Plight of Widows in the Hindu Society
Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses
Impact on Secularism
The Day of Deliverance
By Yoginder Sikand
Katherine Mayo quotes a Hindu man as justifing sati, in the following words:“ We husbands so often make our wives so unhappy that we might well fear they would poison us. Therefore did our wise ancestors make the penalty of widowhood so frightful, in order that they may not be tempted”.
One of the ways to judge the status that Islam has accorded women is to see its injunctions relating to widows. It is well known that of all the religions in India, Islam is probably the only one that positively encourages widow remarriage, so as to provide women who have lost their husbands a socially sanctioned means to express their biological urges and to enjoy the safety of a home and family. Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) provides a model for Muslims to emulate in this regard. Many of the women he married were themselves widows, including his first wife, Hazrat Khadijah.
For us in India to understand the revolution that Islam brought about in the status of women, its injunctions regarding widow remarriage are a good indicator. A dispassionate comparison between Islam and classical Hinduism in this regard brings out the sharp contrast between the two in their attitudes vis-a-vis women. However, this is of no mere academic interest.
Today, with the growing assertion of Brahminical Hinduism, we see, once again, a resuscitation of classical Brahminical notions about womanhood, including the normative position of widows.
Recently, a Hindu widow named Charanshah, was reported to have been forced into jumping into the leaping flames of the funeral pyre of her husband, in the village of Satpura in Uttar Pradesh. This was not the first incident of Sati in recent times. A decade ago, a Rajput widow in a village in Rajasthan, Rup Kunwar, was forced into committing Sati. Not unexpectedly, top Hindutva leaders, who otherwise seem to pose as great champions of the women’s cause, came out in strong support of the barbaric custom, claiming that it was an integral part of their religious tradition, in which men are to be worshipped as deities by their wives.
The Indian press, in general, simply mentioned the Satpura Sati incident in passing. No great hue and cry was made about it, and in a few days, the matter completely disappeared from the inner pages of the papers. And, there was little or no critique at all about the religious structures that provide legitimacy for such a cold-blooded murder. One wonders what the reaction of the press, to say nothing about Hindutva ideologies, would have been had Charanshah been a Muslim. We would probably still be witnessing long harangues about the so-called Islamic oppression of Muslim women.
The practice of Sati has a long and hoary history. Its defendants trace its origins to the Hindu scriptures. Others deny this, but whatever be the case, it was well in force much before the first Muslims appeared in India. Dr. Ambedkar, in his little-known but immensely readable monograph Caste in India, says that the spread of Sati is roughly co-terminous with the decline of Buddhism at the hands of Brahminical revivalism, when the position of women, which was fairly high in the Buddhist period, rapidly began to deteriorate. He links Sati with the caste system and shows how it was principally in order to protect the privileges of the higher castes that the practice came into vogue.
Endogamy, or marriage within the community, says Ambedkar, is the foundation of the caste system. If people start marrying outside their caste, the caste system itself will begin to break-down, which is described in the Brahminical texts as the heinous crime of varnasankirna, the ‘admixture of the castes’. So as to prevent people from different castes from intermarrying, elaborate rules were put in force. Most of these rules related to the control of women and their sexuality. Sati, says Ambedkar, must be seen as part of this gamut of laws and prohibitions, laid down in order to prevent the widow from seeking marriage outside the caste circle. Since preservation of caste ‘purity’ was so central to the agenda of defending the privileges of the ‘higher’ castes, it is not surprising, he says, that traditionally Sati was practised only by these caste groups.
However, as the Charanshah case shows, many lower castes, in an effort to climb the social ladder and pass off as higher in status, began emulating this practice, and the life-styles and customs of the ‘higher’ castes in general.
Sati may also be seen as rooted in the extremely low status that women in general were consigned to under the Brahminical law. Sati was held out as a punishment for any woman who, driven to despair by a cruel husband, went to the extent of killing him. Katherine Mayo, in her well-known book Mother India, written in the 1920’s, and which raised the hackles of the Brahminical establishment for its frank expose of the oppression of Hindu women, quotes a Hindu man as justifying Sati in the following words:‘We husbands so often make our wives so unhappy that we might well fear they would poison us. Therefore did our wise ancestors make the penalty of widowhood so frightful, in order that they may not be tempted’. Interestingly, the same logic was used by a delegation of orthodox Pandits in 1829, who submitted a note of protest to the British Governor General, Lord Bentick, for having banned Sati. These Pandits, under the banner of the Dharma Sabha, appealed before the Privy Council in 1832, arguing that if Sati were prohibited, Hindu women would be tempted to kill their husbands. Apparently so badly were most Hindu women treated by their menfolk, that even the Pandits were aware of this ever-present possibility.
