The men’s movement in India has gathered speed. Time to look at who they are and what they are about.
Pallavi Polanki | 15 Jul, 2010
The men’s movement in India has gathered speed. Time to look at who they are and what they are about.
Nine hundred newspaper articles in 2009. Phew! That is a lot of media attention given to husband organisations and their grouses. Organised male victimhood seems to be catching on. Last heard, members in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa have started local chapters and are waiting by their mobile phones to take calls by husbands who need to vent. Women’s groups are reporting gatecrashers from groups of men who want to be represented in their programmes.
Blogs, Yahoo groups, weekly meetings, radio and television programmes, telephones, websites, posters, no media is being left unused to galvanise male oppression into a mass movement.
In the 198os, a lawyer who came to be known as Comrade Chugh had a similar idea. It was a turbulent decade, a time when the anti-dowry movement was at its peak and had succeeded in making itself felt. RP Chugh, a Marxist who began his activism ironically with the Nari Raksha Samiti and the women’s movement of the communist party, changed tack to launch the Patni Atyachar Virodhi Morcha. Chugh might be last century’s news, but he is not without next generation followers.
“If you go on the internet today, you will find that crores of people are with me,” says the 65-year-old Supreme Court advocate and President of the campaign now rechristened Man Cell. At his residence in New Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh, the walls of the front room are covered with newspaper and magazine clippings featuring him, some of them dating back 30 years. The media loved him.
“Take a look at the infotech professionals today. Many of them have started similar groups at my insistence. They used to be with me. I told them to start their own organisations. If you stick with one group, there won’t be any impact. They are coming up now,” he says.
Indeed, the decade that witnessed the passing of the landmark Domestic Violence Act is seeing a second wave of sorts of a campaign against “women and women’s laws which are abused”, as Chugh puts it.
Bangalore, India’s hugely successful brand in the West, is the headquarters of “the men’s organisation,” to quote one of its members. The Save Indian Family Foundation (Siff), an umbrella group, has activists and helplines in over 50 cities in 20 states. They also have NRI helplines.
Started in 2005, Siff claims on its website to have ‘30,000 members on the ground and over 3,500 on the internet who are fighting this legal terrorism with vigour and passion like commandos’ and that its members include ‘most educated, qualified and talented (intelligentsia) people like engineers, management gurus, bureaucrats, media personalities…’ (the list goes on).
Then there are smaller, independent organisations that have mushroomed in the last couple of years in different cities. Lets list a few for effect.
Gender Human Rights Society, New Delhi, Protect Indian Family, Mumbai, Bharat Bachao Sangathan, Kolkata, Sahana, Hyderabad, Asha Kiran (not related in any way to the NGO in Delhi), Bangalore, Protect Men’s Rights, Orissa, Pati Pariwar Kalyan Samiti, Lucknow, Association of Protection of Men’s Rights, Chennai, Gujarat Gaurav Raksha Samiti, Purushak Sangrashan Sanstha, Nasik, All Kerala Forum For Social Justice and Legal Studies, Kerala.
There are 28 such organisations, some of them all-women groups (comprising mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law).
Says Wasif Ali of the Safe Family Foundation, the New Delhi offshoot of the online community that began in 2005 and eventually gave rise to local groups: “Before we started this campaign, talking about problems of men was considered politically incorrect. We had to create an awareness campaign. Things are beginning to change now. The men’s movement is still in its infancy.”
Why then call themselves ‘Save Family’ or ‘Protect Indian Family’ instead of, say, ‘Save Man’? To which Wasif says, “Family means husband, his mother, his sister. This is Save Indian Family, the husband’s family. It is not about saving marriages”. What about the wife and her family? “For that, there are 20,000 NGOs.”
Every Saturday evening, members of the Safe Family Foundation (SFF) meet at Delhi’s Patiala House Court Complex, where incidentally some of them are fighting charges under, among others, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code that refers to ‘cruelty by husband or relatives of husband’, a section that was inserted in 1983 to combat dowry killings.
Meetings are seen as being vital to the campaign. “This is what we call group therapy. Just like Alcoholics Anonymous, where people meet to share their problems, we find that when we share our problems, they somehow get diminished,” says Niladri Shekhar Das, a civil engineer, also secretary of another group called Gender Human Rights Society.
