Posted by: Vikram | January 4, 2013

Why Indian democracy fails its women.

The Republic of India was not supposed to need the martyrdom of a young student, to make an incremental advance against deeply entrenched patriarchy. India’s democracy and liberalism were supposed to do that job. It is clear today that they havent. The question is why ?

India’s democracy has seen many successes. India’s oppressed Dalits have seen social and economic gains. Women have joined the educated classes and workforce in impressive numbers. A hugely diverse sub-continent has been imbued with a collective consciousness as a liberal, democratic nation. But on key parameters, Indian democracy has been a remarkable failure. Far from taking on the ills of society, the state today seems to be afraid of it and at times even complicit in perpetuating these ills.

Many contingent reasons can be given for the state’s failure to tackle patriarchy. Corrupt leaders and a morally deficient elite, both uncommitted to liberalism appear to be favorites for bashing by the media and middle class. But what are the deeper structural reasons for the state’s failure to deliver the promise of India to its women. There are many, they are very serious and there is very little being done to tackle most of them.

India’s traditions and its highly heterogenous population drives anxieties towards female sexuality. Each of the thousands of linguistic/religious/caste communities come with their own need for masculine projection, and community ‘honour’ is reposed in controlling female sexual behaviour. In benign cases, this leads to females facing parental boycott for marrying someone from outside their community, in extreme cases, we have the phenomenon of ‘honour killings’. Of course, if honour is contained in the sexual purity of female relatives and community members, sexual violence, especially gang-rapes become a potent weapon against marginalized communities. This is why the gang rape is so much more common in South Asia than other regions of the world.

The second structural factor is religious tradition. Both the major religions practiced in India, Hinduism and Islam, place enormous constraints on women. Hinduism deserves some credit for presenting female forms of divinity, however these divine forms are always maternal figures. Kali maa, Durga maa, Mata Laxmi, Mata Parvathy, Saraswati maa … I have never heard anyone address Shiva or Vishnu as Shiva pita or Pita Vishnu. Traditional Hindu myths and scriptures do not have much room for an independent woman. As for Islam, I quote Dr. Ambedkar,

There can thus be no manner of doubt that the Muslim Society in India is afflicted by the same social evils as afflict the Hindu Society. Indeed, the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more. That something more is the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women.

Not much room for female autonomy can be imagined if they are not permitted to even show their faces to the world.

The third factor, especially pertinent since the early 1990s, is the pressure of the free market and media industry. These result in the increased objectification of women to sell products. Sex sells, even in the more egalitarian societies of the West. It is hardly surprising that Bollywood has relied on a highly sexualized presentation of women to appeal to its sexually repressed male audience. In the guise of ‘liberation’, mainstream cinema in India has increasingly legitimized the sexual harassment and assault of women.

The fourth factor is the general breakdown of the democratic norm in India and the reduction of democracy to an electoral civil war. Prachee Sinha summarizes the effects this malformed democracy at the ground level in urban India at the blog Kafila,

When the class dimension emerges in the course of a discussion, it is commonplace to assert that patriarchy is equally entrenched in all classes. One often cites examples of rapes and other crimes against women that take place in the high society. But the fact remains that such crimes are more likely to happen in the slum habitat and the poor neighbourhoods. Women of this other world face such dangers far more than those from the middle class localities. In fact entire population of the slum habitat suffers under the oppression of the local goons and bullies who are more likely to be involved in such crimes.

Before it is taken as a sign of elite prejudice, let me say that I have been working with the urban poor in the slum habitat for nearly ten years. I can assert with some measure of confidence that were the goons and bullies to be taken away from the scene, slums will turn into incomparably better places despite the filth and poverty. But how can they be removed from the scene? They are the backbone of the political process in the slum habitat. They are the ground-support of the structure of political patronage that reaches all the way to the top. Every political party that aspires to become the ruling party has these elements as their representatives and functionaries in the slums. Ruling classes live far away from the slum habitat and rule from the institutions around the India Gate, but they have an intricate web of linkages extending all the way to the slums.

This web has been potrayed well in the recent Dibakar Banerjee movie ‘Shanghai‘. It is no surprise that this kind of political ecosystem will not allow the state to help Indian women end patriarchy.

In the fight to ‘make India safe for its women’ stricter punishments and increased surveillance are going to be of little use. They might even be counter-productive. Only when politics becomes about issues that truly affect the Indian people, when people are sufficiently media-literate to understand its manipulations and corruptions, and when people can critically evaluate their traditions and religious customs can ills like patriarchy and sexual violence be erased from India.


  1. I really appreciate the thoughts presented here. I am glad to see that people recognize that it goes beyond blaming politicians and movies. That it comes down to our culture and values.

    I would go several steps further and propose that the reason for this problem, for corruption and many more ills that plague our society today, is that our values and ethics, our moral code has taken a beating with time. I personally believe if we found a hack to our education system so that it is also able to impart a strict and correct moral code to our young people, that teaches them to be honest, it will go a great distance. I understand that this is impractical in many ways today, but just imagine this: every citizen of the country has a deep sense of right and wrong, every body acts according to this sense of right and wrong. Utopia! I believe this was the foundation of our original system of education in India – knowledge and dharma.

    • Welcome Amber Light. Glad to find another person worried about the education scenario in India.

      India’s primary and secondary education system is very conservative. In some ways, this is understandable, perhaps these students are too young to be introduced to critical thinking. But I feel that the system prevents the children from even accepting and critically thinking about the truth when they finally confront it.

      The recent CBSE textbooks have been a step in the right direction I think. They introduce the notions of equality and discrimination much more clearly and with example rather than our old textbooks which just brushed over them.

      One can even start by making children recite the preamble of the Constitution instead of the pledge (which is just propaganda).

  2. Vikram,

    Textbooks are just a tiny issue in the whole issue. I think children need to be taught morals, integrity and the importance of their part in the working of the whole machinery that is the country. Little that a textbook can do here. There has to be a shift in our mindset towards education – as teachers, policy makers, as parents and even as general citizens.

    Yes I am worried about the education scenario and I write about it. I have been writing, thinking and worrying for a few years now. I am excited to know that there are others as well. I discovered this too late. I do hope with this discovery I can join some fruitful discussions with people with similar concerns.

    I am glad to have discovered your blog and will keep coming back for your scholarly articles. (and discussions hopefully)

    Sorry for soap boxing your comments section.

    • Amber Light, agreed that the textbooks are only a small part of the puzzle. We owe the next generation a better education system.

      Look forward to your comments 🙂

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