Ours to choose

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on February 20, 2015

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Are the leaders of the day making the right noises when it comes to diversity and feminism

It took a little over 200 days and a lost election for the Prime Minister to speak out. During this time many incidents had taken place: communal violence, vandalisation of churches, discussions on whether our Preamble should state our secularity, so-called ‘ghar wapsis’ and conversions, love jihad threats, attempted bans on kissing in public, diktats that those found canoodling on Valentine’s Day (presumably, any other day was okay) would be picked up and married off (as if marriage is a punishment posting (which it probably is for many people) and much more.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised at this. The Prime Minister is an intelligent man, he’s also a very politically savvy man. Look at the way he sussed out the Indian voter and organised his election campaign. He’s also a man who knows the difference between being a Party man and being a leader and a statesman. But for the longest time, he chose to remain silent.

And then, a Johnny-come-lately party, with a leader accused of being anarchic and unrealistic, stumped him by pulling the rug out from beneath his feet, leaving just a toehold — and that too barely. And that’s when he decided to speak. He was not alone in this — indeed he had support from an unlikely person, the leader of the RSS, and on an unlikely subject: the bodies of women.

Mohan Bhagwat’s declaration that Indian mothers are not (baby-producing) factories and that giving birth is a personal decision is an encouraging sign — especially after other Hindu Right leaders, Ashok Singhal and Sakshi Maharaj among them, have pronounced the need for Hindu women to bear four, five and more children to ensure that the Hindu population of this country is not wiped out.

Indeed Sakshi Maharaj even went so far as to outline the roles these four children could play: one in the army, one in the company of saintly men (these would be the two male children then) and two at home (these would be the women, I’m guessing). Bhagwat absolved himself of the responsibility for the statements made by his ‘colleagues’, saying he can’t stop anyone from speaking, adding, significantly, that people should think carefully before saying such things.

They should indeed. I wonder how carefully both the Prime Minister and the RSS chief have thought about the statements they have now made: the PM has said that his will be a government that will give equal respect to all religions — there’s a tacit acknowledgment here that the government has so far not done this (the future tense is a dead giveaway). But that it will do so now.

Does this mean we will now see many more political leaders of faiths other than Hinduism? Will we see more diversity, more women, more Dalits, people of alternative sexualities? Will communal violence end? Will places of worship not be vandalised? In that case, we might actually put some substance into the achche din claim.

So also with Bhagwatji: if the choice to have children or not is indeed a vyaktigat (personal) decision, then it stands to reason that the choice of abortion is also a similar one. And once you recognise that women can and must make vyaktigat decisions, then of course there’s a whole gamut that follows: the choice to marry or not, to have sex or not, to have control over your body, to work or not, to consent to sex or not. And the choice to be seen as independent beings — not bahus, not betis. A slogan coined for the government’s Beti Bachao campaign will also need rethinking:

Ho shikshit bahu aur beti / toh bane viksit kul aur kutumb (Let our daughters be educated / then the family and clan will be complete.)

For the longest time we’ve been burdened with these roles, and with the responsibility of carrying the kul and the kutumb on our backs. Now, with the support of the PM and Bhagwat (especially the latter, who’s come out so strongly in support of women), we might actually be on the road to progress. Dare we say, Achche Din Zindabad?

(Urvashi Butalia is an editor, and publisher and director of Zubaan)

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Published on February 20, 2015
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