Rule and Person

To a bird’s-eye view, different human societies look similar in some aspects and different in some others. A closer look can reveal some similarities and differences to be more  stronger while others to be more superficial than they appear to be on the surface.

Institutions are of fundamental importance to all societies: a simpler and small scale society has fewer, joint-family, panchayat or some equivalent, temple or a small religious shrine; while a complex one have many, hospital, school, university, court, parliament, temples/mosques/churches etc. To have a closer look at differences and similarities, one can compare how social life is organized around institutions in different societies.

In the extent to which societies are governed by rule or person, in traditional societies based on agriculture, personal factors counts for almost everything. People are able to take finer personal distinctions in their businesses and other day-to-day work. In these societies, personal links can be used (or misused) for practically any purpose; and a certain sense of security is provided by the existence of such links. Now there are whole areas of life in complex industrial societies where such links are in principle irrelevant.

In complex industrial societies, social life is influenced greatly if not mainly by institutions. Here institutions are organized around impersonal rules. The treatment in hospital, admission to schools, services from police and courts are few examples of such arrangement. In these institutions, if someone needs to get something done which he is entitled to, there should not be any need on his part to have any personal links with people in these institutes.

In Indian villages based on agriculture, people are accustomed to getting thing done through persons rather than rule. To say this is not necessarily to pass a moral judgement. When society is small and everyone knows everyone, such arrangement is both proper and expedient. A lot of problems, related to both corruption and efficiency, can appear without any tangible solution when these links are used in places where norms are defined differently.

Those who live in large cities depends on many public utilities and services. And in principle, they are so organized to serve each citizen irrespective of personal consideration. There are rules of procedure according to which any citizen is entitled to make claim on certain service. But in practice, nobody seriously believes in rules alone. In cases when rules do not work for him at all, or do not work quickly enough, he tries to reach out to someone in right quarters through relative or friends, or friends of a relative. Those who have no relative or friends (‘connections’ as they are called) felt left out in cold. But it is just amazing, how just almost everyone in our society is able to activate ‘connection’ of some consequence.

It should be obvious to all of us that we are in a period of transition. Though majority of people still live in small agrarian societies, they are increasingly coming in contact with different sort of institutions they are not accustomed to, where personal connection should or ought to count for little. In such phase of transitions, people often suffer the worst of both systems: he can not be sure if personal ‘connections’ will be sufficient, nor he can trust the appropriate system of rules.

In cities, especially for young people, the moral universe associated with it is both confusing and intractable. This could cause a sort of psychological stress which is rarely seen in villages. When an old person (not only in rural India) pays a bribe or uses his family connections to get something done, he is not burdened by moral questions involved related propriety of following rules and norms. For him, such is the way of life — an ordinary and normal thing to do. He would give you a lecture about “art of living” if you point out the impropriety on his part. Younger people, and perhaps some among old too, do not always pay bribes or use family/friendly connections for their personal gain at the cost of someone else without a sense of moral ambivalence and indignation. The “queue” is one such place where such behaviour can be easily observed: when someone gets a cut from a friend or relative, he takes it, often with an embarrassing smile or a show of arrogance, but the same person turn self-righteous and morally indignant when he sees others taking “cut” at his disadvantage.

More than often, rules are defined vaguely which allows those who enforce them to use their personal discretion rather freely if not arbitrarily. Different rules or different interpretations of them are applied on “case to case” basis. And many times rules are bypassed all together. Many wonder how people in a country where substantial population is still illiterate get things done in a system with a plethora of rules. In the face of confusion, people get accustomed to bypassing or breaking the rules, especially when a person of some consequence is available at their disposal. Those who are responsible for making rules simpler or less confusing rarely loose sleep over it. Perhaps they believe the people are used to such situations and have ways to deal with it.

Problem of corruption or inefficiency can easily grow to alarming proportion in such environment for it is easy for people in position of power to manipulate the system for their own personal gain by colluding with others. One can always find someone in Indian offices who really mastered the art of manipulating rules and finding loopholes in them. Such people are seen with both envy and admiration.

