Interview with Brinda Karat, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and AIDWA vice-president.
When an anganwadi supervisor, Shakuntala Verma, was attacked in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh for attempting to prevent a child marriage, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) was among the first organisations to come out in her support as well as to criticise the response of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led State government. AIDWA, which has been at the forefront of raising women's issues for the past three decades, has been witness to a general resurgence in crimes against women and more specifically a greater upsurge of specific crimes such as dowry and female foeticide. Brinda Karat, AIDWA vice-president and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), believes that prevention of child marriage and dowry-related crimes has a lot to do with political will. Excerpts from an interview she gave T.K. Rajalakshmi.
Despite the more-than-seven-decade-old legislation meant to restrain child marriages and despite India being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the practice continues. Why do you think the law has been ineffective in restraining child marriages?
On such issues as child marriage and female foeticide and dowry, we do have the laws but they are the least implemented in India. For example, the largest numbers of crimes are committed in the name of dowry and yet under the Dowry Prohibition Act there are very few cases registered. The law is essential - it can provide the basis for action - but it cannot on its own deal with a social crime.
We should go into the reasons, which may be rooted in wider policy decisions. It basically comes to policy. I don't think we can separate what is happening in different levels of society from the politics of that region. For example, take the issue of child marriage. In West Bengal, for instance, there was the Kulin Brahmin system where children were married off to older men. It happened in other areas also. It goes beyond individual choice; it is something larger than that. I trace it to the politics of development and, secondly, the politics of that region. If you look at States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, one very clear aspect is that dominant political discussion in these regions have never confronted this issue.
These are backward regions in the sense that they lack those processes which are normally associated with the development of democracy - these processes are not really grounded. The processes of development in these areas have never touched the reasons for child marriages.
Today, in modern India, dowry is not an old tradition. It is an extremely modern phenomenon - it is very much linked to new aspirations of consumerism, of brand-driven social status. The better the brand the higher the status. This is a situation where, along with the development of the market, many of these anti-democratic practices have got co-opted.
If you look at child marriage today and speak to people where it is prevalent, there is a perception that it is cheaper to get one's child, one's daughter, married off early in order to escape the iron grip of dowry. The second justification is the increasing perception of insecurity and the feeling that with an early marriage of a daughter, she gets pledged to another man and his family and perhaps she will be safer. This very reasoning, which is so flawed, is rooted in the basic issue of the subordination of women and, in particular, the girl child.
We can also add to this the issue of the rights of children. In this understanding of child marriage, the rights of children to live like children and then to make their choice as adults are not at all a part of the discussion on child marriage. Along with the subordination of women, the other issue is that of caste. If child marriage is found to be rooted in the larger anti-democratic approach to male and female children, one finds that it is even more embedded in the continuing caste system. Marriage outside one's caste is still considered one of the biggest crimes by large sections of different communities. One has the caste framework, the subordination of the girl-child and women, and they happily co-exist with the other aspects of dowry and insecurity of women. Instead of processes which are unleashed by new structures of development to challenge such practices, the exact opposite is happening.
The question is what can be done. Ideally, we should make examples of political parties in their condemnation of such practices. But our middle class is more preoccupied with how to punish the poor for their poverty. For instance, if we look at the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, where the anganwadi supervisor was brutally punished for daring to challenge the system, the BJP's Ministers and MLAs were found actually attending child-marriage functions. They have given political and social sanction to something that is illegal. Then we also had the Chief Minister and the Social Welfare Minister giving the worst kind of justifications in the name of tradition. Making an example ought to be an important point. According to me, they should have been criminally prosecuted.
The second issue is certainly to take up dowry and the insecurity among women. Dowry as the engine of different types of crime is gravely underestimated in our country. The issue of female foeticide, child marriage, and the issue of the declining status of women are very much linked to dowry. It never ceases to amaze me how in our politics the issue of dowry is so ignored and treated as a social issue when it is deeply economic in nature.
The notion of status is not linked with that of qualities - of goodness, of honesty. The question is if one is able to produce the flash. We have standards of obscene ostentation set by the most rich and the most educated, like the Mittals or the Subroto Roys, which are attended by top politicians who should be boycotting such occasions. They set such shocking standards that have a cascading effect. It is not their wealth which trickles down but their bad practices that trickle down - this is a new version of the trickle down theory.
AIDWA intervened successfully in the case of the anganwadi supervisor. There were two big demonstrations, in Bhopal and Indore. What was your overall experience there?
I visited Shakuntala in the hospital and found to my utter horror that even her family members were not allowed free access to her. Six of her family members came to me with the complaint. When I was there [Indore], I found that the police had shown her a computer graphic of the accused person and when she could not identify her attacker they [the police] spread the canard that she had retracted her initial statement that the attack on her was related to child marriage. This was also circulating in the media. When I met her, I asked her about this specifically, and she said she had told the police that she was convinced that the incident was related to her intervention in the child marriage. She said she stood by her initial statement. And it was even more commendable when she conveyed a message to her colleagues that she would continue fighting against such social practices.
Even as she lay injured in the hospital and terribly traumatised, the police continued questioning her and cross-questioning her family members. In addition, they continued to spread rumours that there was some personal angle to the attack. I made a written complaint to the highest police authority concerned regarding the overall attitude of the police. It was evident to us that there was a vested interest in obfuscating the entire issue. We were also appalled that the most vulnerable section, the anganwadi workers and supervisors in this case, was being instructed to intervene in child marriages when neither the political class, the police nor the bureaucracy was taking any responsibility whatsoever.
Do you think it is a general lack of social reform that lies behind the prevalence as well as resurgence of child marriages?
The social reform processes are essential and there is no contradiction between the spreading of awareness about child marriage and implementation of the law. It is a question of political will. We talk about economic growth and development sans issues that touch the lives of people. We denigrate them as social issues to be dealt with by NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. It is a totally wrong framework in the understanding of politics. Social issues are political issues and they have an economic dimension. They are a reflection of the degeneration of our political standards. And caste and communal equations, which form the bedrock of much of politics in northern India, have been an absolute disaster in tackling these issues.