Sunday, March 14, 2010

Attitudes Are Hard to Change

I wrote a short "tweet" version on this subject at "India Tweets" and I felt this needs to be elaborated further.

In recent times, we have attempted to enact a law that is quite revolutionary. That of reserving 33% of electoral seats for women. It is not a simple straight forward piece of legislation and like many of our other laws, this too will have many "ifs" and "buts" that could dilute many good intentions. This has also seen a rare unanimity between the three major and influential political formations in the country which have supported this change.

In a decidedly male dominated society and that goes for politics too, this is a paradigm shifting event. One may debate on the usefulness of this piece of legislation or feel that we did not require a law and our intent could be demonstrated just by ensuring more women candidates in the fray. These are valid observations and one may not have convincing arguments to the contrary except that much can be done but does it ever get done???

Initial opposition soon snowballed into a fierce "no-holds barred" filibustering, nay street fight. A couple of political formations saw this as a great affront to their cultural leanings. The stridency of this opposition surprised many but an astute observer would find that this was entirely along expected lines and should not  surprise any one. After all, the idea of a woman boss is still quite distasteful to many.

This experience highlights something basic. Any law or element of compulsion that has to do with some action (or its absence) results in high compliance...e.g., compliance to tax rules, laws to ensure public order and against misbehaviour or laws against deter many. This is not to argue that crime is wiped out but these laws have a "deterence" effect and we see reasonably high level of compliance.

There can be no law to ensure change in attitudes. Laws abolished untouchability many years back but its practice is widespread. In some places, it is brazen and in many cases it is subtle. We have not changed from within and are gulity of practising discrimination in one form or other.

The uplift of women and giving primacy to their health, education, status, legal protection, legal rights, access to opportunities....has been a very contentious issue in our society for the last century or so. Every change has had to be brought in the face of very stiff opposition. I can easily site the example of banning polygamy amongst Hindus had raised temperatures in the early fifties. (Sad, though, it did not cover all Indian women). Extending property rights to women of the family was another issue that raised the heckles of many. 

Now we have the Women's Reservation Bill. I am not sure the efficacy of this piece of legislation as there is every likelihood of women from existing political interests will be pushed forward and there will be much back seat driving. Just a little more than a decade back Rabri Devi managed her kitchen cabinet with Lalu Prasad Yadav being the master puppeteer.

Yet, there is hope. Process of evolution is always slow and when it comes to attitudes and cultural mores, it would require generational shifts. Legislation can have a "nudge here - nudge there" effect and hopefully society moves in the desired direction.One must not expect any dramatic change from this law and we must view this effort as a facilitator of some social reform, the fruits of which may be seen by our future generations.

It is, however, upto us (the present generation),  to ensure that a change in society is brought about and we emphasise on human values and a liberal culture.