The taboos that are pulling India down

No society can progress if it does not muster the courage to question taboos, particularly those which trample on human rights, dignity, and liberal values

Ram Krishna Sinha Sep 16, 2021
The taboos that are pulling India down

A taboo is a prohibition of social actions based on false beliefs that performing such actions is either too sacred or too dangerous for humans. Taboos derive their strengths from religious beliefs, social customs, or cultural practices. Practiced in every part of the world, they exude tremendous emotional force. No surprise then that disregarding taboo is considered a deviant act, or even sacrilege, and attracts punishment by society.
However, no society can progress if it does not muster the courage to question taboos, particularly those which trample on human rights, dignity, and liberal values.  

Thankfully, India had great social, political, and spiritual leaders who valiantly battled against regressive taboos. Swami Vivekananda challenged many dogmas and bigotry. Raja Ram Mohan Roy took upon himself to fight the practice of sati (a Hindu widow immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband), Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar campaigned for Hindu widow remarriage. Mahatma Gandhi questioned the purdah (the practice of screening women from men or strangers) system, caste practices and indignity of labor. There were other social reformers who attacked dowry and encouraged girl education.  

In the recent past, open defecation practices were questioned. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, introduced by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government, besides redeeming our women’s dignity, has helped improve standards of overall hygiene and sanitation. Social activists and women groups opposed the denial of entry of women of certain age groups in temples. Lately, people have started questioning the taboo around menstruation.
Through meaningful public conversations, films, advertisements, corporate support, political initiatives and progressive judicial rulings, many taboos are being combated. All this is welcome.  

Existing taboos hindering progress

Yet there are some taboos that have a vice-like grip. As deep-seated cankers, they are posing serious obstacles to India’s socio-economic, cultural, and moral progress. Some of them are prejudice against color and race, discrimination and atrocities based on skin color and racial features, which are so brutal that they put humanity to shame.
Even the monumental sacrifices of Gandhi, South African statesman Nelson Mandela and US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. seem inadequate to tame such monstrous taboo.
In India, the racial discrimination and violence that one often sees, particularly towards African students, on the one hand, and people from the north-eastern states, on the other hand, are despicable. The disturbing incidents are against India’ avowed ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the entire world is a family) and the noble initiative of Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat (another program initiated by the Modi government to enhance interaction and promote mutual understanding between people of different states/Union Territories through the concept of state/UT pairing).
Another vice is the negative outlook on gender and sexual minorities. Despite liberal judicial rulings, the taboo refuses to die down. People with different sexual orientations and gender identity are subjected to severe psychological, social, and economic stresses. Despite progressive court rulings and government initiatives, the community is still facing various kinds of harassment at work, and in society. Our constitutional ideal of the fraternity will remain a dream unless we learn to appreciate and cherish the diversity and inclusion of all communities.  

Daughters unwanted

Then there is the meta-preference for sons. With a ban on sex-selective abortions, the sad tale of “missing” women has changed to “unwanted” girls. Parents continue to produce children until the desired number of sons is born. The taboo of abortion is now circumvented through the meta-preference, engendering not only gender inequality and injustice but creating a new taboo. The curse of patriarchy and misogyny in our society will never go away with a negative mindset on the arrival of a girl child.
This regressive mindset is even more ironic in the backdrop of the happiness and glory India’s daughters are bringing to their family and the nation through their outstanding achievements at big sporting events like the Olympics.  

Men not sharing household work is another issue that is born out of the patriarchal conditioning and gender-insensitive upbringing, which is still deeply ingrained in Indian society.
Though the lockdown engendered by Covid-19, with work from home a new normal, has seen some sharing and empathy, menfolk, by and large, still consider doing household chores a taboo. Care-giving roles and domestic responsibilities lie disproportionately heavy on the shoulder of women. No nation can rise and aspire to reach its potential without gender equality and women's empowerment.
“Men and women”, as Swami Vivekananda said, “are two wings of a bird and it is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing”.

So long as these taboos are alive and kicking, they will continue to pull India down.

(The writer, a former bank executive, is now a board member of a mutual fund company. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at 

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