Demonetisation in India exposes a sad sorority of married women

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November 8 will go down in history as an earthquake that shook the entire India. And not because that’s the day when Donald Trump was elected POTUS. It was because our Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation scheme that made notes of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 illegal tender. Overnight, nearly 70% of all cash circulating within the country was not worth the price of the paper it was printed on.

The move was termed as a masterstroke in the government’s fight against black money, which is a major source of funding for terror acts within the country, be it in Kashmir or in Naxal-affected areas, or elsewhere. Limits were imposed on exchange of money – a paltry sum of Rs.4000 in cash could be exchanged at one go at the bank, and in that too, it was made mandatory to bring your ID proof. The government was counting and the taxman was watching. For the first time, black money hoarders and tax evaders had no clue what to do.

But these aren’t the only people that were scared. There was another class that found the move completely daunting and intimidating. Married Indian women. Women who were dependent on their family’s largesse of TLC and money. Women who had been squirreling away the money from their household expenses basket in order to keep cash at hand for a rainy day. This sounds dishonest but it most certainly isn’t.

Most of this money ends up in their secret stash through diverting it from where it was meant to be spent: her children want to eat ice-cream, she cajoles them to share one ice-cream cone rather than have one each. She needs a new pair of sandals but she takes her well-worn pair to the cobbler and buys a new one for half the price of the money she has. Her daughter needs a new dress so she fashions one out from one of her saris that she got in her trousseau that is now gathering dust. Instead of buying veggies from the vendor that comes to her doorstep, she takes a bus ride into the outskirts to find cheaper supplies. She doesn’t buy a new sari to attend her cousin’s wedding. She borrows it from a neighbour. This secret stash is achieved by the dint of years and years of sacrifice and severe monitoring of cash flows.

And these are not just lower middle class or uneducated women doing so. This sorority also includes upper middle class women whose family dynamics are far from being dysfunctional, at least by definition. These are women who could trust their spouse enough to have children with them but not with candour about why they needed some cash kept aside.

Their secret stash comes in handy when her daughter needs pocket money for her school picnic that her father is skeptical about; when her son wants a new pair of bright sneakers for sports day; when her own mother wants the new alternative medicine that the son she stays with would refuse her because it is extra expenditure; when she wants her father to take money from her instead of taking a loan; when she wants it for something she can’t tell her husband about lest he shouts at her, and becomes suspicious of her spending away all ‘his hard-earned money’; when her own mother-in-law suddenly collapses and cash has to be arranged for emergency care at the hospital; when she would need it to secure her own freedom after her husband drinks himself to death and penury.

These are limited scenarios but not untrue. 80% of India’s women remain outside of the banking system. Finances are controlled by the men in the family. Close to 49% of Indian population is comprised of women. There are inheritance rights and Hindu women have been granted equal rights to all inheritance but equal inheritance is not an equality yet. Daughters are blackmailed emotionally and sometimes literally into forfeiting their right. If they still fight it, they are shamed by the society.

The Indian mainstream media and the social media have aptly captured the plight of all these women. Countercurrents.org has written a long one about how demonetisation is an unfolding tragedy for women (link here), TheLadiesFinger too recounts stories of such women (Link here), while scroll.in details how women are scrambling to link here salvage their savings. There are many more.

Revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia has clarified that small businesses, women, housewives, will face less scrutiny while depositing their savings in 500-1000 notes up to Rs. 2-2.5 lakh, so long as it is all accounted for in the household’s income. But this has failed to bring relief to our sorority girls.

In what is the saddest part of this story, our sorority sisters are probably not that afraid of the country’s government. What they are afraid of is the powers-that-be at home.

40-year-old Eshwarramma from Chikaballapur in Karnataka killed herself on November 14 after losing her savings of Rs.15,000 while on her way to the bank to deposit her money. Her husband Nagappa was an alcoholic and had almost abandoned their family. She was a day labourer and is survived by a son.

My previous domestic help had lost Rs. 20,000 in a local village-level ponzi scheme she had invested in, keeping it from her driver husband who was having an affair with a fellow driver’s wife. He used to beat her up for every little thing, right in front of her two young sons. She wanted to secure their future while ignoring her husband’s selfish indulgences.