No doubt that a system is bound to be efficient when rules and procedures are followed by most, if not all.  The personal favours which we are so used to receiving and granting can not have the same moral right in modern institutions as in the traditional order. Moreover, a typical Indian overvalues his convenience above most things, and following rules always cost some convenience. He would not mind doing his part in undermining rules as long as it is convenient to him.  A large proportion of our people do not, or perhaps can not, appreciate  what rules are for. But there are many among us who probably know what they are and why we need them. It is doubtful that over the time, as we progress more towards a modern society, even they will develop a moral commitment towards them?


Arithmetic and marriage

Few days ago, I read a newspaper story; on suspecting that bridegrooms is illiterate, the bride put him under a arithmetic test: “how much is 15 + 6?”. And when the answer was 17, she called off the marriage! And few childhood memories cropped up.

When I was a kid, my father asked me once: “how much is left when you subtract 2.75 out of 4.25?”. He was pleased when I answered it correctly, “You’ll get married”, he said, “if you pass high-school, you can get a scooter in dowry as well”.

Well, it is well known that in traditional Indian system of marriage, popularly known as arranged marriage, would-be- bride and groom need not meet each other before marriage. Though this has been changing (at least in my village and neighborhood). My father and mother did not meet each other, but my brothers and their wives surely did. When marriages are arranged, the family of bride usually hunts for groom. They use their social network to figure out the opening (if some family is planning to get their son married). They would visit the potential groom’s house and meet his father, and also would-be groom if he is available.

If both party agree that marriage is possible (between the family, never mind the young would be couple) then what is discussed next is all important “dowry”. Various things are said about dowry. Dowry — in most cases — is an instrument to buy status. The bride family has to pay much larger sum if the status of groom is higher than the bride. If the girl is earning and have a stable job, the dowry may not be needed or demand is relaxed. If the bride family is not able or willing to pay sufficient dowry then they prefer to marry their daughters into a family of same or lower status. The rule of thumb about dowry is: “it is a payment for status”. And who has known an Indian who is not status conscious?

When I was a kid, government jobs were most prestigious; and less you work in your job, better it was, and if you can manage some outside income (taking bribes) along with your salary then you are the man. If you had such a job, you can demand very high amount of dowry (plus a car). Next was land-ownership which has lost much of sheen these days; and followed by small businesses and other petty clerk jobs.

The land-owning farmers need not any formal education, even though there was respect for it. There was no pressure on a farmer’s kid to do well in school. Only thing he needs to know is simple math: how much he spends and how much he earns. This much would enable him to deal in local market. Surely, he is not sending his wife to buy vegetables in markets?

During these family meeting for fixing marriages, lying was (and still is) the norm. The groom family will lie as much it can about land and education of would-be-groom. An illiterate would be classified as high-school and 1 hectare of land will be presented as 5. If they demanded to see the land-holding papers or the mark-sheets, the fake one would be arranged. The bride family is also from the same culture, they know what is going on. They will inquiry about the land on their own and some disgruntled enemy in the village will tell the truth about land-holding; and for education there was math test.

The mathematics test was the most feared one. The would-be-groom was trained by best school students in the night before the bridge family interviewed him. I remember training one. He was promised a scooter if he passed the interview. He cared little about money in dowry, that would go to his dad anyway. But loosing scooter, no sir no! There was little chance of getting a scooter after failure in interview from anyone else. That guy showed remarkable interest in mathematics that night but failed nonetheless. He managed to get scooter anyway, by convincing bride-family that scooter is for her own good. How she will travel to her remote village? In tempo and horse-cart?

The questions asked were mostly about fractions: how much is left if you have Rs. 3.50 and pay Rs. 2.75?  Mind you, this question is trickier than its sounds. People use traditional fractional names for 3.50 and 2.75; they are not easy to remember. But those were old days when people spent money in fractions. These days, government has stopped minting coins less the 0.50, and you can’t get anything in 0.50 anyway. Being a practical woman, this bride asked him much simpler integer arithmetics; yet our elementary education system did not disappointed her. The finance minister should definitely rethink his budget cuts in primary education. If he thinks primary education is not necessary, he should consider raising the budget allocation anyway. Sure none of his or his colleagues children’s children ever going to go to government school. If not for the sake of overall future of country; at least for the sake of dowry — the birth right of every Indian bridegroom who has some status in this society.

