14 DECEMBER 2006, AMRIT SRINIVASAN, TIMES OF INDIA, NEW DELHI.
For what crime was Papiya Ghosh punished on December 3, when she was brutally killed at her residence, in an upmarket locality of Patna? Early newspaper reports hinted at her class advantage. But the extremity of the violence scripted on her body suggests a deeper rage directed against her — a woman who dared to have not only a computer and a car but also a life without any father, husband, son or a shadowy brother figure in the background.
A self-respecting scholar, Papiya Ghosh at 53, remained stubbornly single and singular, qualities disdained by Indians, particularly for their women. Rejecting our (her colleagues at Hindu College, Delhi) advice, she chose at a critical point in her early career to return to Patna and teach and work amidst the migrating (escaping?) Bihari population. And look what happened to her — the cost of rejecting the usual middle-class trajectories, which only reward upward mobility, appears to have been very heavy for this brave and generous woman.
In a disfigurement reserved only for tribal witches in the anthropological literature, Papiya was disembowelled, her eyes gouged out, her body skewered and pierced. It needed Papiya’s sister’s shuddering testimony on TV, more than a week after the event, to inform us of these brute facts. Even Manu, the ancient law-giver, who justifies prohibition on all manner of pratiloma or moving against the grain for women, including the single existence, would have squirmed at such a vindication.
Conservative lessons, on confining women, are being drawn from the atrocious facts of her death. Those responsible must, however, not be allowed to temper public outrage with fear. Manu’s diktat should be turned on its head. If, as he argues, the burden of feminine transgression falls on the collective, then in Ambedkar’s India, the justice system must work hard to protect women as citizens, not just family members. At present, the entirely retrograde though unvoiced lesson being drawn from her murder is that a woman needs a man, more than her skill and talent, to survive in India.
Not only that, she needs a home, not a house, certainly not prime real estate which she may shockingly leave as she “wills” to the good causes of the world. Before being done away with, Papiya had already demonstrated such unacceptable tendencies by gifting away some of her inheritance to the public in Bihar.
The question of who murdered Papiya — robbers, property dealers or political enemies within and outside the family — is under investigation. As details are squeezed out of a reluctant Patna administration, it is important to ensure that the exercise is fair, free and competent. Her death has an emblematic character because its underlying causes will fuel more such crimes, even after this particular case is closed.
One of her grieving students remarked on TV: “I know she would have been alive and teaching today elsewhere, if she had not come back to Bihar”. However, we would be deceiving ourselves if we blame Papiya’s end solely on the sorry state of things in Bihar.
It is India as a whole, despite its phallic growth rate, which is proving an unattractive proposition to return to. Unlike in China, not many NRIs/PIOs invest in their home country. Why? Indeed, in Incredible India, there is no myth of the return of the prodigal son, and certainly not of the daughter, from the marital home.
For the Bihari migrant labourer in Punjab, ‘gap year’ student in Delhi University’s BA programme and IAS aspirant in a JNU hostel, Papiya’s indifference to self-improvement in the accepted way would amount to class betrayal.
An apparent negligence that can never authentically be condoned, never mind the candles being lit publicly and the e-mail signature campaigns in circulation.
An authentic whistle-blower to tradition and its inherent anti-democratic intention, the single woman remains a soft target for enemies of the Constitution.
This is easy enough for all of us to accept at a broad level. But the vulnerability of Papiya Ghosh’s of the world to their own modernity is harder to accept, explain and rectify.