Sep 19, 2008

India - Parent Parochialism

The Mumbai regional passport office rejected a 19-year-old girl's passport application form recently. The reason? The girl had mentioned only her mother's name on the form. However, according to a Supreme Court judgment delivered in the Gita Hariharan case in 1999, the mother is the natural guardian of her children. A Bombay high court judgment has since clarified the legal position on the matter. Justices P B Majumdar and Amjad Sayed have observed that society is changing and directed the regional passport authority to grant her passport as a special case, as long as she mentions her foster father's name in place of her biological father.

The point, however, is that this special case should be made general. Forms ought not to privilege the biological father; and when one parent's name is called for either father or mother should do. In the Mumbai girl's case her biological father hadn't communicated with her since birth, and putting down his name on a document establishing identity would be meaningless. Nevertheless, forms in India — whether those needed for applying for a PAN card, a mutual fund, a bank account or admission to professional bodies and educational institutions — often make the father's name mandatory but not the mother's name. This is retrograde and out of step with international practice. It's one of many ways in which gender parity is insidiously denied.

Affixing caste, community, profession or family names has for some time become more of a convenience or even curiosity. Some people prefer to go by a single name — with neither a prefix nor a suffix — and they get along just fine. Today, the individual is flush with choice. No longer does society look askance at single parents who might be so as they never married, or are divorced or lost a partner. There are families where the male partner opts to manage the household and children while the female partner goes out to work. In such a changing social milieu, not only do laws need to keep up with the times, but people's perceptions, too, need to adapt to seeing things a little differently. We must move out of the mental framework which sees the father as the sole "head of the family".

With the Navaratri season just round the corner, where the feminine principle will be celebrated, there are those who continue, Janus-like, to perpetrate gender injustice in the garb of tradition and culture. Filling out something as mundane as an application form ought not to trigger an identity crisis.

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