Page 1

Duke Center for South Asian Studies

Duke Undergraduate Journal ISSN: 2155-6229


Plurality and its Uniformity:


Subjects of Feminism:

18 25

of South Asian Studies Volume 1, Issue 2 (Spring 2010)

Indian Family Law and the Uniform Civil Code

Redef ining Normative Interpretations of Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi

The Call Center as a Site of Traumatic Bilingualism

Netaji v. Mahatma:

The Power of Ritual in Indian Politics

Sheherbano AHMED







Table of Contents

3 Plurality and its Uniformity Indian Family Law and the Uniform Civil Code Sheherbano Ahmed

University of London, SOAS


Subjects of Feminism Redef ining normative interpretations of Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi


Hardeep Dhillon

Univ. of California, Berkeley

The Call Center as a Site of Traumatic Bilingualism Prashanth Kamalakanthan Duke University

Netaji v. Mahatma


The power of ritual in Indian politics Jacob Clarkson

Arizona State University

From the Editor

Greetings, and welcome to the second issue of the Duke Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies (DUJSAS). This is a project that had been waiting to see fruition for several years: undergraduate research on South Asia-related topics has been growing every year and has been in need of a visible and accessible forum for students to showcase their work, spur debate, and encourage others to contribute. We have been consistently thrilled to find that there is a growing, vibrant South Asian-interest culture throughout the world’s universities. Our final selections here, painstakingly chosen by our editorial staff, are interesting, engaging, and varied. They reflect the richness of South Asia and the vigor of undergraduate interest in the region. It is our hope that the articles within this journal don’t only edify but also engender more research, motivating other undergraduates to contribute to the bodies of academic literature in South Asia-related fields. South Asian studies can only grow larger. We are excited to be a part of that growth. Sandeep Prasanna Editor-in-Chief Co-President, Duke Diya

Faculty Advisors Dr. Baishakhi Taylor Dr. Ajantha Subramanian Dr. Sumathi Ramaswamy

Contact E-mail:

Undergraduate Staff Sandeep Prasanna ‘11, Editor-in-Chief Shilpi Kumar ‘13, Layout Editor Hareesh Ganesan ‘12, Associate Editor Reshma Kalimi ‘12, Associate Editor Ovini Rodrigo ‘14, Asst. Editor Anamika Goyal ‘11, Asst. Layout Editor Likhita Kommidi ‘13, Asst. Layout Editor

presented may represent the personal opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily those of DUJSAS or the Duke University community.

The information provided by our contributers in their essays is not indepen-

Submissions were solicited from undergraduates and recently graduated alumni from universities around the country. Essays were blind-reviewed by a panel of undergraduates and South Asian Studies faculty.


Indian Family Law and the Uniform Civil Code Sheherbano Ahmed School of oriental and african StudieS univerSity of london

Sheherbano Ahmed is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Law and South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Ottawa, Canada, she aims to be an academic. Her interests in South Asia are varied, from law to cinema; combining the two greatly fascinates her. After completing her bachelors degree, Sheherbano hopes to pursue a masters degree in South Asian Studies in order to deepen her knowledge and understanding of the region.

1. Menski Werner. Hindu Law: Beyond tradition and modernity. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 230. 2. Menski Werner. Comparitive Law in a Global Context. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 347. 3. Menski Werner. “The Uniform Civil Code debate in Indian law: New developments and changing agenda.” 4. German Law Journal 9, no.3 (2008): 230 Except for Professor Menski in 2006 in his article ‘Asking for the moon’ 5. Mohd Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum AIR 1985 SC 945

The debate surrounding the Uniform Civil Code in India was born out of an initial dispute regarding the political models that the newly independent country should follow. Dr. Babasahib Ambedkar presented a secularist and one-size-fits-all model of justice which would divorce religion from law, similar to prevailing Western tradition.In opposition was Gandhi’s drive to resurrect customary norms from local cultures which were ultimately focused on following dharma and delivering justice case by case. Torn between these two approaches, Nehru, himself a proponent of secularism, crafted a distinct form of secularism for India.1 The ensuing constitution sought to balance interests of both the Hindu majority and the large minority religions in the country. However, modern India’s secularism, often misunderstood as a copy of Western systems with a complete separation of religion and law,2 is far from that ideal. The reality of the Indian creation is as follows In essence, Indian secularism means equidistance of the state from all religions. It is not based on a clear-cut division of law and religion, but recognises their holistic interconnections and seeks to guarantee minorities equal treatment in a Hindu-dominated state3.

