Savdhaan India, Feb 11, 2013
A man, in the presence of a group of people, is brutalizing a young girl; and among those standing by and watching are some authoritarian fierce-looking men of authority, who announce to this girl who is pathetically beaten, you are married, you have to acknowledge that. The girl's anguished question: how can I accept a marriage that I do not remember?
In our society, marriage, has a special significance in the life of a girl, then how is it possible, asks Mohnish Bahl, that a girl does not remember her marriage? Under what kind of extraordinary circumstances is it possible that a girl is unaware that her marriage is being solemnized? These are incredible questions that Mohnish poses, and to unravel them we are given the story of 18-year-old Kusum from Mogra village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
Kusum, a bright young girl, who has all the innocence possible, loves her puppets and is brimming with the joy of life. Studying in the city, she has completed her school exams. Her parents bring her back to the village, on the pretext of attending her late grandmother's death anniversary puja and for meeting her grandfather. There is a mysterious but ominous exchange between the parents, which she remains unaware of as she comes to the village, believing that this is a short quick visit before she returns to the city and get admission to college. But the greatest shock hits her when she finds a couple at the house, claiming to be her so-called parents-in-law, and announcing their intention to take her away the following week. That is when she discovers the horrible truth. Her life crumbles before her tearful eyes, as her mother informs her'. She was married at the age of one! A bride who is fed with a milk bottle! This was essential explains the mother, as dark omens surrounded the house.
The in-laws attend the puja, the draconian nature of the mother-in-law is evident enough but the bigger blow comes when Kusum sees that her husband is none other than Raghubir, a total ruffian, whom she had incidentally seen just a while back beating up some people, on the street.
The curse of child marriage has plagued India, the women of India, since centuries. Very young girls, at the age of playing with dolls, who have no awareness of the direction being given to their lives, are married off, and when they attain the age of puberty, or as in the case of Kusum, when they turn 18, are sent off to the husband's home. What kind of custom is this, that due to some fear or superstition, parents readily sacrifice an infant at the altar of marriage? Mohnish Bahl's absolute disgust with the situation is evident as he tells us of not one but three laws to prevent child marriage. The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929; The Prevention of Child Marriage Act, 2004; The Compulsory Registration of Marriages Act, 2006. Three laws, but unfortunately none of these is prevalent due to the opposition and non-acceptance due to the rigidity of archaic customs and belief systems.
Kusum, now in a state of shock tries desperately to explain to her parents. Raghubir is not a good human being; he beats up people and does not work. He is a total wastrel. But she is put down by the arrogance of father and grandfather, the male chauvinists, who believe women have no voice anyway.
Kusum visits her childhood friend, Lata, the same age as her, but now a mother of three, who as she says, before she even understood anything about life she was married, and now she drags her life through with the beatings of husband and mother-in-law. Kusum is at her wit's end as she sobs at the impending disaster in her life. The glimmer of hope comes with the arrival of her very proud and excited brother, Sagar, who brings her the news that she has got a first division in the class 12 exams; he shows her the newspaper with her picture in it! But then the crisis unfolds as her in-laws storm in; berate her parents and grandfather for allowing their daughter to be more educated than her husband who, they proudly announce, dropped out of school after class 10! They warn, Kusum's education has to stop and her qualification never disclosed. Kusum's and protests fall on deaf ears and the Sagar, who is totally supportive of his sister, is ordered out of the house. Kusum asks her parents a very pertinent question: if you were planning my marriage today, would you really choose a man such as Raghubir?
