Kavita Krishnan Explains Why Modi Govt's 'Beti Bachao' Campaign Is Deeply Patriarchal

In her new book 'Fearless Freedom', Krishnan argues that many real and violent threats to female autonomy are hidden in plain sight.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at launch of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme on January 22, 2015 in Panipat, India. 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at launch of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme on January 22, 2015 in Panipat, India. 

What should also concern us is that the message of the Beti Bachao campaign itself is steeped in the same patriarchy that it claims to be fighting. And patriarchy is one area where ‘using fire to fight fire’ does not work.

In June 2018, the Indian social media saw a photograph of a mural against sex selection on a wall in Haryana. The image showed a little girl, with her head covered, rolling out rotis, with the slogan ‘Kaise khaoge unke haath ki rotiya, jab paida hone nahi doge betiyan?’ (Who will make rotis for you if you won’t
let daughters be born?). The Haryana government got considerable criticism online for this mural. Other similar slogans abound in the Beti Bachao campaign, such as ‘Beti nahin bachaoge to bahu kahan se laoge’ (If you don’t save daughters, where will you get daughters-in-law?) and ‘Ma chahiye; behen chahiye; patni chahiye; to beti kyon nahin chahiye?’ (You want mothers, sisters, wives, then why don’t you want daughters?). This sounds like an appeal to common sense, but perhaps it is not effective in curbing sex selection because it is an appeal to a patriarchal common sense. Should we be asked to appreciate daughters only as performers of domestic chores? Is a daughter’s right to be born and cherished dependent on her role as a future mother/daughter/sister/daughter-in-law/wife to men?

In support of Beti Bachao, the prime minister famously endorsed the Selfie with Daughter campaign—launched by Sunil Jaglan, who was, in July 2015, the sarpanch of the Bibipur panchayat in Haryana—on his Mann Ki Baat radio show, urging fathers to show pride in their daughters by sharing selfies with their daughters on social media.

Selfie with Daughter began with Jaglan’s involvement in the Avivahit Purush Sangathan (the Unmarried Men’s Organization) in Haryana. A woman must justify her birth by making herself available as a willing wife/daughter-in-law, who will cook, clean, give birth to and care for children. But men feel entitled to wives who will serve them and bear them kids.

Nothing drives home the utter arrogance of such patriarchal entitlement more starkly than the phenomenon of bride purchase. Jaglan complained that the men of Haryana, faced with a drought of daughters, are forced to buy wives from other states: ‘A couple of months ago, a family had purchased a bride from
Uttarakhand. She ran away. They bought another one, she too ran away.’ Jaglan implies that wives born and trained in the correct caste in Haryana and acquired in the traditional way rather than by cash purchase will not have the option of running away. After all, where would Haryana’s ‘own’ women run to?

The Avivahit Purush Sangathan had demanded that politicians take steps to remedy the situation and ensure a supply of brides, raising the slogan ‘Bahu dilao, vote pao’ (Give us brides, get our votes). In response to such campaigns, BJP leader O.P. Dhankar had promised good brides from Bihar:

Making the BJP strong also means that those youths in many villages who are roaming without brides will get one . . . I told them that Sushil Modi [senior BJP leader in Bihar] is a good friend of mine. We will ensure a compatible match and do away with the practice of bringing brides from any other place.

Many defend such campaigns, arguing for pragmatism. People are going to continue to be patriarchal, they say so one has to appeal to their patriarchal interests to allow girls to be born. If individual patriarchal families want to avoid girls, perhaps they can be induced to allowing girls to be born in the collective interest of patriarchal society, or so the argument goes. The problem is that as long as women are devalued and denied personhood and equality, patriarchy is not particularly insecure. Brides are ‘in short supply’ in Haryana, but this shortage can be made good by importing from other states. As long as daughters in, say, Bihar, continue to be treated as commodities rather than persons, families will sell daughters to their counterparts in Haryana. Just as migrant labour goes from poorer to richer regions, purchased wives, too, tend to go from poorer to richer states. From a pragmatic perspective, it could well be argued that a shortage of women in Haryana turns a daughter from liability to asset in Bihar, since she goes from being a ‘burden’ to an asset that can be sold. Is that really true? Are daughters accorded more respect when they become a saleable commodity rather than a burden that one can be rid of only by paying dowry?

The problem with many of the campaigns against sex selection is that they buy into the patriarchal excuse that families see daughters as a burden (because of dowry) and so wish to avoid having them. The thing is, families do not need to be reminded of the ‘uses’ of women as wives, mothers, daughters-in-law and so on—they already know this full well. The state and families both recognize the ‘worth’ and ‘value’ of women as providers of domestic services and care work. There is no one who would fail to pay lip service to the nurturing roles of women—why does sex selection persist nevertheless? Why does the state go soft on sex determination by the medical industry?

At its core, the question is, can we fight sex-selective abortion or any other form of gender discrimination and violence by appeasing patriarchy? By pandering to men’s sense of patriarchal entitlement to wives and their domestic and sexual services? Or can change come only by boldly asserting the rights, equality and personhood of women and sexual and gender minorities, and fighting patriarchy lock, stock and barrel?

Excerpted with permission from Fearless Freedom by Kavita Krishnan, Penguin.