6. Jorden Diengdeh v S.S Chopra AIR 1985 SC 935 7. Sections 10, 18, 19 &22 8. Sections 31-34

In this newly crafted ‘secular’ constitution, directive principles were added as goals to which the new state would work towards. The Uniform Civil Code (UCC), as codified in Article 44, has received much attention as the law directly addressing these secular concerns. For decades, judges, academics and politicians have kept the debates regarding the UCC loud and alive. However, none of the voices4 have taken note of the fact that current evidence, in the form of cases and statutory law, suggest that as a result of these debates Indian law now stands as a mirror image of the constitutionally envisaged solution. This essay will highlight this mirror image while discussing Indian opinions on the topic.

Indian judges have often raised the concern regarding the absence of any implementation of Article 44. In a cluster of cases during the ten year period from the mid1980s up to the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court constantly reiterates this. One of the most prominent calls for the UCC was made in the Shah Bano case5, where the court stated at paragraph 35:

It is also a matter for regret that Article 44 of our Constitution has remained a dead letter...It is the State which is charged with the duty of securing a uniform civil code for the citizens of the country and, unquestionably it has the legislative capacity to do so...We understand the difficulties involved in bringing persons of different faiths and persuasions on a common platform. But, a beginning has to be made if the Constitution is to have any meaning...piecemeal attempts of courts to bridge the gap between personal laws cannot take the place of a common Civil Code

Using strong language the Supreme Court clearly stated that it did not agree with the courts creating or codifying aspects of various personal laws to function in place of a UCC. It was through this decision that the Supreme Court cemented the web of personal law in India, notably in the area of post divorce maintenance, as the case led to the creation of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, and a number of high court decisions that applied that Act. The Supreme Court had earlier also raised the issue of the UCC in the case of Jorden Diengdeh.6 However, reading through this case indicates that the Court is slightly contradictory and confused. Firstly, the judgement begins with reiterating the arguments made in the Shah Bano case for the UCC. It then goes on to state, in paragraph two that “the real problem now is that the marriage appears to have broken down irretrievably”, a problem that had also been highlighted by proponents of Indian family law. Secondly, the Supreme Court does a comparative analysis of divorce, nullity of marriage and judicial separation under the Indian Divorce Act 1869,7 Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act 1936,8 Secular Mar4


riage Act 1954,9 Hindu Marriage Act 195510 and the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939.11 It concludes by stating that “it is thus seen that the law relating to judicial separation, divorce and nullity of marriage is far, far from uniform”. However, it is here that there appears to be a contradiction. Carefully reading through the relevant sections in all the personal laws, it seems that there is a level of uniformity that exists in Indian divorce law. While every field is not identical, there is a general agreement and thus uniformity on certain grounds particularly with regard to cruelty, adultery, desertion, conversion to another religion, extended absences, sexual offences committed by the husband, impotence, and insanity. The specific requirements to satisfy these grounds slightly vary amongst the personal laws and some are not viable options in others; but in this plurality there is an inherent uniformity. Furthermore the Court says that “we suggest that the time has come for the intervention of the legislature in these matters to provide for a uniform code of marriage and divorce and to provide by law for a way out of unhappy situations in which couples like the present one find themselves (paragraph 7).” It also appears that the Court demands the irretrievable breakdown marriage clause more than a full UCC. However, it continues to prescribes the “wonderdrug” of the UCC12 believe that it has the power to treat all ailments.

