The Inconvenience of Making a Movement Last in India by Dr Cauvery Ganapathy
Dr. Cauvery Ganapathy is a Defense and Strategic Affairs Analyst, with a subject expertise in Energy Security. She has been a Research Associate with the Office of Net Assessment under the US Department of Defense previously and is currently working with a Political Risk Consultancy. She has presented and published at various national and international forums as a Fellow of Global India Foundation. She has been a recipient of the Pavate Fellowship to the University of Cambridge as Visiting Research Faculty and a recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Fellowship to the University of California, Berkeley. As an intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, she has worked on the nuclear industry in India.
My country is a curious study in contrasts. I reckon this is the case in most societies where the old and the new struggle to coexist. India’s own brand of peculiarity emerges most from the fact that it struggles every day to make sense of a chaotic enmeshing of varied cultures, that are often in direct contravention to each other and, where the very existence of one appears to question the ethos of the other. For this commentary, one thought of juxtaposing the twin -if not more- worlds that India continues to straddle at all times. The purpose being to highlight that while it is well to celebrate every small victory, the simultaneous existence of dogmas may quietly be chipping away at the hem of every success.
The electoral defeat of the Democrats in the 2016 elections was credited in part, to the sense of alienation that the ‘forgotten men and women of the Rust Belt’ felt. There exist within India today, pockets of populations that feel the same way. For any movement to succeed, that sub-section of this vast country must also be cultivated and convinced of its inherent value. Movements for gender equality, sexual freedoms and the fundamental right to be allowed to make life choices without being dehumanized, would not realize their full potential if they evolve as a near didactic trickle-down from our news channels and our conferences. It is in the villages and mofussils of India that the battle of the mind and of a new social dynamic will truly be won, and that is where we keep forgetting to look.
I would like earnestly to believe that the zeitgeist of our times is the receptiveness around matters deemed intensely personal, and hitherto unpalatable for public discussion in the country – gender, sexuality, and as an off shoot of that, voices that are now audible beyond the tone-deafness of patriarchy. Yet, when you belong to a country that lives in many centuries and lies wrapped in a million sub-cultures, there must be many a caveat underlying this optimistic belief. There are two in particular that occur to me.
First, a possibility that not all of us view these matters similarly. Is unanimity and consensus mandatory for social change, you may ask. Most certainly not. But when impassioned defenses of the old order fast degenerate into reckless attacks wrecked by rogues and the State stays a bystander, it may, perhaps, be of some value to consider if changes that emerge from the great personal sacrifices of those individuals turning themselves into crucibles by opening up about their very personal stories, may get lost at the altar of civic order in the absence of a more rudimentary effort- that of generating a consensus by way of reaching out to those that are far removed from our own thought processes and socialization. It is the only way to ensure sustainability and perpetuity of the ideas of equality, respect and freedom that are being spoken of today – to convince more people of their intrinsic worth.
India remains a country where the phenomenal stories of personal courage in the wake of the MeToo movement continue to co-exist with the gut-wrenching tales of honour killings and the vile diktats of Khap Panchayats, as also a tone-deafness on part of a ruling elite that will speak of ‘beti bachao’ as long as the beti is a faceless, nameless entity that remains a convenient statistic- a malaise that cuts across the political spectrum in the wasted vibrance of our democracy. It is necessary to feel outrage today. At the same time, it is incumbent upon us to also consider that while they mean to be, these may not be evolving as entirely inclusive movements.
One must consider the possibility that in the world that exists beyond our Facebook ‘friend-list’ and Twitter feed, there is an India that is fighting within itself to come to terms with issues that you and I would like to believe ended when Doordarshan stopped being the only channel on our telly; that these movements may have an, entirely unintended, discriminatory aspect to them. That in the small towns of India, there continue to be parents who will hold on tighter to their children and not let them leave for the ‘big colleges’ and the ‘big cities’ that are ‘corrupting’ enough to allow women to come out and say they were molested, to say that they have a sense of sexuality that they will no longer talk in hushed tones about, that allow men to openly say they love another man, that allow a youngster grappling with the multiple identities he feels attached to to come out and say that a gender change operation is the only way he would be able to carry on with his life. These are violently dogmatic repressions to my mind. They are the same in yours too, I would like to believe, being as you are a reader of a free-spirited eclectic e-magazine. However, like the US pollsters of 2016 that were afflicted by a blindspot, we must not forget that there is a world beyond us and our own, and for victories to be lasting and sustainable, that is where this new battle must also be won.
Second, that the movement may get diluted. The possibility that the lessons we take from movements may not be all the right ones. That it may be employed to question good judgements and question valid constructs of meritocracy among others. Every person’s pain is absolutely valid where they are concerned, but movements fizzle out when a generalization and flippancy starts creeping into to it. There, then, emerges the possibility that causes may be rendered mere charades in pursuit of other more blasé objectives. There is such a thing as an activism fatigue, and that must always form the backdrop of structuring movements. I believe this is but a miniscule side-story, but it is only pragmatic to take it into consideration as a possible pitfall.
I would not proffer an answer as a corrective to the binary in the country. Primarily because I carry no wealth of experience or erudition that could qualify me to contend that I could address the issue in its entirety. I would, however, offer my two pence as a comment, to two groups of people chiefly – the media and the people of my generation and those younger, who continue to be able to enjoy the agency of freedom to contribute to national life in some form. Just as the media has picked up on the MeToo movement or had on the scrapping of 377, and has become a force for good with it, perhaps, there are four subjects that it could help propagate through its powerful medium.
