By Abhimanyu Chandra
Millions of Indians have marked their 11am slots for the next several Sundays to view Aamir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate. Many of us are moved by the show, stunned by the raw truths it presents, hungry for change, and in awe of Khan’s sense of citizenship.
Everyone has the right to react as he or she pleases; but the current frenetic and overzealous bout of passion for social change, resulting from the show, can have deeply counter-productive effects. In our quest for change and justice, we should not resort to oversimplifying issues. More importantly, we should not fall for seductive though intemperate prescriptions.
The issues explored in the three episodes of the show so far have been oversimplified by both its viewers and by the show itself. A conversation with many of the show’s most avid supporters will reveal that the show’s first episode, which examined female foeticide, has convinced them that abortion, no matter for what reason, is a crime. These viewers forget that while female foeticide is bad, it is not the only reason for abortion. Amongst other, legitimate reasons for abortion is unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape. In seeking to stop abortion of the wrong sort, we should be sensitive towards a woman’s right to abortion of the legal sort.
Similarly, while child sexual abuse, the subject of the second episode, is intolerable, it should be remembered that such abuse is sometimes a result of mental illness, and can be cured by proper treatment. As much as we are sympathetic to victims of sexual assault, we should also be sensitive towards perpetrators of assault—recognizing that they themselves might be victims, of serious illnesses.
Given this more complicated reality, the show would do well to steer away from simplifying it, from presenting it in stark black and white. Perpetrators of rape, even as they should be punished per the law, deserve the right to seek a counselor and work towards reintegrating into mainstream society. If the show’s emotive tenor, however, is to be taken at face value, chances are that perpetrators of sexual abuse will be dealt with some sort of permanent, public justice—a lifetime of ostracism.
The third episode of the show, which examines the Indian mania for marriage, accords blame for problems resulting from marriages primarily on those who demand dowry. There is no doubt that demanding dowry is savage and that those who do so often do it cunningly, slowly increasing their demands as the wedding day approaches, thereby putting greater pressure on the bride and her family. It is evident, nonetheless, that the bride and her family are at least as much to blame for giving in to demands for dowry. Dowry would not exist if no one agreed to grant it.
In addition to oversimplifying issues, the show and its viewers, with their passion for quick social change, are guilty of championing specious policy prescriptions. The doctor invited to the first episode of the show suggested that a solution to female foeticide would be to grant “exemplary punishment” to various top doctors guilty of the practice, putting them in Tihar Jail. Such an action, he says, would send a “message” to the larger community of doctors that female foeticide would no longer be condoned. While one can understand the doctor’s good intentions, impassionate dispensation of justice of the sort he suggests, and which the show tacitly endorses, would itself be unjust. It would be wrong if the same letter of the law were applied differently to a group of guilty individuals—cherry-picking and convicting some of the most powerful with “exemplary punishment,” leaving the many others with a “message.”
In a vein similar to that of the doctor, a large public sign presently placed next to a popular restaurant at the Marine Drive area of Mumbai reads: “Save Girl Child. Hang Doctors who Practice Sex Discrimination.” Such a response is childish, even petulant. It is as if the person who placed the sign was heretofore entirely ignorant of female foeticide, and has suddenly awoken and demands immediate, even vigilante, justice. The sign, like the doctor on the show, rightly demands that criminals be immediately dealt with—but the manner of dealing suggested, again, is questionable.
The most glaring prescriptions for change are brought up in the show’s third episode. In order to curb extravagance and needless excess in weddings—which sometimes leave families with vast debts—it would no doubt be admirable were social and religious authorities to encourage moderation. But it is quite another matter when such authorities coercively demand that everyone in the locality celebrate marriages, in the words of Mausim Ummedi from Tanzeem Khuddam E Millat, with “no band, no baaja (instruments), no baraat (celebratory dancers), and no dahej (dowry).” Akhtar Kazmi, also affiliated with Tanzeem Khuddam E Millat, espouses a similar authoritarianism. If there is extravagance in a marriage, he and the people in the locality refuse to attend it. In other words, his is a system of making a pariah of a family that does not toe the line. Coercive parsimony of this sort, that every marriage be sparse—“ek jaisee shaadi hoti hai sabki (everyone’s marriage happens in the same way),” as Ummedi proudly delineates—seems to belong to the Soviet Union or communist China. Such practices are inimical to individual decision-making and individual freedom. It is one thing to encourage frugality and another to enforce it. With Khan having nodded to Ummedi and Kazmi, it seems that the show endorses their authoritarianism.
Satyamev Jayate, despite its shortcomings, is a sincere show. None of the criticism is to suggest that Khan and Satyamev Jayate have not been successful in raising awareness and encouraging debate. The show’s unenviable project of mobilizing people towards fighting serious challenges is admirable. These challenges, however, are sensitive, and have to be dealt with in a delicate manner. The show attempts to explore them holistically, but its appreciation of their complexity is insufficiently sophisticated.
It would be incumbent upon the viewer, as well, to be cautious, and to maintain skepticism and independence in thought. Khan and the viewer should recognize in particular, among other shortcomings of the show, that the personal stories presented are bound to be at least a little one-sided: the show gives only the victims a voice; the alleged perpetrators are not permitted a defense.
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