Draupadi’s Question

Source: Wiki Commons
Source: Wiki Commons
The messenger enters Drapadi’s chamber and asks her to be present in the assembly after the cruel throw of fate.She sends him back with the question “Whom did you lose first, yourself or me ?” It was legal question at that point of time. But later, she turns it into a moral question in the assembly “Is it right or fair that a woman, let alone a queen, become a slave because her husband staked her in a gambling game ?”

Though the legal aspect resounded completely, the moral one fell short in one aspect – If she could be won at a contest, so could she be lost, taking into cognizance the prevalent customs of those times.But a lady who could stand up and ask this question in the face of dire adversity indicated courage,clear thinking and a will to preserve her dignity at any cost. It could only point to a trait of boldness above all else.

Therefore, it came something as a surprise when I read a completely different interpretation by Iravati Karve, of the very same incident. Quoting from her book, she says..

“Draupadi’s question was not only foolish, it was terrible. No matter what answer was given, her position was desperate.If Bhishma told her that her husband’s rights over her did not cease, that even though he became a slave, she was in his power and he had the right to stake her, her slavery would have been confirmed. If Bhishma had argued that because of her slavery, her husband had no more rights over her, then her plight would have been truly pitiable… She had made many mistakes in her life that were forgivable, but by putting on airs in front of the whole assembly, she had put Dharma into a dilemma and insulted him…Though she was only a young bride of the house, she had spoken in an assembly of men, something she should have known she must not do.Over and above, to pretend that she could understand questions that baffled her elders – that was inexcusable arrogance.”

She further espouses that instead of arguing about the legal technicalities like a lady pundit, she should have cried out for decency and pity in the name of the Kshatriya code. Had she done so perhaps things would not have gone so far.

There are some definite points which struck me – Draupadi had the guts to speak in an assembly of men and elders who might have been more learned than her but who were also prepared at that point of time, to be mute spectators to her humiliation. To think, that at a moment of adversity such as this, a woman would have the capacity to put on airs instead of focusing on using all weapons at hand to defend herself, is also casting an unjust aspersion on her.Though there are sexist connotations and it abounds in far too many patriarchal interpretations for my liking, I had to acknowledge there are facets which are interesting and deserve further thought.

In the face of adversity, which one should a person rely on – Courage or Practicality ? Is a courage;which is guaranteed to lead one to failure, only false bravado. Is practicality which dictates a person to appear weak and grovel, more worthwhile if it guarantees success.Will the ‘success’ earned in this manner be devoid of shame.

Everyday, there are enough and more instances, wherein this question finds its way into conscious thought. There are innumerable cases of victims of rape, some who lose their lives as well and some who fortunately survive to tell their tale. In those darkened alleys and corners, when terror strikes, the question of courage versus practicality would haunt the person who faces it. For all we know, their choice may not have mattered and affected their ultimate fate, but yet again, it could have.

In historical times, there have been enough tales of courage and valor. The story of Chittorgarh is worth remembering in this context.Though the women sacrificed their lives for saving their honor, an idea which can be disputed in the current world context, its a story of courage nonetheless. Was it a story of success or failure or would it be too naive to bracket it so narrowly.In today’s context, there was a case of a woman attacked at an Bangalore ATM. The fact that she resisted a machete wielding man and refused to hand over the money was almost laughable to me.Being practical was a clear winner there. But there are more gory cases of rape which at times lead to murder, some of whom bring forth the question – could the victim have saved herself by being practical.

The importance of Draupadi’s question would find no relevance for an audience which lacks the will and the power to arrive at the right answer.The fact that she asked the question also shows that she reposed faith in their moral dharma and their system of governance even though her faith was later proved to be misplaced.In today’s world, there will be no divine intervention when a woman is being disrobed. It will be entirely upto the woman to keep her wits about herself and figure out the answer to Draupadi’s dilemma.

The Silent Genocide

Genocide is defined as “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, esp. those of a particular ethnic group or nation.”

