Millennium Post

Price of appeasement

Last week the country watched with bewilderment on television channels the crass speech being made by uncouth middle-aged man threatening to take us back to the middle ages. He was identified as the challenger to the post of sarpanch of the panchayat of Aasra village under Baraut tehsil of Baghpat district in western Uttar Pradesh.

The panchayat, said to be rattled by the increasing cases of teasing of girls and young women decided to issue a firman [diktat] barring women up to the age of 40 from going to the market and using mobile phones outside their respective homes. It also directed them to move out only with their head covered.

The Taliban mindset in the diktat got exposed as the onus for keeping women safe was put on them asking them to follow a dress code and face restriction of movement. Worse the women were warned that they would face punishment if they violated the code finalised by the panchayat.

The panchayat, at the same time, failed to spell out how it did propose to deal with those who were harassing the womenfolk. The diktat however added that it proposed to punish a couple if they dared to tie the nuptial knots following a love affair.

The firman issued at the said panchayat meeting should not surprise those who know the area. Baghpat is next door to Delhi but thanks to the politics of farmland subsidy and appeasement, it has socially remained ages behind the national Capital. The area is pocket-borough of the family of former Prime Minister Chowdhary Charan Singh and his son Chowdhary Ajit Singh, the civil aviation minister in the present government.

My first brush with politics of Baghpat was during the 1998 general elections. Accompanied by a women colleague and camera person, we had reached Chaprauli, the stronghold of Ajit Singh, on the polling day. The tall, rugged men of the area belonging to land-owning communities swarmed all over the place. They shamelessly ogled at our women colleague, a brave reporter otherwise, shaking her wits out.

Her attempt to get them speak on the unbearable backwardness of the area, invited the wrath of one and all. We were put on the back foot with the few cops present there telling us to fend for the safety of the woman colleague. We beat a hasty retreat wondering what made these men so angry with a woman putting a question or two to them.

About 15 years later situation has not changed even a bit. Singh’s grandson Jayant Chowdhary, who represents the next generation of the clan and who in natural course was expected to speak for social change, on the contrary spoke in the defence of the Aasra panchayat regulations after visiting the village. The young member of parliament from Mathura said, ‘Everybody has a right to manage the affairs of one’s family the way they want.’

Another prominent UP politician, state urban development and minority affair minister Azam Khan also issued a statement saying that he does not find anything wrong in a ‘group of villagers expressing their opinion.’ Khan’s statement was an attempt at appeasing the Muslim and the Jat communities of UP, from where he comes.

Singh and Khan’s anxiety is understandable. Aasra village has about 70 per cent Muslim population and the remaining 30 per cent is dominated by the Jats. The Muslims of the area are locally denominated as Mooley Jat as their forefathers were Jat Hindus, who had converted to Islam. The Jats and Muslims together make a very formidable political force in western UP.

Agrarian and highly patriarchal community, the Jats are to be found in the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. They have a predominant presence in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They densely populate the area on both banks of river Yamuna while it flows through Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. In western UP, Jat population is said to be around 17 per cent affecting political fortunes on about 55 assembly seats and about 10 Lok Sabha constituencies.

In Singh’s Mathura seat the Jat presence measures upto 40 per cent, whereas in his family seat of Baghpat, represented by his father Chowdhary Ajit Singh, Jats are about 30 per cent. Muslim presence in the area is next only to the Jats. They like the Jats are largely involved in agrarian vocations. Singh’s agrarian alliance was largely a Jat-Muslim coalition.

The community has contributed substantially to the armed forces and a few families have also benefitted from education. However, their patriarchal mindset refuses to go. Despite several women from the community coming to enjoy prime positions in politics, bureaucracy and academia, not much attempt has been made by them to initiate social reforms even for the emancipation of the womenfolk.

Whatever little attempt that has been made for social reforms it has been done under the patronage of male members. To illustrate the point, the widely reported panchayat of the community leaders from various states against female foeticide held at Bibipur village in Jind district of Haryana did have some women participants. But their role was restricted at best to being special invitee.

What saddened me, however, was the fact that no prominent woman Jat politician thought it prudent to attend the Bibipur meet. Jat leadership would have to rise to the challenge to end the brute patriarchal dictatorship in their community.

Sidharth Mishra is president, Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice, and consulting editor
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