Manohar Seetharam
Gender Discourse: Engineering a Conflict
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

The gruesome rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey – a 23 year old medical student, in the national capital led to large scale street protests in New Delhi and many other parts of the country. While young men and women on the streets rightly drew the attention of the nation towards the crumbling law-enforcement system in India; the op-ed writing classes have set themselves upon using this incident to forward their own flawed analysis and thereby charge and convict the entire Indian society for sexual crimes against women. By painting the Indian society as the accused #1; such commentaries have managed to diffuse the focus of public attention from law enforcement and the administrative accountability of the government. The central aim of all their analyses seems to be to isolate and alienate the Indian women from the whole known as a ‘Society’ and ‘Nation’. In this post I will briefly examine the premise, conclusions and the possible impact of such opinions and try and argue that those policies that work well for the Indian society and the nation would indeed work well for the Indian women too.

The assorted bunch of left-liberal and Marxist-feminist columnists must have felt very insecure and defeated by the total absence of any “social-conflict” rhetoric on the streets during the long spell of protests. If anything the protests demonstrated that there indeed is no such gender conflict in the Indian society and the Indian men too empathize with the victims of sexual crimes as much as any other Indian woman. In the last month after the street protests subsided, these writers have surfaced and tried to position themselves as the vanguard of this movement and at times even willfully misrepresented the popular mood of the protests. The usual suspects like – males, patriarchy, culture and tradition were labeled as causes of sexual crimes along with some recent entries like ‘nationalism’.

Sanjay Srivastava blamed masculinity (Indian males are both reactionaries and beneficiaries of colonial rule according to him) and Indian nationalism in The Hindu. (Rebutted here and here at CRI)

Nilanjana Roy transferred the blame for sexual crimes on Indian epics like Ramayana in her Business Standard column. The piece presents a less than honest reading and interpretation of the great epic. (Rebutted here by Sandeep Balakrishna)

Nirupama Sekhri accused the institution of arranged marriage and tradition in general as causes of sexual assaults on women in her News Laundry post. She went on to make the following absurd and outrageous statement:

“Leading ladies, like Karisma Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, will perform lewd dances on screen but then subscribe coyly to this grand Indian tradition of the arranged marriage. Being skimpily dressed is my choice, but having sex is not – that choice is my parents.”

Manu Joseph concluded his New York Times article on this issue by asserting the following

“Why does India not have real cities? Because cities require a critical mass of liberal people, or at least its elite, to be somewhat independent — free of their cultural, familial and communal roots, whereas it is the nature of the average Indian to be dependent on a network of his own kind, to deepen his roots and marinate in too many value judgments about other people.”

He blamed the Indian people for indulging in value judgments about other people. How interesting that this opinion should come from a person who passes his own value judgments on other Indian people and runs them down on a regular basis from the columns of the same American daily. Blinded by his hate for the institution of Indian family and marriage, the same Manu Joseph had pronounced the following value judgment only a few months back on some people in a very condescending tone

“The Indian cricket star Yuvraj Singh is more often photographed with his mother than with pretty girls. In any other country it would be unusual to see a young sports star photographed so often with his mama. Rahul Dravid, one of the most revered cricketers, once dated a top actress, but he married the girl his mother picked. The great chess player Viswanathan Anand also married a girl his parents chose.”

I have hi-lited this instance only to reveal the inherent views of some commentators, their prejudices and how it manifests in their opinions on all contemporary issues. In many ways, this isn’t quite different from the practice of reusing an old presentation by simply changing the opening slide !

Women in Indian society and Economy

I would begin by stating that women in India have indeed been subjected to some form of unfair treatment; and asking – is the Indian society is capable of reforming and adapting itself organically without any interventions by the Indian state; or does our society indeed harbor a pathological sense of misogyny as alleged by most of the mainstream media?

The employment and the labour statistics for the durations of 1999-2004 and 2004-09 available in the public domain for quite sometime now throw up some very relevant data to address this question. (Aside : The Indian job market registered a minuscule 1.2 million new jobs between the years 2004 and 2009. Such abysmal growth in the job market missed the planning commission target of 50 million new jobs by a huge margin,the same period also witnessed net decline in manufacturing sector jobs.)

A paper titled “India’s Labour Market During The 2000’s – Surveying The Changes” by Jayan Jose Thomas reveals some more details about the Indian labor market especially about the status of women in India. Data presented in the table below indicates how large number of rural Indian women moved into the labour market during the distress years of 1999-2004 and simply moved out of it during the time of relative prosperity during 2004-09.


Unfortunately such dynamics in the Indian society and economy where women exercise their choice on such a large scale to move out of the labour market and attend to domestic responsibilities doesn’t get registered as women empowerment. Female labour participation ration (LPR) – which is often quoted to castigate the Indian society and brand it ‘misogynist’ would have been negatively impacted by this massive movement (~22 million women); but would the life of a women be better as a casual agricultural labourer (Self-employed in the above table refers mainly to agricultural labour ) or as a homemaker is a question I leave for the reader’s judgment.

The author explains another cause of such low increase in the workforce is the rapid expansion in the number of students and the duration of their study. The table below enumerates the NSSO data on the proportion of male and female student to population ration (SPR) across rural and urban India.


