Persecution Complex

India’s radical meninists come out of the closet

This confluence of men's-rights activists was made possible after Harinarayan Rajbhar demanded that the government set up a men's commission to resolve the grievances of those "suffering at the hands of their wives." Courtesy Pixrweb Enterprise / Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj
01 November, 2018

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:

It’s an established fact that mere low conviction rate does not mean the law is being misused. Higher acquittals may also result from inadequate investigation, the benefit of doubt [being] given to the accused or bias against women accessing the law. That apart, violence against women is actually higher than what is depicted in the national crime statistics. Various studies suggest that the statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, especially on crimes against women, are grossly underreported.

This unlikely confluence of hundreds of men’s-rights activists was made possible after Harinarayan Rajbhar, the 68-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament from Ghosi in Uttar Pradesh, demanded during zero hour on 3 August that the government set up a men’s commission to resolve the grievances of those who “are suffering at the hands of their wives,” several of whom, he claimed, were locked up in jail. Although there were just five women present at the time, the Lok Sabha reportedly burst into laughter at Rajbhar’s demand. Another BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, Anshul Verma, announced on 2 September that he had discussed the issue with a parliamentary standing committee he was a member of. Both Rajbhar and Verma were among the conference’s three special guests.

The third, it turned out, was the actor Pooja Bedi, who, much to the discomfiture of the organisers, began her speech by revealing that she had been asked to appear in ethnic wear—she had defied instructions by wearing a full-sleeved white shirt and blue jeans. Bedi went on to construct an impressive array of straw men to bolster the meninist argument. Men at corporate offices, she claimed, had begun investing heavily in glass offices, because what if “some girl comes in, tears her clothes off, and says, ‘Pay me or I cry rape?’” We speak all the time about marital rape, she said, but what about the men who were denied sex by their wives? The overwhelmingly male audience broke into thunderous applause.

Most of the speeches invoked similar half-truths, distortions and false equivalences. Rajbhar himself ranted about feminists, alleging that they wanted to “weaken the institution of marriage.”If feminists had their way and “every oppressed man in India” was locked up, he warned, “mahilaon ke jeewan ka bhi koi arth nahin rahega”—women’s lives would be rendered meaningless as well. He claimed an atmosphere of fear was hanging over society, with most Indian men he knew being too scared to even talk to women.

Verma echoed Rajbhar’s claims, adding that the issue was not of men winning or women losing, but of the entire family benefitting from “stree-dhan.” It is important to note here that by “entire family,” he was referring to the man’s family, and that stree-dhan, which refers to the gifts and jewellery given to a bride on her wedding day, has been recognised as distinct from dowry since the Supreme Court ruled to that effect in Pratibha Rani vs Suraj Kumar in 1985.

Rakesh Kapur, a self-described child rights expert, delivered a long, rambling speech about the importance of fathers and the scary, cruel creatures children become if denied a paternal figure while growing up. As unimpeachable proof for this assertion, he cited an example from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where a herd of fatherless young elephants went on a rhino-murdering spree. (Upon hearing this, I presumed the pachyderms had been radicalised by their militant trunk-wagging feminist mums, but it turns out that they were also motherless.) Indu Subhash, who holds a doctorate in gender studies and is a member of the internal complaints committee in the union culture ministry, began her speech by saying: “Main chahti hoon ki yahaan baithe mere saare bhaiyon ki exes mar jayein”—I wish death upon the exes of all my brothers present here.

The evening wrapped up with a screening of Bhardwaj’s documentary, which, despite failing to adhere to the most basic tenets of documentary filmmaking—in addition to being tedious, featuring a jarring score and amateur graphics—has been picked up by Netflix India. Throughout the 100-odd minutes of the film, Bhardwaj speaks to around a dozen Indian men who have allegedly been wronged by the misuse of Section 498A, but there is zero effort made to corroborate their stories. There is zero effort to reach out to the women involved. Exactly zero minutes are devoted to capturing the larger picture of gender politics in India, or the world at large.

Over the month or so that followed the conference, the #MeToo movement named over a hundred men from media, publishing, advertising, law and the social sector, accusing them of misconduct ranging from sexual assault to workplace harassment and other improper sexual behaviour. For the most part, these are liberal bastions, and right-wing commentators lost no time in declaring this to be the dark underbelly of Indian liberalism itself.

A certain polarisation has long existed in India, but is now being amplified by people such as Rajbhar and Verma for political ends, aided and abetted by cheerleaders such as Bhardwaj and Bedi. On one side are the liberals, the feminists and the (mostly female) humanities students who have had enough of men assaulting, harassing or otherwise exploiting women and setting gender norms that preserve the conservative status quo. On the other are (mostly male) professionals and science-and-technology graduates who are pushing back against what they perceive as feminist overreach. Although they paint this as a righteous crusade for men’s rights, this pushback often translates into a fight for the right to perpetuate the same prejudices and injustices that have been in place for centuries.

The extent of this polarisation dawned upon me during an interview with Anil Kumar, a co-founder of the SIFF. Kumar claimed that women’s studies departments were a scam. “If men are indeed the problem, as feminists claim,” he told me, “why not study men instead?” The evils of feminism, he went on, stem from the inability of “all these girls who come from humanities departments” to “process big data.” Kumar, who studied electrical engineering at IIT, Benaras Hindu University, said: “India is such a huge country, naturally the absolute number of rapes and crimes against women will be higher compared to many other countries. But these feminists misuse and twist statistics to make it look like we’re the so-called ‘rape capital’ of the world! It is a sham.”

By the time the conference ended, it was 8 pm, and a loud, persistent rain was falling. Kumar remained outside the venue, talking to a group of engineering students who had driven down from Hisar. They shielded him from the rain while getting drenched themselves, and he initiated them into the ways of meninism and big data.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj's name, and incorrectly listed her as the primary organiser of the conference. The Caravan regrets these errors.