October 1st, 1997
Akhilesh Mithal

Bapu Liberated Women from Purdah


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2 October 1997 is Gandhi Jayanti -- Gandhiji’s birthday and Itihaas joins its readers, the people of India and the world in offering homage to one of the greatest of men who walked the earth during the course of recorded human history. With the prizes for capturing political power running into billions and crores, the communalists are busy villifying Nehru and Gandhi in order to close the gap between their own leaders of the time and these eminent personalities.

It would be sensible to cast our minds back to 1869, the year of Gandhi’s birth to get a “Then and Now” idea of what it was like to be an Indian and how Gandhi transformed us. In 1869 it was terrible to be an Indian anywhere in the world and India was no exception. All top government jobs, whether civil or military, were barred to Indians. They could aspire only to the lowliest and most subordinate positions. All significant areas in industry (such as it was), commerce and trade were occupied by the Whites. The tea plantations were run by White managers and Indians were either indentured labour from the tribal areas of Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh or, at best, clerks. The women were like slaves of the planters and an institution called Dr Graham’s Homes was started by some charitable person to look after the progeny of these unions as there was no question of regularising the relationship by marriage or even adoption of the babies so produced.

The only area left to Indians was agriculture and petty trade and money-lending. As peasants were ground into poverty by successive increases in land revenue, there was no surplus left even in years of bumper crops. As a consequence, years of drought and scarcity meant immediate and horrible famines. The artisans had been rendered jobless by the spinning jenny (genie) and cotton grown in America for the mills in Lancashire. From being the richest country the world had known from remote antiquity until the eighteenth century, India had become the abode of hunger, penury and want.

The effect of this deprivation and impoverishment had terrible social consequences. In a path breaking novel called Shekhar; Eik Jeewanee published in the early Forties (i.e. before Independence) the author, Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan “Agyeya” has a woman say, “Jis desh mein purush bhee ghulaam hoan wahaan aurut paidaa hoanaa eik bahut budaa durbhaagya hai!” (To be born a woman in a country where even the men are slaves is a great misfortune.) With all the creative and productive energies of the men of India bottled up and without outlet they became mean and cruel and wrought havoc in the homes. The only creature they could dominate was the woman and the sufferings of Indian women at the hands of their men in the years of British rule can form the subject of a research thesis in psychopathology of imperialism.

In 1869 it was a great misfortune to be born a woman in India and if the birth was in a Hindu home, it was nothing short of calamity. Girls and boys were married off while still infants, toddlers or pre-teen children. The mother’s brother (maamaa) even today symbolically carries the bride round the fire in memory of the time when the child was too small to carry out all the seven perambulations on her own. The bride did not transfer residence to her Sasuraal or “in-law’s abode” until the onset of the menarche. Then the Dwiraagumun or Second coming (Gaunaa) ceremony was performed and the girl sent off into the strange world inhabited by her husband. Many girls became mothers at unbelievably low ages such as twelve and thirteen. This led to stunted growth of even girls from rich and well to do homes. Few grew to any height and even fewer had all thirty-two teeth.

Gandhi’s large heart and great compassion embraced all mankind. He did not discriminate on grounds of birth, caste, colour, race or gender. He achieved a miracle when he got the poor, uneducated, stunted in growth deprived and exploited women of India out of the darkness of confinement in purdah and on to the public streets to protest British rule. This helped spread the message of Swaraj (self-rule) and the eradication of poverty and untouchability as nothing else could have done. The Independence of India in 1947 and the passage of the Hindu Code Bill in the following decade spring from Gandhi. Today the Hindu woman has a right to property which is as good as any in the world and superior to most.