In recent years, sociologists have attempted to trace the links between the custom of Sati and the economic structures of Hindu society. They have pointed to the relationship between Sati and the systems of property ownership, arguing that the custom of Sati can be seen as a means to deny widows a share in the property of their husbands. This, one may add here, is, of course, in marked contrast to the Islamic law, which does provide such a share for widows. In our school text-books, we are taught that the first to speak out against the barbaric custom of Sati were ‘high’ caste Hindu reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra, along with their British friends. But little do we know that efforts to ban Sati go back to the Mughal period, when many Muslim rulers, appalled by the ritual murder of widows, attempted to outlaw it.
Emperor Akbar declared Sati a crime punishable by death, and is said to have rescued the queen of Jodhpur from being consigned to the flames. Jahangir, too, banned the practice, as did the much maligned Aurangzeb.
Katherine Mayo, quotes a Hindu man as justifying Sati, in the following words: “We husbands so often make our wives unhappy that we might well fear they would prison us. Therefore did our wise ancestors make the penalty of widowhood so frightful, in order that they may not be tempted.”
Prof. Dr. Mumtaz Ali Khan
Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are generally misunderstood as conflicting human behaviour. Freedom of religion means right of an individual to practise, profess and propagate his religion. But it also means that his conduct shall not wound or offend the feelings of members of other religious groups. It also means that internally one should have one’s own freedom to behave in a particular manner based on his attitudes, perception and values in life. But such a person is confined to group solidarity. He is not expected to violate certain fundamentals of his religion. If he is pressurized to behave or conduct in a particular manner against his own wish, this is offensive.
Freedom of expression means the liberty that every individual has to convey his thoughts. He shall not be pressurized or coerced to express his views in a particular manner. If he expresses his views in a manner of his choice, he should not be subjected to threats and coercion. But he should not express his views in a manner that offends the feelings of the general community to which he belongs. It should be clearly noted that expression of views on certain religious issues is different from expression of views on mundane matters. Religion is a very sensitive aspect of human life. Normally no individual would ever be prepared to hear or read anything that offends his religious tenets or religious founders.
There are several outstanding scholars who wittingly or unwittingly commit blunders by misusing religious freedom and freedom of expression. There could be many attributes for such a behaviour. It could be that they feel well recognized and accepted by all members of another religious group if they attack the basic tenets or their own religious leaders. There is a tendency to accord the status of a hero by members of religious group if such persons rebel against their own religion. It is very unfortunate that this mischievous tendency is on the increase. It necessarily hurts the feelings of their community. This does not help them to gain anything tangible. They incur the wrath of their community. They misuse their tongue, brain and hands. Perhaps they may gain something. But, this gain is purely transitory. But losses are heavy and permanent. They get alienated from their society and community.
It is in this backdrop that the controversial scholar, Salman Rushdie has to be assessed. He stands condemned to death. The death warrant in the form of a fatwa by Ayathullah Khomeni is hovering over his head. He has been in exile for more than a decade. Why this brilliant scholar is living in fear? He calls himself an Indian Muslim. He owns a beautiful bungalow called Anees villa near Shimla. He visited India after twelve years. His visit was very secretly guarded. He gave a press conference where he tried to justify his innocence. He asserted that he had not done anything to incur the displeasure of his community. Still he raised the question, “why Muslims have mistaken me: what wrong have I done to them”?
