Untold Stories: Women’s Rights and Changing Society in India [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum
European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Geetika Mantri, an Indian journalist and a Commonwealth Scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government, the University of Oxford. They talk about women’s rights in India, sexual violence, the caste system, the origins of power of Indian nationalism and Nerendra Modi, and the increasing intergenerational tensions in India.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): As a journalist in India, what have you been writing about?

geetika-mantri-profileGeetika Mantri (GM): When I was in India, I was working with an organization called The News Minute, which focuses on the five southern states in India. Of course, we also pay attention to national issues, but with a focus on the south.

I started like any journalist, doing interviews, features, writing about start-ups… But, eventually, I found my agenda – namely sexual violence and mental health. These were the issues I wrote about primarily. I did a lot of long-form stories as well.

LJ: Did you observe that, as you were writing, people were paying more and more attention to this topic? Is there more interest in gender issues than a few years ago?

GM: There is definitely more interest in gender issues in India today. In 2012, for example, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was assaulted on a moving bus by many men in Deli. The details of this assaults are painful and unnecessary to bring up here now, but it caused massive protests across India. It also forced the government to change one of the laws, namely that there would be a higher minimum penalty for rape in India.

That was one of the key points in recent history where sexual violence, gender and women’s issues somehow came into the spotlight. It is not that sexual assaults did not happen in India before, because it did, and there were many cases of gender-based violence, but it just remains in the public memory.

Nowadays, there are more journalists who are willing to write about gender. There is more literature that focuses on gender. Furthermore, even entertainment journalism, for example movie reviews, is paying attention to entertainment and popular culture through a gender lens.


LJ: Do women feel threatened by potential sexual violence on a daily basis? Is it an everyday reality, or is it common only for certain areas of the country? How does it feel to be a woman in India?

GM: Firstly, as a woman, I would say that there are places in the world where the traces of sexual violence are present. We tend to use our peripheral vision no matter what time of the day it is, but especially at night, to look behind us or check whether someone is following us or not.

It is just part of how we are conditioned at this point, not only because sexual assaults are part of the reality, but because sexual assault for many women is the worst thing that can happen to you. And it is, of course, one of the worst things that can happen to you, but for many women in many communities it is tied to the idea of honor.

As for whether there are specific parts of India where women feel more threatened, I would say that such places exist, namely certain parts of the city, areas of southern places… These are places where women may feel unsafe. However, it is a rather universal experience – the threat of it and fear of it. For example, in another country I may not feel very unsafe, but in India or Afghanistan the degree will be higher.

LJ: Do you think the debate about patriarchal culture as one of the reasons for the acceptance of violence and sexual abuse continues? To what extent do cultural issues play a role?

GM: In countries like India, where patriarchy rules, ideas of culture and honor are ingrained in the mind of women. Consequently, it is much harder for women to live their own lives.

It must be said that sexual violence is not about pleasure. It is rarely about sex. Sexual violence is about power. So, what do you do when a woman does not behave according to cultural rights?

In many communities, sexual violence is used as a way to correct women’s behaviors. When you look at the caste system, women who lived at the verry bottom of the caste hierarchy experienced a lot of sexual violence from men of the upper castes.

The culture and structure of society, which is mostly patriarchal, plays an important role. It only adds to what women can or cannot do. When that’s the case, it’s hard to oppose it. Things are changing, but not to the extent that many of us would like them to change.

LJ: Could you describe the interactions between people from different castes? How does it work in practice in India?

GM: The caste system is very complex, and not surprisingly, many people who have not lived in India do not understand it.

I must add that I am a privileged upper caste woman. Moreover, I understand that when I come from, there are a lot of privileges. This is something that you start being more critical of, especially when you become a journalist. When you talk to people from lower castes, you realize that some things you took for granted are not for everyone.

The caste system is a system of social hierarchy. Basically, if your parents are people of a certain caste, you also belong to that caste. For instance, if I am a Hindu tomorrow, I can change my religion on paper, but I am born into a certain caste, so I belong to that caste.

There are many castes in India. There is also a lot of resistance to marrying outside of one’s caste, especially when you consider that most marriages in India are arranged by parents who also prefer their children to marry within their caste.

It is not as simple as a class system, which can be defined by income level. Rather, it is a social system, but caste and class systems intersect because people who belong to lower castes face a generational disadvantage. Therefore, when one belongs to a lower caste, it automatically implies that they are poorer and face economic discrimination.

Furthermore, there is also discrimination based on caste. For instance, in India there are multiple practices such as untouchability. This is a concept in which a section of people is discriminated based on the assumption that their touch is impure. This is, of course, very simplistic explanation. This practice involves disallowing those people to use common resources in the village or eating from the same utensils. Moreover, you are not even allowed to enter a house because you’re a Dalit and it is the home of someone from a higher caste.

LJ: Do you know how many Dalits are in India?

GM: According to some research which I have seen, 52% of the Indian population is not upper cast, but bear in mind that these numbers are outdated. Those numbers are probably 10 years old.

Going back to the untouchables, it is not a caste per se. Rather, it is a practice that targets Dalits. I do not want to speculate, but there is a significant number of people who are affected.

Many people would like you to believe that caste system is dead, but it is not. People still want you to marry within your own caste or if you take a look at advertisements for domestic workers, they specify what kind of person that should be, including for example whether or not they should be vegetarian.

People would like you to believe that the caste system is now common only in rural areas and not in cities, but this is not true.

