In the summer of 1982, I travelled to Sidhi district in Madhya Pradesh to report on a fascinating archaeological expedition for India Today. An Indo-US team excavating in the Son Valley was sifting through stone artefacts from the Upper Palaeolithic period (between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago) when they came across a rough circular sandstone platform.
“In the centre of this platform was a fragment of a natural, ferruginous stone which had concentric triangular striations etched into it. The fragment stood out from the rest of the circle’s stones because of its unusual colours, ranging from a light yellowish red to a dark reddish brown, in alternating belts,” I wrote.
The archaeologists found nine other similar fragments which fitted together to form a triangular stone 15 cm high. They dated it to about 11,000 years ago. It seemed to have been placed as it was by Old Stone Age worshippers. More startlingly, a passer-by asked why the archaeologists had broken a holy stone. It turned out that the Kol and Baiga tribes in the area were still worshipping similar stone representations of their mother goddess, Mai.
So let us be clear – from prehistoric times (long pre-dating the earliest recognized origins of Hinduism with the compilation of the Rig Veda around 3,500 years ago) when early Homo erectus bands of hunter-gatherers foraged across our peninsula, we have revered the mother goddess. Combined with our worship of the elements – earth, fire, water and air – you can call them pagan or animistic beliefs – our culture is far older than the arguments going around these days about where Hinduism came from, and whether it was imported or sprang from our soil. A government-appointed committee of scholars has been carrying out a “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other cultures of the world.”
This period overlaps with the Son Valley discoveries. I wrote then that those findings “may be a reiteration of the woman’s pivotal position in those ancient groups. The mother was then truly a goddess: she looked after the family, gave birth to progeny that increased the tribe’s numbers, and protected her offspring.”
Whatever ideological winds are driving this ship, it is worth remembering, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, that our regard for Shakti is rooted in primeval instincts. It is significant that in every Hindu temple the place where the deity, whether male or female, is enshrined is called the garbha-griha (literally, womb-chamber).
So it is sad that, more than 70 years after we set out as a modern nation, we are still hostage to terrible stereotypes, gender discrimination, misogyny, bigotry, and the objectification of women.
It is just five years since Parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, in the wake of the Nirbhaya rape case and the Justice Verma Committee report, which recommended changes to definitions of sexual assault, rape, voyeurism and harassment among other offences and enhanced punishments. This closely followed passage of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, which was triggered by the Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan verdict passed by a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice JS Verma, then the chief justice, in August 1997.
In Vishaka, the Supreme Court spelled out a definition of sexual harassment for the first time. It said: “For this purpose, sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
a) physical contact and advances;
b) a demand or request for sexual favours;
c) sexually coloured remarks;
d) showing pornography;
e) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.”
So, it took us 50 years to get to Vishaka, and 65 to get to tougher penalties for rape and sexual assault. In between was the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005.
These laws ought to have made India’s women feel much safer and more respected. Is that the case?
I do not believe so. Despite more than a thousand years of reverence for the mother goddess, we are riddled with prejudices and we still behave with impunity towards women.
National Crime Records Bureau data show that crimes against women totalled 338,854 in 2016, little changed from 339,457 in 2014. Delhi had the dishonour of the highest crime rate in the country (per 100,000 women) followed by Assam and Odisha.
Justice Verma, who also headed the National Human Rights Commission from 1999 to 2003 after his retirement as CJI, told me in a December 2008 interview that we have enough laws to protect human rights on our statute books. “That is how, we could in the Vishaka case, spell out the meaning of sexual harassment, and what needs to be done, and we placed the rights apart from the International Covenants etc. on Article 14 Right to Equality, Article 19 Right to Work and Article 21 Right to Life and Personal Liberty,” Verma said. “So I don’t think there is any dearth of any laws. If there is anything wanting that is in those people who are required to protect human rights.”
It is not just the protectors of our rights who fall short: we are also very willing, almost complicit, in our acceptance of sexual inequality, violence and harassment. Contrast the #MeToo movement in the United States, which has laid bare hundreds of cases of assault and harassment, and the public disgrace and resignations of a procession of celebrities, with the arrogance and impunity with which prominent men accused of similar crimes in India behave. Despite Vishaka and Nirbhaya, prosecutions take infuriatingly long to wend their way through the courts, and the predators not only escape punishment, they even begin to graze in new pastures.
I remembered what Rupan Deol Bajaj told the BBC. The senior IAS officer fought a 17-year-long battle against Punjab’s ‘supercop’ KPS Gill, leading to his ultimate conviction for sexual harassment in 2005 (Gill died last year). “I never fought against KPS Gill,” Bajaj said. “I fought against the mind-set of a society. People have started saying now, offences against women are increasing. No – now more women are speaking up.”
Let me end with a good-news story. A couple of months ago I happened to be sitting next to a woman pilot on an IndiGo flight. She was on her way back to base after a day’s flying. Our conversation led me to ask some questions of India’s most profitable airline (and I believe both its profitability and on-time performance have something to do with IndiGo’s diversity policies). Here are a few facts:
•India has among the highest number of
women commercial pilots in the world (12%) – as much as Finland and far higher than the world average of 5.4% (US 5.6%, France 7.6%, Japan 5.6%)
•IndiGo has 322 women pilots, 14% of the to-
tal; this is triple the level five years ago
•A third of IndiGo’s senior leadership are
women, and 43% of its total workforce
•The airline has 47 pilot couples, three pairs
of sisters, 11 brother-and-sister pairs, and ten father-and-daughter pairs
•IndiGo also boasts Bavicca Bharathi, who
was the world’s youngest woman commander of a commercial airliner, and who inspired her mother Judith to also train as a pilot and join IndiGo