New Delhi: On 15 January 2022, television journalist and anchor Palki Sharma Upadhyay tweeted that she had received a barrage of hateful and threatening comments on social media and via email after her show on Essel Group-owned WION (World Is One News) on which she supported the enactment of a law against marital rape. “Marriage is not lifelong consent,” she had tweeted a couple of days before she discussed the trolling she was being subjected to.
“Iss baar to 3bhk leke hi maanogi,” one handle commented on her tweet, suggesting that her opinions could be purchased. Some commented on her personal life. One suggested: “Don't post your personal problem on tweeter meet some good counselor (sic)”. Another anonymous account posted a meme mocking her.
About two months later, on 23 March, notwithstanding the government of India’s stand in the Delhi high court that India must not “blindly follow” the West in criminalising marital rape, the Karnataka high court said it was “regressive” that forced sex within a marriage continues to be exempted from the purview of section 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
This exemption runs counter to Article 14 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to equality before law, Justice M Nagaprasanna observed. He was hearing a plea by a man facing trial in a lower court for allegedly sexually assaulting his wife. The court refused to intervene and ruled that marriage does not confer “any special male privilege” or a licence “to unleash a brutal beast” on the wife.
The case was filed in 2017 by a woman accusing her husband of sodomy, aggravated sexual assault and domestic violence. “A man is a man; an act is an act; rape is a rape, be it performed by a man the ‘husband’ on the woman ‘wife’,” the single judge bench said.
Similar views posted on social media by Singh, Sharma and dozens of other women in their private and professional capacity, however, met a barrage of abusive tweets, memes and posts disparaging feminism and women’s rights activists.
A deep dive by Article 14 into the online world of ‘men’s rights activists’ found scores of handles responding to the Delhi high court’s decision in January 2022 to hear a clutch of public interest litigations (PILs) seeking a law against marital rape with dire warnings that feminism will destabilise Indian “families” and “culture”. They reacted to the Karnataka HC’s order with similar posts (here, here and here).
Several handles that trolled those who advocated such a law were also supporters of social media’s strident Hindutva brigade, supporting calls for a ban on the hijab, or calling for wide viewership for The Kashmir Files. Article 14 found that many accounts that participated in an online campaign against such a law were also sympathisers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They claimed that it would destabilise the “institution of marriage”.
Together, these handles presented a false narrative that existing laws enacted to protect women had led to men being victimised in a flood of false cases of rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), said the trolling of those demanding women’s rights will not stop. “In our campaigns, we find a lot of these propagators of the Manusmriti using abusive language when the women try to speak up,” she said. “The reason these trolls have been hate-mongering openly is that they know that their party is in power, and the police administration is also on their side.”
Inside The Online World Of India’s Anti-Feminists
In January, @MensDayOutIndia, the handle of web magazine Men’sDayOut that says it publishes work about men’s rights, ‘gender-biased laws’, and the ‘impact on children of separated parents’, tweeted: “Feminism Has Always Been One Of Political Arms To Destabilise Countries (sic).”
The tweet asked if the Narendra Modi government would “bow down” to pressures that will “eliminate family culture” from India, and said laws for Indian men shouldn’t be made at the “behest of select motivated feminists”.
The tweet received 580 likes and over 290 retweets.
Several accounts attacked journalists, women’s rights activists, and others who posted on social media in favour of such a law. Some handles identified themselves as men’s rights activists (MRAs, now a popular acronym on the internet), but prominent in their tweets, retweets, likes and shares were misogyny and derogatory views of feminists and feminism.
In January 2022, these handles attempted to mobilise support for a dramatic ‘marriage strike’ by men, ostensibly a refusal to marry, to protest the court’s move to hear petitions seeking a law against marital rape.
Prominent women’s rights activist Kavita Krishnan said the organised nature of online hate she and others received on the issue was evident, but there were people across ideologies, mainly men, taking this as an opportunity to express their “misogynistic irrational anxiety”.
“They feel this is their cue to bring out their misogyny on women,” she said.
Men’s rights activist Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, an independent journalist and a film-maker who made a documentary on the lives of men falsely accused of rape, responded to a tweet by Palki Sharma on international women’s day (8 March) by claiming that while men earn for the family, “when a feminist earns, she does for herself”.
Bhardwaj, who uses the handle @DeepikaNarayan, posted another tweet the same day, a composite of two photographs, one purportedly depicting Ukrainian women fighters in fatigues, the other of a woman protestor wearing body paint that said, ‘Feminist against war’. According to Bhardwaj, the pictures showed how women “should” and “should not” fight a war.
Another handle, @MenTooSave, said it sought gender equality and had been “stressing the necessity for #MenToo Movement in the best interest of males harassed by females”. The handle’s pinned tweet equated a law against marital rape with “legal extortion” and “legal terrorism”. In its scores of tweets and retweets through January and February, it used the hashtags #FeminismIsCancer and #WomanIsABurden, among others (here, here, and here).
Marriage was a “business” that could give the woman income through false cases, the handle said in one post.
Girls “just have to use a little bit of the body,” it tweeted.
