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The Hindu Notes for 08th October 2018

Misogyny in a modern idiom

The attacks on girls and women every day are symptomatic of a deep malaise

  • Where curriculum designers fear to tread, film directors take relaxed, bold strides. Few will consider ghosts and witchcraft as suitable topics for a textbook. Killing of women on the suspicion that they are practising witchcraft occasionally figures in the news. Such episodes may be on the decline, but witches and ghosts continue to shape the deeper layers of the collective social mind.
  • The power of ‘Stree’

  • The idea that women have secret powers which they are prone to using for evil purposes, including revenge, is common enough to make the recent film Stree successful at the box office. It deals with witchcraft in a comic mode without trivialising it. It frames witchcraft in a modern idiom, using it to throw light on gender disparity and injustice. It is a remarkable achievement in that it entertains without demeaning the subject as a sign of backwardness.
  • The core theme of Stree is the fear of women. Several men participate in the story, and they all come across as being scared of a woman who happens to be a ghost. This rare portrayal of male behaviour points towards the roots of misogyny. When secretly held fear is mixed with desire, it results in loathing. Fantasy of sexual conquest by brute force is often a logical product of this mixture of emotions.
  • A new social reality

  • Stree has come at a time when a sick ethos pervades many parts of India. This ethos is marked by the everydayness of rape. Over five years ago, after the so-named ‘Nirbhaya’ episode, criminal laws and procedures were revised, raising the hope of containing crimes against girls and women. That hope has receded even as rape has become routinised. Every morning, numerous incidents of rape are reported in newspapers. Many of these incidents involve young men getting together to rape a woman. The term ‘gang-rape’ is used for such incidents, the word ‘gang’ suggesting an organised, well-planned crime. This usage conceals the spontaneity and speed with which those who commit the crime came together when they spot a potential victim.
  • The idea of noticing an opportunity to rape together reflects an awful reality. The police can hardly cope with this kind of commonplace social reality. The new commonplace status of rape, including collective rape, as a crime that can occur anywhere, any time, is what distinguishes the current cultural landscape. Conquest over a woman forms the central theme of this cultural condition. Even if the victim is a child, the sense of conquest over her remains relevant to understanding the new male perspective.
  • Stree acquires its unique relevance from this larger, sinister milieu. It wraps the roots of misogyny in a ghost story. The story is located in Chanderi, the little town of Madhya Pradesh famous for its silk saris. A female ghost visits the population annually and abducts men, leaving their clothes behind. Inscriptions on doors asking the ghost to come ‘tomorrow’ and wearing women’s dress are among the tricks that the menfolk try for protection from the ghost. They are ultimately rescued when a young ladies’ tailor agrees to serve as a medium to confront the ghost. The woman who persuades and prepares him has studied witchcraft and aspires to gain the powers of the ghost.
  • Rich narrative

  • The narrative is rich with layers of meaning and possibilities of multiple interpretations. Its theme and message remain paradoxical but the intent is clear: to generate a discourse around the fear of women. That indeed is the heart of misogyny. The psychoanalyst, Sudhir Kakar, had indicated as much in his classic on childhood in India, The Inner World.
  • The core analysis Mr. Kakar offers in this book focusses on the upbringing of the male child. Psychoanalytic insight combined with an examination of myths and folklore demonstrates how sons end up, by the time they become adults, feeling hopelessly dependent on their mother who, at a deep layer locked in early childhood memories, frightens them. The son’s early experience also impairs his ability to relate to women as equals. Perceptions of women as a danger nourish the mythology of celibacy at one level and cultivate a general distrust of women at another.
  • Although Stree does not directly deal with violence against women, it gives plenty of clues about its origins. The language and lore of the world of young men come across as entertainment, but it also reveals how distant their constructions are from real girls and women. Belief in women’s evil powers drives the story to a satisfying end where the townsmen put up a statue with the inscription, ‘Protect us, O Stree’. Underneath this message lies the fear that the female ghost might continue if greater respect is not shown to women.
  • Disconnect in the classroom

  • Matters that this film manages to talk about cannot be imagined in a classroom at school or college. Educational institutions usually deal with gender issues in a textbook mode, preaching equality and mythologising modernity. In the typical ethos of a social science classroom, no engagement is possible with male attitudes towards women either. Nor can the terror internalised by girls at an early age be acknowledged and discussed. Lessons on gender disparity mention prejudices and stereotypes, but they seldom include the ones embedded in religious practices and festive rituals.
  • After a typical gender sensitivity workshop, everyone feels content and pleased. No attempt is made to examine why aggression and violence against women are increasing despite the growth of education.
  • While education has improved the distribution of eligibility and job opportunities for women, it has made little impact on male aggression and self-righteousness. The potential that education has for improving male sanity has been severely hampered by the unprecedented and easy access provided by digital devices to pornography, including child pornography. The situation is quite dire. A helpline was set up by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) as a facility for children who have been abused. It was inundated by callers looking for pornography. Apparently, the state apparatus has no immediate answers to offer for a social phenomenon growing at a wild pace.
  • Too easily offended

