The anger and frustration of living in a time and space where decency and morality are constructs decided by privileges of caste and class…
India, as a country is at a certain juncture in history where there is absolute confusion about ideals of morality, decency, justice, respect, rights, shame and stigma. While one section of the country is high on aspirations and moving towards what one may safely term ‘Progress’, there is another group that believes in regressing into a non-existent fold of Hindu (and perhaps other kinds of religious) morality, which safeguards India’s culture and traditions in strange violent ways. One aspect largely common to both these groups is the privileges they bear, with respect to their caste and class status in India society.
There can be no two opinions about the fact that decision-making in any society lays within the dominion of the elite, irrespective of their caste affiliations, in India. Take for instance, the question of moral policing, which is in vogue across the country, with people coming out on streets and expressing their discontent over moral policing by holding hands, hugging, kissing and through other forms of free expression as they consensually agree on. The Kiss of Love protest, however problematic at its core, triggered by the Downtown incident in Calicut, Kerala, was taken up mostly by student bodies across universities in India. This protest has attempted to raise concerns in the paradigm of Modernity, regarding are we as modern as we imagine ourselves to be? Why is a kiss (in any form) a question of debate for the ‘Aam Aadmi’ and the Left, Right and Centre, when violence and other anti-social affairs run parallel without much opposition?
Ironically, in the same state, there is a story of another woman, Chithralekha, in Kannur, a neighboring district of Calicut, who has been policed by local men (goons) of the CPI (M) and CITU for the past 10 years. Her crime: one, being a Dalit herself, she married a man outside her Caste; two, being a woman she committed the grave mistake of driving an autoricksaw for her livelihood. Both these acts challenge the rules of Caste and Patriarchy in a ‘respectable Indian society’.
This woman comes from a socio-economic background that makes her extremely vulnerable to public attack and shaming. Being a Dalit woman struggling for survival, it is easy for her to be tagged and accepted as an immoral, characterless, alcoholic, ‘Bad’ woman. Her courage to fight against the moral police can be effortlessly rendered as an interference and hindrance in the peaceful functioning of social life by the guardians of Indian culture without mainstream contestation. Why else would a Dalit woman need to struggle for almost 11 years, fight all forms of abuse, protect herself and her family and even today live on the streets without a single official from the Government seeking to help her out?
Is it not ‘News’ enough for the Dutts, Goswamis, Ghoshs, Sardesais, Razdans and Roys to cover nationally? Will they not earn enough TRP from this case? Does India NOT want to know (at Prime Time) about the plight of Dalits, Adivasis and women who have systematically been exiled into invisibility? Interestingly, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) in Kerala held a massive protest against moral policing after the Downtown incident last week, but none dared to speak a word for Chithralekha and the assault on her by their ‘fathers and brothers’ in the CITU and CPI(M).
The contradictions in defining morality and decency are highly disturbing. The section, which is seemingly well-to-do, in terms of its qualifications and social capital, cries for sympathy and support and gets it in no time, which is not problematic on the face of it. The problem arises when another section, which is visibly denied basic human rights at the outset, is further pushed to the fringes by taking away whatever little subsistence they manage to survive on. The privileged section somehow fails to realize and recognize the inherent double-standards their ideas hold and how it does not attempt to deal with the larger predicament of society.
This reminds me of Rajani Anand, a 3rd-year engineering student at the Institute of Human Resource Development, Adoor, Kerala. She was forced to discontinue her studies in March 2004 after she failed to pay her hostel fees of Rs. 1200/- that was delayed by a month. Her father, a Dalit non-farm laborer, was turned away from banks and denied any loan due to lack of collateral security. A series of incidents that only increased her despair every day, led her to commit suicide. If one has to question the motive behind her suicide and reflect, would it be fair to call it a suicide? My reflection calls it murder, a well-planned institutional murder of a poor Dalit girl aspiring to get educated and enhance her socio-economic mobility!
A Decent Society, by definition, in theory and in practice, is one that does not humiliate its members. A Decent Society is characterized by ideals of justice, respect, dignity and rights for one and all, irrespective of their socio-cultural and political affiliations. India is one country that is impeccable and fits the definition of Decency; unfortunately, only on paper. The high ideals of the Indian constitution and government makes one believe in the system to the extent that one perishes in the hope of being granted justice and the story dies with the person. On the other hand, when one loses hope and decides to fight the ‘Govern-mentality’ of the system, the Government remorselessly decides that s/he is a Naxalite and passes orders to shoot at sight. The story dies with the person, here again! A win-win situation for the Government, always.
Chithralekha, in my opinion, is still a ray of hope. The hope for sustaining the ideals we speak for, the hope for the emancipation of Dalit and other women from their multiple struggles against caste and patriarchy, within their respective communities and outside. There is a lot that has been written about Chithralekha in the online spectrum and other social media, there have been committees set up to investigate her case, there are people giving her story a voice. But none of this has managed to gain visibility of the endemic structural violence perpetuated on her. Chithralekha, as of today, has been rendered homeless and is protesting with her family outside the Collectorate in Kannur, Kerala. Does anyone know? Does anyone care to know? Does anyone who knows care to do anything about it? She has publicly made a statement in despair that she would commit suicide due to the continuous life-threatening abuses hurled at her, her husband and her children. Perhaps, this is how the system kills! A slow poison, which works doubtlessly.
There are innumerable questions in my mind, some of which I have managed to raise here. If we have the time and energies to unite to kiss for love, why are we denying our time and energies to avoid another institutional murder? Why can’t students from Universities from across the country come together and protest with her in Kannur? Where is the solidarity? Why are we so selective in our definitions of morality and policing? Where are the feminists? Where are the anti-caste groups in Kerala and outside Kerala? Why are we not brave enough to speak for a woman who has defiantly broken all limits of courage and demolished the dogmas we have created for ourselves knowingly or unknowingly?
We need a cultural revolution spurred by transformation of thoughts, not candle-lit marches and empty talks, which are purely cosmetic! Probably lit candles with pictures of those who struggle for survival is what defines a Decent Society today…*…
*The title is taken from Avishai Margalit’s book of the same title published in 1996.
Sanjana Krishnan is a Ph.D student in the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.
Rajani Anand’s picture courtesy: The Hindu.