Among its other posts were a 19 February video of women partying, with a derogatory caption; support for a ‘marriage strike’; and jokes about men requiring a ‘consent form’ before engaging in sexual relations with their wives.
The hashtag #MarriageStrike was trending on Twitter for several days at the end of January 2022.
Many ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ Are Also BJP Supporters
Several handles that posted or retweeted views opposing a law to tackle marital rape also appeared to toe the Hindutva right-wing’s line on major national issues, including opposing bail for Delhi riot-accused Ishrat Jahan and questioning the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s scheme for women in Punjab, etc.
Bhardwaj commented about Muslim personal law and the repercussions of a marital rape law on Muslim men with more than one wife; she called Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Nivedita Menon “a lot more disgusting” than shown in The Kashmir Files”; and posted that she watched The Kashmir Files a second time. “Not a moment I want to take my eyes, mind & heart away still,” she tweeted.
On the row over students not being permitted to wear the hijab or headscarf to schools in parts of Karnataka, Bhardwaj tweeted, “Muslim Law is so regressive, so regressive, so regressive for women that I am appalled they're fighting for anything else but change in their own laws. #Hijab.”
A user named @manish_sindwani declared that the government does not know the “pain of families facing false cases”. He was quote-tweeting a news report about the prime minister addressing a rally in Uttar Pradesh.
Most of these handles also expressed their shock or dismay at the Karnataka high court’s March 2022 order on marital rape.
The handle @realsiff, operated by administrators of ‘Save Indian Family Foundation’, hosted TwitterSpaces on issues such as ‘male genocide’, ‘women’s day or false cases day’, and ‘how to fight anti-male narratives’. The page claimed that the ‘MarriageStrike’ hashtag was created by its co-founder.
On 22 February, it posted a tweet about Indian courts being unable to put an end to false cases. “It's time, everyone starts tweeting #RottenJudiciary without stop (sic),” it said.
Several BJP leaders including Kapil Mishra and former Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi are followers of the accounts of these MRA social media accounts.
A handle named ‘State VS India’s Son’ that uses the handle @imra_mra tweeted on 2 January that he is happy to be followed by the prime minister of India.
On 24 March, this handle questioned the Karnataka HC order on marital rape. In February, the handle quote-tweeted Sushil Modi’s speech against a law on marital rape and claimed such a law will encourage “loot like 498 A”. Earlier, it quote-tweeted feminist writer and poet Dr Meena Kandasamy’s tweet on marital rape and said women who “used to extort lakhs in 498 A” could “loot crores” if a law on marital rape was enacted.
On WhatsApp groups, a video of a Muslim cleric reportedly claiming that Islam permits marital rape and sexual enslaving of wives was shared in an apparent attempt to communalise the issue.
The Bogey Of False Cases
The discussions around anticipated ‘false cases’ under a law against marital rape follows a narrative that men’s rights organisations have presented, without evidence, for the better part of two decades, mainly regarding the alleged extensive misuse of section 498 A of the IPC, which pertains to cruelty against a woman, including for dowry.
Several handles railing against a law to prevent marital rape also earlier posted claims that India had witnessed a flood of false cases under the laws against dowry / domestic violence.
Section 498 A, a non-bailable section, covers violence against a woman by her husband or her marital family and prescribes a punishment of three years’ imprisonment.
In fact, there is no evidence in data to back the narrative that section 498 A has been heavily misused. Journalist and researcher Shalini Nair contended in a 2018 report that while National Family Health Survey-3 data (2005-06) showed that 40% of ‘ever-married women’ in the 15-49 age group had experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands, the number of cases filed under 498 A in 2017 according to the National Crime Records Bureau was only 1,04,551, indicative of a high degree of under-reporting.
That year, 90% of cases filed under section 498 A were charged, and only 3,314 cases were dismissed due to "mistakes of fact or law”.
The NFHS-5 in 2020-21 showed 22.6% of surveyed ‘ever-married’ women in the 18-49 age bracket confirming that they had faced spousal violence, only marginally lower than the NFHS-4 level of 26.8%.
About men’s rights organisations, Kavita Krishnan told Article 14: “MRAs are not interested in anyone’s rights. All they are interested in is patriarchal privilege.”
Dhawale of the AIDWA said the contention of false cases under 498 A was “absolutely wrong”. She said the laws against domestic violence and sexual harassment at work came after decades of campaigns by women’s groups. “... it came so late and we still struggle to get cases registered,” she said.
For years, when women being harassed did not have access to these legal provisions, men’s rights activists did not speak up, she said. “And now, when there is at least a base to challenge their patriarchal foundation, they have a problem with it.”
Speaking to Article 14 over the phone, Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj said comparing India with other countries that have laws against marital rape would be “comparing apples and oranges”. She said, “They do not have a law like 498 A and other laws that we do.”
She claimed that the problem of false cases under section 498 A is widespread. “The equality that the feminists argue is only siding with one gender, that's not equality,” she said. “I wouldn't expect feminists to be worried about men even for a tiny bit, but I expect them to think about the false cases choking the system right now.”
