I know of a young man, about 18, who lives in a village near Sohna in Haryana. This bright young man, Ahir (Yadav) by caste, studied reasonably well until high school and then inexplicably dropped out. He began demanding money from his parents, flitting in and out of employment and every now and then turning hostile, even inflicting violence on his own family members. Last weekend, he turned up at home after many days of living away with relatives, and made demands for money to join his friends for the kaawad yatra (a pilgrimage to bring the waters of the Ganges river from Haridwar back home, held in the holy month of Saawan during the rainy season). The demand was in essence a tantrum. All his friends were going and he wanted to go too. The family, who had no extra money to finance the travel and the paraphernalia that goes with being a yatri (they get new clothes and gifts when they return etc), refused flatly. The young man sulked a bit, then left home again.
I read this anecdote in several different ways, and I will try in this post to offer some insights from my interactions I have had with young Haryanvi (usually Yadav) men over the last few years. My attempt is to nuance the conversation around the kaawad yatra, which is being perceived by one side as a right to religious practice deserving of state protection, and as a form of hooliganism and toxic masculinity by the other. Like many other things, in reality it is a cocktail mix of social, economic and religious realities and perception, spiced by the politics of communalism and hatred.
My protagonist’s story is one of growing up and coming of age in an environment of (what he likely perceives as) multiple deprivations: the disadvantages of poor quality schooling and the lack of skills that would land him urban jobs, the lack of quality employment in or near his village, the absence of cash that would buy him good clothes and a smart phone and therefore some respectability and popularity, the expectation of his family that he brings in a steady income and ultimately, their refusal to indulge him when he demands money for a leisure activity.
The yatra as permissible leisure……
Many young men I have spoken to in Gurgaon district have told me that they see the kaawad yatra as a form of leisure. The garb of religion helps them justify to their families not just the expenses, but also the possible loss of income by their absence from work. They articulate the yatra by using words and phrases like azadi (freedom), gaanv aur parivar ka garv (pride for the village and family) yaaron doston ke saath masti (fun with friends). Of course, they also articulate the religious significance of the yatra, but in terms of what it brings to the family in terms of status in the community. “Pitaji khush ho jaayenge, bhai ko bola tha jaane ko par wo nahi jaa paaya to mein jaaonga (My father will be happy. He had asked my brother to go, but he could not, so I am going)”, narrated the young man who delivers pooja flowers in our building block.
….against the backdrop of the controlling, patriarchal household
Most of these young men I spoke to have very little autonomy. They are expected to contribute labour and income to the household kitty, while remaining subservient to fathers and uncles who have a tight fist on money and resources. This is true even of those who are married, and early marriage is common. Additionally, they are caught amidst conflicts between their wives and mothers, and the battle between individual desire and household diktat is never-ending. Agricultural activity and land holdings have dwindled significantly and with it, the logic of land inheritance that upheld the deep patriarchy in this region, should perhaps be called into question. Yet, ironically, patriarchal rules tighten their noose not just around women, as expressed in several misogynist practices (like female infanticide, male child preference, dowry, restrictions on dressing and mobility, etc) but also on young men, who are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour while being totally controlled by older male members. Only those who excel academically and break through into private sector formal sector employment and others who get into government jobs make it out of this predicament, somewhat.
The yatra as higher purpose…
These are deeply religious people and religion shapes the celebration of festivals; rituals around birth, death and marriage; fasting on certain days especially by women, all of course marked by patriarchal logic and rules. Increasingly, they are also involved in ‘social’ activities in the name of religion and the protection of family honour, especially the honour of women. So they would be vigilant about inter-caste and inter-religious liaisons in the community. Not surprisingly, cow protection, previously a passive principle of life in the Yadav belt, is now more like a crusade, especially in the Mewat belt where accusations of cow-smuggling have been routinely leveled against Muslims as a way to stir Hindu, and specifically Yadav, passions.
I read the kaawad yatra as part of this crusade-like social practice, serving a purpose higher than the religious one. The possibility of organized funding fueling the scaling up of kawad activities is very real. The people I spoke to told me about money collection drives in their village communities and large contributions by “bade aadmi” (powerful individuals). They spoke about the yatra like one would talk about a sports contest between village teams, and evoked the pride of the community. They took Hindu pride very much for granted, as something obvious; they made no reference to any form of ‘other’.
….and who will deny them that?
The outrage being expressed by urban folks raises questions of law and order. Why are kaawad yatris getting state protection even when they break the law? Who is responsible when they create public nuisance and who will compensate for destruction of public property?
But it is clear enough that in today’s times, law and order are subservient to majoritarian interests. The state and its law enforcement agencies are far more afraid of a public riot that will break out if a kaawadiya gets hurt; in comparison, the predicament of a non- yatri is not a real problem, for that is hardly likely to bring people to the streets.
