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The looking glass world of angry men

Emergency helplines, legal 'evangelists' and 'mard ko dard'inside the world of men's rights activists

The ‘1st Conference on National Commission for Men’ in Delhi, in September; and a rally held on the occasion of International Men’s Day in Kolkata last year. Photo: Sujan Singh/Mint
The ‘1st Conference on National Commission for Men’ in Delhi, in September; and a rally held on the occasion of International Men’s Day in Kolkata last year. Photo: Sujan Singh/Mint

If the oppressed men of the country won’t be around, women’s lives will become meaningless," thunders Hari Narayan Rajbhar in Hindi from a small stage, addressing a gathering of about 500 young men and a handful of women in a dimly-lit conference hall in central Delhi. He is the guest of honour at this seminar (held in September) to demand the formation of a men’s commission. Dressed in white, with a Himachali topi, Rajbhar, a member of Parliament from Ghosi district of Uttar Pradesh, had found himself at the centre of a media storm after he raised the demand (for “men suffering at the hands of their wives") during the monsoon session of Parliament in August.

“Today is a historic day. This demand will spread across the country. Only those who have no love for their families, husbands or culture will oppose this," he continues in Hindi. There is loud applause from the crowd.

Rajbhar has just anointed himself as the icon of a fledgling movement in India—the men’s rights activists (MRAs). While the demand for a commission is recent, the men’s rights movement is fairly entrenched, with its call to make all laws gender neutral and dilute the powers of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code—which criminalizes mental or physical cruelty towards a married woman by husband and relatives, including demands for dowry. Punishment includes imprisonment for up to three years.

In a socially conservative country, where 928 crimes against women were reported every single day in a year (according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 2016), the issue of victimization of men may seem like a trivial pursuit. But for MRAs, this is serious business. The largest such group, Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), began in 2004 as informal meetings in parks by men to help other men facing 498A cases or depression and suicidal tendencies due to legal woes. Today, SIFF alone has a network of over 250,000 people from across the country. The week the seminar was held, the usual Sunday support session the group hosts for members and newcomers was cancelled to allow the members to volunteer at the event.

The conference hall gathering gets more boisterous as the two female moderators proudly claim to be associated with it. Deepika Bhardwaj has previously made a documentary, Martyrs Of Marriage, which is to be screened later. She uses a mangled version of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous racial justice slogan, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," to make her point. The other woman, Barkha Trehan, uses a more popular culture reference, “Mard ko bhi dard hota hai (even men can feel pain)".

Photo: Getty Images

Rajbhar’s address is preceded by a speech by former actor Pooja Bedi, who says she’s participating in the event because she believes in a “society of equals". Her cheerleader-style address revs up the audience. “If marital rape is such a big issue, why is the issue of men being denied sex not being discussed?" she asks. A man next to me remarks to another person in Hindi, “She will win if she fights an election."

Others who address the seminar include an oncologist, a healthcare consultant and the brother of a man who committed suicide after being allegedly harassed by his wife. Shonee Kapoor, who claims to be a “legal evangelist" for men on his website, calls attention to another hot-button issue for MRAs—the post-Nirbhaya amended laws against sexual assault. “The law on rape gives so many lacunas to a girl like she could have been coerced, intoxicated, threatened. Even oral sex without her consent or will falls under the definition of rape," he says.

As Rajbhar makes his exit, surrounded by volunteers in yellow T-shirts jostling for a selfie, I ask him what purpose a commission would serve, since most institutional positions of power in the country were held by men. “Men should also be able to stand up and speak of their wants," he replies in Hindi. When I persist for a more specific reply, he asks if I am “purush-virodhi (anti-men)."

But several others gathered around him jump in to articulate the need for a commission, highlighting stories of alleged harassment. Some pull up “threatening" WhatsApp messages from their wives, others have RTI documents that they say prove their innocence. Some are angry, some helpless, some even get teary-eyed.

Throughout these conversations and sessions, repeated claims of excesses by women are made without any supporting evidence. Last year, in a deep dive into the uproar over 498A provisions, particularly of arrest, I had found that data does not suggest widespread misuse of the law. In response to the story (Hindustan Times, 2017), I received predictable backlash from an army of MRAs. Some alleged that the story attempted to destroy the institution of marriage, while others called women a burden on parents and governments.