Another domestic help was working 8 hours at my place after working all the rest at hers to support the education of her two young sons. Her husband is an autorickshaw driver whose vehicle EMI was being paid from her salary. When I took her to the bank to make a fixed deposit in her name, we couldn’t because the signature on her PAN card did not match. It was her husband who had put her name down, not she. There was no way she could access her own Jan Dhan account.

Another woman who worked at my place is a sole breadwinner in a family of eight. She has been duped by her own brother, who offered to help her buy a house. Her husband is a security guard and spends most days drinking after he was kicked out of his job.

A friend who lives in a super affluent joint family can’t buy a laptop because her husband would laugh at her, she being “just a housewife”. She’s looking to buy a used one from her savings, a purchase she’ll disguise as a gift from her cousin.

A distant aunt recently declared a secret stash of Rs.50,000 to her husband, to face much mocking and derision for her secretive nature, and not credit for her frugality.

Media calling the demonetisation step monstrous for robbing the peace of mind of these women need to look at the larger picture. These women do not have the luxury of peace of mind. Much like the government that has for decades rewarded a system where crooks and power-hungry are emboldened and get richer, our society supports a family system where hierarchy-driven patriarchy is emboldened and controls the money.

Media has brought forth all these stories of financial heartbreak of women but a rejoicing for their relatives. But they have failed to notice where all this comes from – control women’s birth. Suppress their education. Let them remain dependent on family. And last but not the least, blame them for their lower status in the society. Repeat.

In this sense, the good, clean, honest man in the Indian polity can be compared to a housewife. So far, he couldn’t question the government. He was too busy trying to make clean money so that at least 1 chapati out of all three his wife cooked could go towards feeding the babus and the politicians. He had to furnish a clean bill of expenses every time he went out shopping. Probably that’s why he is largely supportive of the government’s move.

The honest man is happy today because the government has taken a step that he believes will, in the long run, benefit the country by penalising the tax evaders and black money marketers. When will a housewife experience such relief, I wonder.

The housewife is in a state of quandary. But this just compounds an already dysfunctional situation. She fights day in and day out. She survives. She will continue to survive. This is but a sad comment on the social state of affairs and what passes of as a “family” in India. She can’t trust anyone for understanding her. Not even her spouse.

 

 

‘What will we tell our daughters if Trump wins’?

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THREE days before Americans tell the world – for I’m hoping their decision is already made – who their new President is going to be, out comes this letter to parents of daughters (Link Here). While Lucia Brawley’s had indeed written a moving piece, a few thoughts on this important event.

It starts off with the gender of the candidates in focus. “If Trump wins, will the American people tell their daughters that after 44 male presidents there won’t be a woman?”

I am an Indian and we have a long tradition of women leaders. We’ve never had to have a suffragette movement, despite having to fight social ills such as the Sati, female foeticide and infanticide.

Indira Gandhi, the only woman Prime Minister we have had came to power in 1966 and ruled for a decade. She was an extremely powerful politician and took forward what was the Nehru family’s hold on dynastic power that continues to this day. There was a slogan her party used once: India is Indira and Indira is India.

Of Indira’s two daughters-in-law, Sonia Gandhi is officially still one of the most powerful politicians in India, with her son Rahul Gandhi now manouvering the Indian National Congress party. Notably, Indira kept mum, as did the rest of the family of political leaders from the Gandhi clan, when her other son, Sanjay Gandhi, went about forcibly sterilising the men across various geographies. Some men underwent the operation more than once. Indira’s other DIL, Maneka Gandhi is a Union Cabinet minister in the current Central government. Her son Varun Gandhi too is a politician.

Indira is the only prime minister in the Indian democracy to have slapped an Emergency on the Indian state for two long years. Sonia Gandhi’s hold over INC is stained by allegations of policy paralysis and large-scale corruption, too many scandals to count, and numbers so big that are difficult to even ascertain.

Looking at other women in politics, Mayawati holds sway over the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh. While she was lauded for improving the law & order situation in UP when she was in power as Chief Minister, she did make an example of unfettered spending of money for purposes that had nothing to do with development in a state that needs it critically and everything to do with sheer tokenism. She built memorials cost anywhere between USD 500 million to USD1.3 billion. She went to town erecting super size statues of herself and party leaders as well as pink elephants, her party’s symbol, over an area as big as a small town right in the heart of the state capital, Lucknow. And by the way, Newsweek described her as the Barack Obama of India, and is a potential Prime Ministerial candidate.

