Will India ever exterminate the caste?

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(Michael shower :) As a philosopher I am interested in the normative notions of social order and gender relations in India, which lead to the fact that women are repeatedly denied basic rights and their inviolable dignity is made dependent on their behavior in accordance with their roles. Even in court hearings, rape victims are often questioned about their moral character and thus exposed to the "moral" verdict of society. Failure to pass this test is not considered an innocent victim. The perpetrators go unpunished and the victim is cast out by society after this character assassination initiated by the state. This denies women a human dignity that must not be tied to preconditions - as a basic requirement for all women's and human rights. This inhuman patriarchal "morality" is shared by almost all caste and religious communities in India. Is Northeast India and the society in Manipur State, which you are from, an exception?

(Binalakshmi Nepram :) Unfortunately no. Many people believe that northeast India is somehow more liberal than the rest of the country, but no Michael, the societies there are just as patriarchal as the rest of India. Haryana has his Khap Panchayats; Manipur has male youth clubs that watch over how you dress and how you behave. They control women all the time. It is a cliché to believe that women are freer in the northeast than in the rest of India. Each of our steps is observed and discussed and evaluated on the basis of patriarchal norms.

But Manipur is not a caste society.

Right, we don't have a caste system. Manipuris are traditionally not Hindus. We were nature lovers. Bengali Vishnuists did not arrive until the 18th century, but Vishnuism never became the majority religion in Manipur. Manipuris did not worship idols, they worshiped the rising sun, the moon, the forest, nature. My family has deliberately defied Hinduism for generations. However, we love the festivals of the Hindus. But when someone asks me what I believe, I say that my religion is humanism. Brahmin priests from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and other parts of India have immigrated to us over the past 200 years. They married local women and established the caste system in their families. Looking at society as a whole, we say we have exactly one caste, namely these Brahmins, and we have made them our cooks [laughs], seriously, if you come to Manipur today and take part in a banquet with two or three hundred people, then you can assume that the food was cooked by a Brahmin priest. They are excellent cooks and that is why they are welcome. Apart from that, our social life is not infiltrated by the caste system.

I'm digging because I'm interested in the gender stereotypes that prevail in the cultural imaginations of different parts of India. The ideas of Manusmriti, for example, cannot be part of the collective imaginary in Manipur because the cultural background is different. But that means that the patriarchy in Manipur has to be somehow different from the patriarchy that exists in other parts of India.

Men in Manipur believe that the whole earth and women belong to them. Despite a strong women's movement, women in Manipur still move in with men after marriage, land ownership is still inherited in the male line, and boys are still given preferential treatment over girls. In this respect the patriarchy in Manipur is similar to that of the rest of the world or India. There are hardly any women in politics. Of our sixty members of the state parliament, only three are women; one of them is the Prime Minister's wife. In Manipur the women do the cooking, washing and raising the children. As in other parts of India, men get the better food first and women get what is left. In Manipur, men take several wives and they think that this is their innate right. They believe that they can kidnap, rape, and then marry a girl they like. This pathetic custom is sanctioned by society, which we are trying to change. But it's still difficult to be a woman in Manipur.

In other parts of India it is often felt that rape is used strategically to remove women or certain social groups such as Dalits or Muslims from their social place. Rape thus becomes a weapon in the fight for the gender and caste order. In Manipur the situation is similar if one considers the incursions of the Indian army under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act looks against women and civilians. But apart from that, is there a similar use of rape as a weapon, e.g. in clashes between warring tribes?

In Manipur there are no cases where e.g. a member of a higher caste raped a Dalit woman to show his superiority. Even between the tribes there are egalitarian ideas, so that no tribe would show its superiority by raping women of a rival tribe. On the other hand, there is a lot of domestic violence in Manipur and throughout northeastern India. The Northeast ranks first in India for the incidence of rape and second in the incidence of domestic violence. It's a tragedy. In addition, we have to contend with the attacks not only by the Indian army but also by non-state armed groups. Although the attacks by the Indian army are more visible, crimes and violent attacks against women are also perpetrated by non-state actors. The conflict began in 1949 when the Northeast was merged with the Indian Union and it lasted for the past 64 years. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives every Indian soldier the right to arrest, torture, kill and rape men or women on suspicion. We don't have this in other parts of the country ...

... except in cashmere ...

... yes, but there it was Armed Forces Special Powers Act only prescribed in the 1990s. It has been in force in the Northeast since 1958, more than fifty years, and the incidence of rape is much higher in the Northeast. The soldiers who come to us believe that the women themselves provoke it. In the northeast, women sometimes wear off-the-shoulder dresses. And we don't have a bathroom. Women wash by the rivers. As a result, many rapes took place in connection with army operations, in which areas were combed for insurgents. Not a single soldier was ever convicted of it. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act protects them from prosecution. This is the tragedy of the northeast. Only if the Department of Defense says yes can a soldier be charged. So far, the Ministry of Defense has declared its soldiers sacrosanct and hyped them to be protectors of the nation. Hence the anger felt by women in the northeast. There is a raging anger in us to this day.

I was very impressed by the protest of the "Mothers of Manorama" who stripped naked in front of the Indian Army headquarters in Manipur in 2004 to protest against the rape and killing of Tangjam Manorama Devi. A more suitable expression of solidarity with Manorama is hard to imagine. Such an action would probably be unthinkable for the average Indian woman.

