May 12, 2005

Stronger than laws

Babulal Gaur is Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. I am told by a resident of that state who knows, and whose opinion I value, that he is a sincere and reasonable man, a sight better than the screaming woman he replaced as CM. So when a man like this reacts to a ghastly incident by saying "Social customs are stronger than laws," and "It is not possible to stop [child marriage]", I have to sit up and take note.

There are reports that a woman, Shakuntala Verma, had been campaigning against child marriages in a village called Bhanpur. On May 10, a young man came to her door on some pretext and slashed off her hands. Only "hours later", it was May 11 and thousands of child marriages happened across MP, May 11 being an auspicious day. Asked what he thought of this attack, Gaur offered the remarks I've quoted above.

What's the course to take here?

I am outraged at what happened to Verma. I hope, though I'm very pessimistic, that the man who attacked her will be arrested and punished severely. I am also outraged by child marriages: that they still happen, and by the thousand, and on an "auspicious" day. And I'm outraged that a woman who protests them suffers such a vicious backlash.

All of which must give us food for thought about exotic words like "freedom" and "modernity", "advanced" and "developed". With multiplexes, Bluetooth and the Toyota Innova popping up everywhere you look, it's easy to imagine that we are a society for the 21st Century, modern in deed, gadget and outlook. But that thoughtful writer/sociologist, Dipankar Gupta reminds us that modernity has to do, not with "building big industries and dams", but with "social relations based on ethical equality." (Thank you Anand.)

And both child marriages and the assault on Verma show how little ethical equality means in this country.

But having said all that, what is the course to take here?

Because anyone who keeps her eyes open as she moves about in India knows that a lot of what I consider pretty nasty things actually are what Gaur calls "social customs", and thus have a measure of social sanction. For the people concerned, they are indeed stronger than laws. This MP incident only confirms that. How do you tackle that? Annie raises the important question: does it make sense to tackle it by "sending in lone women whose heads we've filled with ideals but can offer no protection against a violence they don't deserve"?

Where "social customs" like child marriage are concerned, I can see only one way through the fog. That's for the state machinery and any number of other prominent, respected people -- from the President down to the local panchayat officials, from Sachin Tendulkar to Kareena Kapoor to Supreme Court judges to local civil servants -- to make an example of one such case. (Preferably every such case, but at least one). I would like to see them descend on this MP village tomorrow and publicly deplore the marriages, express sorrow for the attack on Verma, and call for justice to be served quickly. The idea is to bring justice, yes, but more than that, to show that "social custom" only goes so far. The idea is to drive home the point that even if this village celebrates such custom, to the extent of assaulting opponents, there are a lot of people who don't. And they will make themselves heard.

Yes, I see only that one way. Yet here's the rock on which it will founder: many of those prominent people will themselves see no wrong in child marriage. The truly frightening thing about such a claim as "social custom" is that it holds not just in some remote MP village, but in the people around you, around me.

Babulal Gaur understands that. He may dismay us with what he says, he may be sincerely upset by what happened to Verma, but he understands, and better than you or I can. And in this whole sad episode, that leaves me most depressed of all.


charu said...

my god, this is Bhanwari devi all over again - another 'lone crusader' in Rajasthan - and she got 'punished' for her 'sneaking' too - gang rape -
but this is a difficult task - the issue here is not one of changing behaviour - and not even attitudes - but at a deeper level, beliefs... how does an individual / organisation go about this?
remember the roop kunwar sati - people in the village (or so reports say) believe that she did the right thing - and to date venerate her - so where does the question of punishing the offenders arise?

Anonymous said...

In this country .. lot remains to be done.. in times of the freeedom struggle , politicians were people who had visions of a progressive india and promoted those ideals .. and now ??
anybody who has money and muscle power is a politician and what do they care about progress ?

what do they care about child marriages ?

what do they care about education ..
they just want votes ..

Anurag said...

Won't happen, Dilip. Won't happen. We need booze, lots of it, and everything else which can make you insensate, so you don't care about it.

Sunil said...

Something like this happens once too often.

Bringing about any kind of change is extremely difficult, and needs people of tremendous commitment and courage (like Varma here, and many others). Such things depress me, but when i meet some of these people working with absolute dedication and courage, I become boyant with hope.
Strange, but autocrats like Jayalalitha (for all her shortcomings, and those are many) are extremely effective in pushing ahead changes like this. I can't imagine this happening in TN now. And she's managed to enforce rainwater harvesting and destroy the video piracy industry in one fell sweep!
One just wishes one didn't have to choose between the devil or the deep sea.