The Holocaust during World War II killed more than 6 million European Jews as part of a deliberate extermination program by Hitler’s Germany.In a span of 4 years between 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge organized mass killings of ideologically different groups and ethnic minorities resulting in a death toll pegged at around 2.5 million. One of their mottos for the people they killed was “To keep you in no benefit.To destroy you is no loss” Chairman Mao, under whose administration systemic human rights abuses caused the deaths of over 63 million people in People’s Republic of China, can easily claim the top slot for being responsible for the worst genocide in history.

But what if there were 200 million people already killed and more being killed every minute?Vanishing off this face of earth even before majority had a chance to have an identity.

And what if we might even know the killers.They could be our friends, colleagues, relatives, maids, the person who salutes you or the driver you travel with everyday.

What if it is one of us ?

Genocide with a minor difference. Femicide.”The deliberate killing of a large group of people, esp. gender specific elimination of females.” 200 million women/girls/infants foetuses have been killed,aborted or abandoned through deliberates acts of extermination which is more than all the casualties of World War I and II combined. India and China are the leading countries responsible for the maximum number of deaths, eliminating more girls than the number of girls born in America.

Female Infanticide

India kills her daughters in millions.Of those who manage to survive past the fetus stage, many will die before they turn 6.The 2013 census shows there are 940 females for every 1000 males. The killers are the parents, relatives and caregivers of the child.How would you imagine the face of a killer ? Whatever you imagine would be a far cry from the smiling faced genial looking woman shown in the video below.She smilingly admits to having killed 8 of her female children.Her apparent nonchalance about the act shocks us into a realization of exactly how ubiquitous a practice this has become.How is she different from the average psychopath ? Human beings have been known to adapt to the most bizarre of circumstances where even the most bizarre can get commonplace.Our culture of patrilineal families where male children traditionally inherit,contribute economically and perform last rites gives preference to male off-springs vis-a-vis a female offspring where she is perceived as a liability and a drain on the family’s resources. Exorbitant dowries lends credence to this perception.

In China,the stringent restriction on family sizes and adoption of the one child policy lead to more couples opting to terminate female fetuses.In 1979, when China introduced the one-child policy, the effect was to create a premium on the one child, couples would have and in the second generation of the ‘one-child’ parents, there were no siblings,aunts,uncles or cousins leading to the reliance of the adults on a single child for all economic support.
Generations of male preference along with the tradition of bride money and dowry for females, results in selective abortion. Infants are killed either by the family by drowning,suffocation and starvation, or are killed by the state,where doctors kill third children or infants born without permission.

Keeping aside the human rights violation involved, a skewed sex ratio is a precursor to various other societal ills. There are more ‘free’ unattached men or ‘bare branches’in a society leading to increased crime rate, depression, sexual attacks on women,prostitution and trafficking. More crimes against women would mean more female foeticides and the cycle would continue.Haryana is the worst hit state,with the lowest sex ratio of 877 females per 1000 males.With a complete dearth of brides, families often pay money to a broker to buy a bride from another state.An India Today article reads “A woman costs Rs.30,000, a buffalo Rs.70,000”.

Surprisingly the literacy theory,which is often touted to be the panacea, falls flat when we look at the census data from Jhajjar which has high literacy of 80% but the worst sex ratio of 774 girls per 1000. The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, which allows daughters equal ownership in property, has had a negative impact in Jhajjar where land prices are very high.Here fetuses are aborted as families don’t want the daughters to get a share in the property.

Clearly, the solution needs further consideration. Removing the perceived liability and increasing the economic stature for a girl is most obvious way to go.Easier said than done, legal solutions can help to a certain extent. An interesting case in point is South Korea, the one country that could change this pattern.In the 1990’s South Korea’s sex ratio was as skewed as China’s, but female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal rights rulings worked in its favor.Legal prohibitions, which have been enforced to a certain extent, do help but they have to work hand-in-hand with the larger reformative/supportive practices which encourage girls and increase the ‘value’ the society sees in a girl in the process.

What we direly need is not just ‘literacy’ but ‘education’ which enhances progressive thoughts and inculcates the right values.All traditions which equate a bride with an economic gain have to be strictly dealt with.The traditional practice of sons supporting their parents lies at the root cause of a lot of problems.This can only be changed with female literacy, increased employment opportunities and empowering a woman to support her parental family,financially if required.

