Though a veteran of gracing functions on 15th August, this one addressing a kindred feminine circle for Independence Day 2012, at a Ladies Club where I myself am a member was rather meaningful. Being amidst patriotic ladies reminded one that women were the unsung heroines of the freedom movement, not only as leaders like Sarojini Naidu or Captain Laxmi but equally holding the fort while husbands boycotted British India’s employments and filled the jails.
If you read the book “ Freedom at Midnight” there’s a vivid description of the crowd that thronged the Red Fort to hear Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “ Tryst with Destiny” speech. It comprised people of different communities representing the unity underlying the freedom movement. Sadly, this cohesive collaboration has lost its strength, as Indian-ness takes a backseat to caste, creed, region and all manner of divisions and sub-divisions. A ladies’ club struck me as a heartening entity, where a diverse cross section of womanhood represents in miniature the secular spirit of free India.
One might feel pessimistic about the Indian female’s woes and sorrows. While ground realities differ, independent India has been benign, even partial to women at the policy level. Female franchise came after long struggle in the so called progressive democracies- if you recall the movie “Mary Poppins”, Winnifred Banks, the mother of Jane and Michael spends her time at suffragette rallies fighting for women’s right to vote. Indian women have amazingly enjoyed the right to vote right from the very first general election and indeed their large turnout usually determines electoral outcomes. India has led the world in producing politically powerful women- a woman Prime Minister,President, a de-facto leader of a coalition at the centre and unusually assertive Chief Ministers.
The Indian state is committed to the welfare and protection of the Indian female, child or adult, through protective legislations such as those prohibiting dowry and pre-natal gender testing, combined with empowering measures like reservations, usually without equivalences for males. Contrast that with the lot of women in certain fundamentalist societies where a woman who drives a car or moves without a veil is tantamount to being a criminal and she is flogged rather than offered justice even if she happens to be a rape victim. There are miles to go for a great many Indian women in terms of inclusiveness, but it’s also a time to celebrate significant achievements of Indian womanhood in many segments and spheres.
Worthy principles of the Indian freedom movement offered themselves for reflection on relevance to Indian women. Foremost in my reflections at the gathering was Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of Swadeshi- pride in Indianness, especially with a focus on Indian dress. A surprising shortfall of saris found in the old clothes sent in disaster relief suggests that urban Indian women now find traditional dressing cumbersome and it could altogether have disappeared from young wardrobes. Undoubtedly, modern life demands convenient apparel, often with global styling. High priced foreign designer brands are usually of plain clothing whose notional value lies in the label. ( Ironically, global couture houses often claim Indian inspirations with exorbitant pricing of what can be easily procured in India with better workmanship) . Indians are inheritors of a priceless heritage in textiles and crafts, imposing an obligation to keep alive appreciation for beautiful weaves, textures, drapes,embroidery and embellishment of all kinds. This heritage of crafts and workmanship must be patronized for their unique aesthetics which suffer a threat of extinction, while also ensuring livelihood of talented artisans who often happen to be women.
Even as the wide world also beckons with variety and opportunity it’s appropriate to recall being heirs to a fabled ancient culture. Our unique practices- Yoga, meditation, ayurveda, Vaastu Shastra etc are enjoying a resurgence and global interest. As a writer, I feel especially gratified that Indian writing in English is seen as a conspicuous example of “The Empire Striking Back”. The true test of independence, I feel, is the confidence to absorb and assimilate the world’s relevant offerings and equally contribute Indian richness to the global melting pot. One should ring with the awareness that India is more than a nation, it’s a civilization!
The concept of Mother India was inspirational in the freedom struggle; it was an idea that represented the collective identity of Indian women. On the other side of the coin, every Indian woman is a Mother India in miniature, with a potential or actual expression of the nurturing spirit, while linking a precious past, dynamic present and exciting future.