Of rights new, and prejudice old: A response to Justice Chauhan’s speech at Madurayam 2022 – The Leaflet

[The Leaflet] Of rights new, and prejudice old: A response to Justice Chauhan’s speech at Madurayam 2022 – The Leaflet

Despite all the efforts, activism, movements and legislation, along with the vision of autonomy and protection of women, the damage of Manu still remains to be undone.

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ON November 26, 2022, an organisation called ‘The Freedom Lifestyle’, organised an event for women entrepreneurs called ‘Madurayam 2022’ at the Constitutional Club of India that I attended. The event ended with speeches on the Constitution of India and the rights available for the protection of women in India.

However, all of these speeches reflected a very shallow understanding of the Constitution, the Indian feminist movement, and the persisting challenges of sexual and gender-based violence that women in India suffer from on a daily basis. As an audience member, lawyer and woman, what I found most offensive was that retired Justice Dr. B.S. Chauhan, being one of the key speakers, emphatically stated that women in India need no empowerment because the Manusmriti already granted them all rights.

The shocking statement by a former Supreme Court judge is particularly worrying as it appears to be a part of a growing echo that seeks to replace our secular and democratic constitutional principles of equality and justice with that of the regressive Manusmriti, and hence I feel the need to respond to it.

The perversion of Manu’s Laws

Manu’s laws created stringent laws for women (including for women born in ‘twice-born’ families). These laws expected women to be ‘pure’ and beneath men, under their control.

The code of Manu insisted that women were properties of her male relatives and were incapable of being left independent. As Justice Dr. Chauhan correctly quoted in his speech, according to Manu, women were indeed supposed to always be under the protection of their father (when she is a virgin), husband (after marriage) and son (as a widow).

Manu wrote that women are never fit for independence (Manusmriti Verse 9.3). A widow who has no issue (son) to look after her, according to Manu, must be impregnated by her brother-in-law or any other member from her husband’s family (Verse 9.59). Manu’s code of unequal laws further obligates women to honour their husbands, irrespective of them being drunkards, diseased or perverts, failing which they may be deserted and deprived of jewellery and furniture (Verse 9.78). On the other hand, a woman who is a drunkard, rebellious, or diseased can be superseded by her husband (Verse 9.80).

The code of Manu insisted that women were properties of her male relatives and were incapable of being left independent.

Moreover, as per Manu, a barren wife can be deserted in the eighth year of marriage while a woman whose children die can be deserted in the tenth year of the marriage. Even a woman who bears only female children can be deserted in the eleventh year of marriage. However, it is here that Manu clarifies that any woman who speaks harshly must be deserted immediately.

The Constitution of India

There is indeed no doubt that for several years, the Manusmriti served as the constitutional law of Brahmins and legitimised the absolute objectification and subjugation of women. The Constitution of India introduced the values of equality before law and fundamental rights that were available to all citizens. The Constitution gave us universal adult franchise irrespective of our caste, creed, religion, sex or colour.

However, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who was the architect of our Constitution and a member of the untouchable Mahar community, continued his struggle for greater freedoms. As the Union Law Minister, Dr. Ambedkar reintroduced the Hindu Code Bill before the Parliament in 1947. These were bills that proposed to grant women the right to marriage, divorce, maintenance, adoption, and guardianship along with the right to own property, the right to equal inheritance as that of men.

The Hindu Code Bill was a radical proposition for the Brahmanical Hindu society that was accustomed to the laws of Manu that had treated women as slaves and non-entities for centuries. It was no surprise that staunch Hindus and upper caste groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha protested against any of these freedoms for women that the bills sought to secure. It was alleged that the passage of the Hindu Code Bill shall destroy the foundations of the Hindu society. In 1951, Dr. Ambedkar resigned from the position of India’s first Law Minister and cited one of the reasons as the non-passage of the Hindu Code Bill.

Also read: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the question of women’s liberation in India – I

Between 1955 and 1956, amidst an extensive anti-caste feminist movement, the Hindu Code Bills were finally passed to create the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956 and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956. These laws empowered Hindu women in India with the choice to marry men of their choice irrespective of caste, to seek divorce from their husbands, the right to seek maintenance and alimony and custody and guardianship of their children, and the right to own and inherit property. These laws were a giant step towards the recognition of equal rights for women within the Hindu society, as well as an effort for social reform.

The continuing struggle of women for equal rights in India against patriarchy and caste

Even after the passage of the Hindu Code Bills, the Bahujan feminist struggle for equality continues in India. In the 1980s, women’s rights activists Satya Rani Chaddha and Shahjahan Apa launched a struggle for stronger laws and justice against dowry deaths. Both of them had lost their daughters due to dowry harassment and brutal tortures in their daughters’ respective matrimonial households.

Chaddha reached the Supreme Court seeking stronger laws against dowry, and it was her advocacy and a sustained movement outside the courtroom along with Apa that fuelled the strengthening of laws for the protection of women against dowry deaths in India.

The contradiction in Indian society is the battle for a secular, democratic constitutional law as opposed to the irrational Manusmriti. 

It took Chaddha, over 34 years of litigation and activism to finally convict the husband and murderer of her daughter.