    The Konark temple case shows some penal provisions are handy tools of harassment

  • The Supreme Court’s observations, while denying bail to defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, to the effect that he incited religious feelings in a video posted on social media, were out of place in what was a bail hearing. Such endorsement by the Court, which observed that Mr. Iyer-Mitra would be “safer in jail”, in response to his counsel’s plea that he feared for his life, was less than appropriate. Sending someone to the “safety” of a prison is no answer to questions raised by a prosecution under stringent laws that involve restrictions on free speech on grounds of maintaining public order and tranquillity. In a video post against the backdrop of the Konark temple, Mr. Iyer-Mitra had made some comments that were clearly satirical in nature. While it is entirely possible that his remarks offended some people, it is laughable to assume his intent was to sow discord or create religious enmity. The State police contended otherwise, charging him with outraging or wounding religious feelings and, quite mystifyingly, alleging that his remarks were directed against the “Odiya people”. On cue, the Odisha Assembly is now probing whether his satirical jokes constitute a breach of privilege of the House. Mr. Iyer-Mitra’s arrest in New Delhi by a police team from Odisha for his comments and some other tweets is another instance of the rampant misuse of two sections of the Indian Penal Code — 153A and 295A — on the charges of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion. However, a magistrate denied the police permission to take him to Odisha on transit remand, and instead granted him limited bail until September 28 on the condition that he join the investigation by that date. His petition for regular bail has now been rejected by the Supreme Court.
  • The entire episode flags a larger concern: provisions that ought to be invoked only under serious circumstances — a grave threat to public order and tranquillity, for instance, or, in the case of Section 295A, when a purported insult to religion has been done with malicious and deliberate intent — are being misused in a routine manner. When the onus is on the prosecution to show there was criminal intent either to provoke disharmony or deliberately offend religious sensibilities, it is simply wrong to invoke these sections for everything that someone finds objectionable. Irreverence or even bad taste is not a crime. A mere response suffices; the use of prosecution and arrest are unjustifiable. Such an attitude will only make for an intolerant society consisting of easily offended individuals. In a mature democracy, the casual resort to criminal prosecution for perceived insults to either a religion or a class of society ought to be actively discouraged. In fact, the case must serve as yet another prompt to begin the process of reading down Sections 153A and 295A.
  • At the ‘university of green forests’

  • Inside The Mind of Xi Jinping
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful leader of his country since Mao Zedong. During the 19th Party Congress last October, the ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ was inscribed into the party charter. Earlier, in 2016, the party accorded him special stature by making him the ‘Core Leader’. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping by François Bougon, an Asia specialist and economics correspondent at Le Monde, traces the rise of Mr. Xi, arguing that in his quest to become the world’s most powerful leader, he must balance Mao’s Little Red Book with The Analects of Confucius. An excerpt:
  • The idea of progressive and rational ascent towards the highest functions of power is not just marketing spin. It is both the cornerstone of the Chinese model and its justification. But is Xi Jinping truly the perfect illustration of this ‘meritocracy’?
  • That Xi did indeed start off quite low down the hierarchy is undeniable, even if in truth he was put there by the regime. What the propaganda machine has turned into a significant feat — reaching the top of the hierarchy starting from nothing — glosses over the trials and tribulations involved. Xi was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, where he endured difficult conditions. Before that he was a well-off Beijing schoolboy. In 1968, to put an end to the chaos he had himself brought about, Mao had decided to empty the cities of their youth and send them out amongst the peasants to be re-educated. ‘I studied at the university of green forests, that is where I learned something,’ he said in 1964, relaunching a 1950s movement known as shangshan xiaxiang (‘go up the mountains, go down to the countryside’).
  • The directive that would affect Xi and millions of other students was read out on the radio on a winter evening in 1968, 21 December, and published the next day in the People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao): It is absolutely necessary for educated youth to go to the countryside to get re-educated by the poor and lower-middle peasants. We must persuade the officials and other inhabitants of the cities to send their children who are graduates of secondary schools and universities to the countryside. There should be an effort to mobilise. The comrades from all the rural areas should welcome these youths.
  • Xi Jinping was fifteen at the time and got caught up in the movement. It was an exodus on an unprecedented scale in the country’s history, affecting about 17 million people in total. The same scenes were witnessed throughout the country: columns of young people heading towards the stations, to the rhythm of revolutionary chants and songs; the outpourings of enthusiasm; the farewells; the welcoming committees on their arrival in the country; and then the billeting. Those who left in 1968 or 1969 were keen to go. Many, like Xi, volunteered. And this decision was to prove fundamental to his intellectual development.
  • The pull of ‘Yellow Earth’

