“To the orthodox family of the medieval period a widow was ill-luck incarnate…Her presence brought contamination, the sound of her voice was a curse, her glance was poisonous, her very existence was perilous and brought ill-luck and woe to all her relations. She was treated as a thing apart for she was already half-dead…A few days after her husband’s death the female relatives invade the widow’s house. They push her violently about, make her sit on a stool, cut the thread of her tali, and have a barber shave her head. She is then called by the opprobrious term munda (shaven head). This tonsure is repeated as soon as the hair grows a little, since it is believed that a long braid of hair would put the husband in bondage in the next world.
“From now on she must wear only white clothes. Never again can she wear the sindura mark on the forehead, or jewellery, ornaments or other indications of saubhagya or married bliss. She is forbidden to use a cot, and must sleep on the ground. She cannot cook or help in cooking the family’s food; she must eat only once a day and only enough to keep her alive. She is denied even the simple pleasure of chewing paan. She is debarred from all religious affairs and cannot participate in wedding ceremonies or any joyous festivities. Even her son cannot be invited for a shraddha” (pp 600-601, Hindu World, by Benjamin Walker).
After the elections, Sushma Swaraj announced that if Sonia Gandhi were selected prime minister she would wear white saris, shave her head, not wear any ornaments, eat only black gram and sleep on the floor so long as Sonia Gandhi remained prime minister. She did not say that she would also remove her bindi (the essential symbol for a Hindu woman with a living husband). These were what medieval Hinduism required of Hindu widows when their husbands died. Thus Swaraj was accepting this extremely derogatory treatment of innocent widows. By invoking this potent image of loss associated with Hindu widows, she is giving respectability to the idea that women had to marginalize themselves in appearance and attire when they suffered such a loss. She was equating the ascension to the prime ministership by Sonia Gandhi with the death of her (Swaraj’s) still living husband.
Her threat was symbolically irrelevant. Sonia Gandhi is a woman and not Swaraj’s husband, and he is alive. Sonia’s becoming prime minister was not going to throw Swaraj to the fringes of Hindu society as it does widows (though the loss of power by the National Democratic Alliance may yet discard her politically). Orthodox Hinduism for the last few centuries conditioned Hindus to regard widowhood as a matter of shame and for which the women concerned are somehow responsible. Is Sushma Swaraj conveying what she thinks is India’s shame and accepting that it was her failure and that of her party that brought this about' The explanation may be correct but the symbolism she has used is highly offensive.
Even this treatment of widowhood is not sanctioned by authoritative Hindu texts.
Early Hindu writings do not enforce such treatment of widows. They are more concerned with property rights and immorality. In her Women in the Sacred Laws, Shakuntala Rao Shastri shows that remarriage was allowed to widows in many of the early texts. Clearly the widow who could become a bride would not have a shaven head and all the indignities imposed on widows in later centuries. Vashishtha is said to have required that a widow shall for six months after the death of her husband live like an ascetic and then is free to marry again. Kautilya concurred with this view.
Outlook, dated May 31, quotes leading Hindu dharmacharyas as saying that Swaraj’s threat is an insult to Hindu culture. The Sankaracharya of Dwaraka said that the head is tonsured in the event of death or similar situations. “To use it as a form of protest against living beings is tantamount to abusing our ancient scriptures.” Another mahant calls it an insult to the liberal Hindu ethos. Swami Agnivesh of the Arya Samaj said that Swaraj lends “legitimacy to the male-dominated, obscurantist outfits that discredit our religion, culture and nationhood. The Vedas warn that a country where women are kept in misery and degradation can’t receive the blessings of God.” He called upon women to fight “these uncivilized agents and mouthpieces of oppression and discrimination.”
Sushma Swaraj is unlike the other three “young” hopeful successors to the mantles of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu were all groomed in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh before they came to the party. Sushma Swaraj belonged to a more secular background. She started her political life as a socialist and was in the Haryana legislature as a member of the erstwhile Praja Socialist Party. After the Emergency she was in the Janata Party and then drifted to the BJP when the Janata experiment failed. For the RSS to accept her as a possible leader of the BJP, she, more than the other aspiring successors to leadership, has needed to establish her credentials as a staunch Hindu nationalist.
One step was her cultivation of the persona of a dutiful Hindu wife. She did that by her traditional attire and get-up, the perfect image of the traditional Hindu housewife, celebrating all the festivals and following all the rituals and practices prescribed for an orthodox Hindu. As the citizen of a multi-religious democracy, it is her right to present herself as she likes and to pursue her religious practices without hindrance.
She is doubtless also a very clever politician, a crowd-pulling public speaker and presumably also a good lawyer. She may have succeeded in frightening Sonia Gandhi away from accepting the prime ministership. She may have recreated herself into a nationalistic Hindu icon, successfully positioned on the right of the other “young” BJP leaders and possibly got greater acceptability from the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other “fundamentalist” organizations. But as an educated woman, a lawyer and political leader, a potent symbol of power to millions of Indians and particularly to Hindu women, she should not have invoked the humiliating image of the Hindu widow.
The propagation of such symbols of the treatment of women as a way of political protest causes consternation. The plight of Hindu widows is too serious and still current. Any visitor to Brindavan will see the assemblage of abandoned Hindu widows, young and old, chanting bhajans for a pittance, barely able to feed themselves, cruelly exploited and living in the most horrible conditions.
There are few studies of the economic plight of the Hindu widow. This is despite Hindu widows constituting a great part of the 8 per cent of the female population who are widows. Marty Chen and Jean Dreze published Widows and Well-being in Rural North India in 1992. They conclude: “The North Indian widow tends to be a highly marginalized person....The consequences of this social and economic marginalization are manifest, as far as one can tell and from the limited evidence available, in poor health and high mortality levels.
“The marginalization of widows in North India is consistent with the traditional perception of Hindu widows as inauspicious and potentially suspect women who, ideally, should lead a life of austerity devoted to the memory of their husbands.
“(T)he government is unlikely to give adequate priority to the social protection of widows in rural India in the absence of public pressure.”
Sushma Swaraj enshrines such treatment of women. She borrows one of the worst practices in Hinduism that is still not dead. The practice humiliates Indian women, perpetuates their position as inferior creatures whose identity is entirely dependent on their husbands and lowers the image of Hinduism itself. As protest against Sonia Gandhi it is irrelevant. As a potent crowd-mobilizing device it would have resulted in riots, bloodshed and deaths if Swaraj had walked the streets of India in this garb as she threatened to do. Her party should be ashamed that she announced such action. They need to condemn this irresponsibility and distance themselves from it.