The controversy on women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple has once again drawn attention to the intricacies of social change. One speaks of social change in general, not merely of gender equality.
One cannot but support the aspiration for equality that Sabarimala represents. But one is also left with the impression that it is one more case of people from the middle class believing they can change a society in favour of equality only through a Supreme Court judgement, or by enacting a law with no social movement to support it.
It may even be an easy way out of a difficult situation. The path of a movement for equality is long and difficult, so people opt for the easier path of change through legal measures alone. In so doing they forget that people with power or with a vested interest in the status quo know how to subvert the law without themselves facing any negative consequences.
The Sabarimala and triple talaq judgements are two recent examples of this. The gender issue in these cases deserved attention, and a few persons of good will took it up in the Supreme Court. Theirs was a genuine search for gender justice and equality. But they took the initiative without most members of their society joining them in questioning the injustice in their system. As a result, social support for the cause was not strong enough and theirs became a purely legal battle for human rights.
In the absence of popular mobilisation around the cause, people with a vested interest in the status quo may take over and create a conflict around the issue. The BJP used triple talaq to create a vote bank of what it called poor Muslim women. But for that one sees no visible impact on the ground.
The Sabarimala case is similar though not identical. Some middle class women approached the Supreme Court demanding that their right to enter the temple be recognised. The apex court upheld their right to pray in the temple. Ignored in the process is the fact that gender based discrimination is a social, not a religious issue. All religions, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and others, discriminate against women. They thus legitimise or sanctify social discrimination by giving it a religious basis.
This means that such injustice has to be challenged through a social movement in favour of change. By treating it as a religious issue, those who want change play into the hands of people who favoured the status quo. They can then turn it into an emotional issue of saving dharma. Because of this emotional appeal, even women who should have been fighting for their right to equality have opposed women’s temple entry.
It is not surprising that basic to maintaining an unequal social system is the subalterns internalising the dominant ideology. The religious dimension helps such internalisation.
One can add many more issues to this. For example, the Constitution of India recognises human equality and bans caste, gender and religion based discrimination. But the social reality is far from this ideal. The law bans child labour, dowry, bonded labour and other social evils. But one does not have to labour the point that such bans are honoured mainly in the breach.
Similarly, in 2013 Anna Hazare began a fast unto death demanding a law on corruption and a lok ayukta. All it did was add a few votes to the BJP’s tally in 2014, without any reduction in corruption.
One cannot deny that there have been some successful instances of liberating bonded or child labourers or stopping child marriages. It happened when there was a process of people’s education, or mobilisation of the victims against the evil. In the absence of such mobilisation or preparation of a society, most people will perceive the law as an imposition from above. This perception justifies the powerful in violating it with impunity.
There have been other cases of partial or total success, the “Me Too” movement being one of them. It is a predominantly middle class issue, being against sex abuse in the workplace. There was middle class mobilisation against it from the 1980s. When the Supreme Court took note of it and gave the judgement on the Vishaka case in 1997, it was a response to the middle class demand.
Much has changed as a result of the combination of mobilisation and legal measures. The “Me Too” movement is only the latest response to this long process. It is true that for the time being it remains a middle or even a privileged class movement, and the poor are not yet fully in it. Moreover, it is only a beginning and even the middle class has a long way to go. But it is going in the right direction and one can see some future positive change coming in gender relations.
Dalit movements in some parts of India are another example of relatively successful change through a combination of legal measures and mobilisation. Reservations were made available to Dalits and Adivasis all over India. But in much of the country the dominant castes ensured that most Dalits did not gain access to reservations and remained subservient to their exploiters. Where the political and social environment favoured them, as in parts of south India and Maharashtra, Dalits were able to come together to uphold their human equality and demand their rights.
The Koregaon incident of January 1, 2018 symbolises such an awakening in Maharashtra. Similarly, till a few decades ago, in much of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh Dalit and upper-caste Christians had to sit in different wings of the church building. That practice was put to an end through the mobilisation of Dalit Christians combined with legal measures.
These movements have not resulted in total equality. The violence at Koregaon showed that the movement towards a just society is bound to meet with resistance from the powerful sections of society and from the state. But what has happened in these states is a good beginning that has to be taken forward.
The main lesson of these and similar instances elsewhere, is that the law cannot by itself bring about social change. But it can support social transformation when a community is mobilised and creates an environment in favour of a more equal society. That is what the Sabarimala, triple talaq, anti-corruption and other efforts and movements need to bear in mind.
A legal approach alone can be co-opted by the powerful. At its worst it can be turned against the people, and at best be used for a vote bank.
Change in a society comes through the mobilisation of the victims of injustice, supported by legal measures. Women, Dalits and others who are denied equality must face this challenge.
Walter Fernandes is a former director of North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.
Originally published in The Citizen