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MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS - A crime of one's own

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By Bhaswati Chakravorty
  • Published 18.03.08

It cannot always be done neatly. Killing baby girls is most easily done immediately after birth, and even then it could be messy, especially if the mother is left to do it on her own. For example — and examples in India are countless — a 25-year-old woman from Bihar strangled her day-old daughter in 2006, and then pretended that the baby had died of natural causes. Stupid girl. She tried to get away with murder while housed in the AIIMS in Delhi. She had been brought there from her village in Nalanda because she had a bad heart and her pregnancy was complicated. She may have got away with it in her village, where she could have had complicity and understanding. Caught out, she said that she did not want a girl because that is considered a “bad omen” back in her village. Just like another young woman in faraway Chennai, who actually waited three months after the birth of her girl before she threw the baby into a canal from the terrace of her house. She said she took her decision because after the baby was born her husband’s business began to show losses, and that she too was falling sick.

Coming back to the mother in Delhi, the story reported becomes a little fuller in the days following her confession. Because she was already seriously ill, her husband and in-laws had spent a great deal on her treatment and had sold some land in order to send her to Delhi. All this was done in the expectation that the baby would be a boy. Else, she had been told, her husband would divorce her. She was already the mother of two boys, and only another boy would be welcome. They had spent enough on her; the mother quailed at the thought of further expenses, of education and of dowry, on behalf of an unwanted girl. The baby was a bad omen in every way.

The mother in Chennai, who seems to have disappeared from the national media without a trace after her arrest, remains silent to us on the specific causes of her decision. But her apparent heartlessness towards her own child is matched by a kind of protectiveness towards her husband. If she was persuaded that his business was badly affected by this undesirable birth, she was anxious to point out that she had become ill too. The reference to an other-worldly causality that helped her — and possibly everyone else — ignore the real causes of her own ill health, must have also helped her execute her nightmarish act.

But nightmares cannot be reproduced in the news. “Superstitious mother kills baby,” said one headline. And when the woman in Delhi was being taken away to Tihar jail, the police were clear about one thing: her husband “was not a party to the crime”. Of course not, he didn’t strangle the baby. The husband of a 22-year-old woman in a hospital in Chandigarh was shattered when he heard that his wife had strangled their newborn girl. He had accepted the baby “as a gift of God”. Then he is probably in a minority in a region where female foeticide and infanticide have caused a frightening imbalance in the sex ratio.

Society’s judgments are quick and harsh on a mother who kills her own children. Particularly so, when she not only survives but also tries to hide the fact that she is a murderer. She is perceived as monstrous, and no amount of data about the pressures on a woman to produce a son can alter this perception. Motherhood is a “holy” state. Everyone else can desecrate it, drive a mother crazy before and after having borne a girl, but she is a criminal, an unnatural woman, the moment she is seen to have killed her baby.

But it must be clear that she has done the killing with her own hands, without help, and has then dared to live on. All that she says subsequently will be examined in the light of society’s assumptions. When Seema Sai, from Cha village in Burdwan, finally admitted to having killed both her daughters by drowning them in a tank at Belur Math (and neither was newborn), the police expressed surprise that she should have complained to her father of torture in her in-laws’ home. “Girls confide in their mothers,” was the understanding — the implication being, of course, that she was lying.

Would these mothers have earned the collective, if not always expressed, sympathy of society that fathers do when they commit suicide after killing their children because of poverty, depression or the “debt burden”? These are somehow acceptable causes, and a father who has failed in his duty to feed his family is an object of pity and commiseration. Seema said she wanted to die too, but failed to do so. Not only that, her actions after drowning her daughters speak of an apparently well-thought-out desire to escape punishment. She lied, again and again.

The point is that the murdering mother has to be caught out doing the killing on her own. Once the institutions of society have turned their scrutiny on this lonely act, it is a hideous crime. Some studies in the late Nineties put the number of baby girls killed every year in villages by mothers, midwives and close female relatives far over a few thousand. And this is without including the possible numbers of sex-selective abortions. But we do not find thousands of mothers’ faces splashed all over the media as Seema Sai’s has been. Granted, her crime seems particularly terrible, and her efforts to escape responsibility well planned, but would she have been a little more tenderly handled had she a supportive husband by her side?

Tamil Nadu had become known for its high rates of female infanticide from the mid-Eighties. A mother in the Kallar community there, who had just killed her baby daughter, said that she and her husband had decided it was better to let the baby suffer for a few moments than to let her live a miserable life in a landless labourer’s family. They already had a daughter. The husband, who had got the poisonous herbs to kill the baby, said that he could not dream of marrying off two daughters with the required dowry. But Seema’s husband was not a party to the crime, the police said. Does that make Seema a more “unnatural” mother than the Kallar woman? Can “natural” motherhood be constructed out of fear, ignorance, neglect and inherited guilt?

When a mother kills her child, it raises questions about the nature of will and agency, and the relationship between the two. She acts, but how does that action come about? How does premeditation function here, and what does it mean, say, in a case like Seema’s? Such questions may assume an unchanging emotion called mother-love. What form does this emotion take in a woman who has no right to decide when she will or will not have children, and who may believe, as many do, that producing a girl has something to do with her, that it is her failure, her fault?

Seema’s face is now a familiar one in West Bengal, the state with one of the highest rates of female foeticide. It is worthwhile to look into that face, to try and catch those eyes empty of everything except an unnameable terror, to gaze at that thin, racked body, and imagine a procession of thousands of such faces and bodies. Her crime — can her act be given another name? — is gruesome, her instinct for survival raw and pitiful. Social scientists and activists argue that the mother who kills her daughter is as much a victim as her child; they are both subject to the same forces of a cruelly gender-biased society. The counter-argument comes from others: no one can violate a girl’s right to live. Is it possible to make a special law for mothers who kill their baby girls? How would such a law be formulated? All other things remaining the same, can one imagine the horrors that would then ensue?

All other things remaining the same. That, ultimately, is the moral of the story. It is not the individual mother who violates the right of a girl to her life, but all those other things that have not only remained the same, but have even grown worse over the years. Greater inequality of means, opportunity and education; narrowing resources; a heightening demand for material goods; a proportional increase in frustration, impatience, insecurity and violence; harsher demands for dowry; minor marriages; the neglect of women’s education and health; the desperate need to cling on more fiercely to the old tyrannies in a rapidly changing world. All these, and more, add up to an inexpressible condition of misery that drives a woman to kill the one thing that could have given her happiness, a fleeting sense of ownership, and a sense of being needed. Can the “abnormal” mother who has killed her child have anything that can be called a “normal” life?