It is proper that The Hindu publishes different shades of opinion. It is just as important to hold fast to values of social justice and independent and civil debate. Over the past week or so, I have been subjected to a great deal of personalised comments for an article I wrote in this newspaper (Op-Ed, “Taking the aggression out of masculinity,” January 3, 2013). The article was only tangentially about Swami Vivekananda, though the majority of respondents have taken that to be its focus. The significant thing for me is not the nature of the attacks on my scholarship or motivations. Rather, it concerns the question: why is it that we are willing to countenance minute examination of the life and beliefs of public figures such as Gandhiji and Nehru, but not others?
Indian culture is not fragile
There are no simple answers to this. However, let me begin by saying that the opinions I expressed are not idiosyncratic and individual ones but are based upon what I have learnt from a large number of scholars, activists, journalists and, indeed, those currently protesting against the impact of masculine cultures upon women. So, to use Prema Nandakumar’s terminology in her article in The Hindu (Op-Ed, “He gave us back our dignity,” January 10, 2013), there is a considerable number of “childish” and “boorish” people — such as myself — who believe that Indian culture is no fragile object that will self-destruct at the slightest hint of critical examination. And further, that there is no one version of Indian culture that we should take as representative of what constitutes Indian-ness. That, historically, has been the beauty of a complex culture such as ours. Second, my article was written in the spirit that no social creativity is possible if we continue to cherish ‘our’ culture simply because it is our culture. There would, then, be no questioning of attitudes of earlier generations by the current ones and certainly very little questioning of gendered prejudices.
Dr. Nandakumar implies that ideal Indian womanhood lies in the person of the mother. Motherhood should, of course, be respected.
However, I would like to suggest that the elevation of motherhood to the status of an ideal is part of the problem we need to address, rather than an example of the high status enjoyed by women in Indian society. Put another way, does the idea — quoted approvingly by Dr. Nandakumar — that women should be “pure and selfless” ever get applied in the same way to men? Sadly, our crime statistics are full of women who have suffered the wrath of family and community justice for being “impure.” Regarding rituals — such as Raksha-bandhan and Karva-chauth — that she characterises as “celebrations of joy,” I can only say that while this may be an undeniable aspect for many women, a good number also come to the sad realisation that when it comes to providing a share of family property, brothers are very keen to overlook “the reaffirmation of holy ties” (as she puts it).
I certainly do not believe that I was indulging in “mudslinging” though, of course, Dr. Nandakumar is entitled to her opinion about what constitutes “serious sociological research.” However, any serious appraisal of social and cultural norms must consist of thinking about what is appropriate for the problems of the present, and, the norms of the past are not always a good guide for this task. The voices of many protesting young women — can they all be as “childish” as Dr. Nandakumar says of me? — seem to suggest as much.
It was a plea
My article was not — I must emphasise — about Swami Vivekananda. Rather, it was a plea to be more open in evaluating Indian heritage.
In any case, I wonder if Swami Vivekananda would have preferred to be considered an infallible godlike figure rather than a complex human being with multiple dimensions. Is that not a lesson Swami Vivekananda might himself have imparted? Finally, while I do not quite understand what Dr. Nandakumar means in stating that I try to sound “Knight-errantish by repeating the word masculine” (Knight-errants are not the kinds of figures I would wish to emulate!), I certainly hope that others — both women and men — who share my “cobwebbed” perspectives will also make public their own opinions and attitudes. That, I believe, will be an important way of ensuring that a life extinguished through an act of indescribable violence has not gone to waste.
(Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.)