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What Should Guide Us, Indian Constitution or Manu Smriti?

Ram Puniyani |
From judge to Prime Minister, India’s politicians, judiciary and society must understand, Manu-Smriti’s notions of women and the Constitution’s gender equality are not the same.
Constituion of india

Representational use only.

India has a political system where the executive makes the laws and rules for the country. The judiciary is meant to ensure the executive walks the path of the Indian Constitution, protecting the values it enshrines. Currently, there is a perception that the judiciary is under pressure from the executive, and that the executive is also losing its way. Some recent statements from the benches and politics have added to this perception. But the problem is deeper, as we shall see. 

Recently, Delhi High Court Justice Pratibha M Singh’s remarks were reported in the online legal journal Bar and Bench. At a business chambers’ event, she said that Indian women are a “blessed lot” and cited the reason as “our scriptures”. The religious texts always gave women “a very respectable position”, she said, citing the Manu-Smriti to make her point. According to her, this text says that if women are not respected and honoured, then other religious observances and rites have “no meaning”. “I think our ancestors and Vedic scriptures knew very well how to respect women,” she reportedly said. 

The Manu-Smriti does indeed say in verse 3/56 that where women are honoured, the gods are pleased and reside in that household. But does this assertion reflect the actual position of women in society? What Manu-Smriti says is repeated by the ideologues of Hindu nationalism, which is perhaps what the judge has encountered. However, the followers of Manu-Smriti never mention the other assertions in the book, which accord a very low social status to women. Chapter 5, shlokas 148, says, “Even in her own home, a female...should never carry out any task independently. As a child, she must remain under her father’s control, as a young woman, under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons.” 

The problem is that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently used the lexicon of patriarchy when he spoke of giving women “protection”. He said this during his recent address from the Red Fort on India’s 75th anniversary of Independence. In fact, from Savarkar to Golwalkar, the proponents of Manu-Smriti never mention that their favourite book ordains the connection between caste and gender and embodies the hierarchical values which Brahmanism upholds. In Chapter 5, shloka 149, it says, “Though he may be bereft of virtue, given to lust, and devoid of good qualities, a good woman should always worship her husband like a god.” It also lays down a death sentence for a man of a so-called subordinate caste who has intercourse with a woman from the highest caste. Such statements as the Prime Minister’s could make us forget that during the freedom movement, women were neither fighting to protect the Manu-Smriti nor caste hierarchy nor were they seeking ‘protection’. 

There a dangerous tendency afoot to project the Manu-Smriti as a revealed text of divine origin that, therefore, cannot be challenged or changed. Such attempts create a conflict between law in the modern sense and the pre-modern religious law enshrined in religious texts. In the third volume of his Writings and Speeches, Dr BR Ambedkar also points out that the Manu-Smriti was likely penned between 170 BCE and 150 BCE, a period of attacks on Buddhism and Buddhists by the Brahmanical King Pushyamitra Shung. 

As we know, Buddhism articulated the value of equality but faced numerous assaults in India. Modern education was introduced in India during the colonial period, and social reforms started being conceptualised. That is when social reformers such as Savitribai Phule started schools for girl children and began, in a real sense, the struggle for women’s equality. Phule and Fatima Sheikh taught at the school despite multiple attacks from social conservatives who invariably followed Manu Dharma. The hostility toward Phule was so intense she was subjected to mud and cow dung attacks on her way to school. 

Ambedkar stood tall amongst those working for social equality, including the equality of women and members of all castes or social groups. His ideas were an essential feature of the national movement led by Gandhi and others, which contrasts with what the Hindu Rashtra proponents were fighting for. It must be said that nationalists who profess other religions are no different. From the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Taliban in Afghanistan, all echo the sentiment that women need protection. Protection here is nothing but a strategy to control women. 

Ambedkar, who later became chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India, burned copies of the Manu-Smriti at a historic protest against the inequality it embodies. 

Interestingly, the communal outfits—both Muslim and Hindu—are usually exclusively male. Even today, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS has an exclusively male set-up. To widen its plan of creating a sectarian nation, it has launched the Rashtra Sevika Samiti just for women. But its name itself reveals deep-set patriarchal values—while swayamsevak means volunteer sevika means one who serves. The word swayam—which means ‘oneself’—is missing, quite in sync with Manu-Smriti’s dictate that women need to be ‘protected’ by men. 

Religious texts are notoriously opaque and given to any interpretation as a believer wishes. Anybody is free to pick and choose from religious texts at their convenience and ignore the rest. In contrast, what women demanded during the freedom movement and today is equality under the law. That is what the Constitution of India promises—removal of discrimination within the family or society and security from arbitrary action by the state or its institutions. 

It is the Constitution of India which reflects the values of the Indian freedom movement. After Phule’s time prominent figures such as Pandita Ramabai and Anandi Gopal defied taboos and fought for this idea of equality. Then, a long list of women participated in the national movement, from Sarojini Naidu to Aruna Asaf Ali and Bhikaji Cama to Usha Mehta. These and thousands of other women broke the shackles of patriarchy to become leading lights of the struggle for freedom.

India has been in the grip of caste and gender hierarchy for centuries. Overcoming it is a long struggle to which many women’s groups are dedicated. They are fighting the atrocities against women, resulting from their being accorded the second position in society. Our learned judges and politicians must understand this grave contrast in our society. On the one hand, we have Manu Dharma’s patriarchy, and on the other, Ambedkar’s Constitution upholding equality. I hope our lawyers, judges, and leaders internalise this truth as India walks the road to gender justice.

The author is a human rights activist and formerly taught at IIT Bombay. The views are personal.

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