The unhealthy levels of sex ratio in India in many ways proves the biased attitude of Indian society towards girls. But how does one reconcile these charges with such overwhelming number of girls at schools ? In the lowest age group both the male and the female proportion is indeed near equal. The relative prosperity enjoyed by the society has manifested itself in such gains for the girls. It would be useful to remember that even in the by gone decades – when India was relatively poor; even the boys who were educated upto degree didn’t exactly ‘have it all’ ! So it seems that the best pro-women policy would be that which will lead India out of it’s current third world status at the earliest.

After P.V.Narasimha Rao’s reforms in the year 1991, India witnessed a significant growth in the private sector and the monopoly of the public sector as a job-provider was broken. The policies which led to freeing up of the Indian economy and it’s people continue to be ridiculed and labeled as ‘neo-liberal’ by the far-left (Marxist-feminists perhaps). It appears from the below tweet by Smt. Madhu Kishwar that some of them did make representations infront of the Justice Verma Commission.

Again the data proves both the ignorance and the ideological prejudices of persons who come to such baseless conclusions. The paper titled ‘Wage Inequality In India : Decomposition By Sector, Gender And Activity Status’ by Panchanan Das analyses the NSSO data and arrives at the following data on the wage inequality between men and women in public and private sectors,


I don’t think the charges of discrimination in any area can be admissible simply based on unequal outcomes. Inequality by itself doesn’t imply discrimination. However, what is undeniable is that on an average the private sector has certainly enabled the Indian women to earn more than their counterparts in the public sector. Another instance of a common sense policy which disproportionately helped enhance the earning potential of women. (The author of this paper indicates that the white collar jobs are normally not included in NSSO surveys)

Equality rhetoric and the inevitable : Cause and Effect

When the political executive of the country fails to guide the train of policy, it simply follows the tracks engineered by the tone of the dominant discourse and becomes hostage to talking points. Consider the Right To Education (RTE) Act or the policy to grant communal quotas to Muslims; these didn’t come about all of a sudden. The ground was clinically prepared for them through the Sachar committee report, popular discourse was molded to accept such reservations by means of the equal opportunity rhetoric. We have started witnessing similar early trends on the issue of gender justice now. The actual implication in terms of hard policies might follow after many years, but the tracks are certainly being laid to ensure those outcomes.

An article by Sheelah Kolhatkar in the Businessweek titled, “ India’s Economy Lags as Its Women Lack Opportunity” provides an excellent opportunity to view the dominant framework within which this issue in being analysed and the possible fallout of such analyses. She laments the fact that India ranks 105th out of 135 nations surveyed for economic and political participation of women. She lays the blame for this at the door of traditional Indian family. It is made to appear as though all Indian families lock up girls within their homes and force them into domestic household work after marriage. The NSSO data on this specific question speaks volumes about the choice of women


We see more than 50% of women educated above the graduate level deciding to play the role of homemakers. It’s amply clear from ongoing columns and commentaries that some feminists have nothing but contempt bordering on hate for such women. This choice could be driven by any number of considerations and influences (just as a choice of a women to have a career), but we must recognize it as a free choice nevertheless. It could very well be a fundamental blindspot of our society and economists that we fail to account for the economic contributions of women who chose to take care of households.

The dangerous part of the argument follows later, Sheela Kolhatkar writes,

“India’s standing is skewed slightly upward because of high scores in women’s political participation relative to other countries—thanks in part to Sonia Gandhi, head of the Indian National Congress party, as well as improved female representation in local politics. Judged on a purely economic basis, however, India falls to 123, with only 12 nations ranking lower”

To put it crudely – anything to achieve 50-50; that seems to be the argument here. The 73rd Constitutional amendment that laid the foundation for local self governments in India reserved 1/3rd of the seats for women. Just a couple of years back the Congress party bumped up the women reservation in Panchayati Raj Institutions to 50%. If we were to judge these policies from the narrow gaze of “Number of women in politics” they are indeed a stellar success. It is a tangible, measurable statistic which can be exhibited by those favoring them to claim success. But what about it’s implications on our status as a democracy ? By virtually banning half the population from contesting in half the constituencies isn’t the government trampling on the political rights of individuals ?

It is because such claims of ‘success’ go unchallenged that today we have the women’s reservation bill for Parliament so close to becoming a law. Conceding the argument at the Panchayat and Municipality level meant inviting a battle for Parliament. The national politics is currently in a state of flux and the ruling UPA dispensation finds itself badly cornered. There were many unconfirmed reports about Sonia Gandhi pushing for a 50% reservation for women in govt and private jobs. It would be politically very popular and divide the middle classes who are disillusioned with UPA’s governance right down the middle.

For the last few months we have witnessed a very conscious attempt to alienate and isolate the Indian women from all directions. The crumbling law and order situation in Indian cities is indeed creating a sense of grave insecurity amongst the urban women, add to that the orchestrated attempts to alienate them from our culture. The real solution to the problem of law and order can only be got through effective police and judicial response. These would require long term investment and monitoring. Unfortunately very few people have raised and persisted with this line after the brutal Delhi rape (I think Kiran Bedi did that). On the other hand there are indications of an attempt to create a political constituency out of women – not by solving these long term issues, but by artificially creating this conflict within.

P.S : Both the papers referred in this post appeared in the Economic And Political Weekly (EPW). EPW is known for it’s far-left and feminist sympathies. Any reader reading those papers would be well advised to focus on the data presented in those papers and take the opinions and analyses of the publication with a lump of salt