BY ROHINI MOHAN
Yesterday, I had a long phone conversation with the man who is really behind the #SelfieWithDaughter, which many have been attributing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaving it open for heightened praise and criticism. The real architect of the campaign is Sunil Jaglan – he is 33, a panchayat head of Bibipur village in Haryana, and he does not believe it will alone solve gender imbalance. It was just a fun idea, he says, but it was never meant to be the only one. Here is the story.
Soon after he woke up on Sunday morning, Sunil Jaglan posted a status update on his Facebook account. “Today, I will listen to honourable Prime Minister’s Mann Ki Baat on the radio,” the 33-year-old Panchayat head of Bibipur village in Haryana wrote in Hindi. After breakfast, Jaglan sat at the Sunday chaupal, or community meeting, with about 10 other villagers, his ear to the transistor. His three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Nandini was playing noisily at his home nearby.
At 11am, PM Narendra Modi’s address began. In the speech, Modi spoke of tourism, Yoga, school toilets, Raksha Bandhan, rain water harvesting and fertilizers. Someone at the chaupal passed around some channa to snack on. After a few words on urban rejuvenation, Modi switched to his love for social media, which Jaglan too was keen on. “I keep communicating with you through social media, and I get to know a lot of new-new things from you too,” Modi said. “But sometimes, in a remote village, a single individual does something that touches my heart.” He said the Central government scheme of Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter, launched on 22 January, was strengthened when individuals made it their own. Then, the PM uttered Sunil Jaglan’s name.
“Hain?!” Jaglan gasped, laughing. Some villagers clapped gleefully, others who had been distracted asked what had happened.
“Some days ago, a Sarpanch in Haryana’s Bibipur village, Sunil Jaglan, had come up with a fun idea,” they heard Modi say, trying to shush each other at the same time. “He started the Selfie With Daughter initiative, which created such a storm that all fathers felt like clicking selfies with their daughters and posting it on social media.” The PM then asked more people to post selfies, to boost the pride in the girl child.
Since the radio address, social media saw #SelfieWithDaughter trending. Parents, especially fathers, posted pictures with their daughters. Jaglan spent the rest of the day trying to convince many villagers that he had not known that Modi would mention his work on the radio. “I really didn’t know, but I’m glad I tuned in! I try to be cool about it, but the selfies pouring into my Whatsapp account remind me. It’s amazing what can happen a political leader backs a sincere idea,” says Jaglan.
Jaglan announced the Beti Bachao, Selfie Banao campaign, now christened Selfie With Daughter, on June 19, his birthday, by posting a selfie with his own daughter Nandini. “Everyone’s taking a selfie these days, so I thought that would click,” he says. On his public Facebook account, he invited people across the country to Whatsapp him their selfies, the best of which would win a prize of Rs. 2100. Local newspapers and channels reported it, and so did some English national newspapers. A Zee News anchor called the idea “modern, cute and emotional, like Indians!” Jaglan says such coverage spread the news of the contest, but he hasn’t selected a winner, “because the contest is not even the point anymore.” Until Sunday, he had received nearly 700 selfies, but after Modi’s speech, he has stopped keeping count.
The campaign is Jaglan’s 101st. Since he became Bibipur’s sarpanch in 2010, Jaglan says he has launched 100 programmes on women’s empowerment. Many of them have his unique creative twist and sharp understanding of what will have mass appeal. For instance, he occasionally holds an objective-type quiz for Bibipur’s women, with questions like “What IPC section will apply if a boy teases you in the bus?” and “What evidence is necessary to file an FIR if your husband beats you?” Around the 2014 general and state elections, he set up an Unmarried Men’s Collective (Avivahit Purush Sanghatan), to highlight Haryana’s abysmal sex ratio of 841 females to 1000 males at birth, and the worrying practise in Haryana of buying brides from other states. “I’m all for cultural exchange, but buying women is not the way,” says Jaglan. In 2012, he held the first women’s khap panchayat, which decided to charge with murder those found killing female feotuses. The village also has a board at its entrance: Bibipur- The Women’s World.
When asked what inspired his focus on women’s empowerment, Jaglan says grew up in a community where girls were considered a burden, but in his family of four siblings, gender discrimination was “totally absent”. He also offers his education – a bachelors in computer science and a masters in mathematics from Kurukshetra University – as a possible reason for his “liberal views”. He says he always disagreed with people’s views against intercaste marriage, or the acceptance of domestic violence, but did so quietly.
It was a personal moment that crystallized his resolve to speak up. When Jaglan’s wife gave birth to a healthy baby in January 2012, he bought his favourite sweets to distribute at the hospital. “The nurses refused to accept them,” says Jaglan. “They said I’ve had a girl and I should start saving my money now.”
Something gave that day in the hospital. “I was bursting with joy, and around me, people had the opposite reaction,” says Jaglan. “It made me wonder, is this the world my daughter is going to grow up in?”
The 2011 Census found that India’s child sex ratio had declined with “an all-time low of 918” to 1000. Women & Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said in April that about 2000 girls die every day in India – aborted, starved, poisoned or killed after birth. Women so gone missing are estimated to range from 2 to 25 million.
The task is onerous, and since Modi endorsed the daughter selfies, critics have called it shallow and inadequate to tackle real discrimination and rampant female feoticide. Reports find that the Rs. 100 crores allotted under Modi’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme had not reached the 100 gender critical districts in May.
Having occasionally faced the criticism himself, Jaglan asks, “Why do I like social media?” and replies himself. “Because when you scream there, people listen, media amplifies it, it creates awareness. But I know it only gives you a headstart for the real race.” His work on women’s rights range from cute media campaigns to a focus on harder changes like ensuring a quorum of at least 50% women in panchayat meetings and stopping prenatal sex determination. In just 3 years, he says Bibipur has recorded an even sex ratio at birth, and along with it, a gradual change in the gender attitudes of young parents. “No one wants to listen to gyan, but you can’t forget to sneak it in along with the selfie,” says Jaglan.
An edited version of this appeared in the Economic Times.
Rohini Mohan is a journalist who covers politics and human rights in South Asia. Her non-fiction book on postwar Sri Lanka, ‘The Seasons of Trouble’ was published in October 2014 in US, UK and India. She is based in Bangalore, India.