RENUKA VISWANATHAN | 23 FEBRUARY, 2020
Against all women
Some weeks back, a series of tweets about the CAA, NPR and NRC gave me the shivers. Natasha was the one who pointed out with devastating clarity why these policies, particularly the preparation of a National Population Register followed by the National Register of Citizens would harm all women, irrespective of religion, region or social class. Ever since, I have spent sleepless nights brooding over her insights. Let me share my worries here so that we all realize what we are up against.
At first glance, a listing of Indian residents followed by transfer of the names of citizens to a separate register appears pretty innocuous. How can anyone deny us citizenship when we have known this country since birth and have several pieces of paper to prove it? We have passports to cross borders, we have voted several times on valid election IDs, we pay taxes with PAN cards, we take cars on the road with driving licenses. We have registered sale or lease deeds for our residences and electricity, water and telephone bills to prove that we live here. Some of us have worked in or with the government and some are fighting for it at remote border posts. A few have represented the country at international fora, sports and other events.
Nevertheless, every day, we are officially told that none of these certificates will be treated as conclusive proof of our being Indian. The only incontrovertible proofs of citizenship are birth certificates for us and for our parents. Unfortunately, just a miniscule number of people who live in India have such documents. In the case of doubt, the local bureaucrat preparing the register will presumably take a final view using his discretion. With almost four decades of experience within Indian bureaucracy, this is a thought that sends chills down my spine.
The situation will be particularly dire for women, caught up as they are within our patriarchal, male-chauvinist society. Girl children are less likely even today to have birth certificates made out in their names. Poor illiterate mothers in slums and rural areas are not valued for producing female children. As a consequence, they too undervalue their daughters.
During village tours in Karnataka, I quickly learned to question the answers given by women when asked how many children they had. I discovered that very often they only gave me the number of sons. From this bitter experience, I taught myself to ask a further question: how many daughters do you have? And add the numbers back to arrive at the correct number of children in the family. With conditions like this, the birth of a girl child is less likely to be confirmed by a valid birth certificate, even when the delivery has taken place in a government hospital.
The next opportunity to obtain a valid ID comes when a child leaves school with a school leaving certificate. But, far fewer girls are enrolled in schools than boys and of these, a much smaller number is likely to become matriculates and get SSLC certificates. Those who do not complete this stage of education will not possess another important proof of birth in the country.
Women of every social class, region and religion adopt their husbands’ surnames after marriage. All of us then must show the NPR bureaucrat the link between our marital name and the maiden name for which we have documentary proofs. Very few women formally change their names after marriage through public notification and legal procedure. And, marriage certificates are even scarcer than birth certificates in our country. Will old wedding invitations and photographs (if we can dig them up) prove our relationship with the woman who gave us birth and with the person whose name we now bear?
Patriarchy in India extends even to change of the name given to a woman at birth by the family into which she has married. Several communities adopt this practice to merge the woman’s identity forever into that of the marital family. The woman’s task to prove her identity will become even more onerous when her first name is itself different today from the one recorded in school and birth records.
We are gradually recognizing that the largest group of migrants worldwide are women. Marriage reduces women to camp followers forced to relocate to the spouse’s home, to a different area, city, State or country. Proofs of links to the natal home may have to be shown before the bureaucrat accepts the validity of these several residences. And, as we all know, movement from the natal to the marital home can itself result in loss of valuable documents.
Given all the above hurdles, the NPR and NRC might presumably be plain sailing only for the woman who has her own birth certificate and the birth certificates of her parents, provided she has never married and therefore never changed her name or names or moved into a marital home. Even this may not be simple. Women who live without male support could also end up outside the record of citizens. Besides, there are deserted women, (often living with the children of the marriage), abducted women, women in red light districts. Government offices are accustomed to treating them as persons without identity, denying them access to certificates and proofs of existence.
My bitter experience with a maid some years back in the heart of India’s Silicon valley, Bengaluru, taught me how this works. R_____ was the sole support of her parents and her child, after being abandoned by the man she had married. No government office would give her an election ID, an Aadhaar card or a ration card and she could not open a bank account, since every bureaucrat demanded that she bring her husband along to their offices. I asked for the constitutional clause which required a woman to produce a husband to claim her vote. Eventually, the babus did their job after making the required local enquiries, but they did it reluctantly and with snide and intrusive comments about R______’s situation. We can imagine how they would treat her now, even with an election ID.
Let us understand then why women are gathering in such large numbers at Shaheen Bagh and its offshoots in other cities. Let us appreciate the havoc that the two citizenship registers will create when our very identities can be changed in accordance with the patriarchal social practices that are applied to us. Unless NPR and NRC are abandoned, we risk losing our homes, our relationships and our country.
(This piece is dedicated to Natasha, whose tweets opened my eyes to this problem)
Renuka Viswanathan is retired from the Indian civil service