Almost every article we read in the American press speaks of India’s culture towards women, a culture of patriarchy and misogyny, in their words. Some Indians, who should know better, have even ventured into the absurd by taking isolated instances to accuse the Great Indian Epics of such cultural traits. Other Indians speak of child brides and practice of women confined to their houses as traits inherent to Indian culture.
Yet, in all these broad-brush aspersions on Indian society, there is no attempt to analyze where and how these practices originated. That is what we try to do in this article.
1. The last “Indian” Culture period
Everyone knows that India has been occupied and ruled by a series of foreign invaders for the past 1,000 years. Such a long occupation produces extensive changes to culture and India is no exception. But, underneath the many layers of foreign cultural mores, India & Indians retain the core of their religion, culture and literature. This is unique in world history and can only be a testament to the eternal values and great strength of the real Indian culture.
What was the status of women in this real Indian culture? The best evidence comes from the extensive descriptions of the last real Indian culture that dominated North India – that of the Imperial Kanauj period ( abt 725 – 950 CE). This period saw the rise and fall of three great empires in India and the expansion of Indian culture to India-centric empires in Java, Sumatra, Malay peninsula, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Kanya-Kubja or Kanauj was the great capital of this period and a seat of philosophy, literature and high fashion. Two of its outstanding intellects were Medhatithi, the great commentator on Manu-smruti, and Rajsekhar (915 CE), the exquisite poet & teacher to two emperors of Kanuaj. What were their teachings and practices regarding women?*
- “For the husband, so runs Medhatithi’s memorable dictum, has no dominion (prabhutva) over his wife. The husband and the wife, says he in another connection, differ only in their bodies but are entirely united in their functions. Equal right of the husband and the wife to seek legal remedy against each other in the last resort is emphasized by Medhatithi.”
- “A wife is obtained from God, not secured like cattle and gold, in the market; a husband, therefore, has no ownership over his wife.”
- “The practice of Sati, according to Medhatithi, is nothing but suicide, and as such, it is not permissible.”
- “The general level of their [women’s] culture was high. Its women did not lag behind mean in point of education. There were learned women as well as administrators.”
- “Culture is connected with the soul and not with the sex“, wrote Rajsekhar. His wife, Avanti-Sundari, was an exceptionally accomplished woman. Ubhay-Bharati or Sarasvati, who acted as an arbitrator in the great debate between Sankar-Acharya and Mandan-Mishra, was a great scholar herself.”
- “Kanauj was a seat of high fashion. The women were noted for their beauty and elegance. The dresses of women were copied by women from other lands and, as Arab writer Abu Zaid (916 CE) noted, the women, even the royal women were seen unveiled by the men present, whether natives or foreigners. (Purdah, or a veil to protect the modesty of women, was an Arab-Muslim convention introduced later into India under Muslim rule).”
The Kanuaj-based empire weakened in the mid-10th century and the next 50 years were marked by internal conflict in North India. The centrality of Samskrut was diluted and regional languages became dominant. Indian states turned inwards and a major religious transformation converted an aggressive, expansion-driven society into an inward-focused, non-invasive society.
In 997 CE, Abu-i-Qasim Mahmud, son of Sabukign, captured the Afghan province of Ghazni. This Turko-Afghan conqueror built a strike force and turned towards India. With this Mahmud of Ghazni, began the period of Mediaeval India. This period was marked by a succession of Turko-Afghan (Pathan) regimes, followed by rule of descendants of Chagatai Khan & Timur known as Mughals. The Mughals were followed by the British who left in 1947.
Even after 65+ years of independence, these two colonial cultures are still dominant in India. In fact, their influence has grown in the past decade as Indian economy has improved. Today, much of India remains socially divided into those living under British-dominated cultural mores and Pathan-dominated cultural mores.
1. British Colonial Culture
In the late 18th century, when a local
king in India had a problem with a neighboring king or when there was a
succession dispute within the king’s household, one of them would
approach the British and request their help. The British usually agreed
at a steep price, the price being outsourcing of the king’s army to
British control and a hefty fee. If
you think that was all past history, you are grossly mistaken.
Recently, the British Ambassador to India was ordered by British Foreign Office to to meet with Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat to
discuss expanding business between Britain and Gujarat. This was taken
as a sign of greater respect for Mr. Modi, the most hated politician for
India’s left & left-center wings. They were so aghast and protested
so intensely that the British Foreign office issued a clarification.
