We only Hear from Women who have Agency

In the Context of #MeToo, Property Rights Correspondent Rina Chandran talks about the sections of society that often skip our mind

LILA: You look into the nuances of how people are marginalised and violated in multiple ways vis-a-vis land and property rights or their lack.What are the complexities that you observe here in the context of our pluricultural country?

RC: Access to land rights and property rights in India is determined by factors such as gender, caste, religion and even birth order, even though the laws say none of this should matter. Women only own about 13 percent of land in India, and even those whose names appear on titles may lack possession. Less than 45 percent of Dalits own land/property, compared to about three-quarters of upper-caste people. Under the shariah, a Muslim woman is only entitled to half the property her brother is.

Deeply entrenched customs and traditions tilt the property rights balance: for instance, despite the Hindu Succession Act (1956) that guarantees equal property rights to daughters, many women ‘voluntarily’ give up their share of the ancestral property to their brothers to keep the peace and maintain family ties – although the term haq tyag suggests a surrender of rights. Widows are routinely denied their husband’s property. Dalits, even when they are given land by the state, are often prevented by upper-caste landlords from taking possession of the land.

Even in India’s matrilineal societies, where it is the women who inherit property, they are often kept from making decisions about land use and business transactions. And recent laws that bar women from marrying outside the tribe or community are again designed to take away their autonomy over property.

The Indian Constitution initially recognised the Right to Property as a fundamental right. But subsequent laws undermined that right, and it was scrapped in 1978, ostensibly to ensure that the wealthy did not benefit unduly from it. It is such a fraught subject that no political party has suggested reinstating the right, lest they be seen as batting for the wealthy. But it is the poor and marginalised who will benefit from such a right–and perhaps need the safeguard of the Constitution, as wealth inequality widens.

LILA: Are there any measures being taken to rectify this situation?

RC: In the case of Dalits, despite promises by states to give the landless a minimum amount of land, this is very badly enacted. Even in cases where they are allotted land –and in many cases it is poor quality land –they are often denied access by upper-caste villagers.

Even the debate over women’s access to certain places of worship can be framed asa property rights issue. Dalits have, for centuries, been denied access to public taps, wells, places of worship and other places that are deemed properties of the upper caste. Similarly, women are denied access to certain places of worship – and work – because they are seen as not having the right to enter these spaces because of their gender.

But we are seeing a more vocal resistance from women and Dalits alike in recent years. Look at the number of women who have joined the recent farmers’ marches to Delhi and Mumbai. They are there as farmers and tillers themselves, who can just as capably wield the plough –long held as a man’s prerogative. The face of farming in India is increasingly feminine, yet the government has been slow to respond by making their land rights a priority.

With Dalits, young leaders like Jignesh Mevani have made land rights a rallying cry, saying we are not going to do the dirty jobs anymore, give us land: “gai ki loom aap rakho, humein hamari zameen do.”

Interestingly, the Congress party made land rights and forest rights major election issues in the recent state elections, and has, as a first order of business in Chhattisgarh, committed to return unused land that was taken for a Tata Steel plant, to the farmers.

LILA: What role does language and identity play in accessibility and propagation of a social movement for rights? How do you assess the latest #MeToo movement in terms of its inclusiveness?

RC: Language and identity play a huge role in accessing rights, with English or Hindi and an upper-caste identity clearly having an upper hand. But we are seeing this change. Jignesh Mevani’s fiery speeches in Gujarati rallied Dalits across the country. Similarly, Kausalya in Tamil Nadu has become an outspoken advocate against caste-based ‘honour’ killing in her native Tamil language. The social media space remains largely a place for English-speaking, college-educated urban men and women, but there are several small regional outfits such as Khabar Lahariya that are improving access for voices in regional languages, and giving women a chance to decide what stories are reported.

The other key factor is access to technology, which again is skewed against women and Dalits. How does a woman in a village join a #MeToo conversation if her husband or father decides she cannot have a mobile phone? How does a Dalit access a handy government app without a smartphone? There are entire villages where women are barred from having mobile phones because the village elders think they may be led astray. How can these women be included in a global conversation on rights and agency?

LILA: You made a significant remark that the #MeToo movement is not even considering lakhs of sex workers who are in this industry much against their consent.This is only an indication that there might be many other demographic segments, too, whose rights are not even taken into consideration while we discuss the question of sexual rights/harassment. How do you understand this movement today?

RC: The #MeToo movement is much needed and has done so much to push forward the conversation on sexual harassment and abuse. But it is beyond the reach of lower-caste women, rural women, women in the informal economy and women who are abused as part of their work. This was true when the movement began, and is still true today.

I would argue that India’s #MeToo movement really began even before the advent of hashtags, with Banwari Devi in 1992. But what has changed since then for lower-caste women? They may get a candlelight vigil if the attack is in Delhi, perhaps some perpetrators may be arrested, but the attacks keep coming. Even today, khap panchayats order rapes and gang rapes against Dalit women as a matter of justice.

Even among urban, English-speaking women, no one has used the #MeToo movement to talk about marital rape, for example. We have been told making marital rape a crime may threaten the institution of marriage, thus invalidating the abuse so many women face from their spouses, in their own homes. Why is domestic violence not a part of the #MeToo conversation in India? Or the experiences of commercial sex workers? This could have been a great opportunity for us to hear from women who are not on social media, women who do not otherwise get a chance to speak to a wider audience. As a contact who works with sex workers told me: we only heard from women who had access to social media and had agency to begin with.

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