Uttar Pradesh may be the crucible of Indian politics, but it also seems to be the crucible of all that is wrong with India. The rapes and murders are horrifying enough but the discrimination against women seems to be on a consistent and concerted basis.
The latest is a strange diktat from a khap panchayat, which has banned women from wearing jeans and using cellphones. These apparently encourage eve-teasing. It seems quite lost on the men who passed this order that a cellphone is perhaps a major source of security for women in UP and other places. The khaps have over the years become more and more bold and invasive in their pronouncements about marriage, caste relations and how women should conduct themselves. They have no legal sanction but these retrograde views have gone unchallenged in large part. Of course, NGOs and other members of civil society have taken up cudgels against them, but by and large, the political establishment has maintained a telling silence. In fact, even the Aam Aadmi Party, which is not known to hold back on its views, was wishy washy at best when it came to the khap question.
In UP, where the chief minister has encouraged his wife to become a politician in her own right and where his brother is attempting to do the same, there is a serious lack of will on the part of politicians to say anything against these khaps. In fact, there seems to be some sort of tacit approval for anti-women moves, the worst kind of regressive statements coming from the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav himself. The chief minister cannot sit back and let such diktats go unchallenged on the grounds that they are part of some tradition. He must at least voice his disapproval in no uncertain terms.
Panchayats, by their very definition, are meant to oversee development in their areas. They are not meant to institutionalise discrimination against women. It is significant that the onus of keeping themselves safe from the unwelcome attentions of men falls squarely on women. The silence on the part of those like Akhilesh Yadav seems to be taken as a sign of approval by the khaps. This will only embolden them to widen the scope of their interference. It is really time that at least the women MPs and MLAs, since the men seem to paralysed on this issue, spoke up and exposed these khaps for what they really are — medieval outfits that have no place in today’s India.