First, to not treat primary education in the country as a cumbersome afterthought anymore. It is where our minds first learn to interact with the outside world, after all. It is where our first opinions of ourselves, our worth, and those of others are built. The appalling state of primary education in the country is an abomination that is leeching into the very edifice of the state and society. An incisive piece of work on the subject is the ‘Teacher performance in Bihar, India – Implications for Education’ a study in Human Development sanctioned by the World Bank in 2016 which was a commendable piece of research work carried out by Shabnam Sinha, Rukmini Banerjee and Wilima Wadhwa. It focuses on one state in the country, yes, but is a literal microcosm of the state of primary education in the country as a whole, unfortunately. The programs in place are fairly decent but there is a glaring lack of initiative in drawing talent in the country to teaching. Fighting the good fight is all of our first impulse, but the contingencies of a small salary and making a life of it, dissuade one from pursuing what is the most noble of professions. A movement to demand enhanced salaries and more lucrative working conditions in the primary schools of India appears a most unattractive of causes, but may prove to be a harbinger for another quieter and more gradual social revolution in our country. It is necessary in the same breath to also draw attention to the forgotten cause of adult literacy and reorientations.
For those of us whom circumstance or choice have brought abroad, there is always the option of going and teaching temporarily in the schools of the villages your parents or grandparents hail from. Go just for one month every year. I know I will make that a part of my life in my returns to Coorg. I do think we may change more minds that way than by near rants to a select audience on social media.
Second, decoupling the idea of marriage from that of success, and to remember to raise your child as your daughter not as a potential alliance. Teach them their mind is their greatest asset. To invest the most in that. Raise a voice against those obnoxious matrimonial advertisements. Surely, we can amount to more than the particular shade of our complexion and most certainly more than our height and physical statistics-suspiciously qualified as vital, mind you. While at it, I do hope a Convent education would in no way certify my virtue more than another woman whose parents may have chosen to send her to a different school for all the right reasons. Unfortunately, though, these remain as much a part of our social milieu as we straddle the new world today. The conduct of a woman continues to be a reflection of her family, more specifically her mother’s attention to her upbringing. None of that extrapolation for the boys, of course, because they apparently just grow out of some suspended cosmological animation.
Third, misogyny and patriarchy hurt the most and prove most effective when women become its gatekeepers. The proverbial Trojan Horse, as it were. They are formidable foes whether in the form of the actress endorsing fairness creams and dancing to songs that make her appear perplexingly gleeful at the prospect of being ‘tandoori chicken that can be gulped down by a swig of alcohol’, or the mothers and aunts that pass on the pervasive baggage of a fear of being abandoned and derided by ‘society’, chiefly due to their own unfortunate socialization. Address that simultaneously. Else, only abuse that leaves bruises will be called into account, while the silence will creep up and engulf an entire generation-one more among the very many that have gone before it.
Pick another woman up. Correct her, of course, not by calling her out in public, but in person, in the quiet that will allow her to hear your voice without fear of being judged-it is your best chance. It is not being politically correct, it is being strategically expeditious. Unless, of course, she holds a public office. Then, yell your guts out till she hears you. There are the off-hand snide and protestations about what these movements are doing to the society- let us not ignore it anymore. Ask them why it seems to threaten the social fabric. Ask these questions of your own people, your aunts and your mums, and then tell your sisters and daughters where they got it wrong.
I am today of an age where many of my friends are mothers. My biggest hope is for them. A generation that is acutely aware of what an openness and determination through freedom can cultivate in society, I believe they will raise strong women. There is a perniciousness that glorification brings. It sets the bar uncomfortably high. This idolizing of the female has manifest itself in real terms with questions that are way larger than the individual itself- she is equated with the family’s honour and worse, with the community’s honour. In so doing, it sets one up for failure. I hope this generation will bring their daughters up to be their own persons and not a reflection of these expectations. That they will bring up women who do not see liberty and respect in moderation and in pockets but as a complete and inalienable right. Who do not see it as a favour or a gift but as a right. Just as it is for the others not belonging to their gender. Women who will stand up for the men in their lives just as they will stand unambiguously against them if those very same men violate another woman.
The hope then is that they will teach their daughters well, and their sons even better. I often wonder how many bridges have to be built before we move to a manner of thinking that is androgynous. I know it is the first thing that occurred to me when I met my partner and decided I would marry him– that he thinks in a gender-neutral manner. A most unromantic of features, I concede, but one I would not part with for anything. I do hope it reflects a trend among the men of our generation and the future. Our struggles would find worthy partners more easily then.
Finally, in the throes of the MeToo Movement, what has become amply clear is that while the media provides the platform, the Court and the State still has to allow its machinery to run to ensure that justice prevails and percolates. In order to do that, do remember to elect the right people. Elect people you would likely be proud of. ‘You get the leaders you deserve’ is no old wives’ tale, it is the best reckoning of our civic duties. Elect the right people. Vote not for the party but for the candidate. Remember there is a reason that ballot is secret. Check your political history. There is very little by way of ideology that you have to choose between. Choose the ones with the least charade. Choose the ones that ask you least to be scared of the other. Choose the ones that tell you your problems are of your own making or of circumstances that are not always extraneous to yourself. Choose the ones that do not tell you that the locus standi of your issues lies outside of yourself at best and your ‘community’ at worst. And, elect those that would keep religion out of my moral compass, my bedroom, and while you are at it, my kitchen too, please.
In the rightful execution of India’s democracy will lie the fate of its women- the historical others – as also, the new others. And, the fate of the movements. There is one voice in the highest Court of our land today that has consistently shown that it is willing to stand for reason. Reasonableness, however, is a very heavy burden for one or even five persons to carry by themselves. Particularly when the battle to be waged is against that seemingly infallible behemoth of religion that has been made an unfortunate, unwanted and undeserving part of our political life. Let us try and galvanize a more fundamental and sustainable force to try and win the war.
© Dr Cauvery Ganapathy