Saturday, June 10th, marked nearly a month of living and working in India for me. It also marked one of the most interesting and peculiar days of my life so far. Until then I had been spending almost all of my time in Delhi, which is of course a bustling and relatively diverse megacity. While Delhi itself had already been challenging in it’s own way (like any new city), it is not representative of most of India and I was about to be in for a much different experience. Here I will attempt to recount and unpack the events of the 10th.
We travelled by Uber, state bus, and autorickshaw to arrive in the rural community of Titana near Panipat in Haryana state. There are five of us: two PRIA programme staff members, Praatibh and Yashvi, fellow CAPI intern Rachel, another new intern Dawa, and me; it was the first time that we 3 interns had visited this community. PRIA has been working with the young community members here to establish a youth-led KBC group (Kadam Badhate Chalo – loosely translated as “let’s move forward”) whose aim is to help end violence against women in Titana. We were told the community was celebrating a festival that day known as Sweet Water Day, and that the KBC group would be involved, serving ‘sweet water’ and organizing events.
Titana was our second stop of the day so it was approaching late afternoon by the time we arrived and I saw no signs of a festival (at least based on my preconceived notion of what a festival looks like.) Maybe we missed it, I thought to myself. We were shown into a walled compound with a covered area at the far end. In the shade, a dozen chairs have been arranged to face several large blankets that were spread over the concrete floor to create a seating area. The 3 of us interns were requested to have a seat in the chairs with Rachel and I in the front row, and Dawa behind us. People of all ages milled about, but mostly children and youth, and notably the ratio of males to females was about 9:1. The boys were eager to introduce themselves to us and to shake my hand, although we were told women and men do not shake hands. People inquired where Rachel and I were from and where Dawa was from. Everyone was generally very interested, and showed this by snapping photos and watching us intently.
Some context: Haryana is a state with a long legacy of different forms of violence against women and girls due to patriarchal traditions. Of the few female community members in attendance, many were from the farthest ends of the age spectrum and there were almost no teenage girls at the event. One of the reasons for this is child marriage, since after marriage the girls must stay in the home and fulfill their duties to their husband and his family. Another reason is feticide. Because of practices like dowry, girls are seen as a liability and may be selectively aborted. This has led to Haryana having the most unequal gender ratio in India.[i]
Soon two middle-aged men took a seat at my side, and the photo snapping intensified. We were offered (read: insistently provided) refreshments, which are retrieved for us. I occupied myself by sitting, smiling, and waving at small children who stared curiously and whispered secretively amongst themselves. More people arrived, and the crowd at this point easily numbered over a hundred.
At the time I was feeling too confused and overwhelmed to question anything, but now I wonder: is it right that I was asked to sit front and center, next to someone of apparent importance? I would later learn that this man was the sarpanch, which is the title given to the head of the panchayat, or local village government. Why was I even seated in a chair at all, and not on the blanket with everyone else? Why should Rachel and Dawa be barred from introducing themselves with a handshake? And, why were people so ready to accept Rachel and I as Canadians, but appeared incredulous to learn Dawa was indeed from India? Dawa later wrote that “not having the typical ‘Indian features’ made me feel like an outsider in my own land when I too was asked questions about my nationality.” Dawa comes from a north-eastern region of India that is home to a racialized group of citizens who face discrimination and violence, particularly in more metropolitan parts of the country like Delhi.[ii]
Next, someone attempted to quieten the assembled mass of people in order to begin speaking. There were introductions, a rap performance by a youth named Mohit, and another male youth performed a tremendous a cappella piece. The man seated next to me stood and addressed the crowd. I assumed he was someone of status in the village, but I hadn’t managed to catch his name when we finally shook hands. People took turns addressing the crowd. I wondered to myself if this was the festival? I attempted to appear rapt with due attention even though the entire event was proceeding in Hindi, and I was utterly ignorant of the purpose of the occasion or what was being said. Suddenly Praatibh informed me that it was requested for me also to also speak a few words. I remember feeling panic due to my aforementioned ignorance. Someone hushed the crowd, and I managed to string together some words of gratitude, which Yashvi translated (and hopefully embellished).