LJ: Is this natural for young people? To what extent is it also natural for one to be defined by your caste when they grow up? To what extent does one try to transcend, or is it not possible? I ask especially in the school area, especially when one is trying to make friends.

GM: Firstly, many people can distinguish caste by the names of people. Secondly, I will tell you about an incident that will probably clarify this and help you understand.

Before I came here, I used to go to the swimming pool every evening. One time I was in the pool and there was a group of children who were also swimming. I remember taking a breath after a few laps and just being on one side of the pool. I noticed that one kid asked the other kids about their caste. I was shocked because it’s not something you want to ask because you don’t want to judge based on that.

LJ: So, it is not that obvious to everyone.

GM: Like I said, it depends, because many people have their caste names as surnames. But there are some surnames that are known to belong to certain castes… It is really complicated. A lot of times when you hear someone’s full name, you can tell from which caste a person comes. Personally, I do not remember growing up and thinking about it, but I have people in my extended family who would know and ask about such things.

In terms of whether you go to school and happen to be friends with someone from a different caste… It is a very interesting idea, because it shows the socioeconomic aspect of it and how class and caste often intersect. If I go to a private school, which is connected to my generational privilege, it is likely that other children also come from an upper caste. Automatically, by being in school with people from similar backgrounds, you end up making friends with people of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, which is also related to caste.

LJ: Let’s take a step back from that and talk about Hindu nationalism. Being a journalist at the time, how would you describe the phenomenon of the rise of this force in such a multicultural party from Indian perspective?

GM: There are several layers to this, and I do not want to over-analyze the historical context, namely British colonization. There are tensions between communities in India, including Hindu and Muslim communities. Those seeds were sown right there, and the riots and deaths that occurred during the 1947 partition also had an impact. That is a bit of context to bear in mind.

Then in 2014, when the BJP party first came to power, there was massive corruption that was exposed in the Congress and the ruling party before the BJP, massive anti-corruption protests, etc. Also, Hindu nationalism is not a new phenomenon in India. It has existed for some time, only that it is now very blatant. It is practiced openly and with great impunity. And this is what has changed.

However, with the BJP in power, many of the party’s leaders are openly speaking about India’s aspirations to be a Hindu nation. This has given people a lot of the boldness that they lacked before. All these sentiments have now found legitimacy. When you legitimize people who are already in the elite, you are not going to let go of that power. I know people who will support the ruling party no matter what. They are very reluctant to be critical of it.

LJ: Do you think nationalism is stronger because of this transformation? Or did something actually change in society before Modi came to power?

GM: Initially, when Modi came to power in 2014, he was seen as someone with a very pro-business, pro-economy, pro-progress agenda. When I talked to people, which wasn’t related to me being a journalist, because I was still studying at the time, they were very glad that there was someone who was finally looking out for us; someone who was looking out for our domestic economy, businesses and so on. Of course, there were also critics, but this is normal.

It did transform from there, as slowly the idea entered people’s minds that they could finally dress traditionally with nationalist accents, because the person at the top of the country did it, so they could too.

It started with anti-corruption and economic ideas. It only took root when the BJP took power. I am not saying that the BJP started as a Hindu nationalist party. It has roots there, but the BJP was more moderate then.

What is significant is that they see that people are responding to it and they do not want certain minorities in their country.

LJ: How do you see the situation developing and perhaps your role if you decide to come back to India? How do you see social political revolution in India?

GM: In terms of what is going to happen, I am not an optimistic person to talk about it. My views are related to my experience as a journalist; I have noticed that there is less and less room for independent media. This is an indicator of where public opinion really is. In India, there are many journalists who have been held accountable in the last 10 years in cases of disinformation, etc. These are markers of a society that values the homogeneous nationalist idea of a country more than pluralism and the opportunity to express one’s thoughts, which is an essential element of democracy.

Moreover, tensions are rising and there is less room for uncomfortable conversations, and I do not just mean in the public sphere, but in the private sphere as well. I know for a fact that many people my age and even younger are finding it increasingly difficult to have conversations about politics in their own homes, because the ideas of parents have suddenly found legitimacy in the idea of an Indian nation. Parents do not like to hear that we have different ideas and disagree with them. They feel threatened when we express that it is not the idea of India that we really want.

The point is that the amount of conversation you can have in public and in private is shrinking a lot – freedom of speech and your freedom is under threat in India. However, I also think there is hope as there are many people who live their lives without looking at who is from what religion and do not feel the need to discriminate against people from another religion or community.

There is a lot of solidarity in common cultural practices. I see hope in people who will continue to speak their mind. This nationalism loves the government, but true nationalism is love for your country, and if you love your country, why wouldn’t you criticize your government?  I believe there is hope.

LJ: Being here as a journalist in the UK, in Europe, I would like to ask you about stories about India. Stories that are untold and should be told, stories that you do not see but would like to see.

GM: India is not just an oriental land of spices and poverty…. It is a place where there are a lot of people who speak excellent English, which usually surprises people because they comment that being from India, it is surprising that I speak such fluent English.

Such stories, however, are about people who do really good work for their communities, both big and small. They do not have to be lawyers or activists. They can be those who are restoring rights to tribal communities, or people just doing a lot of work, even if it is not announced. It is not just a place where you hear a certain kind of music and eat spicy food, where there is a lot of heat. It is a place where people have amazing stories to tell. There is a lot of solidarity that comes from a lot of people in some difficult situations. I think those stories can be amazing to tell and hear.

LJ: I believe we have been given one such story here.

The podcast was recorded on November 23, 2022.

Find out more about the guest: www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/people/geetika-mantri

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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