According to Bhardwaj, revoking the exception to India’s rape law would destabilise marriages. “And we cannot deny the fact that marriage is by far, historically, the strongest institution that has held this country together.”
According to a 2007 survey on ‘unwanted sex’ among married and young Indian women published in International Family Planning Perspectives, 12% of married young women experienced unwanted sex, 32% experienced it occasionally, and 15.5% of urban women reported forced sex.
Arnaz Hathiram, the administrator of the Men’sDayOut website and social media handles, told Article 14 she believed the government does not wish to enact one more law that may be misused because “they come across so many false cases”.
Hathiram did, however, say that if a woman isn’t happy in a marriage or is getting abused, she should opt out of such a relationship. Men’s Day Out is active on Twitter with more than 28,000 followers.
A 2014 study on intimate partner violence, by the United Nations Population Fund and the International Centre for Research on Women, suggested that 60% of men said they had acted violently against their wife / partner at some point in their lives, while 52% of women surveyed said they had been subjected to some form of violence in their lifetime.
Online Misogyny A Reflection Of Govt Stand On Marital Rape
Since 7 January 2022, the Delhi High Court was hearing PILs challenging the exception to section 375 of the IPC, which exempts forceful sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife from the offence of rape, provided the wife is above 18 years of age.
Article 14 has reported (here and here) that while the opposition to criminalising marital rape is based on flawed arguments, sexual violence in marriage has an almost mundane nature and is a vastly underreported phenomenon because it occurs in intimate spaces and with the same person.
Opposing the PILs, the government of India said it was not in favour of taking a sudden step on the issue.
“Various other countries, mostly Western, have criminalized marital rape but it does not necessarily mean India should also follow them blindly,” the government submitted in January 2022. “This country has its own unique problems due to various factors like literacy, lack of financial empowerment of a majority of females, the mindset of society, vast diversity, poverty, etc and these should be considered carefully before criminalizing marital rape."
In February, Smriti Irani, minister for women and child development, made a remark in Parliament: “To condemn every marriage in this country as a violent marriage and to condemn every man in this country as a rapist is not advisable in this august house.”
Sushil Modi, now Rajya Sabha member from the BJP, posted a video of his speech in Parliament in which he contended that criminalising marital rape would destabilise the institution of marriage. Modi has more than 2.1 million followers on Twitter.
Some former and current government officials mirrored the government’s view too.
M Nageswara Rao, a retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, tweeted a thread in January 2022. He said: “What’s purpose of marriage at all if husband was to be sent to jail for sex against his wife’s wish, doesn’t it destroy family, ruin children and break their marriage? (sic)” Such a system would be “anti-civilisational”, he claimed.
In his Twitter bio, Rao refers to himself as ‘unyoked Hindu’, who advocates “#EqualRightsForHindus”.
IPS officer Arun Bothra tweeted that despite the good intentions behind seeking a law against marital rape, there were “genuine apprehensions” on account of the “rampant misuse of section 498A IPC”.
Article 14 tried to reach Bothra for a comment, but he did not respond.
In 2016, speaking in Rajya Sabha, BJP leader Maneka Gandhi claimed that marital rape, “as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, the mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc.”
Hindu religious leaders and pontiffs waded into the issue as well.
Pandit Govind Mishra of Vrindavan in western Uttar Pradesh told Article 14 that Hindu scriptures clearly state that it is a woman's duty “to provide eternal happiness to her husband”.
“There is no place for a term like 'rape' in a marriage,” Mishra said. “If the husband is working all day, earning money for the family, then how can a wife deny him pleasure?”
Asked about the wife’s consent, he said she is “equivalent to a vaishya (sex worker) when it comes to providing sexual pleasure” to the husband. “There is no place for denial here.”
Article 14 spoke to Supreme Court advocate and solicitor in England and Wales, Sanam Singh, about the government of India’s stand on the subject. “When the Indian government looks up to foreign countries like the UK, the US and Australia for developmental plans,” she said, “why is the same government reluctant to criminalise marital rape when these countries did so back in the nineties?”
Misogyny On Facebook And Instagram Too
The online misogyny prompted by Indian courts mulling the subject of marital rape was not limited to Twitter. On Facebook and Instagram too, users reacted with slurs and displays of toxic masculinity.
@MGTOWIndia, a Facebook page with more than 3,000 followers, posted several pieces portraying women as gold diggers. The posts also targeted
men who the page claimed were trying to be ‘simps’—a social media
colloquialism to refer to men who show a great deal of sympathy and
attention to women.
showing a composite image of women photographed before and after
wearing bridal make-up was captioned “fraud” by the page administrator.
On 24 December 2021, the page posted a picture with the caption ‘Follow @MGTOWIndia and save your house’. The picture depicted a woman as a hand grenade—once you remove the ring, the house turns to dust.
Another Facebook page, @NCMIndiaa, Council For Men Affairs, has 4.9 stars on its profile with the designation ‘marriage counselor’, that has earlier posted about women seeking dowry, has also targetted the Aam Aadmi Party for its chief ministers in Delhi and Punjab seeking financial assistance from the union government.
(Samriddhi Sakunia is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)