Last week, while nosing through the stacks of a library I came across a long-forgotten book, India in Ferment by Claude H. Van Tyne, an American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner. Published in 1923, it was based on his travels through India at the height of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement.
Van Tyne was not a starry-eyed American liberal with a pathological aversion to the idea of Empire. On the contrary, he was broadly appreciative of the commitment and competence of the British administrators, particularly those of the Indian Civil Service. He also had a high regard for India’s ‘moderate’ leadership, particularly individuals such as Sir Surendranath Banerjee, Lord Sinha and Madan Mohan Malaviya. And while he was critical of the rhetorical excesses of the foot soldiers of Indian nationalism, the scale of mass adulation for Gandhi did not leave him unmoved.
One incident, in particular, left a deep impression on him. In the early days of the campaign for ‘Swaraj in one year’, Van Tyne was invited to a small gathering in the large house of a Bombay merchant. The drawing room had been divided into two sections: on one side sat the stalwarts of the ‘native’ mercantile community and, behind a screen, sat their wives and daughters. That the gathering was supportive of Gandhi did not come as a surprise to the American visitor. What did astonish him was the decision taken by the women in purdah to come out of seclusion and actually participate in the mass demonstrations. Equally significant was the fact that the husbands and fathers of the women did not get all worked up over the subversion of social institutions by politics.
Van Tyne’s account does not state how many of the women actually took to the streets and how many succumbed to orthodox counter-pressures and confined their political activism to giving emotional and financial support to the Mahatma. Other contemporary accounts suggest that India’s struggle for political independence led to large numbers of women from orthodox Hindu and Muslim families abandoning the purdah and entering public life. In short, the national movement provided an additional fillip to earlier attempts by social reformers to involve women in the public life of India. Although the impact of Gandhian politics on women’s emancipation was uneven — and complicated by the Mahatma’s own fads — its effects were revolutionary.
I was reminded of Van Tyne’s evocative description of the early manifestations of Indian feminism in the context of a strange debate raging through India over the use of imagery by the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. Last week, while attacking the record of the United Progressive Alliance government at a meeting in Pune, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s undeclared prime ministerial candidate asserted that in times of difficulty the Congress invariably took shelter behind the “burqa” of secularism. The use of burqa as a euphemism for fig-leaf or cover was promptly attacked by the big guns of the secular establishment. The imagery was held to be an assault on the Muslim community, and the entire Congress establishment was mobilized to inform TV viewers that Modi’s use of the language revealed a perverse mindset. In a TV programme, the minister of environment, Jayanti Natarajan, said that she would not have taken umbrage if Modi had used sari as a euphemism for cover, but burqa was clearly unacceptable.
Whether Modi’s choice of words was spontaneous or carefully pre-meditated is not known to me. However, since the critique of India’s differentiated citizenship is by and large centred on the charges of Muslim appeasement, Modi was perhaps successful in driving home the point without any elaboration. Since the art of communication, whether literary or political, is almost exclusively dependant on using the right word at the right place and employing appropriate imagery, Modi did hit bull’s eye. No one who heard him that day in either Pune or on TV could have been left in any doubt of Modi’s contention that ‘secularism’ is the Congress’s equivalent of crying ‘wolf’.
At a political level, there is bound to be criticism of the BJP’s distinction between pukka secularism and pseudo-secularism. That debate has been raging with various degrees of intensity for the past four decades at least and, frankly speaking, there was nothing intellectually unique in Modi’s intervention to trigger a fresh debate. Consequently, his critics honed in on the use of burqa in an apparently pejorative context. The former minister, Ajay Maken, suggested that the burqa of secularism was preferable to ‘naked communalism’, and Shashi Tharoor proffered the view that the burqa was better than the brown shorts of those who were inspired by Italian fascism — a historical analogy that, unfortunately, was marred by sartorial inaccuracy.
That an election campaign will be marked by verbal spats is a given and, consequently, there is no reason to be surprised by this storm in a drapery. What, however, is fascinating is the shift in political values. In the 1920s, as Van Tyne experienced with a sense of awe, the nationalist movement decried the custom of women’s seclusion. In the West of today, overwhelmed by the hiccups of multiculturalism, modernity, progressive thought and secularism are invariably associated with attacks on the Muslim custom of burqa. In Republican France, where secularism is taken a bit too far, the government has outlawed both the hijab and the burqa from schools and public institutions; and in the United Kingdom, at least one prominent politician — the former Labour home secretary, Jack Straw — stipulated that he would not deal with anyone who covered her face. In the Islamic world too, the ‘modernists’ like Kemal Ataturk of Turkey and the Shah of Iran outlawed the veil, while the ultra- radical Taliban made its usage compulsory for women in Afghanistan. The use of both the hijab and the veil are also the fault-lines dividing the Muslim Brotherhood and the modernists in Egypt.
In India, the attempt to equate the burqa with Islam and Muslim identity — as opposed to seeing it as a mere social custom — was also a feature of politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Maulana Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, wrote a tract in 1939 entitled Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam. His injunctions to women are worth recalling, not least because it explicitly spells out the philosophy of the burqa: “the real place of women is in the house and she has been exempted from outdoor duties... She has however been allowed to go out of the house to fulfil her genuine needs, but whilst going out she must observe complete modesty. Neither should she wear glamorous clothes and attract attention, nor should she cherish the desire to display the charms of the face and the hand, nor should she walk in a manner which may attract attention of others. Moreover, she should not speak to them without necessity, and if she has to speak she should not speak in a sweet and soft voice.”
It is a commentary on the social values of India’s aggressive secularists that the burqa and, by implication the institution of purdah, that were targeted by the social reformers of an earlier age is being projected as a symbol of Muslim identity. Who is the real communalist: a Modi who uses it as a symbol of something regressive or the cosmopolitan chic who has imbibed the wisdom of Maulana Maududi?
Televised, sound-bite politics often results in a cacophony. But amid this chatter, it helps to take a step back and reflect on the significance of words and imagery. The results are unexpectedly revealing.