Before Manushi Chhillar arrived in India after being crowned Miss World on 18 November, she had already become everything India had been thirsting for over the last 17 years. Newspapers reported how the 20-year-old medical student had ended India’s long beauty pageant drought.
Miraculously, Chhillar also became all the girls of India at large, and Haryana in particular, while arousing some possessive, uncle-type instincts in many who crossed her path. So what is it about women like Chhillar that make a particular kind of man want to adopt her, and why are young Indian women so easily infantilised by anyone who wishes to claim them as their own?
Some social media commentators now refer to her as “India’s bitiya” and “the greatest ambassador of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, or lay all the glory at the feet of her parents. Even Shashi Tharoor seemed a bit taken aback by all that she was, and posted a tweet that was in very bad taste, saying “even our Chhillar has become Miss World”, proving demonetisation was a mistake. The DCW soundly punished him for it, after which, he issued an apology…to her family.
Meanwhile, the members of the khap of Chhillar’s (ancestral) village, Bamdoli, where she does not reside, have taken this opportunity to piggy-back their way onto the global stage. Citing their ‘daughter’s’ win, the khap banned the firing of ceremonial guns and DJs at functions, telling reporters, “With the world’s eyes on us, we wanted to take advantage of the spotlight and bring social change”.
Most bizarrely of all, the former and current Chief Ministers of Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Manohar Lal Khattar got into a public fight over Chhillar. Hooda called Khattar unworthy of felicitating her as he could not understand the importance of a daughter, because — get this — he “has no family”. Khattar retorted asking why Hooda did nothing to curb female infanticide if he was so concerned about daughters. He asserted that his government had saved the lives of thousands of girls who used to be killed in their mothers’ wombs, as if it proved that “no one could feel the pain of a father more than him”. Wait, what?
It seems clear that the debate here was not about protocol or precedent, but simply about who the better father was to Chhillar, which apparently immediately meant all of Haryana’s women, both born and unborn. But why is it taken for granted that young Indian women are up for adoption?
When Rohit Khandelwal won Mr World 2016, bringing the crown or gadha or whatever to India for the very first time, do you remember the CMs of his state squabbling publicly over who got to be his daddy? Did he become the face of men’s health, or was he adopted by all and sundry as the beta (son) of the nation? Khandelwal’s return to India after winning was marked by some fans greeting him at the airport, and his only newsworthy action this year was congratulating Chhillar on her win.
It is not just Khandelwal, of course. There have been no public custody battles over Virat Kohli, no ministers have ever thanked AR Rahman’s parents and only Resul Pookutty’s biological parents think of him as their own beta.
Successful Indian women, on the other hand, are always up for anyone to claim. It seems hard to avoid adoption if you are a woman who has won anything for the country. So many women achievers, from Chhillar to Aishwarya Rai to Sakshi Malik to Jyoti Singh Pandey to Mary Kom, have all automatically become India’s daughters.
In fact, Sakshi Malik became both a sister and a daughter, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated her saying, “On this very auspicious day of Raksha Bandhan, Sakshi Malik, a daughter of India, wins a Bronze & makes all of us very proud”. Because of course, women can never be celebrated without laying down their links to someone else, usually, men. And just like Chhillar, Sakshi Malik also became a temporary poster child for anti-infanticide soon after her win, with Virender Sehwag reflecting at the time that Sakshi Malik “is a reminder of what can happen if u don’t kill a girl child”. What a chilling way to think about successful women.
Perhaps what we are seeing here with Chhillar, and with many women before, are the signs of a nation creating an icon for itself in the shape of a certain kind of woman: young, unthreatening and sweet. And no one offers herself up better for this than a patriotic Miss World.
Academicians have theorised that we are accustomed to thinking of the nation in female terms. The country is always depicted as a pure “mother”land to be protected by her faithful sons. The idea of protecting the purity of the motherland is played out in real terms often over the bodies of female citizens. Women of a community are considered its link to its cultural past. It is why women grow up hearing so much about shame, izzat (respect), reputation and family values. It is why their sex lives are irrevocably tied to the family name, and also why there is so much panic about women marrying outside their communities, and why, for example, Parsi women who marry outside the religion are automatically excommunicated.
The idea that women are “keepers of culture”, of the family, community, or nation, could also be why men react with such frantic rage when the stories of historical (or semi-historical) women, like Padmavati and Jodhaa Bai, are retold in a way that does not suit the official line. During Sri Rajput Karni Sena’s recent agitation against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, the BJP Haryana unit’s chief media coordinator, Suraj Pal Amu, said in a saccharine tone to reporters, “(Deepika Padukone) desh ki beti hai, zidd par add gayi hai (She is the nation’s daughter, she is just being obstinate).” You picture him making this declaration with a cloying smile and maybe an avuncular nod at “zidd”.
Then, you realise that this is the same dude who has just publicly doubled the bounty on her head.
It is a chilling, loaded example of how violent and double-edged a sword patriarchy and paternalism can be, and how quickly the tables can be turned. It sounds sweet and caring when the Constitution and the Supreme Court promise to protect “women-and-children”, until you realise that this same kind of protective paternalism towards women just sent Hadiya away from her husband and to her university against her explicitly stated wishes.
While it may seem sweet, to some, that half the nation’s uncles have lined up to adopt Chhillar as their daughter, be sure that any love that comes from this kind of paternalism is inherently conditional, and can be swiftly revoked. This instinct and this particular relationship are founded in a power dynamic and a particular way of thinking that means nothing good for the women trapped in the middle.