Vibhuti Narayan Rai, a retired Indian Police Service officer who is currently the Vice-Chancellor of India's only Hindi university, the Mahatma Gandhi International University at Wardha in Maharashtra, has created a furore in the world of Hindi writing. In a recent interview in Naya Gyanodaya, a Hindi magazine run by the Bharatiya Jnanpith Trust (the body that awards the Jnanpith award annually for the best literary writing in Indian languages), he lashed out at the trend of frank autobiographical writing by Hindi women writers. Using astoundingly crude words, Mr. Rai rubbished some best-selling woman authors in words that conveyed the image of sex-hungry women with loose moral values competing against each other in recording graphic details of their promiscuity in order to attract attention to their writings. It was, he said, as though there was a veritable festival of pornographic writing by women in Hindi.
Mr. Rai has since been pulled up by the Union Minister for Human Resource Development. He was petitioned by a group of eminent women writers and activists, asking to sack a man heading a top academic institution who chose to air such crass views in public about women in general and women writers in particular.
The complainants were told that it was, alas, not so easy to remove a Vice-Chancellor. Only the Visitor, the President of India, can initiate such proceedings as may culminate in the dismissal of a person in that position — after the charges are proven in the Supreme Court of India. One has no idea whether the first-ever woman President of India may wish to consider taking suo motu action in the matter. But at least for the time being Mr. Rai has got away with an unconditional apology for using intemperate language by which he may have inadvertently hurt some women's sentiments, et cetera.
The Jnanpith Trust, being a private body, was quick to react. It removed Mr. Rai from its Board. However, women writers point out that the Editor of the magazine (who is Mr. Rai's friend) who chose to focus a whole issue of the literary journal on the subject of infidelity continues to hold his job.
More surprisingly, during the course of a war of words that has since broken out in the world of Hindi writing, including on numerous blog-sites, it seems Mr. Rai has many male sympathisers who agree with his view that feminist women writers must be controlled. They say that women's increasingly vivid and frank writings about female sexuality posed a threat to India's noble traditions and outraged their sense of moral propriety. Mr. Rai, they say in blog postings and letters to editors, is a real man, courageous enough to articulate what many of them wanted to but could not.
These supporters of Mr. Rai are, expectedly, being challenged by another band of brothers who allege that those that stand by him and his views are either sycophants eying the loaves and fishes a Vice-Chancellor can distribute at will, or are sexually permissive Lefties and closet-casteists. Appallingly, at this point each side begins to use masculine-style profanities that threaten unmentionable acts of revenge against their mothers and sisters.
To those who have not been involved in the long and hard battle women and other ‘out' groups in India, particularly in the Hindi belt, have fought to attain literacy, social visibility and political acumen along with the necessary skills to express their thoughts and experiences in their own words, such clashes may appear somewhat bizarre and exceptional.
But the fact is that the present controversy is less substance than smokescreen for the recurring, organised backlashes against educated women per se. Women in India may have had their dreams set free by democracy, but they still cannot escape the everyday realities and a whole culture devoted to keeping them chained to their traditional roles. Time and again, loud arguments break out among editors, academics, legislators or corporate cadres when any concrete step towards ensuring socio-cultural equality for women is considered. Curiously, all such debates will soon enough step over women's rights for self-determination. The successes of the women's movement will be inscribed on the charge sheet along with its shortcomings (such as city-based Parkati, or wing-less, women being in charge). And then, both will be enlarged to conclude that men must decide the matter finally.
The only thing to be sorted out, then, is at what level what kind of patriarchal power shall create the template for the proposed change: upper caste or lower caste, secular or religious? What is taken as a given is that ultimately it is a group of men that will decide what is good for women and the nation and the patriarchal family must remain both the basis and the training ground for the vision for change.
It is for this reason that instead of debating the content and the literary quality of women's writing today in India, the entire debate about Mr. Rai's utterances has again come to highlight the traditional virgin-and-not-so-virginal divisions among women writers. The right wing says all that is not virginal or motherly in spirit must be deemed to be pornographic and banned. The Left establishment (to which Mr. Rai belongs peripherally as a member of its literary body, the Jan Samvad Manch) has either maintained a mysterious silence or indicated that all sex is good so long as it is clean (read, male-defined) and that although encouraging or publishing pornography is protected by the democratic right to free expression, women's writings in Hindi about sex and their longings, are largely the utterances of desperate bourgeois housewives.
We were not prepared culturally as women to meet such resistance to our freedoms. So we ask naively: is not equal opportunity the bedrock of our Constitution? Why should we fight for or expect resistance to something we thought we already had? This incident reminds us again that raised hopes, a hunger for genuine change and success born out of years of hard work are bound to face a backlash from those like Mr. Rai and his interlocutors, who feel that giving women more independence has resulted in overburdening the poor dears' psyches and wrecked their previously healthy relationships with men.
Fortunately we have strong women writers in all Indian languages by now. Mahasweta Devi, Ambai, Krishna Sobti, Alka Saravagi and Ajeet Caur have already developed the right vocabulary to describe women's outrage at men refusing to separate sex from violence. They have the courage to protest publicly against discrimination of all kinds and demand punishment for those who denigrate and humiliate women in any field of life.
As women, most of us have traditionally been trained to measure our success in any given field, in terms of the loving approval and applause we will receive. Today, 35 years after the first registering of women's hopes by the historic Towards Equality report (1975) strong-willed women from all fields must learn a vital survival lesson if they are to keep going.
The lesson is that the strength and scope of the backlash against feminist writing are actually a compliment to its strength. Organised and crudely worded opposition mounted against educated women whenever their inclusion in the legislature or the literary establishment is being debated, is actually a measure of their having arrived.
(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer.)