Most societies place a high premium on motherhood. India is no exception.
Motherhood is represented as that saintly obligation pressed into the service of preserving the institution of family and celebrating marketed national values. We are reminded repeatedly – often in facile ways – of motherhood’s exalted status. Under such conditions, not belonging to the pantheon of Mothers is considered a dereliction of civic and national duty. But then again, the compulsion to not fail the duty of being a mother is hardly surprising in a culture not known for respecting individual choices, a culture known for stigmatising women who push boundaries of social and political conservatism.
More often than not, ideals of motherhood are woven into political messaging. Across the aisle, India’s misogynist politicians, while delivering crass sermons, habitually address women as ‘mothers and sisters’. Rather than being treated as individual human beings or citizens, women find their visibility and significance becomes contingent on the roles assigned to them within conventional families.
Such empty eulogies notwithstanding, ‘mothers and sisters’ in everyday India spend their lives as second-grade citizens in most, if not all, spheres of life. History bears testimony to the fact that mothers, and women on the threshold of motherhood, are not spared sexual violence in any form of conflict. In fact, they become cherished victims of war for men to fight over.
The continued imprisonment of 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, an expectant mother, has once more laid bare the hypocrisy of the official as well as popular narrative built around motherhood. The refusal to grant bail to Zargar has yet again reminded us that not all motherhoods are equal. Not in the eyes of the state, the political classes, or society. Lest we forget, we must remember that like most celebratory and politically expedient euphemisms, motherhood too is selectively used to reward the obedient and punish the deviant.
Last week, Zargar, 21 weeks into her pregnancy, was refused bail, despite her lawyers telling the court she was suffering from Polycystic Ovarian Disorder. The lawyers also reminded the court of Zargar’s enhanced vulnerability in the midst of COVID-19, especially given that inmates in all three of Delhi’s jails have tested positive for the virus.
Implicated in the violence that gripped Northeast Delhi in February, and charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA,) Zargar, a research scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia, was arrested by the police on April 10. Granted bail on April 13, she was arrested again the same day on the basis of a separate FIR.
Dismissing her bail plea, a Delhi court observed: “When you choose to play with embers, you cannot blame the wind to have carried the spark a bit too far and spread the fire.” Commenting on the court’s observation, legal scholar Gautam Bhatia wrote that “when a court needs to rely upon metaphor instead of law to justify keeping an individual in prison, it is perhaps time for the justice system to take a long, hard look at itself”.
But the hypocrisy around the narrative of motherhood goes beyond any one institution. Today, more than at any time in recent memory, the lack of compassion evident in denying Zargar bail has become a prominent marker of Indian politics and society. Zargar’s case suggests religion has trumped concerns about her pregnancy, regardless of the paeans sung to mothers.
Right after the arrest, right-wing trolls went to town about Zargar being an unwed, expectant mother. With social media toxicity spiralling, Zargar’s husband told Alt News that they were married in 2018. That Zargar’s marital status, which has no bearing on the case at hand, should be a matter of speculation, in itself is unacceptable. The choice of becoming a single mother or being a mother in relationships outside the institution of marriage is not the business of the state, or the public at large.
But, of course, the trolls were acting out a political script. They were well aware of what they were doing. The posts were an attempt to turn public opinion against Zargar. Their aim was to nudge a judgemental society to respond to its regressive instincts.
Around the same time the court refused Zargar bail, a pregnant elephant died a torturous death, standing in the middle of a river. Initial reports suggested the elephant was deliberately fed a firecracker-filled pineapple. People from all walks of life – from politicians to Bollywood celebrities – took to social media calling the perpetrators out, some even using the tragedy to attack political opponents. “Post after post lashed out at the supposed perpetrators, angrily wondering how human beings can be so cruel towards an innocent elephant, that too a pregnant one,” wrote Debabrata Pain in this space.
These contradictions in public and political response to the pregnancies of two different species of mothers are too stark to escape notice. Similar things can be said of the recent case when Hindu right-wingers took up cudgels on behalf of protesters in the ongoing Black Lives Matter upsurge in the United States. Many among them, chafing at US police brutality, either supported or remained mum about Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders like Kapil Mishra, who delivered inflammatory speeches against protesters critical of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
It may be pertinent to remind such people, excited by the US’s anti-racism movement, of India’s own racism, and their own persistent failure to take note of it. Why not let this also be the moment to talk about homegrown racism? Why not use social media to condemn attacks on Nigerians in Delhi and the ritual hounding of people from the Northeast of India? Not to mention the blatant communalisation of COVID-19 in this country.
Refusing Zargar bail is part of the same retributive political culture – mothers be damned – that allowed human rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s daughter to visit her mother for barely five minutes in Pune’s Yerwada jail. “The conversation, on an intercom across a glass window, was chaotic and interrupted by a dozen other undertrials also trying to catch up with their families simultaneously,” said a report in The Wire.
It’s time to square up to a bald truth: we don’t really care about our ‘mothers and sisters’. After all, most common, popular references to mothers and sisters in the Hindi heartland don’t idealise and elevate women so much as denigrate them using words I am sure you are already recalling in your mind as you read this.