In the East is Mamata Bannerjee, current Chief Minister of West Bengal, is the first woman CM of the state and was previously the first woman Railways minister of India. Her rule has also been rocked by a corruption scandal (Saradha scam) and following an inquiry into it, 2 of her partymen are in jail. But, she’s really infamous for her comments following a rape in the state capital. She said that rape was a result of ‘more free interaction between men and women’. I quote: ‘Earlier if men and women would hold hands, they would get caught by parents and reprimanded but now everything is so open. It’s like an open market with open options’. Of late, there is outrage against her on social media for exhibiting sharp pro-minority leanings that have been often called appeasement politics.

Finally, Jayalalithaa of the South. She’s had several Chief Ministerial stints in the state of Tamil Nadu, but was disqualified from holding office during her previous stint due to a disproportionate assets case against her. Of course, she was acquitted in the case with many casting doubts on the authenticity… well! Apart from holding some 2,000 acres of land and 30kg of gold, she was known to have 12,000 saris. It’s possible that even with so much, we’re barely scratching the surface.

However. This is not to say that women in politics are corrupt, unfit, and inept but this IS to say that women in power are NO DIFFERENT than MEN in power. They’re equally corrupt for money, equally likely to abuse positions of power, and can be equally misogynistic. Of course, they’ve done a ton of good things for a lot of people at large, just like their male counterparts. The one thing they won’t do, like their male counterparts do, is “grab a ****y” in Donald Trump’s words. But, there’s no telling they won’t stand by silently and look past when the men around them do so. In fact, history proves they do exactly that at times.

So, when Ms. Brawley talks about ‘bigoted misogynist’, I wonder if she’s referring to Trump, Bill Clinton, or Hillary! Only the use of the word ‘Unqualified’ serves as a hint to The Donald.  

For, I don’t know of instances where Hillary came out in support of victims of Bill’s sexual assaults. I don’t know if she has ever supported them in any way. All I know is, she stood by her husband. What I do know is that it is some form of corruption to know something is wrong but to keep mum because you stand to gain from it.  

I recently came across a piece of news where a mother allowed her neighbour and his son to sexually abuse her 9-year-old twins, in exchange of money. The twins, who are not even 5th graders yet, complained to their schoolteacher, who then forwarded the complaint to the police. 

What we see, therefore, is that when it comes to power, it’s not about gender, it’s about the person. However, the gender debate is too attractive this time around to be dismissed. America is about to elect a woman president for the first time ever, certainly a milestone. But, it can’t be the main reason for her election.

Now, the part that bothers me the most. If you’ve noticed the current trends in open letters, you’ll see it mirroring our social behaviour. Sexual abuse is the only area where we challenge, question, doubt, punish the victim. All our open letters too are usually and mostly addressed to the women, girls, and daughters, rarely to the boys. So is this one.

Addressed to parents of daughters. Again through the gender angle.

If Trump wins, won’t Americans be telling their sons that it is okay to be a liar, a joker, a businessman who is not transparent, a braggart, a perv, an abuser… a fear monger, a hate monger, a “divisive, racist” force?!

So, what will we tell our daughters if Trump wins? Nothing we don’t already know.

The focus of this entire gender conversation needs to be boys and men and their role in the society. It is this role that creates situations of gender divide, by bringing out the worst in them. It keeps them away from realising their full humanity and throws them into a cycle of misogyny.

Parents of daughters are already doing their bit to change that. There is need to address parents of sons on this matter.

 

 

Is this a turning point?

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The last few months have not been easy. No. Not at all.

For a middle class girl to a woman, I have grown in an extremely diverse, pluralistic, sometimes traditional but largely liberal society, especially at home.

When it was time to join in evening prayers or bhajans, I used to be thrilled to take the mickey out of the bhajan mandali participants of my granny’s group. It was quite the ‘in’ thing, at least for me, not to visit temples, completely deny all the little bits of religion fed us by our elders and relatives. Not because it was being forced upon us; no, not at all. After all, the prayer before leaving the class for lunch break was mandatory; Christmas celebrations were marked by a unique fervour, unmatched by that which marked Diwali in our largely ‘baniya’-led school in Ahmedabad – not one classmate of mine was Christian, I remember (we did have one Christian teacher though).