The Special Marriage Act 1954 is entirely secular, in the Western interpretation of the word. It arguably is the optional UCC, used generally by interreligious couples and those marrying foreigners; the SMA 1954 regulates marriage and divorce. Marrying under this Act requires formal registration of marriage. It is surprising then, in the Jorden Diengdeh case, that the Supreme Court demanded a UCC for the regulation of marriage and divorce, when this Act already existed. Fortunately, in Anil Kumar13 nearly a decade later the Supreme Court stateed that personal law is not the only option for family disputes, and those who do not want to follow it are welcome to SMA 1954(paragraph 6)14. Thereby, the Court implicitly questions whether the UCC is really necessary when the SMA 1954 proves to be a better alternative. Contemporary academics and feminists have been at the forefront of defending the UCC. Unfortunately, while they present rational arguments, these are often narrow minded and are founded on a misconception of Indian secularism.15 Tahir Mahmood argues that the state cannot recognize religious personal laws if they wish to achieve secularism . However, he has misunderstood the ‘identity postulates’16 of Indian secularism. While Dhagamwar created a more balanced argument, her opinion is a rarity grounded in realism. She states that while the UCC must be created, its implementation would be a difficult task capable of causing societal upheaval.17 Another voice argues that all personal laws discriminate against women on almost every ground, and that the UCC “will be an important step in freeing women from the shackles of a patriarchal society”.18 Nearly all personal laws have drawn on traditional patriarchal and religious structures to create equitable laws for women. The Shah Bano case drew upon ‘mata’ as an example of postdivorce maintenance in the Quran to remind the husband of his religious responsibilities. Not many academics have voiced opposition for a UCC because personal laws have reflected a step back to many South Asian scholars.19 Allot, in 1980, regarded the UCC as “no more than a distant mirage”.20 Allott’s position, if interpreted as the UCC being a document, turned out to be true as the Supreme Court delivered the Danial Latifi21 verdict which was then relied upon in Aboobacker.22 However, this decision has also redefined the UCC in the Indian context. The UCC was seen as a harmonious personal law system which did not necessarily function to achieve equality, but sought to find more equitable solutions rooted in laws of diverse societies. The state, as the Danial Latifi case has determined, does not regard making reasonable distinctions between its citizens unconstitutional.23 The case has denounced the popular belief that the 1986 Act allowed Muslim PLURALITY AND ITS UNIFORMITY


9. Sections 23-28 10. Sections 10, 13 (1a), 13 (b) 11. Section 2 12. Menski Werner, Modern Indian Family Law. (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), 374. 13. Anil Kumar Mahsi v Union of India 1994 (2) KLT 399 (SC) 14. Menski Werner, Modern Indian Family Law (Richmond:Curzon, 2001), 374. 15. Mahmood Tahir. Muslim Personal Law. (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977), 200-202 in Mohd. Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum AIR 1985 SC 945. 16. Chiba Masaji, Legal pluralism: Towards a general theory through Japanese legal culture. (Tokyo: Tokai University Press, 1989), 180 in Menski Werner, Comparitive Law in a Global Context. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 128. 17. Dhagamwar Vasudha, Towards the Uniform Civil Code. (Bombay: N.M Tripathi, 1989), 76 in Menski Werner, Modern Indian Family Law. (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), 350. 18. Azmi, Shabana, “Women, Stand up for your rights: the real reason why we need a uniform civil code.” Times of India. July 7, 2005, accessed January 7, 2010. 19. Menski, Werner. “Asking for the moon: Legal uniformity in India from a Kerela perspective.” Kerela Law Times , (2006): 58. 20. Allott, Antony N., The Limits of Law. (London: Butterworths, 1980), 216 in Pearl, Werner Menski and David, Muslim Family Law.(Lahore: Brite Books, 1998), 46. 21. Danial Latifi v Union of India AIR 2001 SC 3958 22. Aboobacker v Rathiayath 2008 (3) KLT 482 another clever husband tried to avoid his financial obligations through claiming that he had paid a paid a bribe as an alternative to ‘mata’. 23. Menski, Werner. “Asking for the moon: Legal uniformity in India from a Kerela perspective.” Kerela Law Times , (2006), 52.

