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Friday, July 19, 2013

STORM IN A DRAPERY - On the significance of words and imagery

By Swapan Dasgupta

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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s use of imagery. Last week, while attacking the record of the UPA Government at a meeting in Pune, the BJP’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 mobilised 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 wouldn’t 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’ 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. 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—former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw—stipulated that he wouldn’t deal with anyone who covered her face. In the Islamic world too, the ‘modernists’ like Kemal Attaturk 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 Mawdudi, 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 Mawdoodi?  

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. 

The Telegraph, July 19, 2013


Anonymous said...

Oh please - Modi has been baiting Muslims using majoritarian "code" from day one, whether in the context of Gujarat or now on a national platform. No amount of semantic somersaults will cover what is evident to each and every Indian -- Modi supporter, neutral or opposed.

B R Shetty said...

Our so called liberals,are not interested in understanding the pain of women forced to wear burqa.They are more worried about the identity of muslim women.

My Diary said...

It makes complete sense what you have expressed here. Somewhere while attacking Modi on his comment Congress has accepted yes they are indeed pseudo seculars.
What amazes me - even though it is amply clear Congress considers Muslims only as voters still Muslims vote for congress and gets cheated elections after elections.

any-ways Happy Blogging :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Swapan ji,
I feel that this Was totaly for a different reasons which is not known to any body. As I am living in a Gulf country for 34 years and have noticed so many things and formed a conclusive study (Matching to you drapery theory)which is on the drapery. I have also been working on need to build Pyramids and I think all the theories till date are not correct as no body could give me the correct reasons. I asked some of the European scientists working on Pyamids and none has answered back with proper substantiations.

nileshmshukla said...

In the essence, the burqa/purdah which was considered negative/regressive for women by the politicians and social reformers at one time (during India's independence struggle)is considered a positive/must-do/necessary by the political pandits (of secular bent)of today. Where would these secularist take India to? Dear Swapanji, thanks for showing the contrast.

Anonymous said...


The so-called secularists have mastered the art of "heads I win, tails you lose" argument. They support the adoption of seclusionary identities by Muslims and then blame the Hindu society for the consequent ghettoization. They rant against a progressive Uniform Civil Code for all and then blame the Hindus for the low social status of the Muslims.

Still, a self-inflicted backwardness by the Muslims with active encouragement from the pseudo-secularists may not be completely undesirable.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article, really our pseudo liberals are so touchy and hyper sensitive, they will pounce on every word Modi utters.

BTW what is wrong is the term: "burqa of secularism", isn't that exactly what twisted nehruvian leftists are all about?

Deep Mkerj said...

Dear Sir,

"Burkha of secularism" is a phrase with a delightful and very evocative imagery. As you very rightly point out, Shri Narendra Modi has been able to explain very succinctly what goes around as "Kan-gress secularism".

The "Naked Communalism" comment on the other hand is a dud, a flop show, a damp squib and a typical "Kan-gress" sound-bite - devoid of either merit or sense and reminiscent of the verbal/ auditory horrors faced by Industry Confederation leaders in recent times.

Jitendra Desai said...

Modi and BJP will have to prepare themselves for daily assaults like this.Congress appears panicky.It does not know what else to do to recover lost ground.To attack Modi it does not have to do much.MSM too is ready to pounce.So expect more storms in drapery and wardrobes, bedrooms and court rooms....

Amit Dave said...

many channel said tht,growth of MP is higher thn guj,bt th truth is if a studnt incrse marks frm 90 to 93 is not shokng,btif 30 to 36 is noticable, thts the case of Bihar, MP,CG with GUJRAT.

Amit Dave said...

many channel said tht,growth of MP is higher thn guj,bt th truth is if a studnt incrse marks frm 90 to 93 is not shokng,btif 30 to 36 is noticable, thts the case of Bihar, MP,CG with GUJRAT.

Independent Thinker said...

Dear Mr Dasgupta,

I have thought of an objective way to measure, as it were, the secular tendencies of a society. In other words, I am attempting to define secularism in terms of numbers.

A society is considered secular if the rate of growth of its largest minority, equals or exceeds the rate of growth of population of the majority.

By this measure, secularism is binary. A society is, or is not secular.

If the minority is growing faster than the majority,
secular_status = 1
secular_status = 0