How dare women presume to question their status? That is the key issue behind all the agitation over Deepa Mehta’s film-in-the-making 

Some days ago I was on a television programme with Mr  Mohanlal Singhal, a BJP 
MP and brother of the fa mous (or more correctly, infamous) Ashok Singhal, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In response to a question from the presenter, Mr Singhal informed us that the VHP had nothing to do with the agitation against the film Water. That, in fact, it was the “people of Varanasi” whose “sentiments” had been “hurt” and if the newspapers said the VHP had either engineered or upported this agitation, they were lying. The very next day, newspapers carried reports that Ashok Singhal had declared that the filming would be allowed only “over his dead body”. 

When questioned further on the programme, it turned out (not surprisingly) that although Mr Singhal — in what has now become the BJP’s classic tactic of overt dissociation but covert support — denied that the VHP had anything to do with the agitation, he, his family and his political brothers, fully supported what the agitation was about. He had many objections to the film: it denigrated India, he said, it projected a bad image of the country for foreigners. 

He was upset that the director had chosen to make a film about a time as long ago as 1930 when there was such a rich present to hand. (He had no answer when I asked him why then had his colleagues not protested when the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which were about much more “ancient” times had been filmed). He said the film–maker had done no “scientific” research about the position of widows in India, and was not knowledgeable about the Hindu shastras — else, why would she say that widows were denigrated, called vaishyas, socially ostracised? 

According to him, while this may be something that was part of Hindu custom, it was not part of Hindu religion. 

He had other objections: the two or three lines that Deepa Mehta had agreed to delete were cited. One had to do with widows, the other with the Ganga. How dare she put these lines in the mouths of characters who had names like Narayan, he said. Why not in the mouth of someone called Javed or some such Muslim name? This led him to object about the names of the women in Fire. Why were they not called Uzma and someone else? Why Radha and Sita? 

If the status of widows was deplorable in India, he was asked, why be fearful of a film depicting that? Perhaps this might lead to a debate and discussion which are after all the precursors of any kind of change. But he said there was no scientific research on whether or not the status of widows was actually bad. The film-maker, he was convinced (he did not know this, it was just a conviction) had not spent any time at all with widows. How could she know anything? How could Shabana Azmi know anything? She was a rabble-rouser anyway. 

Then, another question was put to him: if a character in a film says something, surely that does not mean that that is the point of view of the director or the script–writer. The film, after all, is a fiction film. This elicited a vehement response: this film was not fiction, it was the director’s view, and it was part of a grand foreign plot to denigrate Hinduism. 

Was it not shameful, I asked him, that Varanasi was full of rapacious, avaricious, corrupt Pandits who were out to make as much money as they could from visitors? Did this not sully the face of Hinduism? Why was it that the continuing pollution of the waters of the Ganga had elicited no response from his party or his colleagues, but if someone referred to the Ganga as water (and if I am not mistaken, an Indian–French painter called Vishwanath has made a deeply moving film which features the Ganga as well as other rivers, called Water and no one protested) this became a cause for such heartburn and violence? To this, too, Mr Singhal did not have an answer. 

I mention all this because I was confused by his responses. I was not sure, at the end of this discussion (I think tirade would be a more appropriate word for it) exactly what the Hindu right’s objection to Deepa Mehta’s film was. Was it to the title? The film–maker? The subject? Surely they knew nothing about the subject — as Mr Singhal himself admitted, no one had really read the script. So all the noise was based on something else. At one point Mr Singhal said two things, and it was in these that I felt his (and that of his colleagues) deepest objections were rooted. He said, somewhat angrily, that there was no sanction for the ill–treatment of widows in Hinduism, and that what did those people who were making the film know anyway? After all they were women. 

Put like this, in cold print, this phrase does not carry any of the vehemence of speech. But when I heard it, I was struck by what to me sounded like a deep dislike and almost hatred that lay behind it. 

And political considerations apart, I think it would not be wrong to say that this, in many ways, is the motivating factor behind much of what is going on around this particular film, and also generally around the articulation of any voices of dissent, especially those that have to do with women. The status of widows in Hindu society is a shameful thing: newspapers in the last few days have been full of the widows of Vrindavan and the conditions they live in. It’s not the first time this kind of thing has figured in the media. But a brief spell of coverage and then nothing, is not what will help to change this. 

