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Child brides: The nationalist heritage of rape

Oct 27th 2015 at 11:24 PM

WHY is it that the widespread rape of young girls is seen as reprehensible, which it is, while the deep-rooted institution of child bride, is not considered deserving of equal attention, and finds only muffled condemnation? Is there a political collusion with regressive social practices today just as leading Indian nationalists had fought British steps to protect infant girls from brutal marital assault?

True to form, the rape of two infant girls in Delhi has once again sent experts searching for ways to tackle the seemingly intractable malaise. A high court judge strongly advised the government to sanction castration for future rapists. Was he serious? Can we even fathom the retribution if the rapist was acting on behalf of a powerful caste or religious group, as often is the case? Lynching is already part of the social response. That hasn’t helped the girl child though.

Billa and Ranga became notorious household names when they were convicted and hanged for raping and killing a naval officer’s young son and his small sister in Delhi’s Buddha Jayanti Park in the 1970s. Nothing seems to deter India’s rapists, who include those who kill their victims.

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Such men periodically surface from their social crevices, where they otherwise hibernate till they sniff the next victim. Manto has described a more collective sickness in detail from his experiences of the 1947-48 frenzy. Is the malaise in any way reflected in India’s inability to root out the social practice of marrying off young girls for fear of social and political blowback?

There is another area of unequal public response. Indian newspapers off and on highlight gory incidents of rape in communal situations that usually occur between Hindus and Muslims. However, they seldom shine the light with similar intensity on the steadier and more institutionalised abuse of Dalit women by upper-caste men.

As for the trauma of child brides, the topic scarcely makes it to the headlines. The sickness, rampant in Africa and South Asia, cuts across religious and ethnic communities. Orthodox South Asian Muslims sanction child brides, and implicitly their rape, as do Hindus, if not legally then socially.

A useful hunch can be that after 1857 everyone decided that tinkering with religious beliefs and social customs in India could be fatal for anyone seeking political hegemony. The Congress party in its last weeks in power in March 2013 thus proposed the lowering of the age of consent for girls to 16 years whereas the UN-backed definition of a child remains at a healthy 18 years. To make it more bizarre, the government’s move was announced as a response to the gang rape and murder by torture of a woman in the notorious bus outrage. There were protests by women’s rights groups against the tinkering with the age to take a husband, but history defeated the protesters.

One of the early challenges faced by reformers from the British cluster together with the moderate reformers in the Congress leadership came in 1891. The British brought a law to raise the age of consent for marriage of the girl from 10 years to 12 years. Howls of protests went up.

Historian Judith Walsh describes how the protests became public expression of “the feelings of many middle-class Hindus that the protection of Hindu customs and a Hindu identity was now of much greater urgency” than the reform of social customs.

“The Hindu family is ruined,” wrote the Bangabasi, a conservative Bengali paper cited by Tanika Sarkar in her masterly book Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism. The Bangabasi was responding to the British law that increased the age of consent for girls following the tragic death of a child bride.

Resistance to the bill by orthodox Hindus also formed an early attempt at blending religion and culture with politics, on this occasion their anti-colonial politics. Bal Gangadhar Tilak became the first ‘iron man’ of Indian nationalism to back the right of Hindu men to take a bride of 10 years.

The immediate cause for the British moves deserves mention. An 11-year-old girl, Phulmoni Bai, died in Calcutta from lacerations caused by her 35-year-old husband. As the law set the statutory rape at 10 for girls, the husband could not be prosecuted. The Age of Consent Bill raised the age of statutory rape for girls by all of two years.

In western India, Tilak opposed the bill in his newspaper Kesari. In Maharashtra and Bengal, opponents of the bill held mass meetings and sent petitions. Judith Walsh records how in Pune young Hindu men broke up a meeting attended by social reformers and wrecked the hall in which they met.

In the wake of the reactionary militant protests, social reformers were abused and targeted in Bengal and Bombay as “Western turncoats” who had betrayed their own religion.

In Maharashtra, at the receiving end of the Tilak-led vitriol was justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, a fellow Brahmin of reformist pedigree.

Since its founding in 1887, Ranade’s reform-oriented Indian National Social Conference had met at the same time as the Congress session with the blessings of the Congress. In 1895, Hindu revivalists threatened to boycott the Congress session if Ranade was allowed to hold his parallel meeting. To pacify the revivalists, Ranade’s conference was barred from the session. Is there a reflection of what’s happening today?

After all, in today’s context, the inability of the state to intervene remains just as apparent where social customs do not comply with the rigour of law. The flourishing village khap panchayatas, veritable kangaroo courts that practise rampant gender bias against girls, mock the legal provisions of the liberal constitution. The Shahbano episode is all too well known.

I hear Malala Yousafzai wants to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She is struggling in her homeland to secure girls’ rights. Could she succeed in ultra-nationalist India?

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