AS the year draws to a close and another begins, a large section of inconsolable Indians will find themselves moping over the debris of their vanquished dreams. Others will be exulting at the turn of events, which launched the hitherto secular and reasonably democratic country on a full-blooded right-wing nationalist journey. Bemused and stranded between the rival political sentiments stands Jashodaben, the abandoned wife of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Were it not for a fortuitous last-minute rejection of her plea to know her status as the wife of the prime minister, Jashodaben would have gone into the New Year as one among millions of dejected Indians whose peace of mind was shattered by Mr Modi’s ascent.
Now she has hope. According to a story by the Indian Express on Sunday, one of very few papers that have shown the sensibility (and courage) to report her travails, Jashodaben has been told by the Gujarat police that it could technically not reveal her rights to her. The courts would like to know why.
Henceforth it is a legal and public issue, not a private one between spouses. It pertains to the right to information enacted by the previous government but ignored in its implementation by some states.
Will the plight of Modi’s abandoned wife spur activists, who have been complicit in ignoring her, and the media to act?
The official reply from the Gujarat police to Jashodaben’s petition is terse. “The information sought by you is concerning the LIB [Local Intelligence Bureau] and as per a notification … dated 25/10/2005 of Gujarat Government’s Home Department, LIB has been exempted from RTI under the provisions of the Act. Hence, this information cannot be provided to you.”
The reply, dated Dec 23, has been addressed to “Jashodaben, the daughter of Chimanlal Modi”, the Express said.
Will Jashodaben’s plight at least now spur the women’s activists, who have been complicit in ignoring her, and the media to act? Where else in the world would you find the prime minister’s wife going public about her mortal fear of being killed and the media ignoring it, privately citing ‘national interest’?
Double standards are evident and, worse, accepted. The current French president divorced his wife to be with someone he loved more, and the global media, including the Indian component, lapped up the story with relish. Closer home, Mahatma Gandhi spoke freely about his personal life with his wife, often with unsavoury detail. His experiments with ‘truth’ have been the subject of whispered disapproval and high reverence as well as the topic of his book.
Mr Modi’s domestic life is neither unique nor unfamiliar to most Indians young or old. The first president of India offered a good example. His story reveals a link rather than a dichotomy between primitive social structures and India’s atavistic modernity.
According to Dr Rajendra Prasad, he was allowed access to his wife only in the pitch dark of her unventilated boudoir. A housemaid accompanied him with a lamp to the threshold of the room assigned to his wife in the upper-caste Bihari joint family. The maid would then walk away with the light to leave the master alone with his wife and, according to his memoirs, without giving him a chance to see her. Custom required him to return to his own bed in the men’s section of the mansion before daybreak.
The isolation of women from the men’s quarters is a tradition from mediaeval India. Rigidities have been embraced by the more numerous lower castes. The tendency ought to have been discouraged but Gandhiji torpedoed Subhas Chandra Bose as Congress president, the one possible gender-sensitive hope India had.
While most Indian editors play down potentially embarrassing details about many of their leaders they have not been averse to stories, even gossip, related to Jawaharlal Nehru. When Pamela Hicks wrote everything you cared to know about the men in the life of her mother Edwina Mountbatten, the Indian media homed in on her relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru. Editors were disappointed to be told, however, that the vicereine and Nehru had a platonic relationship, not what she apparently had with others.
The Daily Mail honoured Hicks’s book with a matching review. “The housekeeper at the grand Mayfair mansion was at her wit’s ends, as she complained when the lady of the house finally bustled in from shopping. Five gentlemen admirers were waiting on her. ‘Mr Gray is in the drawing room, Mr Sandford is in the library, Mr Phillips is in the boudoir, Senor Portago in the anteroom...and I simply don’t know what to do with Mr Molyneux!’” The Indian media threw a feast.
By comparison Mr Modi’s relationship with his wife, privately if not officially, ended four decades ago when he embarked on a mission of celibacy as part of his bonding with the Hindutva’s all-men bastion, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Why then deny the wife the right to know her rights as his spouse, who she still believes she is? How is the denial of a wife’s rights any different in this case from the infamous Shahbano episode?
Mr Modi for reasons best known to him had personally revealed his marital status to the Election Commission ahead of last year’s polls. The Indian Express carried Jashodaben’s first interview at the time. “I will not make up things that are not true. In three years, we may have been together for all of three months. There has been no communication from his end to this day.”
These are not words of any ambitious woman seeking crumbs of power her estranged husband enjoys. In her petition Jashodaben specifically expressed her fear that the guards kept to protect her could also kill her, as had been the case with Indira Gandhi. If the story is ignored or buried it will not be because it lacks merit. There must be other reasons, including possible ‘national interest’. Jashodaben has a good case to test that misplaced nationalist zeal.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2014