I remember, some years ago, being shocked by a three line reference in the newspapers, to the death of Bina Bhowmick, one of the best known of what were then called “women terrorists” of our nationalist period. She had died, unloved and unknown, in the widows’ ashram at Vrindavan. Where were our agitators then? 

Or, indeed, why did we not raise a similar discussion about the ills of widowhood when Charan Shah died on her husband’s pyre, or when Roop Kanwar was killed? 

Mr Singhal was emphatic that sati, or widow immolation, was not sanctioned in our shastras. But I don’t seem to remember leaders of the Hindu right making any such statement at the time. Rather, they did quite the opposite — not only the men but also the women. And the list does not end there — for every woman who is burnt as a witch in Jharkhand or elsewhere in the country, it would not come as a surprise to know that most of them are widows and behind their deaths lie very material concerns of property and wealth. For all their poverty, many of the older widows in the ashrams of Vrindavan are legally entitled to pension which is creamed off before they ever get to the women. But none of the so–called protectors of Hinduism protests about this insult to the religion. 

It seems to me there are many things that lie behind this agitation by self–styled protectors of the Hindu religion. The key issue here is this: how dare women presume to question their status? Further, how dare a “foreign” woman (Deepa Mehta) and a Muslim woman (Shabana Azmi) do so? While this is the case, I doubt they would be any more tolerant of the questioning had it come from a devout “Hindu” woman. More, in the minds of the majority of men, whether they are self–styled protectors of Hinduism or not, lies a deep anti–woman bias.

I do not say this irresponsibly — it may sound like an extreme statement, but I think we need to see this agitation, and the intolerance it symbolises, as part of a continuum of increasing violence against women which is taking new forms every day as women become more articulate and adept at claiming their rights. Clearly, they are transgressing the boundaries that have been set for them. Virtually every religion sanctions the terrible belief that a woman’s status is defined by her ‘belonging’ to a man: a woman without a man is deeply suspect. 

There is no way of controlling her sexuality, none of keeping her within the ordained boundaries, none therefore, of keeping her under the power of a man, or many men. This is why so much suspicion attaches to women who are single, or indeed those who are widows — the latter present a greater threat because, theoretically, having been in sexual union with their husbands, they might actually know what sexuality is about. What better way to keep these women in their place than to divest them of all rights and privileges (hence take away their sources of income such as pensions, land), or of all support (hence throw them out of their homes and send them off to ashrams) and to label them vaishyas, prostitutes, randis? 

Where widows are concerned, things are worse. Our society has been relatively successful in locking widows away into remote places, silencing their voices by claiming that they have no life, or no right to live a life, after the deaths of their husbands. Hence we have the ashrams, where hundreds of women live in penury and silence. Imagine the fear if these women were to suddenly rebel, to claim back their homes from which they have been thrown out, to claim back their wealth which they have been divested of, to claim back their rights from an indifferent State which discriminates against them in law. There would be chaos: sexual, political, familial chaos. 

We have the experience of Partition to tell us that this is a possible danger — that is why at Partition the Indian State took on the responsibility of looking after all the women who were widowed. They were put in homes, given training and jobs, pensions, and “allowed” to live a mainstream life rather than being socially ostracised like most widows. But the moment they became old and theoretically “useless” it was their families who threw them out of their homes and took over their properties. 

A single film is not going to change this shameful state of affairs in India. But it might just succeed in raising a discussion — something which we badly need. And yet, this is precisely the fear, and it is this fear that is the motivation behind the agitation by the self–styled protectors of the Hindu religion. 

They know, husbands and mahants and politicians and others, that if widows are allowed to enter and be part of mainstream society, they stand to lose not only the wealth that can be amassed through property and pensions, but also the control that can be maintained by claiming a monopoly over what the shastras say. And it’s very convenient to set up an agitation, and claim that it reflects the sentiments of the “people” of a particular place. 

A question we need to ask is: are women not people also? If the status of women is deplorable in this society and someone wishes to depict that in a film, it’s not something that reflects on the Hindu religion, but rather on those who see themselves as the protectors of that religion. And that’s why they are so opposed to it: for more than the religion, it is its self–styled protectors who are exposed by such questioning. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2000. Year 7  No, 56, Special Report 1



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