Nothing is more simpler than integer arithmetics; and when our would-be bridegrooms start failing even these tests, we must be ashamed of our primary education system in which our track record in nothing less than a scandal.

Attraction of factions

There have been disagreement on what constitutes the basis of Indian society: caste or class. Both caste and class are extremely important in our collective social life. But a large part of our private lives is governed neither by caste or class but faction. Factions are easily noticeable in the domain of politics: they are usually formed around important people in a political party. Factions are not limited to only political domain of our social life, they replicate themselves almost everywhere in similar forms.  They have received some well deserved attentions from political scientists but one fails to find a good amount of empirical or theoretical work done on factions by sociologists.

When little data collected systematically is available about a social process, one turns to one’s common sense and one’s own life to analyze the problem. Rural life is simple as far as its institutional organization is concerned. What count most is personal equations; impersonal rules are rarely cared for in corporate life of a village. Since society is small, this is an efficient arrangement. People are able to take finer personal distinction into accounts while dealing with each other. They turn to their kinsmen for both business and leisure. In return, the kin-group offers a certain kind of security to its members.  I am not suggesting that kinsmen and relatives always seek help or they always help each other. Nonetheless, they feel a strong moral obligation to help their kinsmen and a moral right to seek help.

The life in cities is different in scale and arrangement. It is mediated by different kind of institutions. British introduced many new institutions into our country, and, in our zeal of modernization, we have added some more. Whether we have the experience and ability to manage them or not, we can not imagine our lives without them. Institutions in urbane India are supposed to work via impersonal rules and procedures. It goes without saying that impersonal rules do not count for much in most of our institutions. First, we did not have a tradition or “habit of hearts” which prefers “rules” over “person”, and, second, conditions do not exist  in our institutions where such a tradition can grow and sustain a life of its own.

If we are to analyze factions, we need to discard two widely held beliefs about them. First, that factions are essentially a by-product of peasant mentality and their presence in white-collar professions or in urban middle class is a traditional residue; and they are bound to disappear with more industrialization and modernization.  Second, that factions appeal to our baser nature and has little or no moral legitimacy whatsoever. If anything, I would argue, that appeal of faction is most intense in urban middle classes and they are ubiquitous among them. And they are not without a moral legitimacy whether or not we are willing to admit it in public.  Perhaps the reason behind this is that we notice factions among others easily but fail to recognize them among ourselves.

We can learn a little more by looking at how an Indian in village copes when he is confronted by such an institution. A place where everything is done by unknown people through impersonal rules is a scary place for a villager to be. Whenever he has to deal with such places – banks, police,  hospital, etc. – the first thing he would inquire is whether he can find a person he can find some factional ties. If such a person does not exists then the idiom of kinship needs to be extended. If a bank-manger, doctor, or revenue officer happens to be from a different caste but from the same or nearby village, then the idiom of kinship is extended according to village even though everyone knows that the kinship can not exists between different castes. On the other hand, if he is from  distant village or town, then one inquires about his caste and extend the idiom of kinship accordingly. It is this fluid nature of idiom of kinship which enable villagers to find “connections” to get their work done in modern institutions. For them it is necessary too for they can not be certain if their work will get done through written rules and procedure only. Also factional ties are appealing to them because it relieves them from impersonal world of modern offices and bring them a psychological relief by bringing them closer to their kinsmen — a sort of pseudo family where the Indian feels truly secure.

The attraction of a faction (or a pseudo kinship) is no less strong in our cities. The idiom of kinship is even more fluid among urban Indians. In colleges and universities, it can be extended to hostels, wings, batches, labs and even to departments; not to mention academic lineage, if one gets one worth mentioning. One can easily witness it in IIT Bombay during elections. Voting takes place on factional lines: wing, hostel, department, batch etc. One notices a great deal of similarities here and voting based on “jati” and other communities in villages. In NCBS Bangalore, attendance pattern in journal club meeting depends largely on labs. There are many who attend the club meeting only when their own lab-member are reading a paper. This pattern is often broken by the presence of faculty member, usually perceived to be an authoritative figure on Indian university campus.