“We teach them how to fight the cases, how to file counter-cases, how to use the RTI Act (Right to Information), and we refer them to others with similar problems,” he says. So there are legal provisions that husbands can use to pre-empt and counter allegations by their wives.
The RTI Act has become hugely popular in these circles and is used quite regularly by members to seek details on police investigation into their cases, information about in-laws, government statistics and so on.
Das says “gender-biased laws are breaking up families in India” and believes that “they are hurting women”. He has a theory on why so many cases end up in court. “In most of the cases here, the wives have psychiatric problems. It can be medically proven.” Surely, all wives who take recourse to the law can’t be mentally ill? “These girls think that some serious injustice has been done to them. Therefore, they go to the policeman or lawyer instead of going to a psychiatrist. These kind of girls have low-self esteem issues. And they also try to alienate the husband from his parents.”
It certainly must be a theory that sells. From a three-member online community, SFF in New Delhi today has over 200 volunteers, dedicated to the media and internet campaign.
Sachit Dalal, a project manager with an infotech firm who has been with SFF since its inception, has recently filed for divorce after six years of marriage. “Today women are expecting to command the house. If she wants to do that, then she has to prove herself. That is going to take five years, ten years. My mother did it.” Sachit believes women have been given “unnecessary legal power”.
The shared sense of being socially persecuted has to be heard to be believed.
Allegations by members at such meetings fly thick and fast. Crime statistics on women are rubbished. Women’s groups are dismissed as money-making rackets. Laws to protect women are judged counter-productive, even harmful to women. The Dowry Prohibition Law is declared a tool for extortion. The Women’s Reservation Bill is declared violative of the rights of men.
And then the question of dowry. “Who says dowry is about money? Dowry is for security,” says Shoni Kapoor, a regional manager with a software company.
The “urban elite” and “educated middle-class” women come in for a lot of flak. “In urban areas, especially among the middle-class, the law is more prone to misuse. If the same woman did this in Bulandshahr, she will be a social outcaste. We are fragmented in bigger cities, and so the law gets misused. The law has lost relevance in most parts of the country,” wails Kapoor.
There is talk of what Wasif refers to as “male disposability”. Men, he says, are born to suffer. Wasif offers an analysis. “You want to know why women are doing this? The roots are in feminism.
The second wave of feminism influenced a lot of women. Divorce is now seen as a sign of liberation.”
A backlash to the post-liberalisation ‘urban, educated, professional woman’ and her expectations of marriage seems to have arrived in all its fury. Madhu Kishwar, well-known for her role in the anti-dowry movement of the 1980s, is today one of the strongest critics of India’s anti-dowry legislation (‘Destined to Fail’, Manushi, 2005) and the Domestic Violence Act (‘Well-intentioned but Over-ambitious’, Manushi, 2006). What does she make of these groups? “These are anti-feminist NGOs… I see this as an inevitable backlash to the callous insensitivity of the feminist movement in India. You will see that if there is anyone they (anti-feminist groups) are willing to talk to with a measure of respect, it is me. They represent a well-deserved backlash.”
Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist Susan Faludi, in her groundbreaking book published in 1991, Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, writes, ‘The anti-feminist backlash has been set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it.’ Faludi talks about this backlash as being ‘at once sophisticated and banal, deceptively ‘progressive’ and proudly backward. It deploys both the ‘new’ findings of ‘scientific research’ and the dime-store moralism of yesteryear; it turns into media sound bites both the glib pronouncements of pop-psych trend-watchers and the frenzied rhetoric of New Right preachers.’
Conversations with members in other cities, from other organisations, excite similar sentiments. There is no missing the overwhelming nostalgia for the pre-liberalisation idyll, for joint family traditions, for life in small towns.
For the aggrieved, this campaign is a highly emotional affair that has won their unwavering commitment in terms of time and resources. Ananth Ram, 37, a government employee, has been fighting a 498A case for six years now. He, his father and brother, spent a month in jail.
“The judicial system in this country is third rate. Six years of my life is gone. I am sorry to have to say this, but it is unfortunate that I was born in India.” The legal battle exhausted Ananth Ram. To him, this has become a “movement for justice”. At Asha Kiran, where he first went for advice, he now counsels. “We advise couples to adjust with each other.”