24. Menski Werner, Modern Indian Family Law. (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), 355. 25. Menski, Werner. “Asking for the moon: Legal uniformity in India from a Kerela perspective.” Kerela Law Times , (2006): 68. 26. Menski Werner, “Comparitive Law in a Global Context. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 252. 27. Williams, Rina Verma. Postcolonial Politics and Personal Laws. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 164. 28. Bhagwad. “Why India isn’t ready for a Uniform Civil Code.” Expression-Bhagwad Jal Park blog. 2009 politics/why-india-isnt-ready-for-auniform-civil-code.html (accessed January 5, 2010). 29. Basu, Sanjukta. “My response to a certain blogger’s post on Uniform Civil Code.” This is My Mind blog. 2008. http://sanjuktasviews.wordpress. com/2008/10/09/my-response-to-acertain-bloggers-post-on-uniform- (accessed January 7, 2010). 30. Menski Werner, Modern Indian Family Law. (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), 381.

men to escape post-divorce maintenance (paragraph 29) or complete freedom from s.125 and s.127 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973. Following Danial Latifi, Indian law also underwent a few other reforms, which confirmed that “Indian law [had] finally abandoned the Western legal axioms of uniformity and [rejected] the norm that states must have uniform laws to be called modern states. Indian modernity [had] retained decidedly Indian characteristics”.24 These reforms were notably the removal of the upper limit for post-divorce maintenance in s.125 Code of Criminal Procedure through the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act 2001. This finally created another level of uniformity on post-divorce maintenance as now all Indian wives, not just Muslims, could demand their maintenance in accordance with their ex-husband’s status. Additionally, there were new grounds for divorce added to Christian law through the Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act 2001. This act further united Indian divorce laws by bringing Christian personal laws “broadly into line with the other divorce laws of India under the various personal laws and the largely optional provisions of the secular Special Marriage Act of 1954”.25 Thereby, this confirmed the previously mentioned uniformity in the plurality of divorce as granted by the various personal laws, proving that the mirror image of the UCC had also been captured in divorce law.

During and after the BJP era and particularly after the monumental Danial Latifi decision, academics that once loudly demanded a UCC had taken a collective vow of silence. This was attributed to the shocking realization that asking for the creation of a UCC by a Hindu nationalist party could have resulted in the imposition of Hindu, not secular, law on everyone.26 Williams also stated that the appropriation of the UCC by the Hindu right for the purpose of promoting uniform nationalism, had led women’s rights and progressive organizations to review their stance.27 While academics remained silent, the public opinion became even more important. The UCC debate is still alive amongst both resident Indians and the Indian Diaspora on blogs and social networking websites. The constant friction between Entstaatlichung and Verstaatlichung in India is evident as public opinion on the UCC is compared. Bhagvad, once a supporter of the UCC writes on his blog stating that:

India has found stability because of its contradictions. Instead of trying to resolve contradictions, we let them thrive side by side. Destroying those contradictions and bringing everything in line with logic, may be a pretty ideal, but it will be the end of India as we know it.28

Such a view, from a ‘progressive’ Indian, is uncommon on the Internet. But it reflects that to some extent even the modern Indian crowd is beginning to re-evaluate the extent to which uniformity can be called modernity. Basu, another blogger, mentions the impossibility of formulising a UCC and suggests that creating awareness about the SMA 1954 would be a better idea than debating about the UCC. Personal law reform, Basu states, would be simpler than a law for the whole country.29 This approach has been followed by many Indian administrations to date, and seems like a practical one for the future. The background information regarding the UCC suggests that achieving justice was the underlying reason behind including it as a Directive Principle of the Indian Constitution. However, justice as envisioned by the delicately balanced Constitution was probably that of good law making and not of Napoleonic law as envisioned by many modernists. Menski explains the function of a good law: What a good law probably needs to do is to ensure a balance of rights and duties as between individuals and groups of people. Diversity per se, no matter how hard the law strives to create equality and uniformity, will never be abolished by statute or case law.30



