A journey through the political history of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, giving it more say in national affairs than any other state. No less than eight of its politicians became prime ministers of our country as if leadership was in the very air they breathed. The state stands at the brink of breaking its shackles of communalism and casteism. To get there, it must understand its own political history, evaluate its present leadership and vote for a better future. In search of Ram Rajya by Manjula Lal is a political history of Uttar Pradesh that has never been attempted before, certainly not by historians. Crafted with a mix of academic research and ground reportage, this book brings alive the colourful characters who shaped its psyche and takes a non-partisan look at the events in the state for the last six centuries. It is an eye-opener that can change the way we discuss politics in the 21st century – far beyond caste calculations, dynastic ambitions, and family feuds. Here’s a Book Extract, exclusively in Different Truths.
If Ram Rajya were to come to Uttar Pradesh, would there be a better deal for today’s Sitas? Feminists would immediately retort that this is impossible as the Ramayan is the father-narrative of Indian patriarchy. They point to the lack of passages in the epic about Ram’s love for Sita and say his heroic efforts to rescue her when she was abducted were a compulsion, an imperative to uphold his dynasty’s honour.
Worshippers of Ram counter this narrative by pointing out that he married only once at a time when polygamy prevailed—and sometimes even polyandry, as we have seen in the other epic Mahabharat, where Draupadi married five brothers. At any point, Ram
could have just moved on to the next wife, as his father Dashrath did. Moreover, in his last moments on Earth, when Ram took Jal Samadhi, he is said to have chanted Sita’s name.
By contemporary standards, it is difficult to accept Sita as the ideal woman, much more difficult than valorising Ram as the ideal man, especially in the context of his rejection of Sita due to whispers about her fidelity. Sita’s self-sacrificing attitude is abhorrent in a modern age when women wonder why they have to endure all the hardships while men are entitled to all the benefits. Sita’s submissiveness sends a subliminal message to our collective psyche that right-thinking women cannot accept. However, many women would agree with her decision to accompany Ram into the forest, as it is seen as women’s lack of fear of hardship and ability to be at the side of their husbands through thick and thin.
Maybe it is time for modern writers to interpret Sita’s character in new ways, as novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni will be doing in the near future. She has already attempted a creative interpretation of Draupadi’s story in Palace of Illusions, which proved to be the most popular of her 36 novels. She has also said about Sita that instead of being seen as submissive, she should be projected as the first single mother in literature. Myths have to be retold in the modern context, feels Divakaruni.
Then there is the intriguing paradox of Ram’s treatment of Ahalya. In calendar art depictions throughout India, Ram’s foot is shown touching a stone which transforms into a woman—Ahalya, wife of the seer Gautam, who was deceived by Lord Indra into committing adultery. Later the same Ram would banish Sita who was abducted and therefore ‘tainted’. In Vaishnav tradition, Sita advises Hanuman to forgive her tormentors stating, ‘Kindness is to be shown by a noble person either towards a sinner or to a virtuous person or even to a person who deserves death, for there is none who never commits a wrong.’ She advises compassion, very different from what she was to be shown in Ayodhya. Maybe if one wants to draw inspiration from the story of Ram and Sita, one should turn to the Buddhist version of Ram Katha in which Ram is described as a Bodhisattva. He apologises to Sita for his rejection of her after a dhobi’s comments, after which she returns to live with him happily ever after.
It is also difficult to swallow the diatribe against women in the Manusmriti, but as we have already noted, this is the text deliberately chosen by the British to formulate the Hindu Code Bill, and is not representative of how women were treated in ancient India. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, which fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 years and boys at 18, is popularly known as the Sarda Act, after its sponsor Harbilas Sarda, an Arya Samaji from Rajasthan. (In independent India, this was later amended to 18 for girls and 21 for boys.) Before its passage, there were intense debates among British and Indian social reformers on the issue of marriage. Many Hindus justified the practice as a social necessity but reformers won the day.
Manusmriti has a verse: ‘Yatrnaryastopojyantay, ramantaytatrdevta’ (In households where women are provided place of honour, gods are pleased and reside), but the same text is also full of derogatory comments about women:
- It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason, the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.
- One should not accept meals from a woman who has extramarital relations, nor from a family exclusively dominated/managed by women or a family whose 10 days of impurity because of death have not passed.
- Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, in the custody of husbands when married and her son if widowed. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.
- Men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands.
- After the death of her husband, she must emaciate her body by living only on pure flowers, roots of vegetables and fruits. She must not even mention the name of any other men after her husband has died.