These questions which look very simple are complicated, his conscience should know that he has written something in his much-condemned book, Satanic Verses. He is perhaps under the false impression that none other than himself knows the contents of his book. If his book had not been read thoroughly by Ayathullah Khomeni and others, why fatwa would have been issued against him? He cannot hoodwink the people who have read the book. I had been to Switzerland sometime ago and stayed with a Brahmin friend from Bangalore. This gentleman is very secular and broadminded. One day he asked me, “Prof. Khan, have you heard of the book, Satanic Verses? I said, “yes”. Then he asked me, “have you read it?” I said, “No”. He then said, “would you like to read it” “Yes”. He took me to his reading room and opened a trunk. He said that he would always keep this book in the trunk and lock it. He does not want his son and daughter to read it. He said that the book is very badly written. He asked me to read the book and keep it in the trunk. I read the book thoroughly and made extensive notes. It was a very shocking experience for me. No doubt the language is of a very high order. He has exhibited his powerful mastery over English language. But he totally misused his God given gift. He could easily be called a perverted scholar. Being a Muslim, what forced to resort to character assassination of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) and his wife Bibi Ayesha? He has not made direct references. But even a fool can understand his mischievous mind. This description is very unhealthy, unbearable and highly inflammable. There was absolutely no need for him to bring in the holy Prophet and his wife in the story. But his poisonous mind could not rest in peace unless he wrote something to suit and justify his temperament. None can pardon him after reading the book.
Some years ago, I gave a talk on this theme at a very famous public institute in Basavangudi, Bangalore. The big gathering consisted of well-educated persons and excepting six persons, the rest were all Hindus. But at the end of my talk, I raised my voice and asked, “Is there any one among you to defend Salman Rushdie”? There was none among the audience. Privately some of them said that the author should not have written like that and they felt ashamed.
I strongly appeal to Salman Rushdie that he should repent and apologise for whatever he has written and for hurting the sentiments of his community people.
Impact on Secularism
By Hasan Mansur
The review of the constitution is a craftily planned political exercise
The constitution of India is the product of history because it was forged during the process of freedom struggle. Undoubtedly the formal part of the constitution embodies the legal framework set in place by the British government ruling then, but it is equally true that the philosophy of the Constitution embodies the spirit of the freedom movement. The social base dramatically expanded and Indian society underwent remarkable democratisation, causing a political revolution. This resulted in the grant of political rights to freedom, to equality and to religion in part three of the constitution. The freedom movement showed political maturity through socio economic initiatives too. A highly politicised people demanded freedom from the internal shackles of society. This led to many struggles against caste, feudal landlordism, and oppressive structures of all kinds. Despite the horrors of partition, the leadership honoured every commitment it had made to the religious minorities. The Constitution therefore expresses the aims and aspirations of the people of India which have been forged in and articulated through history. What is the BJP led coalition going to embody in the proposed review of the Constitution? It is the history of people marginalised by the politics of globalisation which expresses the aspirations of the elite. It is the history of the freedom of expression brutally suppressed by the goons of the Sangh Parivar. It is a history of goondaism, suppression of liberties and harassment of liberal opinion. This history reveals no vision, no dream, no passion except that of building a majoritarian and managerial India with the aid of the multinationals. On the face of it, the BJP forfeits the moral right to review the constitution. The legality of the review itself is questionable. Under what power was it set up? Is it legally permissible? Under Article 368, the Parliament alone can set up a body of this nature and the executive has no role to play. Naturally public expenditure on this exercise is unwarranted. A court of law could examine the legal position and political parties committed to democratic governance must take this up seriously. In 1973, the Supreme Court declared that the Parliament cannot alter the basic structure of the Constitution. President Narayanan’s remark, “..... we have to consider whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether it is we that have failed the Constitution” needs to be pondered over. The basic features of the Constitution are the following:
Supremacy of the Constitution
Republican and democratic form of Government
Secular character of Government
Separation of powers among Legislature, Executive and Judiciary
Federal character of Constitution
Sovereignty of Country
Dignity of individual vide Part 111 and mandate to build welfare state vide Part IV
Unity and integrity of nation
Rule of law
Power of judicial review The commission for review of the constitution (CRC) is a craftily planned political exercise. It is a constituent assembly in miniature and packed with oligarchic and patriarchic characters replete with authority. It has no terms of reference and it is more concerned with “efficient, smooth and effective governance” than with `just’ or even `good’ governance. “Stability” is conceived in terms of needs of ruling class. The presidential form is inimical to the democratic discourse. Stability denies the voters the right to exercise adult franchise whenever the need arises. Stability is the vested interest of the globalisation forces to promote their own agenda, thus meeting the needs of a foreign investor than those of the poor here. As for the costs of frequent elections, these are the necessary costs of an open society and these costs are small compared to the needless colossal sums spent on arms, not to speak of the rampant corruption in political circles.