Durga Kollu is a 32-year-old software engineer based in Hyderabad. He started Sahana in 2005. The majority of those who come to him, he says, are between 25 and 30 years, and have been married for not more than three years. “Pressure from the wife and her parents to start a separate family without the in-laws, control over money, pre-marital affairs, constant threat of 498A, suicide threats by the wife—are some common problems men face these days,” he says.
Kollu got married in 2006. He and his wife and daughter live with his parents. He says, “The problem is, all those who start these organisations have in some way or another suffered due to the Indian legal system or at the hands of some women… so they lose all respect for women and create hatred towards them, which is not good for a healthy society.”
In Mumbai, 58-year-old MR Gupta, an engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, started Protect Indian Family (PIF) in 2006. Gupta is now studying law. He says he is not against laws that protect women, but, “Laws should not interfere in a marital relationship. This is a social problem. There should be workshops to help inculcate tolerance. Laws break marriages.” The legal scrutiny of marital relationships has stripped the Indian middle class home of its privacy like never before.
And the backlash has been swift and widespread. Vocal and unapologetic, these platforms make no pretence of what they stand for. They are the ultimate reality show on the great Indian middle class marriage.
Nivedita Menon, professor of Political Thought at Jawaharalal Nehru University’s School of International Studies, who writes on Indian politics from a feminist perspective, says, “Politically, it is good to have this voice because it very clearly reveals what the family is about. It articulates the violence and the core of the family so clearly, and, in doing so, exposes it.” Menon sees the emergence of such groups as a regrouping of patriarchy and a sign of the success of legislation.
Vrinda Grover, a Supreme Court advocate and director of Marg (Multiple Action and Research Group), a legal advocacy and research group, says these laws are bound to unsettle some precisely because they are “meant to counter an entrenched interest, an entrenched discrimination, an entrenched violence”. What is interesting with these groups, says Grover, is the level of righteousness with which its members put forth their views. “That comes from their perception of a culturally subordinate and socially subservient position of women, which the law is trying to challenge and overturn. Therefore, these groups come across as ‘what have we done wrong?’”
That brings us to the one argument on which this whole campaign has been publicly sold—the “rampant misuse of law”. It is an argument that has succeeded in influencing the mind of many Indian males quite convincingly.
Professor Menon analyses the premise of the ‘misuse’ argument. “These men actually believe they were falsely accused because what they are saying is: ‘That is what a family is supposed to be, as a wife you are supposed to give up everything that you thought you were, we have expectations of you, which you are supposed to fulfill. That is marriage’. And women are refusing to recognise that as marriage. The men are right to say in a sense, ironically, that they are being falsely accused—because all they were doing was functioning as a proper patriarchal family.”
Grover brings in the legal perspective. “The kind of propaganda that these people do which is based on data and on statistics can be challenged. Anybody who has worked in this sector knows that this data can be torn to shreds within minutes.”
Grover asked a public prosecutor why so many women witnesses turn hostile and why so many cases end in acquittals. “Once you start unmasking the figure, the story becomes clear. The women turn hostile because in criminal law there is not much space for negotiation. Either she has been told to back off or that they will pay alimony, or maybe they have struck a compromise and the husband has agreed to behave himself. They will keep telling you that so many women turn hostile. That doesn’t mean that the women lied in the first place and/or that they are lying now,” she says.
Should women’s groups be countering the information blitzkrieg that has been unleashed on the internet and in the news media? The campaign, after all, makes no bones about its resentment towards women’s groups and their role in society and politics. Although women’s groups have been directly confronted on occasion, no public engagement or reaction has emerged yet from any of it so far.
Says Nilanju Dutta, project associate at the violence intervention team at Jagori, a New Delhi-based feminist resource centre, “For hundreds of years, women have had no option but to suffer silently. Now that we have been given a law against domestic violence, the men are up in arms? This is unfair. Let them bark. I don’t think we should worry. When there is change, there is always upheaval.”
Indian anti-dowry and domestic violence laws, says Professor Menon, treat the family as a public institution to which public laws apply. “That is obviously going to create a huge crisis for the family. It is not surprising that the category of people who benefitted from this kind of ordering of society will resist these laws. What is surprising is that it hadn’t happened earlier.”