Once upon a time, there lived a rakshas and a rakshasni in the sleepy town of Patran in Punjab. They fed on small infants and miscarried foetuses, making the people’s lives miserable. Then the people of Patran discovered that aborted female foetuses were adequate to satisfy their appetites. This made the people happy, for they themselves had no appetite for bringing up female infants and found an easy way of getting rid of them, while keeping the rakshas and rakshasni sated. This happy camaraderie between the Patran community and the rakshases was spoilt with the arrival of some officially-appointed guardians of female foetuses. They took away the rakshas and his wife, leaving the community to think of new ways to rid itself of female foetuses.
The story of ‘doctor’ Pritam Singh, formerly a hawaldar in the army and thereafter the ‘butcher’ of Sahib Nursing Home of Patran, Patiala, and of its wells filled with aborted female foetuses, is amenable to transformation into a Punjabi folktale, albeit a gory one. However, Punjab, a land renowned as much for its folktales as for its shocking child sex ratio (CSR), has recorded many such stories in the past 150 years or so, many of them penned by colonial officer-ethnographers out to underline the ‘barbaric’ nature of Indian society.
One story recorded as early as 1851 tried to show why the Bedis, direct descendants of Guru Nanak, practiced female infanticide. In this tale, Dharam Chand, said to be Nanak’s grandson, bade all Bedis to kill their daughters since his sons had faced humiliation at the hands of their wives at the time of their marriage. When his sons protested against this cruel injunction, Dharam Chand consoled them by saying that if the Bedis remained true to their faith and abstained from lies and liquor, then God would bless them with only sons.
The story highlights, among other semantic possibilities, the cultural devaluation of female life. Of course, it is quite possible that the story may have been embellished by community leaders eager to feed the British with the right kind of stories, those that would confirm the colonisers’ preconceived notions about Indians. Among the Bedis of Dera Baba Nanak, the over-zealous authorities observed, not a single female child was allowed to survive.
The British, thereafter, set about rectifying the situation. While proclaiming their own enlightened status, they persuaded not only the Bedis, but also other eminent castes in Punjab, like the Rajputs and the Khatris, to let their female children live. A grand meeting was organised in Amritsar in 1853 to extract promises from various prominent communities that they would give up female infanticide.
However, during the course of the 19th century, what had started as a clever strategy to enhance their moral status and legitimise the colonial rule, snowballed into a problem that the British found difficult to handle. At times, with more and more castes in Punjab seen to be involved in this murderous activity, they were also unwilling to step in. Among these communities were the Jats, precious to the British as ideal agriculturists, revenue-paying peasants and foot soldiers in the army.
Yet, decennial censuses and other sundry data did not allow the story to be quietly buried, either. Over and over again, caste- and community-based sex ratios emerged, like a rash that irritated and itched, and required assorted palliatives. Between 1891 and 1901, the CSR (below age five) for the Hindus remained a dismal 841 girls per 1,000 boys; they declined for the Sikhs from 778 to 766; and the Muslims showed a marginal improvement from 871 to 879. In 1911, the CSR (below age five) was reported to be 914 girls per 1,000 boys among the Hindu Khatris, 931 among the Sikh Khatris, 839 among the Hindu Jats and a low 694 among the Sikh Jats.
In some instances, these figures are comparable to the 2001 data, which shows the CSR (below age six) of Punjab to be a low 874/1,000. Unofficially, though, the figures that we receive today are much worse. A recent article in Outlook (February 27, 2006) quoted CSR figures in some districts of Punjab to be a precarious 529/1,000 (Nawanshahr’s Dhanduha village) and even an alarming 429/1,000 (Jalandhar’s Gobindpura).
The British found reasons for the practice of infanticide in what they liked to call the ‘pride’ and ‘poverty’ of the Indians. Pride referred to hypergamous marriage practices, which forced parents to look for grooms for their daughters in a family of higher status. This created an anomalous situation of unmarried girls at the very top of the social hierarchy. Soon, it was claimed, they were done away with through infanticide. At the bottom of the pile, too, where men did not find brides, a trade in women from other parts flourished. Faced with high-caste customs that required the bestowal of a handsome dowry on the daughter, parents became unwilling to bring up daughters.
Historians have shown how these arguments put forward by the British need to be understood also in the colonial context, a period marked by the menace of infanticide. That the cultural degradation of the female infant in Punjab had a long history is apparent. It is seen even in exhortations of the third Sikh guru, Amar Das, and the tenth, Gobind Singh, against female infanticide. Yet, during the colonial period, the insidious ways in which the State identified and recognised people through their customs tended to create a rush for social upmanship and emulation of what were marked as high-caste customs, with dowry becoming a more generalised phenomenon than it had been before.
The story of the ‘Darbari’ Jats recorded by colonial officials is a case in point. This related the saga of a rather ruddy Jat daughter who controlled a runaway buffalo by keeping her foot on the rope that was tied around the animal’s neck, while simultaneously balancing a couple of water pots on her head. Emperor Akbar, it was said, a witness to these events, was so impressed by her prowess that he immediately married her in the hope of having children as strong and fearless. This made her community ‘darbaris’, who then could not countenance marriage to lesser Jats. So, they decided to do away with daughters. In this tale, paradoxically, the positive attributes of a Jat woman, her agricultural skills, underlining both a lower status in the caste hierarchy and a desire for upward mobility, became a reason to practice infanticide.
Historians have also paid attention to the changing economy of the colonial period and the demands that the State made for timely revenue payments and fixing of land in patriarchal hands. To supplement incomes for time-bound revenue payments, parents wished to have more sons working the land or joining the army, transforming daughters into unwanted burdens.
The cultural devaluation of daughters is, therefore, a complex issue. The worsening scenario at present cannot be understood without keeping in mind the reach of new medical technologies and changing family planning norms. If it was possible to bring up, say, two daughters earlier, ensuring the rest were sons, it is perhaps one daughter today, or none. This pervasive criminality must be condemned, whether it is in the form of inflated dowries, without ensuring the control of girls over dowry or property, or the culture of placing honour on the person of the daughter, while sanctioning trade in women for the marriage market at another level.
A culture that permits rakshases to flourish must be, in the long run, prepared for its own annihilation. Punjab must reinvent its stories and, indeed, its politics. The State and society need to take definitive steps to annihilate the rakshases by aligning and empowering forces in the society with alternative visions. Punjab must find tales where daughters are cherished and educated, where their achievements are taken pride in. It is only when we have new stories to tell that we begin to change our ethos.
The writer is Reader, Department of History, Delhi University