The conditions and environment in which our institutions operate are both uncertain and pliable. In the face of uncertainty, people fall back to their faction because there is nothing else to fall back to. The pliable nature of institutions  offers vast opportunities to manipulate personal relations in factional ties. Once a pseudo-kinship is formed and acknowledged, one feels free to demand some patronage or favour. It is remarkable to the length people in position of power in this country are willing to go to fulfil these demands of patronage. There is always some opportunity for material gain in all this, but one does it for sheer satisfaction and social prestige it brings. A man in some position of power in our society who does not offer patronage to his kinsmen is a man of no account.

The distribution of patronage among his kinsmen by a person in power has its own moral legitimacy in traditional order. First generation of Indian anthropologist, Nirmal Kumar Bose wrote about factional ties in the city of Calcutta; how city life was riddled with factions or ‘dal’. How these factions tried to outdo each other at public occasions by a lavish display of wealth. The wealth spent at these occasion was mostly private wealth. These days, the democratic processes in country have made it possible, in fact legitimize to some extent, to squander public wealth for factional display of might and status.

The attraction of factions does not look weaker even in the most efficient section of our society. It is remarkable that a person who appoints someone often feels that he now have a moral claim on the life-long loyalty of the appointed-one. Perhaps the appointed-one also feels that such a claim is morally justified, if somewhat uncalled for in the given institutional settings. What looks like a faction without any moral legitimacy to an outsiders is a humane arrangement of interdependence, loyalty and security for its members.

The inefficiency in our institutions depends largely if not solely on the fact that impersonal rules, by which our institutes are mandated to govern themselves, are discounted or simply ignored. Nothing will be gained if we discard these institutions simply because we now find these foreign plants withering away in our tropical environment. We need to rethink and appreciate the role of impersonal rules in modern institutional settings.  Many of us — with strong factional ties — would artfully agree in public that impersonal rules must count for much in our institutions. But not many of us are willing to give up the convenience it will cost us by abandoning the “cronyism” and “factionalism”.

Many Indians seem to have realized the costs some of our political institutions are made to pay for accommodating families into them. But it does not look like that we are getting even a little concerned about factionalism. In facts, there are many busybodies around trying to paint a humane face onto them [1]. If we are really troubled by the sorry states in which we find our institutions today, we have to understand that factions (or pseudo kinships like IITians, Bengalis, Jats, Delhites, IASs etc.) — whatever advantages they bring to individuals — cannot have the same moral claim as of real kinship. In long run, factions are parasitic in nature and a parasite can not thrive unless it feeds on its host.


[1] Gurucharan Das and S Gurumurthy can be taken as two examples. One of them recently argued that, “Instead of morally judging caste, I seek to understand its impact on competitiveness. I have come to believe that being endowed with commercial castes is a source of advantage in the global economy. Bania traders know how to accumulate and manage capital. They have financial resources and more important, financial acumen.”


Judicial activism

One of our national dailies reports that Madras High court has ordered a CBI inquiry into what is a quintessential internal affair of IIT Madras, namely the process of appointing faculty [1]. The process of selecting students and appointing faculty are vital to any university health and must be a prerogative of the university. It may be true that all committees do not always act in good faith given how deeply dependence and patronage is rooted in our society but even if they act in good faith, the decision may not be agreeable to all. Speaking of German universities nearly a hundred years ago, the sociologist, Max Weber, had observed, “No university teacher likes to be reminded of discussions of appointments, for they are rarely agreeable”. We Indians loves to be argumentative; reaching consensus becomes very hard. To make matter worse, suspicions and allegations of caste prejudice and other forms of bias have become endemic.

Continue reading “Judicial activism”

Caste and other ‘branded for life’ thingy

One of t-shirt designed by IITians at IIT Bombay. It says 'not of everyone' signifying exclusivity of brand or caste IITian.
One of the t-shirts designed by IITians at IIT Bombay. To some extent, the process of t-shirt design is democratic. Designs can be submitted by anyone and few are chosen (perhaps by voting). Since a lot of IITians are involved in t-shirt designing, these are good candidates for studying the nature of IITians. This t-shirt belongs to Electrical Engineering department and says ‘not for everyone’ signifying either the exclusivity of IITians or the superiority of Electrical Engineering department over other departments. Almost all designs are self-congratulatory. Other explicitly self-congratulatory designs read : ‘branded for life’, ‘it is in our genes’, ‘some say its attitude, we say its superiority’. Notice the uses of superlatives and words signifying sense of hierarchy. Symbols of superiority and inferiority are common to literature of any caste.