We have a long way to go, but all of us in our own small ways can make a difference.In our own life, let us undertake a pledge never to be part of any deed which is gender discriminatory and let us take responsibility for changing the attitudes of the small percentage people who come in contact with us.

Evan Grae Davis speaks about the issue in this video

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered with TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012 and Evan Grae Davis was one of many inspiring speakers at the event.


1.Youtube Video:www.youtube.com/watch?v=42i1sIZ-9kQ

Bangalore for Women : A step in the right direction

On a hot Saturday afternoon, some 70 to 80 bloggers including me, sat closeted in a room in the Times of India building on M.G. Road.We chatted animatedly as the stage was thrown open to a topic dominating everyone’s mind. How safe did a woman feel in Bangalore ?

I moved to Bangalore in 2000 after working in Mumbai for almost a year and a half. While eve teasing and sexual innuendos had been an everyday occurrence during my growing up years in Madhya Pradhesh in central India, Mumbai back in ’99 was like a breath of fresh air. For the first time in my life, I had felt liberated,without feeling the need to look over my shoulder every minute. Bangalore, in comparison, didn’t feel as safe. After the office traffic hour, many roads wore a desolate look with dim pools of light alternating with dark stretches.

Over a period of the last 13 years, even though I myself, was not subjected to any direct form of sexual assault, I found myself adapting my lifestyle in line with the rising crimes against women. Every gruesome incident reported in Bangalore was yet another shackle on my perceived freedom to ‘be’.

As I listened to the various incidents faced by the women in the room, it just re-affirmed what I already knew. Anybody could be a victim, it was just a matter of chance. Interestingly, Franklin , a self defense instructor, told us otherwise. People’s personalities and their attitudes could go a long way in reducing the chances of being a victim. Your presence of mind, he asserted, is a far more superior tool as compared to any pepper spray.

As people discussed the various dimensions of women harassment, from what they faced on the roads to the boardrooms, one thing that stood out amongst them was the treatment meted out to physically / mentally handicapped women. Their struggles against their handicap is vastly compounded by their gender, making them a very convenient target of sexual attacks.

The discussion would have been completely depressive, if it were not for the one bright silver lining. We were there not to brood on it, but for action. The discussion was part of TOI’s campaign on ‘Bangalore for Women’ which was hosted together with Indiblogger. As we brainstormed on ideas and content which could be relevant for women, it became increasingly apparent that while media can throw the spotlight on a lot of subjects and disseminate information, the real onus of change is on each and every person.

So how can each one of us start contributing towards a safer society ? First and foremost is an awareness of safety for oneself. As is commonly said, ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is true for safety as well. As part of prevention, assess situations for possibilities of threats and evaluate escape routes.Avoid risky situations and use presence of mind to diffuse tensions. Always try to get out and avoid confrontations if possible. If a confrontation becomes inevitable, have rehearsed defense mechanisms. Letting your family know where you are or having useful numbers at hand in an emergency is something every person should do.
Invest time in ensuring safety of children by educating them on self preservation and avoiding situations which expose them to risk.

Then comes awareness and empathy to the safety of people around you. Surprisingly, many people mistakenly assume that a male escort is a sufficient cover for any form of sexual harassment encountered on the road. As has been seen time and again, a man is as helpless against a gang of men as a lone woman. Being cognizant of this and assessing risk accordingly will go a long way in ensuring safety of a female companion. Similarly, extending help when required or enabling help to reach a victim is a responsibility that can not be shrugged off anymore. Society has long witnessed the apathy , which is threatening to devour all that was good in a human being.
Reach out to people around you – to those who might be less aware than you or who might be economically backward.Help them understand their rights and what they should stand up for. In case of need, put them in touch with self help organizations and other NGOs who are capable of handling the required situation.

While the required levers have to be pulled to move the juggernaut of government machinery, we can no longer afford to sit back and wait till crime comes knocking at our doors.

As I looked at the people gathered in that small room, my thoughts turned to the case which set the wheels turning. A silent revolution has begun and its time to walk the talk. While the awareness and assessment of danger, is a long way from what constitutes freedom for me, I hope its the right step in the direction , where one day I hope to walk alone without looking over my shoulder.

JVC Report : 631 Pages of Intention or Action ?