It was incredulous to find, one fine day, our elders using separate cups for the drivers and cleaners to serve tea. Once more the student in me, instructed by the ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ in our textbooks found an opportunity to exercise my learning, the question being, ‘if not now, when?’; ‘if not me, who?’

And it went well. The banishment of separate crockery. Then came puberty with its own problems – emotional, physical, but also social. ‘Don’t sit here; don’t go there; don’t do that; and absolutely don’t question’. That last one rankled. So I questioned. And then the rest of them unravelled.

Same with boyfriends. Then with not making the expected grades. Then with not studying science and instead taking up a ‘useless’ profession – writing. All the while not going to temples; not even saying ‘Jay Sri Krishna’ as we are wont to do at the beginning and at the end of our conversations (nowadays in the time of SMS, a JSK suffices); not reciting the mantras and the shlokas and the prayers; not doing havans; not reading the scriptures; opposing wholeheartedly as I do even now, the religiously guided (Hindu) invocation at the beginning of every formal function at any institution – the ‘ridiculous’ lamp lighting ceremony; not doing anything even remotely religious. And all the while, the former being called as having been caused by the latter.

All this because belonging to a Hindu majority was a pain. Caste discrimination, gender discrimination, vegetarianism (which has never wavered in my life). The sati system, the female foeticide and infanticide, the dowry system, untouchability – baggage of a murky past. So strong was the urge to move oneself away from the bad associations that it could only come at the cost of identifying with this culture.

However, I attended a midnight mass, celebrated Christmas with my friends, learnt to write my name in Urdu thanks to a Muslim driver in our family, made friends with other kids with all kinds of surnames, especially those that went against any hope of approval on any level. Deliberately, openly, and finally, lovingly. At that time, being a modern Hindu was to be openly and actively embracing all other religions and culture and their practices. At the cost of having a Hindu identity. And it was easy because among the intellectuals, a Hindu identity was a cheap thing to have. As truly modern Hindus, we HAD TO BE progressive – join the Christians in their ‘creation’ of a classless, casteless society; we know now how that goes in the world of pointed capitalism that might just be led by Donald Trump. Had to be, and so we were. Progressive.

Being progressive is something that we have always had to keep attempting at. Missionaries can continue making more and more missions; and Muslims can continue to send their kids to madrassas; and everyone can keep their personal laws. Hindus are happy to let everyone take a dig at themselves, take the jobs through reservations based on exactly what they hate – caste; there’s talk even of religion being included here, but so far it hasn’t happened; and make Hindus look like the most intolerant of the lot.

And if you went looking, you wouldn’t find a case of a Hindu Raja looting, invading, and plundering other faraway lands; you wouldn’t find Hindu proselytisers and mass conversions; you wouldn’t find even Hindu religious schools. You won’t find Hindus saying we are for our Hindu brothers, building fences, making wars. I know, what an intolerant lot! Even now, as I look around, the most militant intelligentsia calling their own brethren intolerant is largely Hindu. Because as Hindus, we rarely were brought up to think of Hindu brethren as the only relevant brethren. For us, Vaisudhaiva kutumbakam is a reality. I won’t translate this term because in the current atmosphere, it has become irrelevant.

We, who never went in search of our own identity – a religious identity, but were content with our cultural identity, find ourselves at a strange juncture. I am already probing my Hindu roots, looking for what makes me so tolerant to others’ insinuations and cheap jibes at my being intolerant. I know what it is. It’s my tolerance. We’re okay with cheap risque jokes about our Gods, we might not like it but we’re okay with letting people use the imagery of Hindu Gods and Goddesses to design their bikinis and flip-flops – we’d rather ignore it, we’re okay sharing our spaces and our history, of course our resources, and our society and the safety it ensures, with others as we have always done.

And what’s the hardest part here? To have to utter the word ‘we’. It means a boundary has already been formed. I was not like this before. But the disgusting circus around Rohith Vemula’s death, the utterly irresponsible way the political class as well as the media has acted around the JNU issue, and the absolutely shameful way people have banded together to develop this story of the intolerant India i.e. intolerant upper caste Hindu India, I can’t think of an alternative.

And I’m sure I am not alone.