The release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat has reignited the controversy surrounding patriarchy and misogyny, a women’s right to life and the glorification of the traditional practices of Sati and Jauhar. A very passionate open letter was written to Mr. Bhansali by actor Swara Bhaskar who stated that at the end of the film she felt ‘just like a vagina’. Many other columnists and writers mostly of the so called ‘progressive’ and the left liberal hue have come out in support of Ms. Bhaskar.
The critics however, seem to have decontextualized and missed the nuances, when pontificating on issues like self-immolation and a women’s right to life. Ms. Bhaskar and other so called ‘progressives’ rightly argue that a woman has the ‘right to live’ even if she has been raped. Nobody in the right mind would contest that. However, comparing an act of rape with sexual slavery is an illegitimate comparison. Such a comparison completely decontextualizes and obliterates the societal milieu in which these abominable acts take place. Rape is a criminal offence and in all civilised societies, the one subjected to rape is considered a ‘victim’. No civilized society justifies rape, and a rape victim is considered not only as having a right to live with dignity, but also seek legal redressal through the instruments of state like police and the courts. On the other hand, sexual slavery during the medieval times was considered legitimate by the society. It had religious and societal sanction and women usurped as war booty were subjected to mass rape, forced marriage and sexual depredations. Needless to say unlike rape in modern society they had no redressal against such depravity and also no way to escape. As a result, they were condemned to sexual slavery for ever. In the modern times the proto state created by the ISIS is a case in point. It was a state which not only allowed but also justified keeping women as sex slaves. A glimpse of the horrors perpetrated by the ISIS brutes on women subjected to sexual slavery can be found in the book, ‘The Last Girl’ by ISIS survivor Nadia Murad, who called her experience in ISIS captivity as ‘a slow, painful death – of the body and the soul.’ She was repeatedly raped, spat upon and her body burnt with cigarettes. She says that many women captives killed themselves. There were reports of Yazidi women setting themselves on fire to make themselves less attractive for ISIS men. Would it be fair to brand the acts of these women for attempting suicide or burning themselves as perverse? Will that not amount to victim blaming? Of course it would be. Padmavati did exactly what these Yazidi women did; embrace death rather than be completely dehumanised and be reduced to a sexual plaything of the Khilji invaders. The right to life does not mean only the right to ‘exist’ but inherent in it is the ability to lead a life with dignity. What dignity could Rani Padmavati have in a life which condemned her to perpetual sexual slavery till her last breath? So before anyone condemns her ‘choice’ of death with Jauhar, is it not important to understand the context in which the decision was taken? Interestingly the so called ‘progressives’ have always been at the forefront of protesting against the commodification of women (rightly so) but then, what would Rani Padmavati and other women of Mewar be, other than a commodity in the Khilji harem? They would have been reduced to dehumanised playthings to be enjoyed, traded amongst men, tortured and raped at will.
Let us also not forget that while Jauhar as a form of protest may have formed part of a by gone era, the act of embracing death, either slowly or instantaneously, in myriad forms, continues as a form of protest to this day. The Arab Spring was triggered by the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Tarek al Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi as late as December 17, 2010, in protest against the humiliation heaped on him by the municipal authorities. Isn’t it strange that while ‘progressives’ of one hue condemn Rani Padmavati for her act of self-immolation, ‘progressives’ of other hue (European Parliament) award the Sakharov Prize to Bouazizi in 2011! What about his right to live despite all adversities?
The act of self-immolation as a means of protest has also been a part of Buddhist tradition for long. Who can forget the protest on the street of Saigon by monk Quan Duc on June 11, 1963 against religious persecution of the Buddhists by the Catholic government of Ngo Dinh Diem. This self-immolation shook the conscience of the world and hastened the fall of the Diem government.
(The burning monk Quan Duc. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)
Similarly, since 2009, 151 Tibetan Buddhist monks have self-immolated themselves in Tibet and China protesting against Chinese occupation and its policies in Tibet.
One interesting fact to note however is the ambivalence shown by these so called ‘progressives’ in their condemnation of this practice of seeking death. If right to life is absolute then all attempts at embracing death, whether slow or immediate, should be treated as unacceptable. This however does not seem the case. Many of these ‘progressives’ who are at the forefront of condemning the practice of Jauhar were also at the forefront in their support for Anna Hazare’s fast unto death for Lokpal. They also speak pretty glowingly of Gandhiji’s repeated fasts on to death, which brought him close to death many times, during his long struggle as the leader of India’s independence movement. Now this begs the question as to if indeed they condemn all forms of suicide or their unequivocal condemnation is reserved for ‘Hindu’ practices like Jauhar? So a fast on to death is justified as in case of Potti Sreeramulu, who died fasting for the creation of Andhra but a Jauhar is not?
In this debate on Jauhar, the issue of ‘gender’ too has been mentioned by some, projecting women as victims, for it is mostly they who are subjected to such ‘regressive’ practices like self-immolation. The examples that I have quoted above however disproves any such generalizations. Men too have killed themselves. It is also worthwhile to note that in many cases powerful women have played exploiters and served as catalysts driving hapless men to self-immolation. The trigger for Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the public humiliation inflicted upon on him by a women municipal officer Ms. Faida Hamdi. Similarly, on witnessing the self-immolation of monk Quan Duc in Saigon, Madam Nhu, sister in law of Diem and a member of the powerful ruling family in South Vietnam is said to have remarked with contempt that she would “clap hands at seeing another barbecue show.”
The film has been pilloried by some for glorifying Sati and Jauhar, indirectly implying that the movie may influence people to either commit such act themselves or induce others to do so. Is this not a very elitist way of thinking, infantilizing an average the movie goer? Unfortunately, the so called ‘progressives’ of this country have generally infantilized the masses and have appropriated the right to think for them. This author is still to meet anyone so far who has seen the film and seeks to emulate the act of Jauhar in her personal life. Like the release of the ‘Last Samurai’ did not induce the Japanese to restart the process of committing hara-kiri, samurai style, no portrayal of any Jauhar in the film, howsoever glorified, will make Indian women jump in fire. So relax!
(The views expressed by the author are personal)