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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 51, December 7, 2013

December 16 — A Day of Glory or Shame?

Saturday 7 December 2013

WOMEN’S WORLD

by Shruti

A number of non-government organisations have demanded December 16 be declared a day of remembrance for Jyoti. For newbees, Jyoti was the December 16 girl whose ghastly rape and subsequent death temporarily shook collective India out of its complacency with the neo-liberal gender balance. Unfortunately, she lost her name along with her life. The victim of one of the most infamous crimes in history was rechristened variously as “Nirbhaya” and “Damini” quite without her consent. Today, people shed tears for a glorified Jyoti forgetting the simple, ebullient girl who only wanted to live and achieve her very ordinary dreams.

Activist India want “Nirbhaya Day” to be a May Day for besieged womanhood. Rape, molestation and sexual battery are today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the single fastest growing crime worldwide and so it shouldn’t be a bad idea if the mighty and powerful devoted at least one day each year in token acceptance of this fact. One of those behind this campaign told me that “Nirbhaya Day” would, with time, become a day for governments all over India and the world to make announcements—big and small—favouring gender justice, affirmative action and other reforms aimed at curbing the powers of the patrician overhang. I play along, half-sadly, for though I miss Jyoti, I cannot stand in the way of a larger good.

The government side is perhaps not expected to respond favourably to this demand, at least in the near future. To begin with, the response system is not as fast moving as activists would like it to be. Petitions submitted before December 16, 2013 would begin their slow crawl through the system before eventually reaching a point close to critical mass around next December 16. By then much water would have flowed under the bridge. The rulers in Delhi then may not perceive much political harvest to recall a tragedy of two years’ vintage. The media of India, never famous for consistency, might just shun the issue saying “far more gruesome rapes have happened since then”. The activists themselves would develop other points of focus and perhaps only a couple of the original movers of these petitions would be around to persist with the original request.

Though I suspect many of my sisters in the feminist movement would feel crushed by the return of déjà vu, I, personally, wouldn’t miss much sleep. This dependence on official approval of an idea is something that serious people must discard. True social reformers care little for it. Raja Rammohan Roy had no idea that the East India Company Government would extend support to his campaigns against sati, polygamy and child marriage when he launched it with only a handful of followers. He braved hell-fire and brimstone to rally public opinion. Provi-dence intervened only much later, towards the end of his life in fact, when Lord William Bentinck arrived in India as the Governor-General determined to end the policy of non-interference in native affairs. That led to the criminalisation of sati but legislations against the other evils had to wait for some more time.

I must also point to a unique juxtaposition here of two contrasting events on a day like any other. December 16 is already observed as the highest point in India’s 64-year-old near history. On that day our glorious armies handed Pakistan a comprehensive military defeat and created the new nation of Bangladesh thereby turning on its head the two-nation theory. The hearts of 1.2 billion Indians are expected to expand with pride on this day and the organising principle of our nationhood—war—must be reiterated through annual Presidential visits to India Gate. Now, supposing a hypothetical government in on some future date decides that along with that high point, the low point reached in our near history—the December 16 gang-rape of 23-year-old Jyoti right in the public space of India’s Capital—ought to be given equal emphasis? What, then, would be the dominating discourse in the intelligentsia? How would our “martial classes”, who are so sensitive about pinpricks to the “morale” of the armed forces, take it?

Herstory First

For centuries, the histories of nations have been told from the male perspective. The rise and fall of empires, the campaigns of conquest, the radical uprisings, the career of philosophers and such things make the stuff of school history texts which are about the only history 99 per cent people read. Women enter these narratives sometimes as the romantic interest-cum-femme fatales of kings (Nur Jehan, Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoniette, etc.), sometimes as nymphomaniac empresses (Catherine the Great) or their virgin alternatives (Elizabeth Tudor) or, at best, Indira Gandhi as benevolent despots with the well- known feminine failing of partiality to sons. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the historiographies of nations have been somewhat tendered by the development of sectoral specialisation—labour studies, subaltern studies, Black narrative, etc. But history studies retained their overall male emphasis on the strong presumption that women too would get psycho-logically institutionalised to such academic regimes. Resultantly, “Women’s Studies” exist only in Sociology. The History Departments of universities exclude it. Even women historians find its pursuit unrewarding.
But is it not time somebody did something about it?

The bloody birth of Bangladesh happened after nine months of genocide carried out by the West Pakistanis on the people of East Pakistan. The Bengali-speaking Easterners defended with blood their right to use Bengali as the official language of the East. Many people died in the 1952 “Bhasha Andolan” and such was their determination and sacrifice that United Nations later honoured their cause by declaring February 21 as the annual “International Mother Language Day”. Interestingly, the participation of women in the “Bhasha Andolan” was a recorded fact. Women not only came out in large numbers on the streets of Dhaka to brave the bullets of Baloch and Punjabi soldiers, but also wrote prose and poetry to fire the imagination of a whole generation. This fact was acknowledged all over the civilised word for the uniqueness of having pardanashin girls and women leapfrogging to les barricades almost overnight at the provocation of a deeply-felt resolve.
The West Pakistani vengeance on Bengali women in 1971 had another “root cause”. Simultaneous with the language policy, the Karachi-Rawalpindi regime imposed a diktat to homo-genise (read Urdufy) the culture of united Pakistan. In 1955, women were banned from sporting dots (“teep” in Bengali, “bindi” in Hindustani) in East Pakistan on the ground that it was a “Hindu” habit. This infuriated Bengali women and they rousingly defied the spurious order arguing that their Islamic identity was secondary to the Bengali one. That, to the consternation of successive Martial Law Administrators was the genesis of Bangladeshi nationalism and they blamed the loud-talking Bengali womenfolk for nursing its lamp in every home.
India’s 1971 interest in this conflict stemmed from geopolitics. Though we had a woman Prime Minister in Indira Gandhi, her statecraft identified more with machismo. If foreign policy had a gender, then the logic of Indira Gandhi’s intervention was male. That is not to say that India, then a miserably poor country itself, balked from its duty of giving refuge to over 10 million people fleeing persecution in East Pakistan. But who can deny that Indira astutely used it as a public relations point? In fact her cryptic order to General Sam Maneckshaw was for a limited war against Pakistan in the East.
After accepting Pakistan’s surrender, Indira was asked by feminists from all over the world whether as the woman Prime Minister of the victorious side she would take the logical step of moving The Hague for prosecuting the authors of the gendercide that went side by side with one of the worst genocides of the 20th century between March and December 1971. But she brushed aside the suggestion and played to the male-dominated Indian media’s call for “statesmanship”.