You see how much mind share a mere nod from the British creates in India’s English-educated urban media segment? And that is today, some 65+ years after the British left India.
As urban Indians get wealthier & more secure, their children are consciously trying to imitate the British ways. This is why you see the British flag on T-shirts in Mumbai and “Impeccably British” emblazened on shopping bags from Mumbai’s tony malls. This is why you see articles in India’s English media exhorting Indians to use “Queen’s English“. These are vivid examples how Britain’s colonial influence is much
stronger now than it was 30-50 years ago when the country was more
This new fashion of following the behavior of the colonial power is not only true in India’s urban centers. It may be actually be more prevalent in semi-urban and ruler areas of North India. Except, the colonial influence there is a different one.
2. The Real Colonial Influence on North India
The British ruled in India for a mere 200 years. In contrast, the Pathan-Mughals ruled North India from about 1192 CE. You don’t have to read history books to know this. Just look at the sights of Delhi. Almost every major monument in Delhi is either Pathan or Mughal. So if you a North Indian, you cannot even visually escape from the reality of the nearly 1,000 years of Pathan-Mughal rule in Delhi.
In the 1950s-1960s, the scars from India’s partition were raw and Muslims, especially Pathans, were not celebrated. This is why Yusuf Khan, Bollywood’s first iconic actor, had to take the name Dilip Kumar to succeed in Bollywood.
Today, just like the British in urban India, the Pathan heritage is a big draw in Bollywood and in North India. Today, there are 5 big stars in Bollywood named Khan, the iconic Pathan last name. Read how Shah Rukh Khan, the self-proclaimed king of Bollywood, described the Pathan heritage in his article last week:
“I am a Khan. The name itself conjures multiple images in my mind too: a strapping man riding a horse, his reckless hair flowing from beneath a turban tied firm around his head. His ruggedly handsome face marked by weathered lines and a distinctly large nose.”
Now listen to Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) talking about Pathan virility with Vidya Balan at the Colors Screen Awards on February 25, 2012. Fast forward to minute 03:11 of the clip below:
- Balan – “From Deewana to Don 2, you must have done tuning with 500 women“,
- SRK – “yeah, yeah”,
- Balan – “but have you ever done tuning with one woman 500 times?”
- SRK – “Oooh! In one night?”
- SRK – “May God prevent me from telling a lie. I am a Pathan, I have certainly done it 490 times.”
SRK added, “No not really, exactly unreally”. By the way, you don’t need a slangtionary to understand the meaning of “tuning“, do you?
Yes, this conversation is in jest to entertain the crowd but, even in jest, the stereotype of the virile warrior Pathan is enhanced. Shah Rukh Khan is rightly proud of his Pathan heritage. It means a great deal to him. Read how he describes his son in his recent article:
- “Our son’s linear features proclaim his Pathan pedigree although he carries his own, rather gentle mutations of the warrior gene.”
This warrior virile Pathan stereotype is ingrained into the North Indian psyche, especially the semi-urban or rural psyche. These are the guys who defeated North Indians in every single battle since 1001 CE and North Indians know that.
This is why young men from rural or semi-urban North India consciously imitate the Pathans even more than the urban English-speaking youth imitate the British.
3. The Exercise of Pathan Virility
Why not begin with relatively benign behavior of the greatest Pathan conqueror in India – the first invader to conquer much of South India besides ruling the North – Ala-Ud-Din Khilji. This Ala-Ud-din-Khilji sent an emissary to the then king of Gujarat with a demand for the King’s beautiful wife. Petrified of an invasion from Khilji, the Gujarat king surrendered his wife to Khilji along with a vast treasure.
Then Khilji turned to the Rajput kingdom of Mewar and demanded Queen Padmini, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in India. When Mewar refused, Khilji invaded that kingdom and laid a siege to the fort of Chittor. The Mewar army perished in fighting Khilji’s army and Padmini jumped into a burning pyre with other Rajput women to avoid capture by Khilji. Rajasthan is still seared with this story, a story of the enduring Pathan legend in North India.
But what about the ordinary Pathans warriors? Their favorite method was rape, rape of any Indian woman they could get their hands on. Read any historical novel of that period (1300-1800) and you read at least one story of a group of Pathans viciously beating up a husband, tying him up and brutally raping the wife in front of the husband. Yes, exactly what the six accused men did to the 23-year old Delhi woman and her friend.
The Pathan soldiers of the invading armies would capture as many Indian women as they could and take them back to Afghanistan to be sold in Iran or Arabia. The Pathans who stayed back in India were content to rape and sometimes took the raped women as wives. The raped women had nowhere else to go because their Indian fathers and husbands refused to take them back into their families.
