Sunday, 13 April 2014

From Yashodhara to Jashodaben - The Unsung Victims Of Patriarchy's Noble Heroes

The uncertainty over the marital status of Indian prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was finally cleared when the candidate declared in his nomination papers that he was indeed married, and to one Jashodaben (The Gujarati variant of the common Indian name Yashoda). The lady is a retired schoolteacher on a modest pension, who has lived alone or with her brothers ever since her non-starter of a marriage to Modi.

Details of the marriage are murky, but the broad outlines of it seem to be that Narendra Modi and Jashodaben had an arranged marriage when they were both very young (whether it was a child marriage is in dispute). The marriage was not consummated, and Narendra Modi left his young wife to become a "pracharak" (evangelist) for the Hindu Nationalist RSS, since that organisation insists on celibacy for all its pracharaks. He apparently lived in solitary simplicity for many years while he served his organisations (the RSS and its political arm, the BJP), until he finally entered the limelight in 2001 with his elevation to the position of Chief Minister for Gujarat. But even in the 13 years since then, when he was no longer an RSS pracharak and hence no longer under the requirement of celibacy, he did not acknowledge his wife and instead continued to project the public image of a bachelor.

Today, a number of questions are being asked about this behaviour.

To the traditionalist Hindu BJP supporter, such questions are outrageous. The phenomenon of householders renouncing their worldly ties and taking up "sannyasa" (the way of life of the renunciate) is a common one in Hindu culture. It is glorified as a spiritually meritorious act. To such a follower, Narendra Modi's act of walking away from his marriage and his young wife in order to serve his nation was an act of sacrifice that is highly praiseworthy.

Indeed, the person Modi is often compared to in this regard is Prince Siddhartha, one of the most famous renunciates in the history of the subcontinent, who later became the Buddha. One night, while his young wife Yashodhara and baby son Rahula slept, the prince stole away from the palace, and embarked upon his long spiritual quest, which ultimately led him to enlightenment and gave the world a new religion.

In these days of feminist-inspired thought, a few brave voices have dared to ask if the Buddha was a great soul, or a really lousy husband and father. (Similar questions are asked of the behaviour of Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana).

By all accounts, just as Yashodhara before her, Jashodaben is a model Indian wife, bearing her lot with patience and continuing to pray and fast for her husband's success and happiness, and this is again something that the traditionalists point to with approval and pride. But is it indeed something praiseworthy, or is it a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome where the victim does not even imagine herself to be the victim, and even fiercely defends her oppressor?

Indian society is entering a new age, and fresh winds are blowing in alien ideas, ideas that suggest that men and women are equal human beings with equal rights, that marriage is a commitment for both parties, that one party to a marriage cannot unilaterally decide to end it without some form of compensation to the other, and so on. These ideas may infuriate the traditionalist, but they are here to stay.

After the horrific Delhi rape of December 2012, and the continuing cases of rape and molestation all over the country, popular attention has focused strongly on the treatment of women and the root causes of it. Patriarchal attitudes are increasingly acknowledged to be the real cause of women's poor status. This is a culture that makes a show of treating women as goddesses or as mother figures, but balks at treating them as equal human beings. 

Indian governments at both the central and state levels are increasingly expected by a young and idealistic nation to exercise modern, progressive value frameworks to make decisions concerning women rather than the feudal and patriarchal ones of traditional Indian society. In this situation, a potential prime ministerial candidate who has exhibited the classic patriarchal lack of concern for his duty towards his wife is cause for worry. How will his government prove responsive to the concerns of women when the person who should be waving to the crowds at his side remains consigned to the shadows?

One thing is clear - Modi will find in the days ahead that the 2002 riots are not the only uncomfortable topic that he will be questioned on.

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