On 23 September, Delhi’s Constitution Club hosted two well-attended gatherings. The first was the concluding day of the National Convention against Assault on Journalists, a sombre affair with a media fraternity under fire quietly asserting its rights. The late Gauri Lankesh, whose brazen murder last year had sparked national outrage, was remembered. Prominent journalists such as Siddharth Varadarajan and Josy Joseph spoke about press freedom and its current state in India. It was all very sobering—until one discovered the other, even more sobering, event taking place at the same time.
This was the first Conference on National Commission for Men, in association with the Save Indian Family Foundation. It was a full house by the time the event was to start at 3 pm, with people who could not find seats lining up in the corridors. Beady-eyed volunteers milled about, passing around pamphlets, in bright yellow t-shirts that proclaimed their commitment to “real gender justice.”
In 2017, Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, an engineer-turned-filmmaker who was one of the organisers of the conference, was profiled by a string of publications, including the BBC, after she made a documentary titled Martyrs of Marriage, based on real-life cases involving the alleged misuse of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, often called the “anti-dowry law.” She soon became one of the most visible faces of the Indian men’s-rights movement. It was during the making of this film that Bhardwaj came across the SIFF, which completed its tenth anniversary earlier this year. To celebrate the occasion, around a hundred and fifty members travelled to Varanasi to perform “the last rites of their marital relations.”
Bhardwaj telegraphed the tenor of the afternoon’s proceedings in her opening remarks. “It is said we are a patriarchal nation,” she said with the enthusiasm of a middle-school debater, “but when men are preyed upon by women, nobody helps them. Hum maante hi nahin ki mard ko dard hota hai”—We refuse to believe that men, too, feel pain. That last Hindi sentence, a hoary old chestnut well past its expiry date, was repeated by several other speakers over the course of the afternoon, as though the witticism alone was proof that Indian men are suffering.
Whether men are indeed suffering is not nearly as clear-cut as men’s-rights activists claim. As with cases of sexual assault, the increase in reporting in recent years of dowry-harassment cases and the frequency with which the police dismisses them is used to suggest an epidemic of false complaints. However, as Bindu N Doddahatti, an advocate at the Alternative Law Forum, pointed out in an article last year: