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India’s rending social fabric

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BG VERGHESE IN THE TRIBUNE

Women’s issues not getting proper attention

Dr Ambedkar was right. If there was any long-term threat to national cohesion, none was more dangerous than the deeply embedded social contradictions in society, exemplified by but by no means confined to caste. These past few weeks have seen singular manifestations of this malaise in various parts of the country. Women, children, the handicapped, underprivileged and minorities are among the worst sufferers. But punishments, if any, seldom fit the crime.

There have been several cases of asault, rape and sexual harassment that have rendered many cities and regions unsafe for women. A privately run Apna Ghar shelter home inmates were raped and children sexually assaulted by its staff in Rohtak. A ghoulish murder of a starlet and her entire family has been unearthed in Igatpuri in Maharashtra. In Assam, a woman MLA was assaulted by goons for allegedly marrying a second time, allegedly without getting divorced from her fist husband. In Bengal, a sopposedly trans-sexual woman athlete was charged with rape and her medical exmination filmed and her private parts shown on TV. In Guwahati, a women coming out of a night club was set upon by goons, stripped and molested on the street and the incident was videographed and uploaded on Y-Tube causing widespread public outrage. In each case, some arrests have been made, investigations are in progress but exemplary punishment is awaited to scotch any sense of immunity or impunity.

Women’s issues have not been dealt with the earnestness they merit for fear of upsettng traditional values. Thus the utter disdain with which the constitutional directive to legislate a uniform civil code has been treated acoss the board by all parties. The Constitution does not mandate a UCC but urges the government “to endeavour” to introduce a uniform code. The reason this has not been enacted rests on an ancient shared lie across party lines that a UCC would be violative of personal laws which would stand abrogated were a uniform code to be introduced. This is pathetic nonsense. A unform code would be optional and would facilitate inter-faith marriage and help usher in a uniform and equal citizenship without prejudice to resort to personal law as a matter of choice. Goa has a UCC, a Portuguese legacy, and since marriage and divorce fall in the State List, it is open to any state to legislate a UCC. That insistent advocates of a UCC like the BJP have not done so testifies to their using this reform as no more than a stick with which to bait and beat Muslims. They are essentially opponents of the idea.

The reason a UCC has not been adopted, other than through the Special Marriage Act, is because male chauvinists do not wish property to pass into the hands of women who by marriage “migrate” to another family. Alas, all politial parties have been pusillanimous and womens’ rights groups supine. By blocking a uniform code, the state has only empowered bigoted religious heads to exploit their communities and rule the roost.

Women’s representation in legislatures can be easily and sensibly achieved by enhancing the strength of the House and electing the additional members by proportional representation under a list system with the stipulation that 20 or 30 per cent of of all party candidates must be women, half that number being on the list.

Another level of social breakdown was seen in Kolkata recently when a victim of an early morning train accident was brought to hospital and stitched after minor surgery by a ward boy. The hospital staff was changing shifts and therefore momentarily short of doctors! Was this a case of all hands on deck in an emergency or poor management? Many thought the latter as some Kolkata hospitals have earned a certain notoriety in recent times. Mamata Bannerjee’s Health Minister questioned the media’s right to probe the incident while the Chief Minister herself is so busy administering West Bengal from Writer’s Building that she could only attend 17 of 61days the State Assembly has sat since she assumed office.

Though khap panchayat decisions have been declared illegal by the Supreme Court, these medieval bodies continue to lay down the law. A village panchayat in Baghpat in UP, near Delhi, has banned love marriages and women below 40 going to the market or using mobile phones outside their homes. Partners of love marriages are to be banned from living in the village. The police and National Commission for Women are seized of the matter. This is all right. But unless condign punishment follows, such feudal practices will contiune. There has been endless pussy-footing on such events which has only encouraged offenders to continue in their unregenerate ways. That khaps are age-old institutions cannot shield them from downright illegal and unconstitutional conduct.

That caste is well and flourishing was again reflected last week in the swearing in of the new Karnataka Cabinet under Jagdish Shettar, the thrid Chief Minister since the BJP assumed office. The ministry has two Deputy Chief Ministers so that all three major castes —Lingayat, Vokkaliga and Kuruba — are represented at the top. Other parties too balance caste. Competence and commitment to mandated programmes are unimportant. The Governor too has had no compunction in publicly critisising the Chief Minister for appointing “tainted ministers” against his advice. What is going on?

In the past few weeks several toddlers have fallen into open manholes, dug wells and drains left as roadside traps for unwary children. Some have drowned leaving behind parents and relatives traumatised by civic neglect. Responsibility should not just be fixed at the lowest level and punishments should be condign. They are not so.

In Bihar, today an educationally backward state, two Central Universities are to be set up in place of one on the Chief Minister’s insistence that Motihari should be selected on account of its backwardness whereas the Centre preferred Gaya in view of its better infrastructure. The allocated expenditure will now have to be equally divided to create two sub-standard universities. Who gains?An audit investigation of the Bihar Governor’s secretariat reportedly finds the Governor has abused his position and appointed an “ineligible” person as vice-chancellor of a certain university. These are shameful developments and betray many adverse trends: poor selection of Governors, impunity, immunity.

The Naresh Chandra panel has reported on a broad spectrum of defence and national security reforms. When will this be published and acted upon? This is the nth commiitte on this supremely important topic and should not meet the same fate as its predecessors – being swept under the carpet until overtaken by events. The matter is too important to be shelved or acted upon incrementally and should be speedily implemented with bipartisan cooperation which will surely be forthcoming. There is no need to await fresh elections and a new government. Please let not national defence be made a political football.

BG VERGHESE IN THE TRIBUNE

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