Also read: Rising violence against women in India calls for an alternative legal system

Persisting challenges of patriarchy and caste-based violence and atrocities against women

The patriarchy and subjugation of women as propagated by texts like Manusmriti pervade deep into the culture and roots of Indian society. Despite all the efforts, activism, movements and legislation, along with the vision of autonomy and protection of women, the damage of Manu still remains to be undone.

In 2006, the Khairlanji massacre became a chilling reminder of the blatant caste apartheid that continues in India. Surekha Bhotmange, aged 40 years, was an untouchable woman from the Mahar caste (Dr. Ambedkar was also from the Mahar community). She lived in the Khairlanji village in Maharashtra that is surrounded by farms owned by caste groups that are considered to be superior to the Mahar caste.

Bhotmange, along with her seventeen year old daughter and two sons (one of whom was partially blind) were dragged out of their house by an upper caste mob. The mob ordered the boys to rape their mother and sister, and when they denied, their genitals were mutilated and they were lynched. Bhotmange and her daughter were gang raped, paraded naked in the village, and murdered. The four bodies were dumped in a canal.

This heinous crime was meted out to Bhotmange and her family because she persisted in her attempts to seek an electricity connection and turn her thatched mud hut into a brick house. As the harassment and intimidation by members of the upper caste persisted, Bhotmange had also dared to file a police complaint. That was her mistake and the punishment was certainly a reflection of the persistence of Manu’s laws in contemporary India.

In 2019, a Bahujan student of medicine, Payal Tadvi committed suicide owing to caste-based ragging and discrimination that she faced at the hands of the college administration and her college mates.

In 2021, a 19-year-old Dalit woman from Hathras, Uttar Pradesh was brutally gang raped by her upper caste neighbours from the same village. She died a few days later in a hospital. The incident gathered international attention and condemnation after the state authorities forcibly cremated the woman’s body in the darkness of the night without the consent of her family members. As journalists visited the village to cover the issue, they were stunned by the level of caste-based discrimination, untouchability and atrocities that continue to exist in India.

Also read: Understanding contemporary sexual assault in India from the lens of the caste system

India has not had a single woman chief justice at the Supreme Court till date.

In his speech, Justice Dr. Chauhan asked the rhetorical question: What is new in (India’s) constitutional provisions? He said that these rights were already available in the Vedic period. But that is not accurate.

A social hierarchy and regressive mind-set only empties human beings, and detaches them from their own souls and conscience. A destructive caste and sexual hierarchy can never build a network of trust and mutual respect amidst social groups, and shall finally only tear us all apart. 

The Constitution has given us equality and the right to Bahujan people, especially Bahujan women, to reach universities and higher education. That is new. Today, Bahujans and feminists have a voice which they derive from the Constitution. That is new. Although, what is not new is that Bahujan women are lynched, ragged, discriminated against and murdered even today as acts of caste-based violence and brutal inequality, as perpetuated by the Manusmriti. The contradiction in Indian society is this battle for a secular, democratic constitutional law as opposed to the irrational Manusmriti.

Growing disinformation around the Manusmriti

There is growing disinformation around Manusmriti that is being categorically spread. One such instance I came across was when, in a gender equity forum by BRICS, Union Minister and Parliamentarian Meenakshi Lekhi referred to the Manusmriti to suggest that Manu’s laws gave women the right to succession of property. Thankfully, this blatant misinformation was countered by entrepreneur Anuradha Exwaized, who in turn quoted the precise shlok from Manusmriti that forbade women, sons, and slaves from owning any property. The shlok states that whatever they earn are properties of the man to whom they belong.

Similarly, last year,  Delhi High Court judge, Justice Prathibha M. Singh publicly stated that Manusmriti gave women “respectable position” and women were blessed by his laws. She was speaking at an event on the subject – ‘Facing the unseen barriers: Addressing challenges faced by Women in Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship and Mathematics (STEM)’. Her comments also invited strong opposition from the feminists and social justice groups.

Similar opposition continues to rise against the forceful propaganda in favour of the Manusmriti in order to undermine values of the Constitution. Since 1989, feminists and activists have been demanding the removal of the Manu statue in front of the Jaipur Bench of Rajasthan High Court. This sustained demand for the removal of the statue was reasserted on December 25, which is also the anniversary of the burning of the Manusmriti by Dr. Ambedkar and his followers in Mahad, Maharashtra as a protest against the regressive provisions of Manu. In fact, a case for the removal of Manu’s statue is pending before the Rajasthan high court and activists have demanded expeditious hearing in the case.

Also read: Why we have to be wary of calls for Indianisation

A new year’s resolution

The discrimination professed by Manusmriti can be advantageous for an upper caste man in terms of accumulating resources, opportunities and even controlling people. However, such a social hierarchy and regressive mind-set only empties human beings, and detaches them from their own souls and conscience.

A society is formed of solidarities and collective understanding. A destructive caste and sexual hierarchy can never build a network of trust and mutual respect amidst social groups, and shall finally only tear us all apart.

As a New Year’s resolution, I am sharing a reading list of ten books. Feel free to add your own to this list against the madness of Manu, which is rearing its ugly head again.

Recommended readings: 

Source: The Leaflet