In Kusum's question is wrapped the failings and grave faults of child marriage, says Mohnish. He tells us that according to UNICEF's International Women's Organization, 47 percent of girls in India are married before the age of 18. Consequently, he reiterates the grim fact that before they are even physically of the childbearing age they become mothers, and this is harmful and extremely risky for both mother and child. Kusum's piteous cries remain unheard on the day of her bidaai, when she is being sent to her husband's home. Her sobs fall on deaf ears. Most heartrending is the way she clutches as her two puppet dolls, and laments the snatching away of days of carefree innocence. Right there, in the presence of her own family, her husband brutalizes her. That is the last straw and the petrified girl manages to runs away. She seeks momentary shelter at Lata's place, who helps her run away. Kusum then seeks help from the police. Who merely bring her back to the same cage from where she wanted to escape, why? Because she dared to break the "rules" of her biradari or community. Back to the opening scene, and the autocratic men, the panchayat pass judgement that either she accepts and goes with her husband, or she and her family stand ostracized from the community. The husband demonstrates stark brutality and inhuman behaviour right there, in the presence of a traumatized, but mute, mother and an equally silent cowardly father. The men of the panchayat are totally indifferent to the bestiality of the husband. But Kusum does not go.
Mohnish admonishes: all the people of a village depend on their panchayat for justice in matter of disputes. Which places a grave responsibility on the panchayat to review the points of view of both parties, and within the ambit of the law, give a fair and unbiased judgement. But in this case, after the panchayat's warped verdict, on the one hand there is "policing" by other villagers outside Kusum's house, and by banning "hooka-pani", their survival is threatened. There is no water, literally. But as Mohnish says, Kusum was not ready to give up. If doors closed from one avenue, she made endeavours to open alternative doors. She went miles to get water from another well. On the way, she learns of another child marriage in her own village. She goes to stop that cruel injustice. But Raghubir physically carries her away, and the ghastly events that unfold leave one shaken. The panchayat orders a demonstration of molestation by various men as an exampler to Kusum of the condition woman faces when refuses the "protection" of a husband! Then she is tied to a tree, without food and water, to be left there till she apologizes to the panchayat and all the villagers for her misbehaviour!
In the middle of the night, Sagar saves her and they escape into the city. They seek the help of a women's welfare organization, who explains that the only way out is an annulment. Which, as Mohnish Bahl points out, is to state that the marriage was never took place. What is the difference between divorce and an annulment? As Mohnish explains, while divorce is the ending of a legal marriage, annulment is a "non-marriage". If there is any legal violation, annulment can be granted. What kind of violations? If either the boy or girl is: committing bigamy; mentally unfit; incapable of consummating a marriage; or under-age. This is all very well, but Mohnish states the dismal fact that laws mean nothing in the village and Kusum's family bears the brunt, as they are mercilessly tortured. As Kusum and Dagar complain to the District Magistrate they learn of this torture and rush back. Kusum now begs for mercy and is prepared to sacrifice her life to the horrendous injustice, which is being perpetrated by the so-called keepers of justice, the Panchayat. In the nick of time, the representative of the women's organization and now chastened police arrive with the DGM's orders ' this marriage is annulled. Kusum threatens Raghubir, "come and sign the annulment papers or face charges for the criminal assault on me and my family."
Mohnish Bahl highlights the uphill task of how difficult it is even for lawmakers and enforcement authorities to grapple with people in villages who are steeped in superstition and archaic, decadent, customs. They managed to stop them from taking Kusum away, but the culprits could not be taken to task. How helpless is our law, one wonders, and why? This situation must change. It is challenging, but possible, by ensuring education in village after village. Maybe the awareness of the younger generation can help bring a sea change in the thinking of the older rigidity. Kusum gets her freedom. She works with the Nari Niketan she decides to get to the root of this issue and help with social awareness.
According to well-known child psychologist, Anju Kulkarni, the repercussions of child marriage affect girls the most. The girls are neither ready physically nor mentally. Consequently, they suffer immensely. Mohnish again cites UNICEF statistics that the maximum child marriages take place in Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. As he emphasizes, to eliminate the curse from its very roots it is essential, one the one hand to ensure education of girls, and on the other the financial security and progress of families. If Kusum's parents and grandfather as also others in her village had the benefit of basic education, the lives of many of the girls in that village would have been safer, healthier, and happier. So we need to be alert to this malaise of our society. With that Mohnish Bahl bids farewell with the caring message: stay safe, happy and secure as India Fights Back with Savdhaan India.