- It is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives. Even physically weak husbands must strive to control their wives.
- Consuming liquor, association with wicked persons, separation from her husband, rambling around, sleeping for unreasonable hours and dawdling—are six demerits of women.
- On failure to produce an offspring with her husband, she may obtain offspring by cohabitation with her brother-in-law [devar] or with some other relative [sapinda] on her in-laws’ side.
A barren wife may be superseded in the eighth year; she whose children die may be superseded in the tenth year and she who bears only daughters may be superseded in the eleventh year, but she who is quarrelsome may be superseded without delay.
Social reformers have worked assiduously to counter the Manusmriti kind of depiction of women, but they have made a dent only with the urban elite. Even then, the birth of a girl child is traditionally treated as a misfortune in UP. They are told they are ‘paraya dhan’ (another’s wealth) and would go to their ‘real homes’ after marriage. Early marriage and purdah/ghunghat have been women’s biggest handicap. The government has done precious little to improve their lot—that has been left to non-government organisations (NGOs.) Despite the fact that Lucknow is known for its chikankari, the plight of the women who do the embroidery has hardly improved. In November, the Aligarh village panchayat banned girls from wearing jeans and using mobiles.
BR Ambedkar, that inveterate critic of Hindu society and religion, wrote about what he called the ‘Sita Effect’—the powerful grip of the submissive wife on the popular imagination. And he also delved into the culture of goddesses:
‘A comparison between the Vedic Goddesses and the Puranic Goddesses cannot be avoided by a student whose business it is not merely to write history but to interpret history. On one point there is a striking contrast, between the two. The worship of the Vedic Goddesses was worship by courtesy. They were worshipped only because they were the wives of Gods. The worship of the Puranic Goddesses stand on a different footing. They claim worship in their own right and not because they are wives of Gods. This difference arises because the Vedic Goddesses never went to the battle-field and never performed any heroic deed. The Puranic Goddesses, on the other hand, went to the battlefield and performed great heroic deeds. Their worship was not by courtesy. It was based upon their heroic and thundering deeds.’
Sadly, retrograde ideas about women are repeated not only by men but have been internalised by women themselves. As things stand, however, the coming of Ram Rajya would not bring progress on the gender front. On a visit to Lucknow, even former President APJ Abdul Kalam Azad remarked that UP cannot develop unless women are given an equal place in society. Some of them are fighting for it, across class and caste, but it is an uphill task and the battle is not yet won.
If we are to look for inspirational figures among UP’s historical figures, then we have to tell the tales of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (1828–58), and Begum Hazrat Mahal (1820–79), both of whom showed great courage and leadership in the tumultuous situation of 1857–58. Both were married into royal families. Lakshmi Bai was more daring, adept both at riding horses and wielding the sword. Neither could have ruled in their own right, since women were denied that privilege, but overcame gender barriers to keep their kingdoms intact so that their sons could rule one day. This was not to be, since the British Crown took over the administration of the whole country after the Mutiny.
Lakshmi Bai was given the name Mannikarnika (mistress of jewels) when she was born in Kashi (now known as Varanasi), as Goddess Parvati was said to have hidden her earrings at the ghat. Her mother died when she was four and her father got her married to Raja Gangadhar Rao, the Maharaja of Jhansi in 1842 when she was 14. She was given the name Lakshmi Bai after marriage. When Rao died 11 years later, critics noted that she stayed indoors only for 13 days, did not shave her head, break her bangles, or dress in the widow’s white.
She was clearly no conventional woman. In September–October 1857, Rani had to defend Jhansi from being invaded by the armies of the neighbouring rajas of Orchha and Datia. Then in January 1858, after negotiations with the Rani failed, the British army marched towards Jhansi; a battle raged at the fort for two weeks which finally the British won. However, Rani Lakshmi Bai managed to escape along with her adopted son (her own infant had died), in the guise of a man.
‘The Ranee was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness, and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of the rebel leaders.’
This is what General Hugh Rose, commander of the force that took Jhansi and Gwalior, said about Lakshmi Bai. She became a legend, a role model for UP girls, who were urged to be brave like her. Her statues were installed all over India, inevitably on a horse wielding a sword; buildings, streets, housing colonies are named after her, even a cricket tournament; a women’s regiment of the India National Army which fought against the British in World War II was also named after her.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was the wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab who was defeated by the British and banished to Bengal in May 1856. During the 1857 Mutiny, she was in command during the siege of the Lucknow Residency, where a British garrison under the command of Sir Henry Lawrence had taken refuge. She took the responsibility of feeding the sepoys pouring into Lucknow and inspired them to fight for the cause without pay. She ruled for 10 months as regent on behalf of her 11-year-old son, ensuring his place in history as the last Nawab of Awadh. When the rebellion was put down, she took political asylum in Nepal, where she eventually breathed her last.
