Dev 360 ( My Fortnightly Column )
The Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle
Was Nirupama Pathak murdered to preserve the “honour” of her family? Or did she commit suicide? Was she “sexually exploited” or was this a normal relationship involving two consenting adults that ended in a macabre way? It will take a while to know the answers. The young, educated woman, a journalist, whose life was snuffed out before she could live out her dreams, however, has raised questions which go beyond her. Her gruesome end busts some popular assumptions about New India.
India, the new, emerging powerhouse, is a nation of predominantly young people. Young India is striving, seeking, aspiring and globalising. In rapidly modernising India, wearing one’s ambition on one’s sleeve is admired. Families are prepared to invest increasing sums on education because education is a passport to mobility. Even in the traditional “marriage mart”, an educated woman is much desired because her qualifications can translate into more money at the disposal of the family. The harsh truth, however, is that while more education spells better jobs, more opportunities, more money and more consumer choices, it does not necessarily lead to more “empowerment” or “enlightenment”.
An educated woman like Nirupama could choose her career but not her partner nor the nature of the relationship with the man she cared for. To her bank manager father, educated mother, brothers working and pursuing a PhD, nothing, not even India’s Constitution, mattered more than a hoary tradition which forbids mingling of the “castes”. “We did not educate her so that she could do everything of her own choice”, Dharmendra Pathak, Nirupama’s father, said on record.
That no major Indian politician, young or old, has condemned the unabashedly casteist utterances of the family members of this young woman is a telling commentary on the paradoxical nature of New India where the medieval and the modern, the digital and the criminal co-exist in an unsettling intimacy, sometimes within the same family.
A wafer-thin minority among the youth, mostly in metropolitan India, are living out their fantasies of freedom. But for the vast majority of young people, personal choices, if at all, are restricted to stuff that money can buy. The notion of young people having lifestyle choices which clash with the customary practices of their community continues to be anathema. Critics of personal freedom dub such restrictions an assertion of “family values”.
To know the extent of “control” that young people have to deal with in their day-to-day life one has to only leaf through the most recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3). Young men and women are both circumscribed by family decisions and mores but young women are harder-hit because of the continuing low status of women in society.
Two key findings from the survey: The majority of married women do not have the final say on the use of their own earnings or other household decisions. Traditional gender norms, particularly those concerning wife beating, remain strongly entrenched. The survey notes that “education, employment or wealth do not ensure that women have money that they can control”. Forty per cent of women (among those surveyed) in the 15-49 age group, with 12+ years of education, do not have access to money which they can use in ways they choose. The majority of women (in the same age group) have little freedom of movement. “Only one-third goes alone to the market, health facility and outside the village/community”, it points out.
Caste continues to be a big issue despite platitudes in public for a casteless society. The worst forms of caste discrimination are no doubt criminalised by the Constitution, but even educated, well-off families draw the line at inter-caste marriages.
It is fashionable to lay the blame for this on politicians and the older generation who refuse to move forward in their thinking. But even city-bred young people themselves have a lot to answer for, says Neelam Katara, Delhi-based academic and social activist.
“Medieval India is not lurking beneath a modernising India. Medieval India is in your face, staring at you boldly from the matrimonial adverts in the Sunday newspapers which are classified by caste and sub-caste. Nirupama’s story is an extreme case. But such things do not happen in isolation. Such incidents are the logical outcomes of a system in which the caste system is accepted as a reality and leveraged during elections and in the marriage and job markets”, says Katara.
Katara’s son Nitish was kidnapped and brutally murdered in 2002. The young man’s fault: he had fallen in love with a classmate, Bharti Yadav, who came from a family which did not like Nitish. Bharti’s brother and cousin, Vikas and Vishal Yadav, were later found guilty by a trial court and jailed for life on May 30, 2008. Bharti, subsequently defended her family and said she had no intention of marrying Nitish Katara. “Young educated boys and girls can say ‘no’ but they don’t. They are happy to be weak. They are happy to buy what they perceive as happiness. Those who hope to find their life partners through caste-based matrimonial adverts or allow their families to do so have collectively contributed to a situation where a woman has to die because she stepped out of line in a caste-based society”, argues Katara.
Freedom comes at a price. Quite often someone defying restrictive social mores pays the price in strained or even broken relations with other members of the family. And then, of course, there are the extreme cases of so-called “honour” killings. This is as true of India today as it was in India yesterday. The bizarre story of Ajit Saini, a business management student in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, and Anshu Tomar is still breaking.
Families and clans can be great sources of support, but they can also destroy. For the youth in a transitional society like ours, there is a crucial takeaway lesson: being too trusting and failing to gauge the full implication of “family values” can sometimes be fatal.