Social life in India is marked by subordination of individual to the group. This is not to say that Indian society knows ‘anything of individuals’ but the claims of group often prevail of claim of an individual [1]. Family, being a universal social group, is a good candidate for comparison and contrast. An Indian family makes its claims most vigorously at the time when education and marriage of children are being arranged. Such claims legitimize themselves by a value-system based on customs. Customs justify themselves by asserting their antiquity over anything else. If a group makes its claim on individual and expect from him a moral obligation to be loyal to it, then in return it offers patronage and a sense of security. Majority of Indians who feel safe and secure only in some ‘group’ or extended kinship develop a deep urge to be identified with a group : Jats, Brahmins, Tamils, Gujrati, IITians, IIMians etc. I do not wish to comment on identities based on language or religion for they are universal but I wish to point out those groups which are unique to South Asia namely Caste and its modern avatars.

Continue reading “Caste and other ‘branded for life’ thingy”

In praise of : Secularism

A growing tendency in India is to attack secularism, covertly and indirectly. The attack on secularism is somewhat similar to the attack on equality. They maintain since we can not define secularism (like equality) in a strict sense, it will be good if we stop using the term altogether, at least to avoid the intellectual confusion. More adventurous among them will go on to say that it does not exists at all and everything which is called secular is a form of pseudo-secular. Continue reading “In praise of : Secularism”

Society’s perception of woman

That men do cruel things to women is widely acknowledged and accepted. What is often concealed, not always in innocence, is that woman cruelty towards woman is no less compared to men’s cruelty to women. This is not to condone any sort of violence to anyone but to draw attention to a fact. It has been pointed out that most of the female fetus abandoned or killed in India are due maternal neglect. Moreover, those who persuade or force mother to abandon a girl child; the doctor or the dai who does these operations are usually woman. This is a weird but strong statement on women hostility towards womanhood. This is also a classic case of psychological defense mechanism in which the victim starts identifying with his or her aggressor and turned against himself or herself. It needs attention to the ways in which social institutes turn men and women against womanhood. And the purpose of this post to scratch the surface of this issue.

Feminists have given a new dimensions to issues related to women. Feminists are of great variety. There are many among them who are genuinely concerned with their misfortunes, some of them are driven by sheer misandry and they feel intoxicated by their own ideas when they find that these ideas resonate among masses.  The early days of feminism was shaped by some of the most remarkable women who fought for equal pay, better working conditions and what not. ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is’, the writer Rebecca West remarked rather sardonically in 1913. ‘I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’  [5] In India, feminist view has mostly been a human point of view : the rights of women are human rights. That too must say something about the problems of Indian women.To radical feminists, any issue between a man and a woman is an issue between men and women. ‘The cruelty done to woman’, they argue, that it is either done by men directly or by design. Their work are useful for the purpose comparing different point of view. There are more than enough evidences that men play prominent role in constant tutelage of women but it would be insincere to ignore that women do many self-derogatory thing to themselves.

In most of traditional patriarchal societies, woman are believed to have fickle and aggressive sexual nature. The belief had been, though the no one will speak implicitly in its favor, that they will have intercourse with someone if given half a change. Their mobility was restricted. This mindset makes itself visible on televisions, most vividly in men’s vest and perfumes ads. A few decades ago, some concerns were raised about objectification of women in media. One reason for this malaise was offered : media is controlled by men. Now we have many females executive and presenters in media houses and news rooms; can we say that objectification of women is reduced in newspapers and magazines? The point is simple, women in advantaged positions can collude with men, their so called oppressor, and turn against themselves.

