From a polemics of harsher punishments, towards a politics of effective implementation
Yogi Adityanath, the head priest of the Gorakhnath temple, has taken on his new role as Chief Minister of the temporal seat of UP. And like all good priests and politicians, he draws mandate for the orders issued, by stirring up popular passions. Whether it be ordering the deployment of anti-love squads or the diktat banning western attire for government employees, they seemed to have evoked in the masses, much like devotional music, a response of fond acceptance.
It is this kind of unreflective acceptance of bad decisions that makes aggressive posturing pass off as legitimate concern for women’s safety. Just like demands of death penalty for rape end up obfuscating the more pertinent issue of women’s basic freedoms; vigilante squad justice evades the critical issue of women’s routine access to law as a facilitator of freedoms. It is not a sense of vengeance which empowers women against sexual harassment, it is their ability to resist and express agency which does.
Law as the facilitator of women’s freedoms seeks to improve their access to justice and inspire confidence and mental strength in them, to be able to resist attempts at silencing. Deterrence is not a function of state protectionism, but the ability of the women to definitively refuse unsolicited advances in both public and private spaces, without succumbing to the social pressure to “ignore”, “adjust” with or succumb to self-imposed male protectionism. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is decrease in social vigilantism and increase in the rate of reporting of cases of harassment which are true indicators of a gender just and equal society.
The Allahabad High Court has made a rather disappointing observation, concluding that anti-Romeo squads in Uttar Pradesh were a perfectly legal form of “preventive” action. The observation lent credence to the deeply erroneous notion of harassment being preventable by male protectionism. Any attempts by the state at checking sexual harassment requires the police to act as effective facilitators of justice. Anything more than that takes away from the women’s ability to use the law to express their agency and freedoms. Law as an instrument of patriarchal policing and protection of honour is not an enabler or facilitator of women’s rights but an extension of a society which functions by systematically denying women their rights.
A couple bashing, women hounding police cannot deliver justice to women. Case in point, a Sub-Inspector in Agra was found penalizing a girl in the Lohia Park by chiding her and making her pull her ears for ‘roaming about in parks’. Another such incident came to light in Shahjahanpur where a young man was wrongfully booked by the cops after being beaten and shamed for the crime of friendship. Not only the police didn’t intervene to protect the young man from the punishment of being tonsured, a symbol of social shaming; the police seemed to have based their judgment of culpability on the social profiling of a man whose name was Khan.Far from preventing crime, the vigilante groups have been responsible for breach of law with impunity. Uttar Pradesh vigilantism, instead of being a factor in improving women’s safety has only gone on to make the police protection of male perpetrators of crime, official.
The only way for reducing crime against women is by systemic and structural changes. One such step is the creation of One-Stop Rape Crisis Centres. Ironically, despite massive 2012 Delhi anti-rape protests, not a single One-Stop Rape Crisis Centre has come up in the city. From what we know there is only one such centre across the country, that too a non-government initiative.
Severe laws which prescribe harsher punishments serve to help the state acquire an aggressive persona. An aggressive state which upholds masculinist logics brings the clamoring masses into a chorus of complicity. This complicity is very much like the unquestioned devotion of the believer who feels right, despite a wrong staring right in the face.
That is how a masculinist chorus sits well with faith based arguments. Faith is governed by a political economy of feelings such that it brings the masses into a state of blissful intellectual numbness. Not that the masses become “post-truth”, but because truth itself becomes a function of a cocktail of feelings.
In a society like ours, where power is so unequally divided, it is not the substantive but the procedural aspect of the law: the mechanics of its implementation, which translate the written law into a desired social order. Feelings are a very central fixture in the mechanics of strict justice. In the case of laws protecting the right to be offended, it is the narrative of the offended that trumps all other alternative narratives. These laws sit precariously perched on the feelings of the offended souls.
Consider the two propositions: Jai Sri Ram and Ram Ram. The hurt caused to the subscriber of the former, not the latter is most likely to cause offence. It is the heightened masculinist euphoria and exuberance felt on uttering the former that creates a legitimate grounds for a likely hurt. It is not the object in and of itself, but the feelings it arouses which marks a valid grounds for legal protection.
Section 295A of IPC protects the proposition which stirs the believers most, despite the substantive component of law qualifying only acts of ‘intentional’ hurt to be under its purview. Just like protection of religious feelings of the believer itself is not the manifestation of a better social order, protection of the feelings of honour is not a manifestation of a gender just social order. No vigilante groups, no matter how well intentioned, can protect women from the collective attack on their individual freedoms or ensure justice.
In a country where the parliament is controlled by an overwhelming majority of men, harassment of women through whistles can be the central premise of a popular joke, delivered by Netajis like Mulayam Singh Yadav with utmost ease. It is only in a society which operates through harassment jokes for comic relief that patriarchy thrives as the operative norm. The political systems and institutions which draw a common consensus from chauvinism cannot guarantee women’s equality unless patriarchal mind-sets and ways of operating are challenged and penalized, instead of the law soothing offended feelings of honour.
It is not young love hurtling uncontrolled which is the cause of women’s concern. Not Majnus armed with the weapon of honest affections or Romeos threatening to lay down their lives for love, which causes women to be unsafe. It is the patriarchal social norm which is the cause of street harassment of women in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country.
Harsh laws prescribing stricter punishment cannot prevent crimes against women. This is because, laws which prescribe harsher punishment, often put greater burden of prevention of breach, on the women themselves. Similarly, whenever a people take to strict beliefs with uniform dietary habits and ways of living, norms of purity and chastity become unforgivingly and unrelentingly severe on the women.
There is an underlying gendered cost to the increasing strictness in the application of social norms and harshness in laws. By passing the amendment to the Animal Preservation Bill in Gujarat to make punishment for cow slaughter most stringent, the state not only imposes unfair ways of living on non-cow-centric people in all groups, but primarily on the women within the cow-centric groups who are made to silently endure the even more gendered “way of life”.
Imposition of strict adherence to a “way of life” entails stricter control of women’s freedoms and their life choices, much more than the men of any community or social group. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s espousal of controlling and reining in of the women, as part of his puritanical vision of ideal society, is a befitting example of the gendered cost of strictness of norms on women.
Hindu families who follow strict application of the norm of vegetarianism, allow flexibility and bending of rules to the men in the family. The adroit strictness and rigidity of the dietary norm for women, and it’s deliberate flexibility for the men is an accepted prejudice. This prejudice however, hardly ever registers in the minds of the observers, social scientists or the purveyors of news as wrong or unjust. The only flaw cited in laws which prescribe dietary restrictions, is the plight of the non-believers or non-adherents, while the captive adherents suffer in silence.
The women are the chief mules, bearers of the burden of honour. In the case of sexual harassment also, the burden of vigilante male protectionism translates into blame when the system finds itself unable to protect the women. With every assertion of her will to exercise freedom of choice; whether of clothes, timings or lifestyle, the women become guilty of breach. Even the smallest expression of freedom, like holding hands or sharing a cup of ice-cream with her lover makes for a conscious breach, with ugly consequences.
Vengeful laws, strict norms and orders for vigilante justice only add to the existing oppression on women, by completely silencing their voice. No third party can determine whether a touch is right or wrong and whether an advance solicited or not. Under no circumstances can the police determine if the act of holding hands was violative of a woman’s bodily integrity or dignity. Only and only one person can determine that, the woman herself. The Uttar Pradesh government doesn’t seem to agree.
Abhiruchi Ranjan is a PhD research scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her areas of interest include gender, caste and religion in India.