  • The young Xi was happy to escape the stifling political atmosphere of the city. In those troubled times, when one had always to demonstrate ever purer revolutionary zeal, his ‘family history’ worked against him. His father had been the victim of a political purge and ousted in 1962.
  • When a father is chastised, there are two types of sons: those who avenge them, and those who atone for them. Xi belongs to the second category. He has always sought to erase the mark left on him by his father’s faults. And so, the teenage Xi left Beijing. He requested to go to northern China, to a village near Yan’an. He had heard his family mention the place: it was there that his father had headed a combat base at the beginning of the Revolution, in the 1930s. The region, now called ‘Yellow Earth’ after the colour of its loess soil, is considered the cradle of Chinese civilisation. With its cave-houses (yaodong), it is redolent of the ancestral era of the Yellow Emperor, the mythical founder of Chinese civilisation 5,000 years ago.
  • The loess plateaux are also legendary in Revolutionary folklore for having been Mao’s stronghold before his 1949 victory; the communist leader and his comrades had sought refuge in this bare land from the pursuing Nationalist troops. There are many famous photographs of Mao in his padded jacket, standing before a cave or writing inside his refuge. In other words, for the Chinese people, this yellow earth is a site of collective memory, and Xi Jinping would use that to his advantage. Put simply, his sojourn in the region allowed him to link big — imperial — history to both Revolutionary history and his own family history.
  • The first months were difficult. Three months after his arrival, he returned to Beijing. But he was arrested and sentenced to a spell of re-education through labour. He dug trenches for water pipes in a Beijing neighbourhood. He eventually returned to the village of Liangjiahe on his family’s advice. Did he want to end up a delinquent on the run?
  • This time around, the young Xi adjusted to country life and settled in. This transformation is key to understanding Xi Jinping’s career. He still refers to it today as the founding event of his political life.
  • Playing the caste card

    The BJP’s unapologetic outreach is aimed at garnering the OBC votes

  • The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on an all-out caste mobilisation drive in Uttar Pradesh, even though the prospect that it might face a united Opposition in the State in 2019 remains far-fetched. Facing resistance from Dalits and being precariously placed vis-à-vis upper castes, the party is aware that backward classes must be its fulcrum.
  • Through conventions titled ‘Samajik Pratinidhi Baithak’, the BJP is communicating with the groups individually, promoting the Central government’s welfare schemes beneficial to them. For a party that claims to reject caste politics, the BJP’s unapologetic caste outreach highlights not only its doublespeak but perhaps also its desperation. What makes the campaign unique is its defining of backward and Dalit icons through the lens of Hindutva, creating potential for communal polarisation.
  • Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s appeasement of the caste sentiments of the Nishads provides a snapshot. “You have Rambhakti (devotion to Ram) in your DNA. Who knows better about materialising the concept of a Ram Rajya than you,” Mr. Adityanath told them, promising to build statues of their icon Nishadraj. Hindus believe that Nishadraj ferried Ram across the Ganga during his exile.
  • Speaking to Lodhs, Mr. Adityanath honoured their tallest leader, Kalyan Singh, for the Babri Masjid demolition that happened on his watch, and for providing the Ram Janmabhoomi movement a “new direction and awakening the national consciousness”. To the Rajbhars, Mr. Adityanath asked them to decide if India should run as per the values of Suheldev or Muslim ruler Mahmud Ghaznavi. Suheldev is a medieval Bhar-Pasi chieftain and caste icon whom the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have systematically tried to project as a Hindutva warrior.
  • In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the BJP won the perception battle among the non-Yadav backwards. While the Bahujan Samaj Party played a risky Dalit-Muslim card after facing desertion of its Other Backward Classes (OBC) leadership, the Samajwadi Party’s alleged Yadav appeasement and family feud left the BJP to fully engage backward classes, supplemented through its alliances with the OBC-based Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Apna Dal.
  • But this strategy has its limitations, as the BJP is naturally upper-caste minded. In the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls, the Opposition outsmarted the BJP though a similar tactic. Stung by those defeats and now dealing with an unpredictable ally, Om Prakash Rajbhar, the BJP knows that it can only compete with a combined Opposition if it commands the largest vote bloc in the State, that of the backward classes, who form over 40% of the electorate.
  • To win elections in this context, the Opposition needs a formidable caste arithmetic that includes the Jatav Dalits and Yadavs (supplemented by the 19% Muslim vote). So far, it has not kicked off any such programme.