Begum Hazrat Mahal has largely gone unsung, but Rani Lakshmi Bai was valorised in the writings of Vishnu Bhatt Godse Veraikar, the Marathi writer who explained why pilgrims dig for burnt rice in Ayodhya. Bhatt was an eyewitness to the unrest, and finished writing Mazha Pravas (My Journey) in 1881, 24 years after the Mutiny. In UP, she became part of folklore, thanks to the poetry written about her bravery, especially the line ‘Khub ladi mardani, woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi’ (She fought like a man, the queen of Jhansi).
When talking about UP’s memorable women, one cannot leave out Mumtaz Mahal, whose mausoleum came to be called Taj Mahal, a distortion of her name. Eraly’s book tells us:
‘Mumtaz was not just a beautiful woman with whom Shah Jahan was in love; she was his helpmate, the anchor on which he moored himself. He was as dependent on Mumtaz as Jahangir was on Nur Jahan. But unlike Jahangir, who did not care for convention and was not bothered about who knew of his dependence, Shah Jahan was careful about appearances. Still, it was widely known that he consulted her on all important matters, and it was she who placed the royal seal on his firmans, which gave her a chance to examine the final drafts of documents. Mumtaz died in Burhanpur on 17th June 1631, a painful death, after a thirty-hour labour, giving birth to her fourteenth child.’
So while tourists flock to the Taj, seeing it as the ultimate monument to love, the joy of knowing how much she did is diminished by knowing how she died, and about Shah Jahan’s womanising after he got over her death.
As for women politicians, history tells us that UP started out with pretty remarkable leadership. This is what Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and 46 other books, wrote about Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) when she was a leading freedom fighter:
‘It has been our good fortune, while in Bombay, to meet Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, the newly elected President of the All-India Congress and a woman who combines in the most remarkable way great intellectual power with charm, sweetness with courageous energy, a wide culture with originality, and earnestness with humor. If all Indian politicians are like Mrs. Naidu, then the country is fortunate indeed.’
Incidentally, Aldous Huxley’s father was biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who propounded the Theory of Evolution.
Sarojini Naidu was also the second woman to become the president of the Indian National Congress in 1925, the first being Annie Besant in 1917. Both these women were involved in the establishment of the Women’s Indian Association. Naidu was the first governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in 1947–49.
Born as Sarojini Chattopadhyay in Hyderabad, Naidu studied in Britain and joined the freedom movement in the wake of partition of Bengal in 1905. She came into contact with Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Rabindranath Tagore, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, CP Ramaswami Iyer, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1929, she presided over the East African Indian Congress in South Africa. She went to jail for participating in the 1930 Salt Satyagrahaand 1942 Quit India movement. Yet the British government gave her the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal for her work during the plague epidemic in India.
Uttar Pradesh has only one institution named after her—the Sarojini Naidu Medical College (SNMC) in Agra, one of the three oldest in the country. Outside the state, she has medical institutions named after her in Hyderabad and a women’s college in Kolkata.
Sarojini Naidu’s poetry about Nature, love and patriotism in the English language gave her the sobriquet ‘Nightingale of India’. She criticised the treatment given to widows and wrote about the overthrow of tyrants and the regeneration of the country.
About the Author
Born in Ballia, a remote village of Uttar Pradesh where Manjula Lal’s father was a district magistrate, the author spent 11 years in a convent boarding school in the hill-station of Nainital, now in Uttarakhand. Thanks to her father’s job in the IAS, she lived in many parts of UP, including Allahabad, Hamirpur and Jhansi. After graduating from Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow, she went to New Delhi for her Master’s in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. During two semesters in Pennsylvania State University as a teaching assistant, she was the first columnist of foreign origin for the local newspaper. She returned to Delhi to pursue a career in journalism that spans three decades, including Patriot, Delhi Mid-Day, Indian Express, Pioneer, Economic Times, Swagat magazine and Tehelka. In between, she also had a one-year stint with Penguin Books India. She now works as a senior editor with The Statesman, New Delhi.
(Contributed by Piyusha Vir, Marketing Specialist, Readomania).
Editor’s Note: Excerpted with permission from ‘In Search of Ram Rajya’, by Manjula Lal, published by Readomania. It is reproduced as received. DT has not edited it.
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