The attitude towards the education of women is far in advance of the world. For example even the “princesses” or daughters of the erstwhile “royalty” of India such as the Dogra rulers of J&K, the low caste Marattha rulers of the houses of Scindia and Holkar have graduates among their female offspring. Diana, daughter of the sixth earl Spencer was uneducated. The Hindu Code Bill was opposed in its passage by even Congressmen notably from the States of Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh. Someone should ferret out the response of the precursors of the VHP and BJP. Their ally, the communal Sikhs thought the bill evil as it made it possible for the son-in-law to have fields in the middle of the family holdings because of his owning the daughter’s share. This is one of the grounds for Sikhs wanting “out” from the Hindu fold. The above does not say that all is well with Hindu women or that problems are solved and gender discrimination wiped out. But how bad the lot of women was can be seen from the story which follows. Here there is no Hindu-Muslim divide.

Two men friends got married on the same day. After some weeks they found time to meet and exchange notes. It is found that one wife was meek, mild and obedient while the other had a mind of her own and was not afraid of making it known.

The henpecked husband felt deprived and cheated and wanted to know how his friend who was no cleverer, handsomer or stronger had managed to achieve a dominant position. The “successful” one then unburdened himself of the formula. He said, “Don’t you know the magic mantra of matrimonial success?” The answer was “Unfortunately I do not.”

The one who knew preened himself, made himself more comfortable in his seat and said, “Let me tell you.” Billee maariyay pehlee raat.

“It was after dinner on the Suhaag Raat (wedding night) and the girls who were the bride’s relatives and friends brought her into the room decorated with flowers and scented with perfumes and hung with silken drapes. They seated her and left, bolting the door from outside behind them. As you know this is the night when the groom has to prove his manhood and overcome all the hesitancy, entreaties and pleadings of the bride.

“At midnight, I was making little progress in overcoming the modesty and shyness of the girl. I then heard the meowing of a cat. I got up and broke the door open and chased the cat till I caught it. Then I dashed its brains out on the wall although it scratched me bloody. When I returned to the bridal chamber, the girl was cowering in terror, pleading for mercy. She submitted to my every whim and showed an eagerness to please which only comes when there is fear of losing life. I have had no trouble at all.”

The student went back home. At night he heard a cat and did exactly what his friend had advised and done. After the grisly act and bloodied from the scratches of the cat, he entered the bed chamber hoping to be greeted like a conquering hero. Imagine his disappointment when he found that his wife was not the least impressed. She sat imperious making paan (betel leaf concoction) eating it. She finally said, “Billee maariyay pehlee raat (The cat had to be killed on the first night.) I already know what kind of person you are and it is too late to make me believe in your non-existant ferocity!”

It was common for the wife to be subjected to matrimonial rape and the trauma thus inflicted led to all kinds of psychosis. This is not to say that all marriages followed this coarse pattern but to highlight general attitudes and perceptions.

Another great blot on the name Hindu was the (often) forcible burning of women on the funeral pyres of the husbands. Enlightened rulers like Akbar (Jalaluddeen Muhammad 1555-1605) banned it and interceded personally when they could. The practice has continued well into the 20th century but its incidence has become minimal.

The problems that continue to beset Hindu Indians are female embryo destruction, infanticide, dowry and dowry deaths. Of the last, there were around 20 per day in 1996.

The leaders of the Hindus in BJP/VHP/RSS are mostly from the Arya Samaj and they have not provided the passionate, enthusiastic leadership needed to address and cure this cancer. This is because they are not really Hindu but mirror images of the Muslim Wahabis, the Muslim Christians and the Jewish zealots who can only see the so called “enemy” without and ignore the enemy within.

The Hindu communalists arouse the base emotions of fear and hatred in order to get followers. They point out that there are about 2,50,000 missionaries in India whose main aim is to convert the heathen. Also that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states are pouring money into India to breed Muslim bigots who will proclaim their separate identity. No one can consider these intrusions as being healthy for the nation. But the answer does not lie in communalism and hatred and fear. The Hindus have to set their own house in order. Discrimination based upon birth must be erased from the Hindu psyche. The scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes as also women have every right to dignity and respect. They have to be nurtured and their deprivations in the past made up for so that they regain self-respect. What are VHP/BJP/RSS doing about it. It is rumoured that the BJP is again trying to acquire Gandhi. The RSS is holding its biggest rally in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Guess the date? October 2!


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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