Tribalism and the Law

By Somasekhar Sundaresan

If 16 year olds can be sentenced to death, can they also consent to marriage?

The conflict between social conventions and social change is spreading across the Indian subcontinent. First, sections of societies in two South Indian states had a fracas that stirred sentiments nation-wide – on the issues of women entering the Sabarimalai Temple in Kerala, and the reintroduction of Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. Then, a similar clash among segments of Pakistani society arose. Lawmakers struggled last week to table and pass stricter laws against child marriage, in the teeth of opposition on traditional and religious grounds.

Even speaking of the two in the same breath may be considered unnecessarily provocative. Last week’s edition of this column, simply articulating what the Supreme Court had done as an interim measure with Jallikattu, met with emotive reactions. An urban non-traditional Tamil was seen as having no sense of the matter at hand, and worse, as having no right to even discuss the issue.

A supporter of a ban on entry of women into the temple may feel that ban on Jallikattu may be right. Equally, an animal-lover supporting a ban on Jallikattu may have “religious” and sentimental opposition to letting women enter unfettered into the temple. One may hate child marriage but support Jallikattu and still oppose female entry into the temple. Given the breadth of polarising subjects, there are exponential combinations.

Recognising the right of a 16-year old to consent to marriage may sound jarring and unconscionable to the same human mind that roots for a 16-year old accused of rape to be executed, castrated or imprisoned for life. For the rapist, a human mind may justify thus: “If fit to commit adult crime, then fit to be treated as an adult criminal.” For the consenting 16-yeard-old, the same human mind may not be able to say: “If fit to conceive a child, then fit to be treated as an adult spouse.”

What a human perceives as unconscionable and unacceptable change in societal norms depends on the person’s own conditioning and politics and the consequent definition of a comfort zone. But if one were to dispassionately look through arguments made by those for and against each of these positions, a common thread will emerge. At the heart of the discourse lies a conflict between one segment of a society pushing for a new normal and another segment unable to accept that no tradition is permanent. Each can find reasons and arguments to support the stance taken.

No law can obtain happy endorsement from every single segment and sub-segment of society. There always has to be a give and take, a delicate balance of competing and conflicting objectives and desires, and a baseline acknowledgement of merit in some element of the contrary view. The mood of society varies with time and with that, the position taken by the laws which society desires to bound by, would vary too.

This is how eventually a society finds its own comfort zone. Dissenters critique the law if it does not suit their politics. And root for bringing about change. At every point in time in the history of any law, there will have been a greater emphasis or underlining of the interests of one segment of society over another. There is no other way that practices like sati or dowry would be banned by the law, and there is no other way that such practices would still be prevalent despite the law. Even as recently as the 1990s, incidences of sati and the construction of “sati temples” were reported, leading to a nationwide furore.

Child marriage, child labour, dowry, or for that matter, the caste system, all lend themselves to arguments for and against. It is amazing how the human mind can find reasons to support an argument for or against a legal intervention – if that intervention could lead to change, change that could be deemed desirable or undesirable, depending on one’s politics.

At the end of the day, all humans yearn to belong to a tribe. Tribal convention and belonging is as human as the desire to find meaning in life. After all, even those seeking to change the existing tribal conventions, constitute their own tribe.

This was published in Mumbai Mirror and allied publications on January 22, 2016: 

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