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Coronation by Divination, History by Hearsay


In my last offering (“India Steals a March,” ZNet, June 19,2007) I expressed my delight at the prospect that the next President of the Indian Republic was likely to be a woman.

That, even as I qualified the delight by stating “I must confess I have never shared the sentiment that a world led by women must necessarily be a better world, or a worse one for that matter.”

It was (and remains strongly) simply my democratic contention that “where abilities and aspirations (as among men and women) are evenly spread, so should goods and governance be.”

II

In the intervening period of time, some remarkable developments have taken place in regard to Shrimati Pratibha Patil’s candidature on behalf of the ruling United Progressive  Alliance (UPA).

A la the American political process, the opposition to the UPA (with the right-wing Hindu BJP in the  forefront) has been digging up what dirt they could to smear Patil’s credibility.

Allegations have been made pertaining to her ostensible complicity in shielding the alleged murderers of a Congress Party leader in Maharashtra, defaulting on bank loans and so forth.

In all these matters, Shrimati Patil’s brothers seem somewhere or the other in the focus of suspicion.  Thus far, the allegers are careful not to point a finger directly at Shrimati Patil, nor is she the subject of any official enquiry to date.

Time will tell; but for now, on a scrutiny of what has come to light thus far, this writer is inclined to the inference that Shrimati Patil owes whatever flack is coming her way to the misdemeanours of her kin.  It is to be noted that there has hardly been a national leader in India’s post-independence political history, across parties, who have not in one way or the other, been thus embarrassed by those near to them.

III

There is, however, another category of perceptions that Shrimati Patil has voiced that fill one with a disquiet that refuses to go away.

Asked how she felt about her candidature, Shrimati Patil acknowledged that the happening was a tribute to the faith that the system reposes in India’s women.  She made the further point that it is time for Indian women to come out of “purdah” –a metaphor, you might say, for a cloistered segregation connoting women’s unfitness to mess with the man’s world, a biological/cultural/political demarcation calculated to keep in place that first “division of labour” of which Engles had spoken in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
Fair enough, we would say.

Pratibha Patil went on to latch to that articulation what must seem an entirely gratuitous and ill-founded observation, namely, that “purdah” among Hindu women had, after all, only been a defensive stratagem against the Moghul invasions.

Not unsurprisingly, a “fatwa” has already been issued by some Muslim clerics admonishing Muslim members of the electoral college that votes in the President not to vote for Patil.  Predictably, her allusion to the Moghuls as first cause has been construed to signify a Hindu-communalist slant on India’s history.

I ask myself: did Shrimati Patil’s observation reflect an innocent historical illiteracy, or did it indeed issue from a considered political decision?  Alas I have not the answer, since Shrimati Patil has thus far made no clarificatory statement.  And if it be the case that her counsellers advise against making that statement, they are no friends of her.

If what she has said be indeed a case of non-malignant illiteracy (it is well-established that “purdah” among Hindu women has had a history that predates the arrival of the Moghuls by centuries, and that traverses a great diversity of local/regional/caste/property arrangements), Shrimati Patil’s scholarship-by-hearsay must seem ruefully ill-timed, belying the claims of her political maturity.

If, on the other hand, the gloss to her laudable advocacy of women’s freedom has been well-considered,  grave apprehensions about Shrimati Patil’s ideological socialization present themselves.  Despite the odd occurrence that her reference to the Moghuls has been lapped up by the Hindu right-wing, no authentic pronouncement of her position is still forthcoming.

IV

Then the other thing that Shrimati Patil has said (the clip promptly and repeatedly played by TV channels inimical to the UPA):  Shrimati Patil has claimed that the spirit-voice of the deceased erstwhile head of the Brahma Kumari sect located at Mount Abu in Rajasthan possessed the living body of the current head and then actually spoke to Shrimati Patil, presaging good things to come her way. (Macbeth, Macbeth).

The inescapable inference here is a truly disturbing one; not only that “spirits” of the dead speak to the living, but that Shrimati Patil’s good fortune somehow owes not to the material processes of India’s party system but to a divination from the other world.

Now it is fact that barring the communists, Nehru, Lohia, and a few others—past and present, but how few indeed—it is hard to name an Indian political practitioner who has been free of this sort of allegiance to the other-wordly, or to reactionary caste practices.  It will be recalled that the first-ever President of the Indian Republic, Babu Rajendra Prasad, was to go to the holy city of Varanasi and wash the feet of the Pandits there.  Indeed, one among the learned Pandits slated for the honour, Jagannath Upadhyay, had the integrity not only to opt out but to issue a strong statement criticizing the President’s course of action.

Nor is it such  a secret that many among India’s reputed intellectuals—including a former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of India—have remained devoted followers of various “godmen.”  (For anybody interested in exploring the phenomenon, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe in Weird Things is recommended; Shermer edits the journal Skeptik.)

The problem is that Shrimati Patil’s claim puts her rather in the same camp as George W.Bush.  The born-again Bush has repeatedly and joyously contended that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in obedience to a divine voice that spoke to him.  Thus, what business of the Houses of Congress or the media or the American public to analyse or critique what courses he chose.  Richard the Second all over again.

Clearly then, Shrimati Patil’s detractors might be wrong in attributing her candidature to the Nehru-Gandhi family; just as many of us might be wrong as well in having supposed that we could look to Shrimati Patil for an unflinching adherence to the secular and the rational.

What is one to say?  Only Shrimati Patil may say.

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