Thus was born the practice of persuading a raped woman to marry her attacker. This is not just
old history. This is exactly what happened during the partition of India
in 1947. Indian women raped by Muslims during the riots were not taken
back by their husbands or fathers and often ended up being outcasts or marrying
their rapists. A sad & touching story of such a
tale is told in Raj Kappor’s famous film “Chhalia”.
The constant fear of rape by Muslims, primarily Pathans, persuaded fathers to marry off their daughters in their childhood thus transferring risk to the husband’s family. The fear of rape or capture by Pathans is also why women were not allowed to venture outside the house unless accompanied by a man, ideally a group of men.
Where was this most prevalent? In the small belt that connects the Indus Plain (now in NonPak-istan) and Delhi. We call this area as Haryana and Indian Panjab. So when you hear the Haryana politicians demand early marriage of daughters, when they criticize women for wearing short skirts or showing skin, they are responding to the ingrained safety devices practiced by their ancestors for the past 1,000 years.
Unfortunately, now they are trying to protect their daughters from the young of their own country, the young men who are now imitating the behavior of the men they look up to, the virile warrior Pathans.
The above is not just ancient history. This Pathan “appetite” for rape is what saved Srinagar’s airfield & therefore Kashmir for India in 1947. Read what Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins wrote in “Freedom at Midnight”, their book on the partition of India:
- “All day, Monday, 27 October, while the First Sikhs secured their fragile hold on Kashmir’s only airport, the Pathans in Baramullah were giving vent to their ancient appetites for rape and pillage. They violated the nuns, massacred the patients in their little clinic, looted the convent chapel down to its last brass door-knob.”
The Pathan tribesmen sent by the new NonPak-istani army had Srinagar and its vital airfield in their sights and almost in their hands. But by stopping to rape the nuns of the convent at Baramullah, they allowed the first airlifted units of the Indian army to land and seize Srinagar’s airport. As Lapierre & Collins wrote:
- “By the time the Pathans resumed their attack, it was too late.”
4. Culture of today’s rural or semi-urban North India
In life and in
society, brutality flows downhill. All Indians were inferior to the
ruling Pathans & Mughals during their rule. No Pathan was ever
punished for raping or capturing an Indian woman. It was deemed his
right. This practice was picked up and followed by upper class Indians against lower
class women in North India.
For a chilling example, watch the
you tube clip below from the movie “Pitaah” or father. The two young sons
of a rural landlord rape a 9-year old daughter of a landless laborer. They are
caught and put in jail, not for justice but to ensure a sizable bribe by
the landowner. The chilling part is how the landowner describes the
behavior of his sons to a visiting relative (minute 07:30 of the clip):
- Thakur Avadh Singh – What can I say? They made a mistake; who doesn’t make a mistake? The real problem is that dancer Naina. They had gone to see her dance, taken Rs. 50,000 to give her. But that b— broke her word and went with someone else (for Rs. 75,000). They became angry – hot blood and a full bottle; when that drunk, what difference does it make whether the b— is 9 years old or 90 years old?
Puri as Thakur Avadh Singh is natural & phenomenal. Watch this movie if you
want to understand the chilling conditions of landless laborers in rural India. You will realize such rape and maltreatment of women is really a part of landlord vs. landless economic milieu of rural North India and of so many regions of the world.
But urban India has a different problem, especially Delhi. Thousands of young men have left their villages or small towns in North India and
moved to Delhi bringing with them the rural mores. They are either unemployed or severely under-employed. They live together
often in one room in a poor neighborhood. They have little
or no female companionship. The more aggressive among them resemble wolf
packs on the prowl looking for victims, either of robbery or rape, just
like the Pathans of yesteryears.
The mixture of these men and Delhi’s English-educated urban women is volatile and dangerous. No law can address this problem without strong, effective police presence. Indian cities, including Delhi, just don’t have the manpower to create such a police presence. So we are not sure all the protests and the media hysteria will create any solution. Actually, we are afraid that de jure criminalization of men & their manhood will create unintended & unforeseen consequences, even frightening ones. But that is a topic for another article.
* The quotes are from Section II.4 – The Position of Women of Chapter XII of The Age of Imperial Kanauj, Volume IV of The History and Culture of the Indian People, 1955. Thie 11-volume series produced by a group of 18-20 of India’s scholars of History, Culture, Religion.
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