Being angry about public nuisance is entirely justifiable, but the solutions are not going to come easy. Be prepared in the coming times for many more such tableau. See them for what they are: loud, unapologetic claims to public space and attention by an under-employed, under-appreciated and infantilized youth that are being fed toxic doses of religion and masculinity.
I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!
That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.
The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?
By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.
When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.
This morning, a single woman friend put up a very witty post on her Facebook page that described her failed attempts to rent out a workspace. She used humour as her weapon to deal with the blatant patriarchy that she faced from landlords and even landladies, including constant requests to meet the husband, complete refusal to deal with her single status and even allegations on her character! Years ago, I remember fighting with a bunch of old men on behalf of a friend who was being asked to leave our housing society because her boyfriend misbehaved with her! Again, being single was conveniently associated with bad character and none of those chivalrous gentlemen (even within the limits of their self-conceived patriarchal roles) thought to come to the rescue of this damsel in distress who was being harassed by a man. Oh, the injustice of it!
This is one of many types of housing segregation that is commonly experienced in Indian cities. Caste and religion are routinely used to turn away renters. Many scholars have put a spotlight on the increase in housing segregation. Gazala Jamil’s work on the spatial segregation of Muslims in Delhi and Vithayathil and Singh’s research on caste-based segregation in India’s seven largest metros are part of a growing body of literature that show us that even as we look at the city as the panacea for the old social evils, these identities are viciously reconstructed the urban context.
In their piece in The Wire, Kumar and Sen argue that housing segregation is a direct result of poor housing policy combined with ingrained prejudices. “The reason why legislative intervention, as opposed to judicial, is necessary to resolve the matter of housing discrimination is because the problem should not be exclusively framed in the narrow context of individual acts of discrimination. Ghettos in cities do not rise spontaneously or accidentally. Ghettos are created by bad housing policy coupled with prejudice,” they write. They suggest legislation that makes it illegal for landlords or housing societies to be able to discriminate in such a way.
While legislation that comes out strongly against discrimination would be a good thing, I am not at all sure if it will end housing segregation in the short term. Something larger than the ability to discriminate without facing consequences is driving segregation in our cities. The expression of identity through the clustering of groups by language, caste, food preferences, religious practices and cultural norms is a way for people to find refuge and solace in the confusing and chaotic city, a context that is complex and disordered, where there is no tangible link between what you do and what you get. In this urban spider web where most citizens see themselves as a fly, the ‘other’ assumes a terrible importance. Hence, the single woman in a society that sees itself as bound by the values of family is a threat to the group’s collective identity. The Muslim family that may or may not attend the Diwali and Janmashtami celebrations or contribute to the Mata ka bhandara is viewed with suspicion. And so on and so forth.
How fragile is our sense of identity that we can see the people who are different from us as such potent threats? Clearly, we can find no easy way to unite and fight poor governance, or find concrete ways to improve our collective lives. It’s much easier to identify the ‘other’ and weed them out of our midst, to lull ourselves into the false complacency of uniformity and sameness. What is under threat is not simply access to housing, it is the very idea of pluralism that is essential to cities that is under question. If Indian cities are merely collections of villages (and do not let the shiny glass, Metro rail networks and CCTV cameras fool you), then the dream of urbanized development (smart cities included) is a false one. At the very least, we must all realize that.
The Uber rape is the latest in the never ending saga of the lack of safety for women in India. The focus of media discussion on the issue has been on verification processes and law. As a number of twitter discussions highlighted, there isnt enough hue and cry about the rape itself. Alarming and depressing as it may be, the idea of India being unsafe for women is no longer news. We have normalized the lack of safety, the patriarchal nonsense, the injustice of it all, the trauma, the shaming, lock-stock-and-barrel.
This could be a moment of the deepest of despair. However I do see two small, tiny, fragments of light. One, the raped woman was alert and brave enough to click a picture of the number plate and report the incident. The media attention on the issue of gender and sexual violence is, I think, breaking the silence in many ways. More and more women have been emboldened to report sexual crimes in recent times, reflecting bizarrely in the crime stats but also subtly on the confidence levels of other women.
The second is that victim blaming has not been the focus of the reportage and discussion this time round, though there were some who drew attention to the fact that the lady had fallen asleep in the cab (that, of course, is a crime for woman!)
Another take on this by a well-meaning but cynical friend was interesting too. She said her first thought was that the woman had been planted in the Uber cab by a rival cab company! Chew on that, people 🙂
I took the Delhi Metro today after a longish time. It’s always an entertaining experience. The people watching especially. The ladies’ coach in particular!
Today, I was struck by the multitasking that women manage, or have to manage. In front of me, a newly married young woman was frantically calling home and no one seemed to be answering the phone. Finally, she got through to her domestic help (I think) and instructed her to put her washing out to dry (she had hand washed clothes than ran color and left them to drip dry in her bathroom). After this call, she was visibly relaxed. Another young lady was calling home to check on her guests who had clearly come in from out of town and were being given all sorts of assurances about her getting back home on time, taking care of some taxi arrangements, etc.
