2 October 1997 is Gandhi Jayanti -- Gandhijis 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 Gandhis 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 Grahams 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 mothers 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-laws 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
Gandhis 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 daughters 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,
Dont 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
brides 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
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
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!