Victim in demand

While 'battered' husbands need help and not derision, BJP MPs may not be the most credible champions of gender justice

  • Published 8.09.18

Comedy, paradoxically, finds fertile ground in unpleasant situations. An enraged wife chasing a cowering husband wielding a broom or a frying pan is a traditional favourite among cartoonists. Laughter springs from the inversion of assumed power relations: the man should be in control of his wife, not be chased around by her. A man chasing or intimidating a woman is never funny, because here expectation and reality merge in perfect congruence.

The founts of fun say a lot about the mores of a society. Since a frightened husband is comic, men getting the rough end of the stick in domestic situations often hesitate to complain about mental or physical harassment and cruelty. But cruelty and violence are not specifically male attributes; women can be both and often are. 'Battered' husbands are now being perceived all over the world as a poorly publicized segment of the population. There are now helplines and support groups for them in many countries. So when two members of parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party express the need for a national commission for men on the lines of the national commission for women to look into the miseries of men suffering at the hands of their wives, they seem to be really advanced in their desire for justice and cutting-edge in their social awareness. The demand, though, has a specific target. It mentions that men suffer because of the "misuse of laws", which suggests two things. One, that laws favour women, and two, that Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code against dowry harassment is being used by women as a weapon to victimize men. While it is true that many false cases have been shown to be registered under the anti-dowry law, it has to be asked why that law alone is the focus of such agony. Is no other law ever abused? What about inheritance laws? In response to petitions against the misuse of Section 498A, the court has already decreed that a complaint under this section will not lead to automatic arrest as before; the police must find material for a prima facie case before proceeding.

But the perception that women have it all their way is too strong among some of India's reigning politicians for them to notice that 21 dowry deaths occurred across the country every day in 2015, for example, with only 34.7 per cent convictions. India is now considered one of the most unsafe countries for women in the world with 106 rapes a day in 2016. In a country where institutionalized gender bias puts women perpetually at a disadvantage, it has to be asked how a commission for men will be used. While some men need help and hesitate to ask for it - that, too, is a result of skewed gender values - there is an additional problem. Leaders from the BJP may not be the most credible purveyors of gender justice for many in the country. Neither can a national commission do much on a case-by-case basis. There are laws for that. Or do they envisage a duel of influence between two national commissions in which the outcome is predetermined?