I spoke to all thirteen women after the action. They told me that they almost passed out from shame. It is not easy for a woman in India to undress in public. They were shocked by themselves, but they had to because of the brutality with which Manorama had been treated. In India, a woman is raped every 22 minutes. So it wasn't as if there had been no rapes before or after. What sparked this unique protest was that this woman was picked up by four armed men in the middle of the night. There was no female soldier among them. Her abused body was found early the next morning. She had been shot in the shame seven times in an attempt to destroy evidence of the rape. They had shoved a rag into her open wound. It was the sheer cruelty of their abuse that led the thirteen women from Manipur to go to the Indian Army headquarters in Imphal, strip naked and shout, "We are all Manorama's mother!" Even we women who did not take part in this protest were overwhelmed by what we saw. That action shook India, it shook the world and it still does. The protest movement against the POSCO group in Orissa has used similar forms of protest and thus pushed back the steel giants. The action has inspired women's groups across the country to challenge the militant patriarchy we have here in India.

Have the gender balance changed in recent years as a result of such protests or other influences in India or Manipur?

In New Delhi, the habitus of many women has changed because of the shopping promenades that are emerging everywhere and the coveted fashion items there. But spaghetti tops don't make a woman freer. Such women are still seen as abnormal. In the case of the gang rape last year, people said, "What is she doing out there at 9:30 a.m.?" Even here in Delhi, as women, we don't feel safe if we have to get out after eight-thirty. Just look around Delhi. After nine o'clock you won't see a single woman on the street. Indians may wear branded items to waste their undeserved fortune, but that hasn't changed their mentality. They say: "A woman at ten o'clock in the morning with spaghetti tops deserves no other way." But if a man wears a shirtless lungi, women will not rape him. For us, women's rights are civil rights. We do not require any special rights. The public roads that men walk on at two in the morning are also paid for by female taxpayers' money. It is even worse in Manipur because of the uprising there. They worry there if a woman isn't home before dark. So let's make sure we're home by half past four. Here in Delhi you can stay outside until eight thirty. These are pathetic conditions. We don't like it and we want to change that.

How could the women's movement in India achieve this?

That is a very important question! The women's movement in India has actually failed across the board since it began in the 1970s. It failed because the various women's groups mostly belong to different political parties and ultimately fit into the patriarchal structures of the Indian parties. I realized this after watching several of their events. After 30-40 years of women's movement, why do we have these brutal rapes at all today? Lots of money is being spent, both by the government and by non-governmental organizations and international donors, to curb violence against women. But violence against women has only increased in recent years. Working against violence against women has turned into business. Glossy posters are printed and beautiful reports are published, but none of this is being done in the interests of changing the situation. After the gang rape in Delhi, I suggested that women in Delhi do something that we in Manipur have been doing with success for several years. From four in the afternoon, women patrol Manipur's streets, armed with bamboo sticks and flashlights. This is how we recaptured our night. But no. Women's groups receive financial support from different sources, they each do their own thing and there is no agreement. That's the problem.

December 16, the day the gang rape took place last year, is getting closer. Are there any plans to commemorate Jyoti Pandey?

The court sentenced the rapists to death, which I disagree with. I am against the death penalty. You don't purge India of rape by chasing a couple of guys from R. K. Puram [a poor neighborhood in Delhi, editor's note. Übers.] Brings you around the corner. First of all, the Indian parliament would have to be cleaned up. 27 percent of Indian parliamentarians have a criminal record. The fish starts to stink from the head. In addition, the death penalty has failed to act as a deterrent. The rape rate has increased 88 percent since the gang rape. Just yesterday, another 18-month-old female baby was raped. So there are still dire conditions in this country. India will take a long time to learn to treat its women with the respect they deserve. It takes a strong citizen movement and a continuous reminder of what happened in Delhi on December 16 last year. But right now the women's movement is just too fragmented.

The different women's groups could each do their own thing, if only they had a common forum where they could show their collective strengths at least once a year.

As I said, the problem is disagreement among the women's wings of the various political parties. If one calls for a protest, the other boycotts them. This is really sad and very harmful to the women's movement in India. That is why our group stays away from all political parties and remains neutral. We work for gender equality and generally for democratic civil rights.

I never cease to wonder how it can be that India is given so little international attention when it comes to human rights and especially women's rights. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International or environmentalists such as Greenpeace cannot get a foothold here. You have to work almost in secret and through local contact groups. They are not represented at all in conflict regions such as Kashmir or in the Northeast. Their work is hindered so as not to damage India's international image. How is that possible in a democratic country with a free press and a vibrant civil society?

For the sociological profile of the Indian state administration, also for diplomats, whom I often meet, it is true that they mostly belong to the class of Brahmins and they do not want to change anything about the status quo. They say there is no conflict in India, there is just a law and order problem. They want to paint India up as if everything is in order here. But in reality there is nothing right here. Most of the people who have reached positions of power in politics and administration come from the higher castes and they want to maintain their status quo. You don't even want to allow me to speak of women in crisis areas. They want me to say, "Women in difficult circumstances." That's how they cheat. But they realize that they have to work together with us, so they ask us: "Please do not use the term 'conflict'" but rather 'difficult circumstances' ". So they try to control India's image abroad. They try to deny the existence of violent uprisings in this country. It should not be denied that there are also good and very sensitive administrative officials in India. But there are few. The majority are still suffering from the hang-over of the colonial administrator with his fat bungalow and 100 servants. It's all about power, Michael, and keeping the status quo. The administration in India is still very colonial and it should stay that way. So why should you admit, "Hey, we have a conflict here, let's resolve it." They would much rather send the army, give us that Armed Forces Special Powers Act eye and silence us at gunpoint. If necessary, they'll kill us. With today's social media, however, they can no longer silence us so easily and India is slowly changing in this regard as well.

I thank you for the interview!

 


 

Binalakshmi Nepram is the General Secretary of the Control Arms Foundation of India and a founding member of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network. Michael Dusch currently works as a Senior Fellow at the CSDS in Delhi. The interview, which was conducted in English, was shortened and translated by the author. You can access the full interview in English here.