Delhi University was a great place to be in.
One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much, was, because of the fierce debating culture that pervaded almost every ‘classy’ or ‘would-be-classy’ college under the DU banner. To become a debater was rare, to be considered a good one by the ‘debating circuit’ was a great thing too.
I was lucky to be a part of that ambiance; an ambiance that encouraged free thinking, complex and well thought-out yet elegant solutions, eloquent verbal parrying and extensive research all fueled by a fierce sense of pride and competition.
To reach a respectable position in the Delhi debating circuit required a potential debater in DU to begin somewhere. Most of us, me included; began at some lousy debate with an outrageously archaic and stupid subject.
One such debate I argued at, asked, if ‘live-in relationships’ were alright. My debating career was defined through the years by a friend who said, I was — “a great debater, though not the most lucky one”. I was usually left to argue the side that nobody else wanted. As a result I learnt how to play the devil’s advocate with such alacrity that it still surprises me. I could slip into another pair of shoes without so much as a twitch in my conscience. Years later, I am still fighting this tendency I carefully cultivated, years ago.
Back then, us debaters were young and fashionably rebellious. No one person on the team that wintry morning wanted to sound ‘un-modern’, and say, that live-in relationships were a bad thing. Naturally I had to pick the side that was unfashionable.
At the podium I found myself facing a sea of people my age. All of whom rebelliously believed that anyone who spoke on the other side should be thoroughly ‘thrashed’ on principled grounds – these grounds were hormone driven for most part. The other part of my audience, and certainly more critical of the two without doubt, was a set of old foggies who were to sit on judgment for the day.
One of the most critical changes, that led to the parliamentary style of debate becoming more popular with articulate young debaters, was a healthy dislike of these old foggies. Parliamentary debates are judged by the young. These people are adjudicators not judges; and have very often debated themselves. In other words they could make you lose a debate, but they have to be analytical about it! Not one of these ‘adjudicators’ had the right to verbally lop off your head, which, the old foggies seem to particularly love doing.
I had wanted to laugh that morning. On stage. I wanted to tell people that they had no idea what they were talking about. But there I was, up on the podium -expected to argue that ‘live-in(s)’ were not an Indian cultural phenomenon, they did not lead to more love, they hurt our parents, were unsafe and also immoral. These are not the things I said, this is what I heard parroted around me. These were, also, the very things I decided not to say.
I learnt two very precious lessons at this debate; the first was how to argue and debate and the second that intelligence is very critical. For example, there is absolutely no compulsion to tread down the much-walked path and even less of a compulsion to say what you don’t believe in. The crowd I was speaking to wanted to hear good things about live-in relationships, and that, is what I told them.
To begin with, I was better qualified than anyone else to discuss this subject because I actually ‘lived-in’ with. I also asked what the word ‘alright’ meant. Live-in relationships, I had said, were not about what is alright and what isn’t. They were a personal choice and quite beyond the ‘public sphere’. I won. It was no big deal, I just changed the rules of the game. That is what all great debaters do- they alter the terms of reference, change the fabric of discourse; pick your favourite phrase!
Years later I see India grappling with the same ridiculous subject. Only this time it isn’t in some dusty auditorium of Delhi University, but in the cabinet of our fine nation. The Maharashtra government is pushing a ‘progressive’ reform to the criminal procedure code which allows un-wed women (also called the ‘other woman’, to my utter dismay) pecuniary rights. Wait, don’t get me wrong- I don’t think this is wrong; I’m just amused at how the announcement has been misinterpreted.
To begin with – the reform has nothing to do with live-in relationships, this is rather obvious given that these proposed pecuniary rights are available to what are called ‘other women’; or a second woman outside a marriage. This, is a rather sad state of affairs for any relationship, and it certainly isn’t the same thing as a live-in relationship.
A live-in relationship is simply a relationship between a man and a woman who are committed to living together but not committed to a wedded institutionalized set-up. The government doesn’t seem to comprehend this definition.
There are several things wrong with this bit of legislation – first and foremost, as several people have pointed out; we don’t really know how long the ‘reasonably long’ period to be ‘considered’ a wife is. What is really wrong with it, though, is the potential it has for unintended consequences.
Never mind that it is revolting that a women should be entitled to spousal support only if she is a spouse – or if she fits into the law-made definition of a ‘spouse’. Never mind that the idea of a woman wanting spousal support is revolting too. Isn’t the law better mended to make sure that women have better starting life chances- so she can stand on equal footing and earn her own keep as opposed to begging off the plate of a failed or unwilling wedding? What of self-respect? Nothing, eh?
Take a look at the twisted set of incentives leading to unintended consequences. More men (or women, as the case may be) will be less willing to live with their loved ones for fear of persecution, more women will be economically incited (this is a very poor country) into becoming poorly treated consorts of the extra-kind, more men will be forced into denying their relationships making society even more closeted, more long-term living brothel houses will spring up that will guarantee ‘living-in’ without out spousal support…. the consequences are endless and dreadful for liberty, women and men without exception.
Sure, the idea is progressive – given the alternative. The normal recourse as several of us know, is to fake marriage, in order to find a home. So, the next time I go looking to live with my significant other, without a marriage certificate – I can be assured of a rejection. Why? Because in effect the government has certified that I have to be the ‘other woman’.
We all know how landlords in India- welcome the ‘other woman’ into their homes now, don’t we? So, come let’s celebrate State sanction to love and live. Never mind the labels, the silly little sniggers, the mid-night encroaches upon an ‘easy-women’; after all, the State says that by law, you can now make love!