Newspapers in Punjab were recently full of congratulatory messages for Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal. Senior Akali Dal leaders were congratulating the Chief Minister for his 'achievement' in having been blessed with a grandson! The extravagant praise for this 'blessing' ï¿½ not only from politicians, but also from senior bureaucrats ï¿½ was conspicuously absent when Badal's son, Member of Parliament Sukhbir Singh Badal, had earlier had two daughters. This undue ecstasy over the birth of a son is even more ironic in a district which has an abysmal sex ratio of 805 girls per 1,000 boys. Faridkot district, from where Sukhbir Singh Badal won the Lok Sabha election in 1999, also saw the city police decorate the Faridkot police station to celebrate the birth of his son. But all this was not enough to celebrate the occasion and so, to glorify the birth of the newest Badal boy, Akali Dal leaders also organized an 'Akhand Path' (reading of the Sikh Holy book) in different cities of Punjab, a state which has a declining sex ratio of 874:1,000, down from 888 in the 1991 Census.
Yet, it was only in 2001, when the latest decennial Census revealed that Punjab had the lowest sex ratio in the country that the Akal Takht, the highest religious body among the Sikhs, tried to reverse the trend by issuing a directive to the Sikh community. The Akal Takht emphasized that in Sikh society, women were equal to men and the practice of pre-natal sex determination and subsequent abortion of the female fetus was against Sikhism. The Takht also issued a stern warning that anyone found guilty of this practice would face excommunication. This move did not come a day too soon, given the poor status of women ï¿½ ironically enough, in an economically developed state which was one of the first to enjoy the gains of the Green Revolution.
By issuing this directive, the Akal Takht, a highly influential religious-cum-political body, took the first step towards routing out the evil of sex-selective abortions. This social commitment also set the tone for a national convention of religious leaders convened by the Indian Medical Association, the National Commission for Women and UNICEF in New Delhi in July 2001. At that conference, religious heads of all faiths took an oath to employ all the resources at their command to propagate to the masses the message of shunning the atrocious act of sex-selective abortions.
Unfortunately, under the very nose of the Akal Takht, political leaders are publicly perpetuating the tradition of favoring a son. By omitting to print messages of congratulation at the birth of the Chief Minister's granddaughters and doing so only when the grandson was born, the leaders are sending out the signal that the birth of a girl in the family is not an occasion for jubilation. In such a scenario, expecting them to actually spread the message of equality between a girl child and a boy child seems asking for too much.
Says one Akal Takht Jathedar (religious head): "The common people follow the example set by their leaders. It is very shameful for Punjab that not only the Chief Minister, but other political leaders too prefer sons. How can you blame ordinary people for doing the same?"
While women's groups in the state agree that such glorification should not have had official sanction, they did not carry out any public protest after the celebrations. A lone voice of protest was raised by the President of the Punjab Stri Sabha, Oshima Reikhy. She said, "The use of the word 'waris' (heir) for a son means that a girl does not have the same rights in the family as the son. The leaders who are supposed to spread the message that sons and daughters have equal rights are doing the exact opposite by openly showing their preference for a male child." Although Reikhy sent a press release to several newspapers protesting against the advertisements, none of them carried it.
National level activists have been more condemnatory of this attitude of the politicians in the state. According to Brinda Karat, General Secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, like the glorification of sati or widow immolation, the glorification of a son should also be made a crime. That this incident should happen towards the end of the Year of Women's Empowerment is indeed ironic. Equally disturbing is the fact that it should happen in Punjab, a state where the tradition of Sikhism treats both men and women as equal.