In a recent announcement by CM of MP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the state is planning on creating a tracking system to surveil women who leave their homes for work. The women concerned will have to register themselves with their local police station, to be under compulsory surveillance. They will also receive numbers for them to call in case of emergencies. The announcement received backlash with protests being carried out by women’s groups. Around 35 women were even detained at the site of the protest. Prior to this the MP cabinet recently approved the Religious Freedom Bill 2020. The prison term for conversion via marriage or other ‘fraudulent’ methods can come up to 10 years, along with a fine of Rs. 1 Lakh. The bill is said to replace the Religious Freedom Act of 1968.
Legislation that borrows directly from Brahmanical Sources threaten to create an even more dystopian world for women and the marginalised communities in the country
The announcement has come out at a time when such laws have been introduced in various states as well. Legislation against the sensationalised enemy of ‘forced conversions’ is being passed in Haryana, Punjab, UP, etc.The term ‘Love Jihad’ has gained legal legitimacy, revealing the pattern of branding Muslims as the perpetrators, posing a threat to the Hindutva conception of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The BJP government has of late tried to pass these laws off as a means of correctly dealing with the ‘gender’ question. The treatment in question, however, seems to privilege control of women’s sexuality, and the demonization of marginalised communities. It is important to note that these laws are framed as a means of “protecting’ women; however, this idea of protection in itself needs to be questioned.
Using the Example of Madhya Pradesh-
If we are taking recent statements and actions of the MP government in terms of women’s protection, we see a template of control being applied. The Religious Freedom Bill, in the state, aims to attack inter-caste marriage, conversion, and religious freedom. In a previous article we have written, we see how the act does these two connected ways. The Muslim man is demonised completely, with the justification for the law being that there is a growing trend in Muslim men preying on ‘pure’ Hindu women. The second is the discrediting of the agency and choice of the woman whereby she is understood as weak and clueless. In addition, the manusmritiHindu woman’s purity is emphasised so as to justify the controlling of her sexuality, and simultaneously, the impurity of those outside her community.
The law also reveals great anxiety around the conversion of SC and ST women, as well as members of the community in general. Specific sections of the bill discourage SC/ST women from marrying Muslim men, providing a greater punishment for the same, and an even greater punishment for mass conversions. Under the law in MP, mass conversions will amount to a jail term of 5-10 years with a fine of 1 Lakh.
In the new move to track working women, the scrutiny on inter-caste marriage that we see in the Love Jihad Law is now shifted to the women’s friendships, relationships, and overall associations. By looking at it as working in tandem with the Love Jihad Act we can see how the law plays into upper-caste anxieties around the ‘Hindu’ woman. Working women are not constricted to the domestic space, instead, they are exposed to those of the world outside, the men outside of their homes, and those outside their communities. Their sexual vulnerability becomes something that needs protection. What this understanding does is further mark public space as the one key site of women’s oppression, where the ‘gender’ problem is manifested.
Along with the announcement given by the Madhya Pradesh CM, he mentions the state government will also be increasing the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. This has been a common agenda of the Central Government as well, with a task force to carry out plans for the same being set up. The committee is composed of 10 members, headed by Jaya Jaitly and Vinod paul of NITI Ayog. While it might seem a well-intentioned move intending to provide more freedom to women to pursue education and employment opportunities, it has also been disputed by many child rights activists as tokenistic and often harmful.
Madhu Mehra, a founder of the Partners in Law Development, mentions how women are forced into marriages at the same rates, regardless of the age of marriage being increased. Mary E John also mentions this in a memorandum to the task force. She goes on to talk about how the surrounding infrastructure of the girl needs to be looked at and improved, instead of simply adjusting the age of marriage. She suggests greater educational opportunities as a more important area. In a way what this type of announcement does is further strengthen the ‘women empowerment’ angle the BJP wants to project. In the name of providing autonomy an adjustment of marriageable age is provided as the saviour. Simultaneously, laws that restrict movements of those from marginalised communities and women are passed. The autonomy promised comes out hollow and the adjustment of the age limit comes across as a mere diversion.
Similar Templates in the Other States
The above template can be seen in other BJP states as well. Such a template borrows directly from brahmanical sources, the Manusmriti being the prime example. Ambedkar has talked about the concept of the surplus women under brahmanical patriarchy, where the women in the caste marry the men in the caste, with no woman, left unmarried, so as to avoid any relationship between a ‘high’ caste woman and ‘lower’ caste man. The laws thus protect endogamy and the rigid caste system. They also seek to curb the liberatory potential of conversion from Hinduism, by those who have been oppressed by caste Hindus and their practices.
The Karnataka government is going a step further, with new schemes encouraging Brahmin women from the EWS category, to marry Brahmin priests in exchange for monetary compensation. This is a part of two schemes passed by the State Brahmin Upliftment Board, set up by the Yeddyurappa government. Uttarakhand had also passed a law regarding ‘forced conversions’ in 2018. The UP government had recently introduced the ‘Love Jihad’ Ordinance in November of 2020. Much of the coverage has been dedicated to UP, often marking it as an isolated instance of anti-women legislation, especially in many liberal media outlets. What is missed, however, is the template of control being applied in many other states as well, providing legal sanction to brahminical conceptions of endogamy and caste purity, paving the way for even more dystopian realities of marginalised communities in the country.
Protection is thus wound in casteist patriarchal understandings of the ‘pure’ woman and the ‘impure’ man. By unraveling these laws we might be able to see how these subjects are constructed along lines of purity and pollution, and how protection rather than liberation and autonomy, is necessitated using the same. These laws use marriage and surveillance to carry out this protection in a template soon to be replicated across a number of states.