Most of Indian women are of subservient nature and they are known to accept their place in society without any dissent. This is not to say they always accept their place by choice. Some women have recently started criticizing these patriarchal designs and have started breaking the traditional norms, including perhaps the good one. The whole society seems to be hostile towards these women. EPW, the keeper of nation’s conscience, sums the situation up in one of its editorial after the ‘horrific sexual assault on a teenage girl on the streets of Guwahati on 9 July’. The ‘assault will not be forgotten for a long time’, it says,

because of the nature of the crime, where the young woman was dragged away from the auto rickshaw which she was about to take and surrounded by a mob of more than 20 men who punched her, tore off her clothes, pulled her hair, groped her, burnt her with cigarette butts, called her a prostitute – everything short of a gang rape. Not only because of the shockingly slow response of the police located just one kilometre away. Not only because of the crass and callous indifference of dozens of citizens who drove past the girl as she ran down the street screaming for help. Not only because of the scandalous and unforgivable act of ­revealing the identity of the girl by the representative of the National Commission for Women, Alka Lamba. Or the equally mindless action of the Assam chief minister’s publicity department of sending to the media photographs of the girl with the chief minister.


Violence towards women is common in all societies; although male violence towards woman is widely recorded by feminists in their respective societies. A psychologist reports ‘disturbing evidence’ form U.S. from various studies. ‘One-quarter of American women will experience a completed rape at some time in their lives, and nearly one half will be victims of attempted or completed rape. Since the age of 14, 27.5% of college women have experienced an attempted or completed rape.’ Each year, approximately ‘1.8 million American wives are beaten by their husbands and one-eighth of all murders involve husbands killing their wives.’ And situation is India is likely to be severe because patriarchy is much deeply rooted and incidence or rape or domestic violence are hugely under-reported due to one social pressure or other.Studies by anthropologists have concluded that men violence towards woman is a universal feature of humanity. Although the prevalence of male violence against women varies from place to place, ‘cross-cultural surveys show that societies in which men rarely attack or rape women are the exception, not the norm’. It is said the ‘male sexual jealousy is the most common trigger for wife beating.’ I think this is what Freud called ‘penis envy’ although ‘The Little Magazine’differs.Higher gender-inequality encourage violence against the weaker gender. Where women do not have access to property or income, she is more like to suffer in silence, or more likely to use methods to survive which undermines her dignity and self-esteem as a human being. Gender inequality is not an easy thing to define or elaborate. There are measurable inequality attached to it such as distribution of property, illiteracy, access to food and nutrition, marriage age etc.; on the other hand there are many immeasurable yet important inequalities such as self-esteem, access to legal institutes, and dignity etc.

At the most basis level there is evolutionary tension : male tries to benefit by mating with any female whereas female do not benefit mating with every male comes her way. This tension is becomes very severe in those primates where male do not provide any parental care. Among mammals, a gender which invest heavily in its offspring tends to be more choosy. Usually females invest more and therefore they are more choosy. Males either compete for them or mate with them forcibly. For a detailed commentary on ‘male aggression towards women’ among primates can be found in [1]. Many social arrangements must have been constructed in response to this evolutionary tension.


Gregory Zilboorg famous paper suggests something similar. Male oppression of women emanates from his attempts to deny his deepest anxiety. ‘The most socially valued attribute of the male’, Zilborg argues, is a ‘result of natural selection imposed upon him by the female’s original power; which is to sense which male is biologically fitter for her offspring’. According to Steven Pinker, human females prefer ‘dark and dashing heroes’ (for better genes for their offspring) for short term affairs while ‘caring and nurturing one’ (for better resources and nourishment for their offspring) for long term relation. It is likely that caring and nurturing ‘dad’ who is no less prone to fall in love with a woman, develops a feeling of hate towards women when he faces rejection for a dark and dashing ‘clad’. How a woman evaluates such attributes in a male is altogether different matter. In society like us, women often prefer males who can provide better security and status in her society. Those who rely heavily on self-assessment, may pick someone with high IQ or EQ or other skills which they value, even though they are not high in status or profitable in markets.