The very exhaustive Justice Verma recommendations spanning 631 pages is commendable given the short time span in which this report was constituted and the lackadaisical government support. Even though the mandate given was to provide quicker trial and enhanced punishment for sexual offenders of extreme nature, it is heartening to note the comprehensive view taken by the committee to encompass all facets of harassment faced by women, children and other marginalized groups keeping in mind, the gender equality guaranteed through India’s constitution and its obligations under the international conventions. While the rape which acted as the trigger was an isolated incident, the fact that occurrences like these can only be viewed in totality keeping in mind the various interconnected social, political and environmental factors has been amply put forth in the various sections of the report.

What is very clear is that we suffer not due to the lack of laws but due to the faulty or often absent mechanism of implementation. The report cites the vast disconnect between equality and respect and the obligations of those who administer the law. And therefore, it is even more imperative that the State follows through on the steps right till the execution level and does not rest on its laurels for having just commissioned such a report.

The amendments to the Criminal Amendment Bill 2012 to widen the ambit of sexual assaults against women to include many more non-consensual acts against women including acid attacks, mutilation, stalking, voyeurism is a long awaited move. Marital rape inclusion which has long been considered an offence in other parts of the world is finally being brought into the purview. A special clause for rape followed by death or persistent vegetative state has also been introduced. Gang rapes have been brought under a separate category with much more severe punishments. The separate section accorded to ‘eve-teasing’ brings all the so called ‘minor’ offences also within the purview. However, considering the huge gap currently existing in reporting and delivering justice to much more severe assaults, these could still be relegated to the back burner. It might also prove onerous for the victim to prove offences such as eve-teasing, stalking and voyeurism.

Though death penalty as the punishment for rape, has not been accorded based on several international laws and human rights conventions, it has bridged the huge gap between a life term of 14 years and the death penalty by introducing a punishment of life term till death. A separate punishment structure for crimes and brutalities committed against children less than 12 years of age is missing and should have probably been brought within the scope of such a report.
Several of the committee’s recommendations like increasing the number and security in public transport vehicles, introduction of a public emergency response system, implementation of safe spaces and formation of Sexual assault crisis centers are very commendable and are implementable by a government serious about reducing crimes against women.

There are also very exhaustive recommendations for standard guidelines for medical and psychological examination of victims. It has also conclusively separated the issue of an occurrence of rape into a legal issue instead of a medical issue and also recommends doing away with the controversial “two-finger” test.

Crimes committed in Juvenile homes and incidents of child sexual abuse which have been unearthed by the committee during the making of this report are shocking and indicative of the extent to which this malaise currently exists. The report points to various lacunas currently existing in the implementation of the Juvenile homes and other destitute homes and it holds the State directly responsible for open flagration of rules as these incidents are clearly happening with the collusion of the respective administrative authorities. While reducing the age for convicting juvenile criminals has been rejected by the committee based on international child rights laws and neurological findings, exceptionally brutal / rarest of rare cases could have probably been accorded a separate status assuming that a juvenile criminal of extremely brutal tendencies has little hope of reform in any of the existing juvenile centers. Data to support whether juvenile criminals committing heinous crimes actually reform in their later years or are more likely to relapse into repeat offenders could have acted as an input to support such a decision.

A strong stand is also taken against Khap Panchayats and its kangaroo style functioning and the committee recommends a unequivocal approach by the government to curtail the Khap’s unlawful activities.
The committee further recommends increasing accountability of public servants by holding them punishable for not registering cases. This could aid in improving the reporting statistics, but the efficacy of this in situations wherein the victims belong to low socio-economic strata might prove daunting. The committee has also taken cognizance of the offences against women in border areas and conflict zones committed by armed forces or uniformed personnel. This has for the first time, criminalized the unlawful actions perpetrated by these security forces under the garb of maintaining law and order. Police reforms which are long pending based on a ruling by the Supreme Court 6 years back, were either completely ignored or not done as per the spirit of the ruling. The committee recommends augmentation of police force and inclusion of community policing.