At Simla a few months later, Indira’s act of pardoning the rapists and murderers of 1971 made her the darling of New Delhi’s liberals. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto danced with joy in the foyer of his hotel screaming “ladka paida hua” (“A male child is born”) to break the good news of a diplomatic sixer after he extracted from Indira the assurance of restoration of the status quo ante of November 1971. His daughter, Benazir, who was accompanying her father, recalled in her book Daughter of the East (London, 1988) how humiliated she felt as a young Cambridge graduate when she learnt that by pre-fixed code, “ladka paida hua” was to be announced only if India’s (female) Prime Minister agreed to favourable terms—in the alternative Bhutto senior was to hiss “ladki paida hua” (“It’s a girl”). The irony of the situation cannot be overstated. If Indira Gandhi demanded justice for the 500,000 wasted women of Bangladesh then she would have been “un-statesmanlike” to Indian liberals while the guilty Pakistanis would have likened the diplomatic rebuff to the disappoint-ment of having a female newborn. But as it happened, she gladdened every male paroxysm, let down her sisters, and entered history as an honourable man.

The effect of that mass rape on the collective psyche of Bangladesh is a recorded fact and subjects of many a novel, film and academic dissertation. In many parts of Bangladesh there was hardly a home left at the end of their liberation war without a female member raped or raped and murdered. In early 2013, Bangladeshis, born a full generation after the war, turned out on the streets of Shahbag, Dhaka to demand justice for their grandmothers, forcing the Sheikh Hasina Government to take extraordinary steps to reopen the cases against the Bengali collaborators of Pakistan’s horrific war on humanity.

Patrician Narrative

‘Herstory’, to my mind, should combat history conceptually. Every glorified notion—from nationalism to aspirations of territory—is a male construct and thrust on the national will without care for the opinion of women. So, half or sometimes more than half the population has to grin and bear it when the follies of the dominating half—or less than half as in the case of most nations—lead to man-made calamities.

Soon, the centenary of the outbreak of World War I will be upon us. Every serious historian today sees that war as the biggest ever man-made disaster ever. In terms of death and destruction its scale broke every prior record. Those who argue that World War II was far worse forget the important fact that World War II would not have happened had World War I not started as a fiasco and ended as a huge excuse for a future disaster. The cause of World War I was a cocktail of deadly emotions— Serbian nationalism, Austro-Prussian chauvinism, British imperial interests, France’s European image, American financial aggrandisement —all of which were left unresolved after four years of bitter fighting and more than 20 million deaths.

Isn’t it an identified fact that women suffer as much as men in war? They are raped and butchered as trophies by the winning side. They lose their fathers, brothers, lovers and husbands. It’s an articulate concern that even after a century, the true gender essence of warmongering is lost on governments and interest groups.

The late Prof Eric Hobsbwam (1917-2012) wrote in one of his famous turn-of-the-20th century essays (“The Century of Conflict, 2003”, published in The Daily Telegraph of London) that little girls read history as instruction books developed by the patrician order to condemn each new generation to the same straitjacket. Little boys are inspired by the same stupid notions that condemned their fathers and grandfathers to foreign graves. As for little girls, they are only expected to be receptacles of vague ideas and smugly keep the supply line of future soldiers intact. In another place he dismisses the notion of common national glory. What, for instance, did the women of Britain gain from Empire? Elizabeth Fay, one of the most famous Englishwomen to write on life in India in the early 19th century, has left for posterity an incisive (dubbed “self-flagellating” by her contemporaries) account of the moral vacancy in the concept of “white man’s burden” in India. She saw striking commonality in the lot of the female coloniser and colonised. Both were equal victims as far as she was concerned. The wife woman was conditioned by historic propaganda to be “proud” wives of the ruling class whereas in her private space she was as much the ridiculed, harassed, raped diminutive as her black ayah. What did the British woman really gain from Empire? Nothing actually. Till the second half of the twentieth century she did not even have the right to vote. As E.M. Forster has brought out in his famous novel on social and familiar Britain at the height of Empire, Howard’s End (1910), the British woman irres-pective of class had a common future: total irrelevance in the world of their men.
A century later, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Britain to attend the First Round Table Conference, Englishwomen came out in their hundreds to greet him, march with him and generally send a message of mutation of the concept of loyalty that the vainglorious rulers of Britain forced on the people. If anything that more than half of the population actually never gave Empire a damn.

“Nirbhaya Day”, therefore, is an idea whose time has come. In fact I would have preferred it as “Jyoti Day” to honour the pain and suffering she endured in her last days. Since her own father has no problems with it (he told me as much himself), all the counterpoints of our sarkar-approved feminists based on time-warped ideas of “honour” and “privacy” fall flat.

The author has written the book Battered Existence published by Author House, London. She is currently working on a book on Jesuit education.

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