Four things first.
- The bogus theory of love jihad.
- The tragedy that is Britney Spears.
- The 1986 Hema Malini-Rishi Kapoor starrer ‘Ek Chadar Maili Si’.
- And a rule by the Punjab government to decide if the widow of a gallantry award-winning army officer gets her monthly allowance.
These are seemingly unrelated but based on a common premise: Women as property of men.
Recurring Trope of Women as Property
The ‘love jihad’ fiction is too primitive to need enunciation. Obsessed with control and violence, its writers see every woman how the toxic Indian man sees her. She can simply be lured. Man is the shepherd. Woman, sheep.
Popstar Britney Spears is sheep too. Her shepherd, as dictated by a court in the US, is her father. They have a fancy term for it, conservatorship, which allows her father to have control over her life. It has been that way for 13 years. Finally, she told an open court on 23 June how she was forced to work, forcibly given medication, and “not allowed to get married or have more children”.
The movie Ek Chadar Maili Si (literal translation is ‘a sheet somewhat soiled’) is based on Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Urdu novella by the same name. It is real, hence, brutal, but not like Tere Naam or Kabir Singh where abuse is sold as passion.
The book/movie deals with the custom of chadar-andazi, whereby a widow is married to a brother of her deceased husband with the simple custom of putting a white sheet (chadar) over her head. This way, he says, ‘I take this woman’, which is also the title of the book’s English translation by Khushwant Singh. ‘Property’ remains in the family. Our sheep, our yard.
Refused Benefit for not Marrying Late Husband’s Brother
Something similar to the horror at the centre of ‘Ek Chadar…’ is enshrined in the Punjab government’s criteria for a monthly sum granted to the next of kin of deceased gallantry awardees.
The rule denies annuity benefits to such widows who remarry anyone other than their deceased husband’s brother.
This came to light after The Indian Express reported the matter of Anjini Dada.
She is the widow of Major Raman Dada, who was killed in May 1999 fighting militants in Assam. Major Dada killed three militants while his troops killed seven others, but he succumbed to injuries and was awarded Kirti Chakra posthumously on 15 August 1999, said the report. Kirti Chakra is India’s second-highest peacetime gallantry award.
Anjini, who lives in Dehradun now, did get the annuity from the Punjab government, which is now Rs 13,860 per month, until she remarried in 2005. She divorced her second husband in 2011 and is now struggling financially, responsible for a son and a daughter.
She told the reporter that she has been trying to get the annuity restarted but her case was recently turned down again by the state finance department. Hours after the news report, Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh’s media adviser said the CM, an ex-fauji, has taken note of her case. The government may change the rules too, his tweet said.
As noble as it may sound, the announcement comes only due to a journalist’s diligence and the empathy it generated. The system that should be diligently reviewing rules over time, however, lacks empathy.
This regressive rule remained on the books in Punjab even when it was removed at other places after judicial intervention.
An Insensitive, Regressive System
For instance, at the turn of the century, the central government changed a similar rule for pension eligibility of widows of army personnel who were killed in action. Lack of immediacy was visible in that decision too.
In his reference book ‘Military Pensions: Commentary, Case Law & Provisions’, Chandigarh-based Major Navdeep Singh (retd), a decorated officer and a lawyer/researcher on this subject, underlined this.
The rule—that widows be rendered ineligible for the relevant pension upon remarriage unless they marry the deceased’s brother—was changed in 2001. This meant that widows who remarried would get the pension no matter whom they wed. But that was only for post-1996 cases. To cover cases from before 1996, the government took four more years.
Even for annuity payment to the widows of gallantry award winners, the central government removed this regressive rule about remarriage in 2017. That was widely reported in the media. But states have their own rules for state-level payments. “For the annuity given by Punjab, it has taken a prominent news report for the state government to even promise to remove this rule. It should be struck down, of course; but this is not the ideal way for a system to work,” says Navdeep.
Much more often than reported, such cases and rules are dismissed as routine red tape, government apathy, mistakes, or oversight. Files refuse to move. Process becomes punishment. And then, grateful citizens make heroes out of Twitter-friendly ministers for sudden acts of efficiency, or hail bureaucrats who take note of viral Facebook posts to do something that they were supposed to do in the first place.
What these mere mistakes and easy heroes show is that the system can work. It is not simply callous; it is insensitive.
The Rot in the System
We choose to call it callous or apathetic because we fail to acknowledge how it reflects larger social realities—from street corners to offices, from political spaces to social gatherings, from novels to rulebooks, we may treat symptoms but cannot seem to kill the virus. Patriarchy infests all rules, notions and norms.
It is at the heart of Rano’s tragic predicament in ‘Ek Chadar…’, where she has to marry her much younger brother-in-law. It also makes it possible for Britney Spears to suffer a medieval fate in modern times. It allows for fiction such as ‘love jihad’ to enter law books. And it allows society to make rules that treat women as property.
The sheet is not ‘somewhat soiled’. The sheet is the blot.
(The writer is an assistant professor of journalism at Bennett University, reachable on mail at email@example.com and tweets at Twitter: @aarishc. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)