I thought the event appeared over. There was a flurry of photo opportunities in front of a banner on the wall that the important man and his associate wished for me to participate in. I was ready to take a seat again when someone informed me that all of us must get to the entrance of the compound, without further elaboration. A large mass of people had gathered around yet another banner – this time I discovered we were to sign a pledge on this poster. The important man signed, and then I was called on to be the second to sign – I urgently whispered to my colleagues in an attempt to find out the name of the village, and what the pledge even related to. I signed the banner with an insightful message – “Thank you Titana and KBC” (I later checked Google to make sure I had indeed spelled the name of the village correctly.)
A tray with plastic cups full of light pink liquid was suddenly carried in my direction. I guessed it was sweet water. The important man, his associate, and other men from the village were eager to get another photo with Rachel and I. A child was beckoned, and something was said to me that I didn’t understand – was I supposed to give the boy the sweet water? Was he supposed to give it to me? I crouched to see if he understood. I think there was frustration that the photo op was not proceeding to plan.
I later learned that the event was held to get the members of the village and the members of the panchayat (local governing council), to sign the pledge (the wall banner) to end violence against women. This raises more questions: is it right that I was asked to say some words to the community, even though I knew nothing about them or what was really happening? What about that I was asked to sign a pledge (that I did not know the purpose of), second only to the sarpanch, ahead of the countless other community members who are actually involved in working for the betterment of the community? Why were Praatibh and Yashvi not included, even though they are more involved and knowledgeable in that specific context? And why was I given priority over Rachel or Dawa, when both of them were arguably more knowledgeable and socially capable than I was in that situation?
At last it was time to leave. We exited the compound and walked towards our autorickshaw. On the way into the village a deep gutter had caused the hub of the wheel to break, leaving the auto immobilized, and we now saw that the driver had not been able to repair it. We were stranded and soon surrounded by people who had followed us from the compound. Suddenly I was being beckoned once again – some of the men wanted me to follow them into a smaller gated area. They took led me into a little courtyard with a tall, narrow structure in the center. There were tiny waist-height doors on the front of the building that had been opened to reveal the inhabitant of the pavilion – a small statue of a religious deity. We stood in front of this monument and I was presented with a gift – a framed picture. On the picture were some words in Devanagari script that I couldn’t read, and some English text at the bottom that I didn’t have time to examine. The picture was thrust into my hands while we stood in a semi-circle to take yet more photos.
This picture was a gift to me. I later learned that it is a portrait of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a dalit (a member of the lowest castes in India, still treated as untouchable in many areas), and the principle author of the Indian constitution, the document that finally established India’s sovereignty after centuries of British rule. Given the history of white man’s involvement in India, the irony of being presented a portrait of Ambedkar was not lost on me. Why, after all this time and social reform, was a white man bestowed a gift for no other reason than he was a white man?
After this, my colleagues were eager to depart as it was getting very late in the day. We made our way back to our broken auto, and it seemed unclear to me how we would be getting anywhere. All of us were relieved when a car pulled up to take us back to Panipat. Gift in hand, I squeezed into the back seat, leaving with far more questions than answers.
I’ll admit that before coming to India I tended to see this nation and its citizenry as an abstract and homogenous group. I carried a prototype of what Indian people are, and what they look like. These are positions that emerged from of a lack of familiarity, experience, and criticality. Coming to India was always going to challenge these ideas, but I couldn’t have anticipated how much.
It’s obvious to me now that India is a country with incredible internal diversity; it’s hard for me to identify any single unifying characteristic among the populace. And, at the risk of overstating the point, India is very stratified along lines like race and gender in many complex and nuanced ways through this massive diversity. It is these strata that governed the treatment my colleagues and I received.
Because of this treatment, I have become more aware of the position I occupy as a white person and further as a white male while I am here. The lesson is to be mindful of how I am perceived by others, and to take note of how I navigate spaces and interactions compared to those I am with. How I was perceived was much different than how Rachel was and much different again than Dawa, Praatibh, or Yashvi.
Another lesson is the inherent difficulty in the work of NGOs like PRIA. Navigating the network of social strata in India is an incredibly complex task. It seems as though multifaceted power structures influence almost every aspect of life in Indian society, especially in rural areas. From an early age youth become isolated by these invisible structures, having their lives and perceptions ordered by these insidious socially constructed ideologies. This is what makes PRIA’s work so arduous, but also important; by sensitizing the youth to the patriarchal systems around them, they can begin to alter those systems in the pursuit of a more inclusive and equal society.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading.