They are what the Chinese call guanggun (barren branches), lonely ageing bachelors who have sired no family. And today they are a threatened species in western Uttar Pradesh.
Sohanvir was one of them. One of five brothers from a land-owning family of Kurthal village in Muzaffarnagar district, he was recently murdered in cold blood by his older brothers because he was about to get married. According to the police, Sohanvir’s father Raj Singh owns a lot of prime agricultural land. Two of his sons, Brijpal and Sohanvir, were unmarried and when Raj Singh realized that the three older married brothers had their eyes on the bachelor brothers’ share, he began negotiations for a bride for Sohanvir. When the brothers realized that Sohanvir would shortly marry and go on to have a family, they planned to eliminate him. They knew he enjoyed a drink, so they invited him over one night to celebrate, got him drunk and killed him. They have been reported absconding since.
Land, woman and gold are the three main sources of fratricidal wars in the area of Kurukshetra, the elders will testify. Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Baghpat districts in the area have become notorious for killings of bachelors who resist pressures to adopt their brothers’ sons as their heirs, and decide to marry or take in a permanent mistress instead.
In 1994, Kashmira Singh, then the superintendent of police for Meerut district, became curious after he noticed an inordinate number of cases where elderly bachelors had been done to death, allegedly by their own kinsmen. In 1994 alone, he recorded, there were no less than 40 such murders in Meerut district. Today the police stations in Baghpat, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar districts maintain registers of randuas (unmarried old men) in their area. And the death of any randua under suspicious circumstances is probed like a young bride’s sudden death.
At the heart of this dark tragedy lies a paucity of women in the region. Just as the population increase coupled with female infanticide in 18th century China led to a surplus of violent and rootless guanggun, so also in this sugar cane- and wheat-growing area with an extremely fertile land. It has an alarmingly low male-female ratio (850 women per 1,000 men), one of the main reasons for the presence of old bachelors in families. The families realize that a brother’s not having children can prevent division of family land, so a cult of rich unmarried older randuas as martyrs to the cause of family unity is encouraged. So long as they are single and shower affection on the brothers’ children, the family treats them with love and care and in many cases they are even allowed to sleep with the married brothers’ wives as compensation for their “sacrifice”.
Strict purdah still marks the area, and despite a shortage of girls, they are not prized assets. People here still show a pronounced preference for sons. Hundreds of sex determination clinics carry out clandestine ultrasonic screening for illegal sex detection and once it is determined that the foetus is a female, most families will opt for an abortion. As a result, the area has gradually come to have an alarmingly low number of young girls even by its own standards. And there is a surplus of restless, unemployed and violent young men who are by no means the equivalent of their counterparts in the Western world. As bachelors, they have no stake in the social order and most of them have been turning to vice and/or violence for solace and fun. The crime graph is so high here that motorists avoid driving into the area after dark and even hard-bitten truckers prefer to drive after dark in a convoy. Lynchings, rapes, kidnappings and bloody feuds that carry on for generations are rife in villages here because the bachelors, like their counterparts—the infam-ous guangguns— live a nomadic life and look for any opportunity to release pent-up aggression and terrorize people.
Actually, a whole spectrum of male violence in several rich but female-deficient states is beginning to raise its head all over India. Yet from the young louts in western Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra who get drunk and kill and rape minors to a crazy mob in Gujarat that rips out an unborn baby from the womb of a woman during a communal riot, incidents are being reported as simple law-and-order problems. When they are analysed by the media at all, it is usually a superficial job that does not trace the links of such crimes to a sudden preponderance of young, unattached men without women. Whether it is a case of rape or murder of a bachelor or gross child abuse, reasons for crime will mostly be traced to population pressures and illiteracy. No one stops to think why with a rise in literacy and smaller families things are still not improving.
What must be understood and emphasized is that in societies with an overwhelming son preference, literacy and prosperity alone will not teach people to question a tradition that forces women to hate and abort females and men to exclude and degrade women or deny their existence altogether. It may be a prosperous world, but loneliness, unsha-red grief and a terminal guilt may finally lead to an unravelling of the whole structure of civilized society as we know it.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan.
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