It was heartening to note that the committee also brought in electoral reforms wherein it recommends the Election commission to bar candidates with charges punishable with imprisonment more than 5 years. The statistics collected by the committee across 7877 constituencies indicated that 31% of candidates of Electoral College are charged or convicted of a criminal offence. How can the electorate trust in proper implementation and enactment of laws for the safety of its citizens when those responsible for implementing such laws are themselves guilty of such heinous crimes ?

The report talks in detail about attitudinal changes required in society by quoting various texts, articles, past court sentences and advocates dissociating the stigma attached to rape. In this regard, it talks about education and perception reform through sex education and gender sensitization programs in schools. While this brings the educated classes into the purview of such an education, targeted campaigns need to be run for people of the lower socio-economic strata.

As citizens of a free and democratic country, we have the right to laws and an administration which protect us and which, as the report quotes, must override patriarchal, customary, traditional and religious provisions which have unequal outcomes. So, while the attitudinal changes might take time, the government of India is fully responsible for quicker enactment of such laws. The report’s fruition can only result from its quick implementation lest it be relegated to one more committee report that gathers dust till another Nirbhaya happens.

Image Courtsey: viewspaper.net

The Beast Within

Newspapers these days are crammed with innumerable cases of murders, rapes, extortion and child abuse. Hardly a day goes by, when one doesn’t read about the murky details of one crime or the other. But why do certain cases stand imprinted in our memory. These cases either stand out due to acts of extreme depravity or due to the nature of the crime itself. But the crimes that really shake us to our core are the ones that are depraved and ones, which could happen to any one of us. These are crimes committed against ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. These could happen to you or me while doing any of the normal routine chores that we go about doing, during our day.

Delhi’s rape incident was one such case, extremely brutal and depraved, it happened to a woman who could be any one of us, in an extremely ordinary turn of events. What could be more ordinary than boarding a public bus after a movie at a not-so-late hour, with a companion?

If we take the case of the rape or of the recent shootings in Connecticut, they clearly point to the handiwork of some depraved individuals. One school of thought propagates that terming the perpetrator of a crime as ‘depraved’ creates a divide by which the larger populace alienates itself from the perpetrator, thereby providing not much leeway for the community to rectify itself as a whole.

The person doesn’t become depraved after committing an act of crime. There is no metamorphosis that suddenly happens and transforms an apparently normal individual to a deviant personality. The individual had these traits in him even before anything happens. It is just that a crime brings it to the spotlight. These are passive tendencies, which come to the fore when the opportunity presents itself. Tomorrow, it could be the friendly neighborhood grocer, the milkman, colleague at office or any of the people we meet in our day-to-day lives. They are ‘normal’ people and in one sudden shocking instance, they become ‘abnormal’ and are ostracized from the society and categorized as being ‘depraved’. The point here is that the ‘depravity mindset’ exists in us and amidst us.

Painting by William Blake
Curtsey: Wikipedia

While there is no denying the need to impose much harsher and stricter punishments coupled with a swifter judicial system, I would liken it to a leash restraining a rabid dog. The leash will restrain the dog but the dog will attack at the slightest chance if the opportunity presents itself. The leash doesn’t cure the dog.
Even assuming that the perpetrator was actually ‘depraved’ and mentally unstable, the question which begs an answer is why the society is producing more and more of these kinds of ‘depraved’ individuals. As a society are we an accomplice to producing individuals with personalities more tuned to committing violence on women?

In a country, where women routinely face physical and mental torture in the hands of their own family, cases of rapes might just be extensions of the mindset that has already conditioned itself to adhere to subjugation of women.
Even an apparently innocent statement saying ‘This is not a girl’s job’ , will provide the foundation in the mind of a child who will later grow up with preconditioned notions of what women should or should not do. When conditioning like these are provided to a growing child on a routine basis through different channels, the message gets re-affirmed over and over again. The problem of objectifying /sexualizing women or treating them as a commodity then just becomes a continuation of their already established beliefs.
Every instance of a dowry being given/taken, a girl being denied education, stereotyping a woman’s roles, establishing male dominated control structures, lends to the overall psyche of a society which is geared to produce the so called ‘deviant’ individuals.

The crimes should not be viewed as isolated incidents committed by people who are not part of the society but viewed as offshoots or grotesque manifestations of a wound that is festering within us. It is this malaise that needs to be cured.