Indian law, from its earliest days, had always strived to create good law and had acknowledged, wilfully or forcefully, the presence of diversity. Nehru too, despite the postcolonial modernist that he was, was aware of the immense presence of diversity and evidently was concerned with the creation of good law in a positivistic framework. The reform and codification of Hindu law in the 1950s is an example of plurality being recognized in a positivistic framework and therefore silent commentary on the impracticality of uniformity in Indian law. Over time such codification had formulated Indian family law into a rangoli of various personal laws. Each law was seemingly distinct like the colours and textures in a rangoli; however as a whole they create the intricately uniform picture of justice in India. Contained within this rangoli is the recognition of Slumdog law31 which requires that different procedural laws function for different citizens. Expecting a billion people to follow the same procedural law is wholly unrealistic. Surely, it will not be just to deny millions justice because of modernist ideals. The Indian reality of socio-economic disparity, religious plurality and cultural diversity, all prove that the UCC, as a statute, is an impractical plan and that like baby Krishna, India will have to be satisfied with the mirror image of the moon. TABLE OF CASES Aboobacker v Rathiayath 2008 (3) KLT 482

Anil Kumar Mahsi v Union of India 1994 (2) KLT 399 (SC) Danial Latifi v Union of India AIR 2001 SC 3958 Jorden Diengdeh v S.S Chopra AIR 1985 SC 935

Mohd Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum AIR 1985 SC 945 LIST OF STATUTES Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act 2001 Code of Criminal Procedure 1973

Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939 Hindu Marriage Act 1955

Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act 2001 Indian Divorce Act 1869

Muslim women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act 1936 Special Marriage Act 1954



31. Menski Werner. “Slumdog law, Colonial Tummy Aches and the Redefinition of Family law in India� South Asia Review, vol 30, no 1, (2010): 67.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Agnes, Flavia. Law and Gender Inequality: The Politics of Women’s Rights in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999. Azmi, Shabana. “Women, Stand up for your rights: the real reason why we need a uniform civil code.” Times of India. July 7, 2005. (accessed January 7, 2010). The-real-reason-why- we-need-a-uniform-civil-code/articleshow/1162955.cms Basu, Sanjukta. “My response to a certain blogger’s post on Uniform Civil Code.” This is My Mind. 2008. January 7, 2010). Bhagwad. “Why India isn’t ready for a Uniform Civil Code.” Expression-Bhagwad Jal Park. 2009. http:// (accessed January 5, 2010). Deshta, Kiran. Uniform Civil Code: In retrospect and Prospect. New Delhi: Deep and Deep, 1995. Granville, Austin. The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999. Jha, Nilanjana Bhaduri. “Does India really need a Uniform Civil Code.” Times of India. August 2, 2003. (accessed December 30, 2009). Mahmood, Tahir. Muslim Personal Law. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977. Menski, Werner. Modern Indian Family Law. Richmond: Curzon, 2001. —. Hindu Law: Beyond Tradition and Modernity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003. —. “Asking for the moon: Legal uniformity in India from a Kerela perspective.” Kerela Law Times , 2006: 52-78. —. Comparitive Law in a Global Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. —. “The Uniform Civil Code debate in Indian law: New Developments and changing agenda.” German Law Journal, 2008: 211-250. —.”Slumdog law, Colonial Tummy Aches and the Redefinition of Family law in India.” South Asia Review, 2010: 6780. Mitra, Chandan. “What if we had a Uniform Civil Code?” Outlook India. 2004. http://www.outlookindia. com/article.aspx?224872 (accessed January 4, 2010). Nishant, Kamal. “India: Do we need a Uniform Civil Code.” Associated Content. 2009. (accessed December 30, 2009). Pearl, Werner Menski and David. Muslim Family Law. Lahore: Brite Books, 1998. Ranjan, Mirnalni. “INDIA NEEDS A UNIFORM CIVIL CODE...NOW NOW NOW.” Facebook. 2007. http:// (accessed January 7, 2010). Verma, Yaman. “INDIA NEEDS A UNIFORM CIVIL CODE...NOW NOW NOW.” Facebook. March 1, 2007. (accessed January 7, 2010). Williams, Rina Verma. Postcolonial Politics and Personal Laws. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.