Women dominate in mate-selection process and this supremacy of women arouse a feeling of jealousy and hostility towards women [3]. In certain western countries where males were reduced to a very small number due to world war, women have to learn to compete for better men. In India, however, situation has always been different. It is the male who is in excess and it is the male who often tries to woo a better (read beautiful) woman. Indians women usually don’t like to take the first step for the fear of considered ‘immoral’ or ‘cheaply available’. Girls who are beautiful and attractive often attracts a great deal of unwanted attention and jealously which is best noticed in the comments passed by a group of boys when they see a girl with some other boy :  such as ‘aajkal is laudiye’ (Girls these days ….’). What stands out in this often passed comment is that they insinuate something about whole gender after seeing a girl which does not fit to their image of proper girl.


Most of our intellectuals, whether Left wing or Right wing, agree on one thing while discussing why Indian cities, and perhaps even villages, have become insecure for our women : it is an outcome of modernity. Modernity may have consolidated hatred and angers towards [some type of] women; it has not created those feelings.

Modernity is a new phenomenon in India. And when an old system is being changed by a new one, it is not going to be a painless process. We are an agriculture society and an agriculture society have a love-hate relationship with nature and such societies tends to emphasize ‘feminine principle in nature, to see nature as mother who is irascible and unpredictable, pro-pitiable only through a variety of rites and rituals’ [2]. In our past, nature played a dominant part in the man-nature dyad and continues to do so; ‘important themes in folklore and religious text are often speak of the fecundity and bounty of nature as well as her frequent denial of sustenance to men who have poor means of controlling the fickle mother and are totally dependent upon her for survival.’ Thus woman dominated symbolically in ancient India although this dominance was limited by Brahminic tradition by limiting her role in the social functioning and controlling her sexual liberty (or laxity depending on the point of view). This point can be seen clearly when one notices the matrifocal culture where femininity is linked with ‘prakriti’, or nature, and prakriti with leela, or activity. Similarly the concept of ‘adya shakti’, primal or original power, is entirely feminine in India. [2]

Some of the cruelest custom existed in India such as Sati, child sacrifice at Sagra Sangam, infanticide to ensure longevity of dams and buildings were all centered on some goddess. Some of most marginal groups in ancient India sought meaning as social being by being devotee of one ‘Black’ goddess or another, that is, speaking metaphorically, ‘by identifying and being identified with an aggressive, treacherous, annihilating mother. In other words, as Ashis Nandy puts it, ‘the ultimate authority in Indian male has always been feminine’ [2].

Studies of child rearing in orthodox Indian families reveals that a woman (usually mother) has free emotional attachment to her [male] child. On one hand, child is dependent on her mother to an unusual degree and second and to others Indian child has distance relationship which is fragmentary and context based. Even the father acts as as outsider, who rarely come into the picture even to punish or reward the child. ‘It is only with respect to his mother that Indian child is his whole self and recognizable as an individual.’ The child sees his father more as a son of another woman than a husband of his mother.

For the Indian mother, on the other hand, the son is major medium of self-expression. Her status in society is fixed by the status of her husband but her status in her house depends on the status of her sons. It is motherhood that traditional Indian family respects; her role as a wife is devalued and debased. Thus a woman self-respect in India family depends heavily on the status of her sons and for that matter she invests in them heavily. It is through his sons, she exercise her authority and defends her influence on her sons by all means possible. In traditional joint families, it is still a major source of tension between his newly wed-bride and his mother : a wife tries to claim her husband at the cost of a mothers’ claim over her son.

Associated with this in the son is a deep feeling of ambivalence towards her mother who is both controlling and discontinuous. The son tries to revolt yet he is helpless. He often sees her as a treacherous betrayer for not letting him out of her grip; controlling him by her always present nurture. One of our psychologists has noted that the India’s fantasy life is to a great extent organized around the image of an angry, in-corporative, fickle mother, against whom his anger is directed and from whom through a process of projection, counter aggression is feared [5]. This ambivalence towards mother takes a form of ambivalence towards womanhood. In passing, it is worth noting that all major social reformists targeted the traditional concepts of woman and womanhood. On the other hand, the idea of mother was always invoked against the modern Western encroachments on Indian society ; and it is still invoked against cultural corruption. And so the woman as a symbol e.g. motherland, mother-tongue, are greatly praised in our society.

