By Dushyant Shekhawat Sep. 07, 2018
Consent is, to a large section of the country, what Vijay Mallya is to the Indian authorities: impossible to grasp. Case in point: BJP MLA Ram Kadam, who offered to kidnap any girl who refused the proposal of any member of his constituency. For men like Kadam, a girl who says “no” is painting a target on her back.
“No” is a simple enough word for people to understand. It’s a sharp, monosyllabic report that makes its meaning very clear – halt whatever you’re doing, I disagree. It’s one of the first words we learn as infants, and its character barely changes across languages – no, nahi, nyet, nein. Why then, as we grow older, do we fail to comprehend its message, especially when it comes to matters of consent?
In India, consent is an imported concept. It’s as alien to our culture as live-in relationships and short skirts, and viewed through the same denigrating lens. It’s something to be scoffed at and brushed aside – especially if you’re inclined to listen to people like BJP MLA Ram Kadam. At a dahi handi event held in Mumbai this week, the elected official announced to all the men in attendance that he was available to kidnap any girl who refused their proposals, and deliver her to them. Before I’m accused of oversimplifying his words, let me clarify that he did attach a rider to the offer – if the wannabe dulha’s parents gave their blessings to the union, the kidnapping would proceed as planned.
Let that sink in. This man was elected to public office, given a public platform to speak, and chose to announce his criminal intentions for the world to hear. Of course, he’s backpedalled after the situation very rightly blew up in his face; politicians from every party, ranging from rivals Congress to testy allies Shiv Sena, and even also-rans MNS piled on to him for his tone-deaf statements. Kadam has said his comments were distorted, but that hasn’t stopped him from being christened “Ravan Kadam” by Twitter, after the most famous kidnapper in Indian mythology.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether he was simply repeating a statement made by a member of the crowd, or giving voice to his fantasy of being like Jason Statham in The Transporter and driving around the country with girls in the boot of his car. Because in this country, a girl who says “no” isn’t merely exercising her free will, she’s painting a target on her back. There are men in this country who feel like they have a right to women’s bodies, and that they can punish any woman who refuses them access. Consent is, to a large section of the country, what Vijay Mallya is to the Indian authorities: impossible to grasp.
Against this backdrop, comments like Kadam’s are not only offensive, but downright dangerous.
Against this backdrop, comments like Kadam’s are not only offensive, but downright dangerous. Bollywood has already popularised the message that “no” doesn’t mean “no”, just “not now”. The stalker-as-hero is a depressingly familiar and persistent trope. Mainstream cinema still portrays female characters as prizes to be won by male protagonists, reducing them to commodities – just like Kadam did in his speech.
Because women are granted no agency when it comes to choosing their suitors, their refusal of a proposal becomes a problem to be solved, not a definite conclusion. Note to all the Ram Kadams out there: Overcoming resistance should be an activity reserved for generals at war, not for men trying to find partners.
In our country, where even the act of marrying the person you want to spend your life with has earned the sensationalist tag of “love marriage”, and the alternative of “arranged marriage” is seen as the sensible thing to do, exercising your choice about who you want to love is one of the most rebellious acts a person can commit. Across the country, from the North to the South, disrespecting your parents’ wishes with regards to marriage is viewed as a grave sin. Just look at the gory trend of honour killings across the nation, fuelled by the notion that romantic partners should be determined by society, not individuals.
Thankfully, the only courts sanctioning honour killings are kangaroo courts. Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court made a landmark judgement yesterday when it ruled to strike down Section 377, an archaic law used to unfairly target LGBTQ citizens. While this is a huge leap in the courts granting us the right to love whomever we want, the right to reject advances has not been similarly legitimised. Marital rape is still not considered a crime in the eyes of the law, and a wife refusing her husband access to sex is considered to be neglectful of her matrimonial duties. Once again, a woman’s consent is considered irrelevant in the face of male entitlement.
It is precisely this entitlement that sits at the heart of India’s problem with consent – and Ram Kadam’s parent-sanctioned kidnapping service, exists because of how entrenched patriarchy is in our society.
I hope a day comes when this imbalance is addressed, and a woman’s “no” is taken as a full-stop, and not a set of ellipses denoting a continuation of the matter. But until then, I might as well start a kiosk selling pepper spray. People like Ram Kadam should ensure a steady stream of customers. Because a man who resorts to kidnapping his bride may not understand consent, but he will hopefully understand the meaning of a face full of mace.