I was also struck by the many women who wore symbols of marriage in a very overt manner. Newly married girls wearing the traditional ‘chuda’, the red and white bangles plus gaudy clothing. Also prominent sindoor, toe rings, mangalsutras, etc etc. It’s cultural, sure, and nothing wrong with it. But then I saw these two sisters chatting. One was college going and dressed in skinny jeans, top and sports shoes. The older sister, just a few years older I presume, was in salwar kameez, bindi, sindoor, bangles and all the get up of a married woman. And I wondered about the transformation that she went through. Was she proud of it, embracing the tag of ‘married’ like young women in India are taught to? Was she proud, of being in the married people’s club, perhaps looking down on her friends who hadn’t managed a membership yet? Or did she just adopt these ways without thinking, because everyone did it? Did she, at times, long to slip into her jeans and t-shirt, did she rue the lack of choice?
I have been in those shoes and I’ve aspired to be the ideal daughter-in-law, the ideal wife, the ideal mother. I don’t know who I needed to, still need to, prove myself to. I don’t know what made me think I wasn’t already good enough. I’ve come a long way in being a little more comfortable in my skin. But I’m still finding the balance, and still processing the transformations that women undergo to just be women in our society.
It’s been hard to lead a normal life amid the shrill noise of protest and violence in India-out on the streets as well as in the confusing, noisy world of news and media, life’s been tough. Especially for those of us who tend to be emotional, patriotic, easily involved and passionate about issues like rights, respect, dignity and all that good stuff.
For many of us, there has been no doubt that protesting the state of affairs has been long overdue and yet, there is a sense of despair about what the outcome of protests could be, will be. I work in the development sector, though not in women’s development, but since so much is interconnected, I have the small consolation that I do get to play my little itsy bitsy role in the fabric of ‘change’.
Satheesh Namasivayam’s editorial on The Hindu’s Open Page on Sunday, though, was a mood-lifter. It gives tremendous credence to the act of protesting as well as clearly outlines the various ways in which protests can be and must be taken forward to bring out meaningful outcomes. The last of Sateesh’s points addresses the work to be done within us. “You do not go too far in the work of leadership without beginning the evolution work on self,” he writes.
And in that vein, Tabish Khair’s piece in the Magazine section of the same day’s Hindu turns the discussion on young men. Titled ‘A letter to young men who protested against rape’, the article praises men for joining the protests, but also asks them to really prove their intent by shunning the patriarchal habits ingrained in themselves and those around them. The piece speaks to the youth and I’m curious about reactions from young men about being asked to cook, clean and do housework alongside their mothers and sisters. More importantly, Tabish tears apart a lot of the generalizations and assumptions we have been making while protesting crimes against women. Which women? What kind of women? He exposes us- we have been driven to impassioned protest because we see in Damini ourselves, what of the thousands of ‘other’ women who face worse? In calling on men to set an example for their sons and daughters by shunning age-old patriarchal values and truly respecting women, Tabish calls for real change.
And finally, there can be no change without collaboration. Union Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid’s editorial in The Hindustan Times today is likely to be seen by anti-government readers as a too-late too-false too-tame apology, but I would rather acknowledge his point. Perhaps there is no way for a public figure to grieve publicly without seeming to resort to cheap publicity or adding to the stress of the already too-tense atmosphere (or take the risk of falling flat seeing as we are so used to political figures turning up with blank faces to announce relief money or empty condolences after a tragedy). It is true, though, that governments and citizens would need to be on the same side to truly fight societal menaces like corruption or lack of safety. Khurshid brings up the issue of India’s image in the world’s eyes at the end of his piece.
Yes, India is being touted as unsafe for women, unsafe in general. And while there are rape statistics, records of poor justice, etc to back up these claims, I think we go completely overboard with sweeping statements about safety after a sensational crime takes place. At our weekend workshop with students from Katha and University of Minnesota, we inevitably ended up discussing the infamous Delhi rape case, and safety in general. One participant from the US pointed out that she felt safer (in the daytime at least) in a Delhi slum that in a poorer part of an American city; another mentioned that in a Brazilian favella, it would have been impossible to take out an iphone and take a picture without having it stolen (or forcibly taken from you) and so on…. We judge ourselves too harshly and we let the world pass judgement on us too easily. Yes, we hate the government right now, but in our passion to protest we also forget that we are proud citizens, that we love our country and our city and that there is so much positive about where we live as well. Let’s not forget this even as we go about doing all we can to make our public spaces and our lives safer and better.
And I have to point out, as a parting shot, that the best thing to come out of all the protesting, from my perspective, is a renewed focus on public spaces, urban design and infrastructure. When citizens begin demanding better urban spaces, a lot can be done. Here’s to a permanent change from citizen apathy (and sheer lack of awareness) to an informed, invigorated bottom-up process of urban renewal!