The CRC threatens to cap the affirmative action programmes and it will impose ceiling on quota reservations for OBC/SC/ST. The status of minority rights will be endangered and there will be a movement towards the Uniform Civil Code, and the right to freedom of conscience will be criminalised and deconstitutionalised. There may be reservation for women but not for those from the depressed classes. The CRC contemplates the Presidential system, fixed term for the Prime Minister, proportional representation, take over of judicial appointments, redevises the federal system. Drought, floods and environmental disaster as in Bhopal, plight of Dalits, genocidal killing of minorities seem to be outside the review. Issues of internal colonisation, militaraisation, draconian security laws are in place, not education, employment, shelter and health.
If at all there has to be changes in the Constitution, it should come by way of Amendments: Delete `public order’ from Article 19(1) (2); mention freedom of press in Article 19(1) (a); make right to privacy and right to education and right to work mandatory; set up the National Judicial Commission comprising the judiciary and executive but the former primary in appointments and transfers; fixed term of 5 years for MLAs, MLCs and MPs is unacceptable and to change party must imply loss of seat; abolish upper Houses; maximum number of ministers 10% at the centre with 1% from Rajya Sabha; no politicians to chair boards; delete Article 356 and have a care taker government as in Bangladesh before elections. Prof. Upendra Baxi, legal luminary in his latest article on the review has given a timely warning, “....the review carries both a political regime death wish, and potential homicidal, even genocidal unleashing of collective political violence which may even transcend the ruin of memory of the Indian Partition”. Those who ignore the writing on the wall will do it at their own peril.
The Day of Deliverance
By D. A. Sait
As I sat up in bed looking out my window that morning my eyes fell on that black dog trotting along on the opposite side of the road as usual. Only he had lost that sleek well-fed look of two years ago and his ribs were showing. Every now and then he would pause and look expectantly at the new hostel building opposite my house, perhaps hoping to see its mistress, Selvi, who used to stay in the workman’s shed in the hostel compound with her married daughter and her husband, who worked as a watchman for the hostel building coming up two years ago. As her husband spent most of his salary on liquor and Selvi herself was past her prime and considered unfit for work as a coolie, she opted to work for my household as a maid-servant.
The black dog, whom we called ‘Blackie’, would always curl up at our door step as Selvi worked inside, and follow her back home. Whatever food she carried from my house and whatever she cooked in her shed was shared by all the members of the family including the dog, her husband, daughter and son-in-law. Pinching and scraping Selvi, had put by around five thousand rupees against a rainy day. But one day her life’s savings had disappeared from its hiding place, and so had her daughter and the good-for-nothing son-in-law. And the last straw was provided when the building contractor announced soon after that, as the construction work was now finished, her husband had to vacate the shed. With tears in her eyes and what cash my wife gave her she left for her village in Dharampuri in Tamilnadu, leaving her black dog behind as no buses, private or state-owned, would carry dogs. And for two days after Selvi left, Blackie had been living off the offal’s in the dust-bins on that same road, perhaps nurturing a faint hope that some day his mistress, Selvi, might come back to fetch him.
My ruminations of the past were broken by the ringing of the door-bell. And who should stand outside smiling but our long lost Selvi ! And, wonder of wonders, there was Blackie, frisking, gambolling, wagging away his tail like mad, in an exhibition of pure joy at the reunion with his mistress! It looked as if the poor fellow had regained the paradise he had lost. My wife took Selvi’s hands in hers and took her inside.
“My husband died lost month”, began Selvi. “The bottle finally got him. And with my daughter having run away with that waster of a husband, I felt all alone in the world. After all, what’s life without company?” “Stay with us Selvi!” Pleaded my wife.
“Thank you `amma’, but I can’t. I’ve got an old ailing mother back home. She would be all alone if I stayed back here, as my father too left this world recently.”
“Then why did you come back, Selvi?” Demanded my wife.
“Why, to take back Blackie, of course!” Said she simply. “I have arranged it with a lorry driver to carry the two of us”.
“And all the way from Dharampuri, just for that!”
“Why not? He needs me just as much as I need him!” Then, wiping away a tear, she was gone!