NITISH KUMAR’S POLITICS OF GENDER JUSTICE: THEN AND NOW

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NITISH KUMAR

Prem Kumar:

Assistant professor, Motilal Nehru college (eve.), Delhi University:

On the 148th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, launched a state-wide campaign against dowry and child marriage. Last year, he had launched a campaign for liquor prohibition, saying that “drinking is not a fundamental right.” He had also formed, as his government claims, the world’s largest human chain.

The success or failure of the prohibition campaign is yet to be evaluated, and in the meanwhile, he re-launched another set of drives against the social evils of dowry and child marriage. The complete liquor ban was the result of his promises made during the 2015 Assembly election. In almost all rallies he had stressed the victimization of women due to the alcoholism of their menfolk.

The politics of gender justice became an integral part of his promises. And he succeeded in getting support from every section of women, whether Dalit, Backward or Upper-caste rural women. He kept his word, and despite some disagreements with the Grand Alliance partners he rolled out a campaign for liquor prohibition with stringent provisions.

The Historical Background

Politics in the name of gender justice is not new in India. In the fight against colonialism and imperialism, India was always portrayed as “Bharatmata in British chains,” and it became the duty of every Indian to sacrifice for the motherland. Honour in the name of mother and justice in the name of gender became the core of Indian national politics.

The socio-religious reform movements during the colonial period also targeted social evils such as child marriage, widow remarriage, women education, prohibition, etc.; almost all the major reform movements emphasized on ameliorating the deplorable condition of women by eradicating these social evils.

During the 19th century reform movement, it was realized that gender-based injustice or discriminations derived legitimacy from religion in one way or the other and that was why gradually the social reform movements dissociated themselves from organized religions and adopted a relatively secular approach.

Thenceforth, social reform movements only got partial success at upper-class urban level and failed to deliver for the rest of India and social evils, remained an integral part of the Indian society.

From Social Evil to Legal Evil

Colonial rulers took some of these social ills very seriously and enacted various laws against them, and turned them from social evils to legal evils. Injustice against women became the bone of contention between the native elite and the colonial rulers and both blamed each other when it came to the question of gender justice. But things did not stop here and owed great push to politics of social reforms; colonial administration began criminalizing some of these social evils.

They enacted several regulations and acts against these social evils such as the Bengal Regulations of 1795 and 1804 against infanticides, the Native Marriage Act (Civil Marriage Act) of 1872 against child marriage, the Age of Consent Act of 1860, the Age of Consent Act of 1891, the Sharada Act of 1930, the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 etc.

These legislations led to the decline of many social evils such as sati or human sacrifice, but a majority of survived in the post-independence era. The post-independent regimes followed their colonial rulers in either amending the existing laws or enacting new ones. Dowry and child marriage, however, remained widely practiced social customs across all the classes of India.

Many legislations remaine

From Social Evil to Legal Evil

Colonial rulers took some of these social ills very seriously and enacted various laws against them, and turned them from social evils to legal evils. Injustice against women became the bone of contention between the native elite and the colonial rulers and both blamed each other when it came to the question of gender justice. But things did not stop here and owed great push to politics of social reforms; colonial administration began criminalizing some of these social evils.

They enacted several regulations and acts against these social evils such as the Bengal Regulations of 1795 and 1804 against infanticides, the Native Marriage Act (Civil Marriage Act) of 1872 against child marriage, the Age of Consent Act of 1860, the Age of Consent Act of 1891, the Sharada Act of 1930, the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 etc.

These legislations led to the decline of many social evils such as sati or human sacrifice, but a majority of survived in the post-independence era. The post-independent regimes followed their colonial rulers in either amending the existing laws or enacting new ones. Dowry and child marriage, however, remained widely practiced social customs across all the classes of India.

Many legislations remained ineffective to deal these social evils. The first all India legislation was enacted in 1961. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 made dowry illegal. Many new stringent provisions were added to the Indian penal code (sections 498A and 198A in 1983) to strengthen the anti-dowry law further. In 2005 government of India enacted the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which provided an additional layer of protection from dowry.

In 2006 the Indian government also passed the Prevention of Child Marriage Act by replacing the provincial legislations. Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 contributed to further eradication of this evil from society. The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act of 2016 completely replaced the Bihar Excise Act of 1915 to implement and promote complete ban of liquor in the state of Bihar.

The Grand Alliance is history now, and JD(U) has reunited after a short period of divorce with its old partner NDA. The chemistry of politics is running high these days, and Mr. Kumar is playing another card in the name of gender justice. This time he has to face an invisible but deeply rooted social enemy, not like a visible liquor shop.

It will be hard to target the whole society, and he might lose the social base that he has captured through the complete liquor ban. He knows well that there will be no opposition on these issues and he could easily exploit the situation in his favour and could regain the lost ground after the debacle of the Grand Alliance. About gender justice, he is not going to achieve much unless he understands the concept of gender justice from inside.

The campaign against child marriage and dowry will be futile unless he addresses the more significant question of equal property rights for women at the same time. It will not be wise to abolish women’s customary right to stridhana in the name of dowry before providing securing the right to inheritance and equal property rights.

In 2005, amendments in Hindu Succession Act have made daughters equal coparceners as sons in family property, but this law remains largely ineffective. Women face stiff resistance from their own families and disapproval from society when they seek partition of family property and attempt to claim their rights.

The state government is apparently going to enact some strict laws this time as well, and the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar, Sushil Modi, has already indicated it. But before scrapping the customary entitlement of women in the name of dowry, the state must ensure that every marriage in the state, solemnised by custom must be registered with the court within a certain stipulated period of time.

The registration must ensure taking oath of laws of the land on various social issues such as child marriage, dowry and liquor prohibition, domestic violence, etc. Gender justice is enshrined in all these laws and there must be one point where all these gender laws should communicate with each other.

Real social change is possible only if we start teaching coming generations not only about prevalent social evils, but also gender based crimes, laws and punishment from secondary schooling onwards. I think the inclusion of these issues in our syllabi would serve many purposes. Though the campaign against liquor prohibition, child marriage and dowry are noble, Mr. Kumar has to walk on a rough terrain; this is not only a fight to implement some laws, but a larger and longer battle against social ills, if he seeks to cure the disease, not just the symptoms.

 

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