Redef ining Normative Interpretations of Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi Hardeep Dhillon

University of California, Berkeley

Hardeep Dhillon graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Berkeley. At U.C. Berkeley, Hardeep double majored in Religious Studies and South Asian Studies with a focus on Islam in South Asia. Her academic interests include religion and politics with a particular emphasis in nationalism, women’s rights, and minority groups. She is currently completing her honors thesis which discusses the status of the Hindu minority in Pakistan. Hardeep previously served as an intern at the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union and as a Research Assistant for Professor Saba Mahmood of the U.C. Berkeley Anthropology Department. As an undergraduate, Hardeep also taught courses focusing on religion and violence in India and world religions. She aspires to contribute to the f ield of religious studies and international relations in the future. Hardeep currently serves as a Researcher for Media Matters for America in Washington D.C.; however, this work is a ref lection of her own ideas and thoughts.

1. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), xvii. 2. The contrast provided between Western liberal feminism and non-liberal feminism centers on the concept of agency, true will, and desire as theoretically outlined in Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, 1-40.

ABSTRACT Doctrinal subjugation has been a critical topic in the field of religious studies. This paper examines the way in which religious doctrine is challenged by three classic Hindu women: Sita, Lalleshwari and Draupadi. Using a lens of feminism, the author highlights the incomprehensive nature of Western liberal feminism to provide potentially new interpretations these three Hindu women. The author moves to captivate anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s challenges to Western liberal feminism as highlighted in her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject to reveal how different lenses of feminism provide varying analyses of Sita, Lalleshwari and Draupadi than those traditionally provided by Western feminists. The new analyses of these three traditional Hindu figures invite us to explore these women in a new light. For example, in the view of Western liberal feminism Sita is seen to be a submissive wife who attends to the desires of her husband. In contrast, under another lens of feminism she is framed as a woman who subjugates herself not to her husband Rama, but to the Lord Vishnu of whom Rama is an avatara. These conflicting perceptions of Sita are then utilized by the author to portray how normative perceptions of Sita and other Hindu women, specifically Lalleshari and Draupadi are one specific feminist interpretation. They fall short of representing the entire feminist landscape of analysis that can be afforded, especially in a post modern era. INTRODUCTION As Hindu societies seek progress in a Western liberal sense, tensions begin to surface between religious doctrine(s) and women’s rights. As these tensions become increasingly impassioned in the Indian context, they are expressed through the burning of Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Manusmrti. Such burnings are symbolic acts of defiance that are seen to liberate women from what feminists perceive as the doctrinal subjugation of women under Hinduism. According to Hindu feminists, these Hindu texts obstruct the battle for equality and legitimate the patriarchal structures which exist in their societies. More specifically, the women’s rights movements in India have constantly and consistently challenged the traditional concept of the “ideal wife” depicted within Hindu texts. The ideal wife is traditionally recognized for her great devotion to her husband and family. She is also characterized to repeatedly make selfless sacrifices for the honor and wellbeing of her husband and his family. Her role is defined primarily in terms of her relationships with these individuals, and only secondarily in terms of her own personal characteristics. Feminists have argued that the Manusmrti contains an oppressive religious doctrine that subjugates women to the rule of their fathers, husbands, and sons1. Thus, they reject its authority and validity. Although the media has popularized these feminists for challenging the Manusmrti in the courts of law and through their daily actions, they are not the first to do so. They have predecessors, some of whom are highly regarded within Hindu societies and seen as the very symbols of women’s subjugation, but nonetheless, they are women who have challenged the Manusmrti in less explicit ways. The women explored in the context of this paper, Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi, are three legendary Hindu women who represent challenges to the Manusmrti. Yet, their challenges can be read from both a Western liberal feminist perspective, which theoretically aligns itself with those Hindu women who burn the Manusmrti today, and a non-liberal feminist perspective which reveals the diversity which exists in feminism itself.2 This paper will predominately analyze these women’s roles as wives and religious devotees. This paper will argue that the Manusmrti’s authority on women, especially in relation to their role as wives, has been challenged and superseded by Sita, through her example as a role model for religious Hindu women, Lalleshwari, through her defiance of social norms as a religious ascetic, and Draupadi, through her repeated conflicts with her husbands’ inability to provide her with the pro-



