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Moral ambivalence, then and now

P.V.Indiresan
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P.V.Indiresan
P.V.Indiresan

It is neither correct nor wise to judge one generation with the values of another. When I was young, in Southern India, Brahmin child widows would have had their heads shaved when they crossed the age of puberty.

In the previous century, many widows in Bengal and Rajasthan were actually burnt on the pyre of their husbands. Nowadays, nobody thinks of shaving widows’ heads, let alone burn them as satis.

Our country is officially called Bharat in memory of a great King Bharata who was, by modern standards, strictly speaking, the illegitimate son of the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute.

Quite rightly, our people see no reason to find him, or his ancestors, flawed. Our country is also called India or Hindustan, a name for which we are indebted to the Arabs. They called us Hindus or residents on the banks of the river Sindhu.

There is a story of a very important devout Muslim of Delhi who was introduced in Arabia as a Hindu. He protested, in vain, that he was a Muslim and not a Hindu.

His Arab hosts conceded that he belonged to the faith of Islam but still called him a Hindu. Actually, the names, Hindu, Hindustan and India are more appropriate to Pakistan than to our own country, but I doubt whether either the Indians or the Pakistanis will agree.

Actually, we have no traditional name for our country or for the religion of the majority of our population. Maybe, we could have called our country Aaryaavarta, but I am afraid ardent Tamilians would have objected. Obviously, we are not bothered by the antecedents of King Bharata.

We accept that in his days, it was a common practice to have what is known as Gandharva vivaha. These days, many Westerners see no objection to that practice; I suspect that increasing number of Indian youth are having similar views.

There is a proverb in Kannada language, ootathannicche; nota pararicche (meals according to personal taste; dress according to the taste of others). On that basis, the present day youth are trying to please their own kind even if it is against the wishes of their elders.

I had a British classmate who wanted to talk – merely talk – to an Indian girl who was his neighbour in London. He told me he dared not because she was modest; she dressed in a full length sari (in an age when miniskirts had come into fashion) and would not look at any one. Apparently, modesty has its own virtues and even authority. That point is probably worth noting by some of our modern girls.

TODAY’S MORES

That leads us to the question of morality in general and in particular to violence against women. For instance, it has been argued that women invite trouble by dressing provocatively or by travelling alone late at night.

There are even groups, both among orthodox Hindus and equally orthodox Muslims, who have prescribed what women should wear or should not wear. On the other hand, I wonder whether the most ardent devotees of women’s liberty would wear topless or transparent dresses or even condone such behaviour among others. Hence, strictly speaking, the protest is not about a dress code but about its rigidity.

The question of travelling at night is even more difficult. How can a woman avoid it when she has shift duty?

Accepting that it is not easy to draw the line on women’s dresses can any jury decide what is permissible and what is not permissible? Do those who do not agree with the young women get the right to use violence, not merely verbal abuse?

DOUBLE STANDARDS

Unfortunately, it is a fact that several political leaders (and policemen too) believe in physically punishing women who do not accept their orthodoxy. They even condone sexual assaults.

Apparently, men can break the law with impunity but women are constrained by a code not necessarily acceptable to them. There is a dichotomy here that is difficult to explain.

According to tradition, the grandmother of King Bharata swam in the nude in the river to attract the attention of sage Vishwamitra.

These days, the culture of the era of King Bharata is accepted and even respected. Yet, busybodies can and do object to the relatively modest dress that our young women wear.

The real issue is violence. It has been said that what people fear is not the severity of punishment but its certainty. Our laws are rigid; they are harsh and severe.

JUDICIAL SYSTEM

There is perhaps no law in the country where the punishment is not severe. Hence, lawyers and judges conspire to delay cases for years and years to let the accused escape. Even if the person is punished, the imprisonment already undergone is deducted so that the person suffers little if at all any.

It is possible that if the prescribed punishment is reasonable and even mild, more perpetrators of crime will be really punished. Then, there will probably be less violence.

Although our national motto is satyameva jayate our people lie to protect their kin, or the values of kinship or even for money. For that reason, the jury system – the backbone of Western jurisprudence – has been abolished.

Along with that, the system of trials on a day to day basis has also vanished. It appears that what women should agitate for is not severe punishment but prompt action; demand a reform of our judicial system to make quick justice the rule rather than the exception.


While what is culturally acceptable seems quite a subjective matter, there is no denying the double standards at work when it comes to how women are expected to dress and behave.


This is 335th in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on July 28.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 11, 2012)
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