When the chairperson of the National Commission for Women publicly shot her mouth off, a couple of years ago, about there being nothing inherently wrong with a man calling a woman sexy, it was the general opinion that she had erred on the right side of modernity. The Bharatiya Janata Party, then in the Opposition, had, of course, taken serious offence at her words. Mamta Sharma is still the NCW chairperson, but the BJP is in power, and Ms Sharma is now talking about a return to “tradition”. She is worried about a phenomenon that she calls “internet marriages”, and thinks that such marriages, though “modern and Western”, are more likely to not last. Of the many complaints that the commission receives of broken marriages, a quarter comes from couples who have found each other on the internet. Hence, her advice to them would be to “respect some old customs and traditions”. As in the previous instance, the homespun conservatism of Ms Sharma’s statement shows little attempt at being properly informed or thinking through the matter with a modicum of rigour or common sense. Yet, as the NCW chairperson making a statement about the lives of women and men, her regressive lack of thought and anodyne vagueness cannot be excused as innocuous.
First, the internet may be modern, historically speaking, but there is no reason now to make a critical point of labelling it as Western. To do so is to sound — and be — reactionary in a way that does not befit a public servant committed to the welfare of women. Second, what sort of traditions and customs is Ms Sharma talking about here? She cannot be unaware of the role of caste, dowry and an overall lack of agency when it comes to women’s decisions regarding their matrimonial and reproductive lives, determined by highly ‘traditional’ forms of oppression and discrimination. If anything, matrimonial sites, when run properly and used with care, might enable women (and men) to take such matters in their own hands and conduct their marriages with a greater degree of independence, privacy and circumspection. Of course, all such sites have to be accessed with caution. After initial introductions, ‘getting to know each other’, with or without the family, demands a kind of adult self-confidence that the dread voice of conservative caution is unlikely to foster.