tection afforded to women in Hindu patriarchal societies. Yet, all three women inhabit an intense devotion to God, which has not only led to their acclaimed status within Hindu societies, but also masked their confrontation with the Laws of Manu. Moreover, although these women provide a challenge to the Manusmrti, they do not necessarily promote the same notions of feminism as do contemporary Hindu feminists who publically burn the Manusmrti. Rather, these three women, Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi, can be seen in light of both liberal and non-liberal notions of Western feminism to reveal the lack of universality in feminism itself, and the way in which fundamental tenets of feminism such as agency and subjectivity are dependent on one’s analysis. THE LAWS OF MANU In order to analyze the characters of Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi, it is first necessary to provide a background to the Manusmrti. The Manusmrti was revealed by Manu, believed to be the first man in Hinduism, to a group of rsis. It is a law book that outlines a code for social order; thus, it is called the Manusmrti or Laws of Manu. The Manusmrti has served as a legitimizing source for numerous social customs including restrictions on inter-caste marriage, punishments for various crimes, and most importantly (in the context of this paper) the norms for women’s behavior, their social standing, and their treatment.3 The Manusmrti states, Day and night men should keep their women from acting independently; for, attached as they are to sensual pleasures, men should keep them under their control. Her father guards her in her childhood, her husband guards her in her youth, and her sons guard her in her old age; a woman is not qualified to act independently.4

Thus, the ability of any woman to act or live independently is forbidden by the Manusmrti. A woman must always be kept under the guardianship of a male, namely her father, husband, or sons. According to the Manusmrti, if a wife chooses or, as in the case of Sita, is forced to live away from her husband, it is believed that she becomes corrupt: Drinking, associating with bad people, living away from the husband, travel, sleep, and staying in the houses of others – these are the six things which corrupt women. They pay no attention to beauty, they pay no heed to age; whether he is handsome or ugly; they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He’s a man!’.5

The Laws of Manu portray women as lust-driven individuals who will sleep with men merely because they are men. Their sensual desires are thought to impede their reason. Although Manu depicts women crudely, in terms of their desire for sensual pleasures, he also describes the prerequisites for a “good woman”: A woman who controls her mind, speech, and body and is never unfaithful to her husband attains the worlds of her husband, and virtuous people call her a ‘good woman’.6

As a result, a “good woman” is one who contains herself and does not take liberties to act or talk as she pleases. A “good woman” is expected to remain loyal to her husband regardless of his actions and character. In addition to outlining the characteristics of a “good woman”, Manu also asserts that fidelity is “the highest Law between husband and wife”.7 Thus, not only is the wife required to be sexually loyal to her husband but a husband is also required to be sexually loyal to his wife. While the Manusmrti prescribes other rules and customs for women, these are the most relevant to the discussion of this paper. SITA Sita is one of the main characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana. She is discovered in a furrow and is considered to be the daughter of the Hindu Earth-goddess Bhumidevi. Her name, Sita, translates to “furrow” from Sanskrit. King Janaka finds Sita and raises her as the princess of Jankapur. When she comes of age, her father arranges a swayamwara SUBEJCTS OF FEMINISM


3. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), xvi. 4. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 155. 5 Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 156. 6. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 157. 7. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 162.