Outside the conference room, I meet RM, a 39-year-old contractor whose wife filed a 498A case against him and his mother after three years of marriage. He claims she did it under duress, after pressure from her family to extort money from him. “I used to cook food most of the time after our daughter was born, when my wife had to look after her," he says to illustrate his role as a good husband.

For help with the legal case, he found a SIFF helpline and attended a meeting, after which he was added to their WhatsApp group. On the group, he shared that he sometimes thought of kidnapping his two-year-old daughter who he hadn’t seen in months. That’s when, he says, he learned the first golden rule from a fellow MRA. “Learn the law and through it, screw the wife and her family. When you decide not to give up, that’s when you win in law," he says.

He rattles off a series of legal strategies that the MRAs use as possible ways to build a counter-case against the woman’s family—from trying to establish income-tax violations by establishing excess spending on the wedding function to sales-tax evasion on bridal clothes and jewellery. Several states demand anti-dowry declaration from government employees and proof of dowry given can be used against them.

In his own case, the latest tactic he is using is alleging that his wife’s PhD degree is fake. Through RTI documents, he claims to have unearthed a fake degree scam in the university she studied. He plans to file a forgery case against her, which if the court admits, may even grant him custody of the daughter. “She will have nowhere to run. Pyar bande ko nahi convince kar sakta jitna darr sikha deta hai (People don’t get convinced by love as much as by fear)" he says, all the while referring to her as his “beloved wife".

The MRAs have a sophisticated social media strategy too. RM points me in the direction of 44-year-old MS who runs a successful Twitter intervention campaign. MS shows me his WhatsApp group called ICE (in case of emergency). Men facing imminent arrest or any police action after a case is filed, send SoS messages on it. Immediately, the group swings into action by messaging police personnel in that district. Simultaneously, a tweet is drafted in response, alleging police excess, which is shared by hundreds of MRAs tagging the official police accounts. “It’s a 24x7 job. Recently in Ghaziabad, a boy was picked up by the police. Fifty-sixty of us tweeted to the DGP and within half an hour, the local inspector told us it was not an arrest, just detention," he says proudly. In another case, they stood outside a police station when a member was being questioned to “ensure that he was not harassed by the police".

Delhi-based journalist Namita Bhandare, who has written extensively on gender issues, feels this reliance on anecdotal evidence of harassment belies the lived reality of women’s lives. “I understand their grievance but this doesn’t mean all men are victims. Women are systematically discriminated against from birth, so you can’t just say treat us as equals."

She cites unabated dowry deaths which require legislations like 498A. While dowry deaths have decreased over the years, the numbers remain worrying. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 21 dowry deaths and 27 dowry demand cases were filed every day in 2016.

“No matter what, women and feminists always have to do better. It’s not wrong to talk about men’s rights provided you see it in perspective, instead of boiling it down to one issue," adds Bhandare.

Like most of their compatriots, RM and MS feel feminism is the root cause of the problem. “Feminism these days is simply to degrade the Indian family structure. Indian NGOs get crores of funds from abroad to destabilize the country," says RM, repeating a popular internet conspiracy theory among MRAs.

But for thousands of women who have faced abuse at the hands of their husband or in-laws, the law provides only a basic crutch. For four years, P faced verbal taunts every day from her mother-in-law for not bringing enough dowry. This eventually turned into physical violence forcing her to return to her parents home. She says it took her years to gather the courage to file a 498A case. “Do the men think women file these cases on a whim?" she asks. “Going public with details of violence, the burden of proving it first to the police, then to court, staking my family’s honour discouraged me from registering a case for several years." Now, it has been nine years since she filed an FIR and five years since trial began and there is no clear end in sight.

But for MRAs like Mishra, accepting women’s agency is neither easy nor understandable. In spite of his activism, he does not want to divorce his wife but ultimately hopes for a compromise. “I will continue to fight this legally if she does. But she can come back to me if she compromises—but on my terms," he says in Hindi. “My beloved wife will have to come back to me."

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