Intro: We should have the courage to ask what is wrong with us before asking what is wrong with our country
By Mathew Joys
“Gods are extremely happy where women are respected, where they are not, all good works will be fruitless”. (Yatra nāryastu pūjyante ramante tatra devatāḥ/yatraitāstu na pūjyante sarvāstatrāphalāḥ kriyāḥ – Manusmriti).
“Manusmṛiti’ is an influential social text that has molded much of social behavior and practices of Hindu society in India. In the past century, it has been grossly criticized for political and sectarian reasons by people who don’t understand Sanskrit or have no compassion. The fact is, our tradition says unequivocally that we have to respect women.
We have for centuries proclaimed proudly that India is a country that respects and protects women and children. Even the Indian Constitution – Article 15 (3) – instructs the state to create special provisions for protecting the interests of women and children. That is why Parliament instituted Child Rights and Child Protection Committees, and Women’s Protection Boards for these two vulnerable groups.
Yet, unfortunately, almost every day lately Indian news media carries ghoulish reports of young girls raped, children kidnapped and molested — often brutally killed or bodies burnt to destroy evidence of the heinous crimes. The most shocking abomination which continues to hog headlines is of course the murderous gang rape of a 19-year-old girl from Hathras in Uttar Pradesh.
In 2014, Narendra Modi came to power pledging zero tolerance to violence against women after the 2012 brutal gang rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi shocked the nation. But India is still the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, according to a 2018 survey of experts by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which cited sexual violence, cultural traditions and human trafficking as the main reasons for the ranking. So, nothing seems to have changed since Nirbhaya’s rape-death which hit international headlines.
In Hathras on 14 September, a Dalit girl was allegedly gang-raped by four upper-caste men. After fighting for her life for two weeks, she died in a Delhi hospital. Not only the police made no arrests for 10 days, they forcibly cremated her body without the consent of her family. The case and its mishandling continue to provoke widespread condemnation and protests.
The problem is not confined to the underdeveloped parts of India. In Kerala, in a shocking incident on September 6, a Covid patient was sexually abused by the driver of the ambulance carrying her to the hospital in Pathanamthhitta district.
Government statistics reveal how widespread the problem is. A woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. The country is ranked third in rape cases after US and Africa. Sexual violence on Dalit women is imposed systematically as punishment and dominance by the men of superior castes.
None of this should be seen as a matter of law and order only. It needs a total society approach in coordination with the government and voluntary sector.
What is worse is that sexual violence against women and children also takes place within the four walls of the home, at some houses of worship, at the workplace, and in schools.
The need of the hour is public awareness and our spiritual upliftment as an educated, civilized and gender equitable society. Those who need to be protected as per the Indian constitution are still crying for justice and protection after seven decades. In a progressive society, the women and children should be put in the circle of respect and protection, and nurtured with loving care.
A society and nation without gender justice can never be said to go on the path of development, as Manusmriti reminds us. The responsibility to affect systemic changes for the well-being and better future for all falls upon us. We should have the courage to ask what is wrong with us before asking what is wrong with our country?
(The Las Vegas-based writer is Vice Chairman of Indo-American Press Club).