Saturday, January 20, 2007

This Above all
India’s Mukhtaran Mais

MUKHTARAN Bi is a beautiful woman living in a small village in Pakistan. Though uneducated, she knew the Koran by heart and taught it to little children to make a living. She is a Gujjar. Most of the village land is owned by Mastois who look down upon Gujjars as those from a low caste.

Mukhtaran’s 12-year-old brother was suspected of responding to overtures made to him by an older Mastoi girl. Mastoi’s caste Panchayat hauled up Mukhtaran’s family and decided that for her brother’s misdemeanour, she deserved to be raped by four Mastois. And so she was.

She lodged a report to the police. No notice was taken of her complaint. She complained to the Press. The news was underplayed but appeared in some American and European papers. A foreign press woman came to interview her. Her book In The Name Of Honour became a bestseller. The royalties from the book and money sent by admirers gave Mukhtaran enough money to build a high school for girls in her village. She was invited to tour the United States and Europe. She has become a world celebrity.

Many Indians who read Mukhtaran’s biography said "such things do not happen in India". Unfortunately such things have been happening in India for ages and are even happening today. A parallel case with a different ending is that of the dacoit queen Phoolan Devi. She was a Malha (caste of boatmen).

Whenever she passed by Behmai village, inhabited largely by Thakurs, young men would make lewd remarks at her. Then she was kidnapped, marched naked in the streets of Behmai and gangraped by Thakurs. She escaped and joined a gang of dacoits. She returned to Behmai with her gang, hauled two dozen Thakurs, stood them in front of a wall and shot them dead.

Years later, after she surrendered, she was acclaimed as a heroine of the downtrodden. A book on her life was published. Shekhar Kapur made an excellent film, Bandit Queen, on her. She was elected to the Lok Sabha. One day as she was coming out of her house in New Delhi, she was shot dead by a Thakur.

If you are under the delusion that such things don’t happen any more, take a look at the recently published book Contentious Marriages, Eloping couples, Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India by Prem Chowdhry (OUP). Although her field of study is Haryana, she cites instances from other parts of India to prove that arranged marriages based on caste remain the norm while inter-caste and inter-religious marriages continue to be looked down with disapproval. The term "love marriage" is a misnomer and "arranged love marriage" a contradiction in terms.

Agricultural communities, be they Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, continue to stick to caste rules. Male elders reign supreme. They and their wives decide who their sons and daughters will marry. Defiance leads to ostracism and often murder. Buzz words are izaat (honour) of the family, sharm (shame) of nubile girls. If a daughter elopes with her lover, it is considered that her family’s nose has been cut (naak kat gaee) and honour can only be restored by shedding the blood of the delinquent daughter and her lover. Prem Chowdhry cites cases of Jats, Rajputs Sikhs, Meos (Muslims) to substantiate her thesis.

The general perception shared by all communities is of woman being like the earth in which a man sows his seed. He is the life-giver, she the receptacle in which the seed grows and becomes a plant. He always remains the boss. Defiance of authority entitles him to chastise his woman. it is the manly thing to do. Customs like forcing a widow to cohabit with her late husband’s brother (chaddar) are born of this perception.

The folk hero of Haryana is Herphool Jat. He was a brigand who thought nothing of killing anyone who stood in his way. Herphool is the role model for Haryanvi Jats just as much as the respected Uncle or Tau.

Intercaste marriages are rare enough, inter-religious marriages almost unknown. Only those degraded by college education descend to such depths. A Haryanvi folk song deals with them:

Hey Brahman ki chhoree, kalij mein padhan bithaaee Hey Mussla ka chhora dono aankh ladaaee

(A Brahmin girl was put in college

She exchanged glances with a Muslim boy)

Hey kaagaz pe mitthaee dono nay ral-mil khaaee

Hey uskey baap aur bhaee dono kee laaj mitaaee

(Together they ate sweets wrapped in paper

Dishonouring both her brother and her pater).

Prem Chowdhry’s book is well researched, well-written and informative. The only lacunae I could detect was the absence of reference to the Bishnois (Bhajan Lal, former Chief Minister of Haryana is one) who are in sizeable numbers and have matrimonial customs of their own.

Justice for Jessica

I salute the High Court Bench

That restored faith in the majesty of law

And turned acquittal into firm conviction

By denuding a judgment of its flaw.

I salute the ordinary, agitated citizens

Who demonstrated, shrieked and cried

Held candle vigils and organised campaigns

Against what they felt was justice denied

I salute Bina Ramani (who unlike some witnesses)

Did not resile from her naration

Whose courage to chase the killer

Won even the court’s admiration.

(Courtesy:G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)

Self First

Written behind a car: God Almighty do good to everybody. But start with me".

(Contributed by KJS Ahluwalia, Amritsar)