It all may inculcates in a woman serious self-doubt. She starts undervaluing herself. She has to carry this added burden of ‘greatness’ which may not be at all compatible with her human nature. Majority of women, who never had access to ‘modern or western thoughts’ which advocate equality of gender, can be made to feel guilty whenever she tries to break the traditional norms of ‘womanhood’ by asserting her real self. This has changed in cities, although not to an extent to which many feminists wish. In cities, and even in towns, young women are coming out in open against such unwarranted demand of being devi or flag-bearers of their culture. This is a major source of irritation and anger of orthodox section of our society.

The ambivalence towards woman in Western male is slightly different from that of Indian male. Western male fears the universal fear with Zilboorg speaks in his paper. In India society, leaving some strong martial cultures of Ganges plane, the man’s fear is not that he will lapse in womanliness and thus loose is masculinity or potency. Indian males don’t strive for potency as such. Unlike west, it is his ability to abstain from sex rather than hedonist display of sexual desires which is considered sign of sexual potency. The discomfort with and criticism of Nehru and Lady Mountbatten affair make one feels that great man are not suppose to get an erection in India. The masculinity fear here is that a man may fall foul of the cosmic feminine principle, that woman will betray, aggress, pollute, or at least fail to protect. The demand of motherly protection of man by his wife is best displayed in the story of Savitri where she saves her husband from death itself. Woman who failed to protect her husband from death were severely punished as widows, sometimes even burned as Sati. Now one can find an explanation why there is a common word ‘randi’ or ‘rand’  used in Hindustani to describe both prostitutes and widows. There is a great deal of abhorrence for both : one pollutes their culture while other fails to protect. Although on our campuses this word heavily used by young boys and girls is more close to its English slang ‘bitch’.

Indian males are most likely to see a woman as women; a collective symbol and not an individual entity. There is an image of ‘ideal or proper woman’ in his mind. When he sees a woman different from this image, he is more prone to criticize the whole gender, and speak of its debasement. And in turn, more likely to demand a punishment, if he is caught in moral outrage. Even he is not into ‘moral policing’, he starts maintaining a safe psychological distance, and he tolerates other men cruelty towards women.

I have sympathy for Indian male in general for it is not entirely his fault for letting women take part of his mind and identity. Indian fathers do not play a significant part in emotional development of the child; and her mother — whom the child also sees as a woman — is given a free emotional ride over him. Deep emotional attachments (as well as partial identities) are known to extract heavy price from those who live with them.

No doubt that Indian woman have paid terribly and continue to pay for Indian male insensitivities, but they have also extracted a heavy toll from society by permanently residing in its psyche. Indian man has yet not learned to live with all aspect of womanhood which have always been much more different from the ‘ideal image’ of it in his head. And Indian women are confused if traditional roles assigned to them are good or bad; or incompatible with their modern aspirations.

Violence is a doubly edge sword. Those who tortured and killed people in wars also do violence to their familiesand themselves. A country which invades other countries also suffer from shooting spree at home. A fact which Gandhi understood very well. ‘Modern psychology consolidates such belief’, argues Nandy, that ‘no marauder can hope to be a marauder without being a prey and no prey can not be a prey without being a marauder’.

END NOTES : [1] Male aggression against women, An evolutionary perspective; Barbara Smuts. [2] For an analysis of woman’s identification with the aggressive male and her hostility towards womanhood see Karl Menninger, ‘Love against Hate’. And ‘Woman vs Womanliness in India’, Ashis Nandy. [3] Gregory also claims that male is a ‘parasitic’ fertilizer. I find it hard to believe. Human male also invest in his offspring. He is much more than a parasitic fertilizer. Human male is also choosy, perhaps more so in modern times than they were older times. [4] See ‘Sati – a Nineteenth century tale of women, violence and protest.’, Ashis Nandy [5] See Leela Dubey, ‘On the construction of gender : Hindu girls in patrilineal India’ where she explores ‘the mechanisms through which women acquire the cultural ideas and values which-shape their images of themselves and inform the visions they have of the future.’ She comments on ‘the processes by which women are produced as gendered subjects in the patrilineal, patrivirilocal milieu of Indian society.’ This article also examines the process of ‘socialisation of Hindu girls through rituals and ceremonies, the use of language, and practices within and in relation to the family.’. EPW, April 30, 1988.

[6][Indian male psyche, society and sexuality]( ""), Seminar.