis that is bringing women and men into the streets in defence of personal freedom? Is it only when violence comes knocking at middle-class watering holes that we will take notice? After all, far deadlier crimes against women are taking place every day. It has been well-established — and well reported in the media — that honour killings are on the rise throughout Northern India. Nearly one tenth of all murders that take place in Punjab and Haryana involve family members who kill their own kin who dare to break the bounds of caste and creed. A majority of the victims are women.
Another thing that worries me is the soaring popularity of arranged marriages among the same hip crowd that is so protective (and rightly so) of their right to go to a pub and hold hands in public without the moral police keeping an eye on them.
Most of them, I am sure, will condemn the Chandigarh abduction in no uncertain terms. But I am not sure where they will stand when it comes right down to the heart of the matter — namely, the right of individuals to defy family and community and choose to marry someone from a different caste or creed, especially Islam which is so little understood and so aggressively condemned these days. Will they stand with the woman, or will they stand with the father, not so much to condone the violence but to “understand” why he had to stop the marriage?
I am afraid that the principle that it is the right of the individual to make such fundamental choices like marriage has not found much favour with the seemingly modern youth. Their idea of freedom of choice seems to stop outside the institution of marriage where the principle of the-family-knows-best seems to prevail. Surveys show that fairly large majorities — between 60-75 percent — of modern urban middle classes, including IT workers, prefer to have their parents find a mate for them. After enjoying the personal freedoms which an average young person takes for granted in the United States and Europe, many enthusiastically go through the most extravagant weddings, complete with incomprehensible rituals and inexcusable dowries.
As long as they accept that marriages are family affairs, why would they care to fight against honour killings or honour abductions, as in the Chandigarh case? After all, wasn’t the father in this case acting on the principle of father-knows-best? Yes, he carried it farther than the hip set would like, but the underlying idea remains the same.
The real hero
The unsung hero in this is the young woman who was so badly treated by her family. She had the courage to follow her heart. I am quite sure she did not send pink underwear to the pub-smashing hoodlums: most probably, she does not condone the idea of women going to pubs. But at the same time, her idea of personal freedom is thicker and her battle is much harder and lonelier.
My thoughts and best wishes are with her.
(Meera Nanda is the author of Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. She is currently a fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advance Studies, New Delhi.)