8. Griffith, Ralph, trans. 2008 (Http:// htm#rama. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Mar. 2009, 43480. 9. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 157. 10. Suryanarayan, V. Sita above Suspicion (Bangalore: Foundation of Vedic Sciences, 1992), 25-32. 11. Griffith, Ralph, trans. 2008 (Http:// index.htm#rama. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Mar. 2009 http://www. htm), 432-447. 12. Suryanarayan, V. Sita above Suspicion (Bangalore: Foundation of Vedic Sciences, 1992), 30. 13. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 156. 14.Suryanarayan, V. Sita above Suspicion (Bangalore: Foundation of Vedic Sciences, 1992), 30. 15. Griffith, Ralph, trans. 2008 (Http:// index.htm#rama (Internet Sacred Text Archive. Mar. 2009 http://www. htm), 234-237. 16. Griffith, Ralph, trans. 2008 (Http:// index.htm#rama (Internet Sacred Text Archive. Mar. 2009 http://www. htm), 440-447.

to find a husband for her. The swayamwara is a contest in which the man who is strong enough to string a divine bow given to King Janaka by the god Shiva receives Sita’s hand in marriage. Rama succeeds in this swayamwara when he strings Shiva’s bow and then marries Sita. Throughout the epic Ramayana, Sita accompanies Rama through his ordeals and proves to be a highly devoted and loyal wife. When Rama is exiled from his father’s kingdom, Sita is discouraged by her husband Rama to join him in his exile; however, being a devoted wife she accompanies him into the forests. She is later kidnapped by Ravana and then exiled by her own husband to preserve his honor. Eventually, after giving birth to a son while in exile, Sita is carried away by Bhumidevi when she complains about the hardships of her life.8

Sita perfectly adheres to Manu’s definition of a “good woman”. She controls her “mind, speech, body, and is never unfaithful to her husband”.9 After Rama kills Ravana in battle, Sita returns home to her husband and her return is made into a public affair. However, instead of accepting Sita, Rama challenges her fidelity and prompts her to live her life as she pleases without him. Rama fears that he will blemish his family’s personal history, or sat-chaarita, and subject himself to public ridicule if he accepts Sita after she has stayed in Lanka with Ravana.10 In response, Sita provides evidence of her chastity through an agni-pariksha test. During this test, the fire-god Agni protects Sita while she is enveloped in a fire and she emerges from the fire unscathed. This miraculous event, witnessed by the public, proves her loyalty both to her husband Rama and to the society at large.11 Furthermore, Sita is not lust-driven as Manu describes women to be. On the contrary, Hindus remember and honor her for her loyalty to Rama and her ability to prevent Ravana from sleeping with her.12 In Lanka, Sita “associated with bad people”, predominately Ravana, and “lived away from her husband”, two of the six elements that corrupt women according to Manu.13 Yet, she “physically, mentally, and intellectually” remained pure.14 Sita does not contest or object to the standards imposed upon her by her husband Rama, but she accepts and endures them. In effect, Sita constitutes everything a “good woman” should be according to the Laws of Manu.

Although the Ramayana’s portrayal of Sita’s disputes the characterization of women as described in the Manusmrti, it does so without challenging the social order imposed through Manu’s laws. In other words, Sita does not defy the Laws of Manu; rather, she challenges the way in which women are portrayed in the Laws of Manu. Due to Sita’s importance within the Hinduism tradition, her contestation of Manu’s characterization of women holds paramount significance. For the woman that is upheld as a great woman in patriarchal Hindu societies due to her willful subjugation to her husband is equally problematic because of the challenge she presents to the Manusmriti’s depiction of women.

In addition, even though Sita challenges the way in which the Manusmrti characterizes women, from the perspective of Western liberal feminism, she remains a woman subjugated by her society’s patriarchal norms. Sita repeatedly follows her husband’s orders. She decides to accompany him during his exile and refuses to take any independent action when she remains hostage in Lanka. Instead, she waits a great length of time before Rama rescues her.15 Sita even endures the test of agni-pariksha to prove her loyalty to Rama and her society.16 Thus, Sita is an ideal example of a subjugated woman from a Western liberal feminist standpoint, because she lacks agency and willfully accepts patriarchal social structures without any contestation.

Yet, a non-liberal feminist viewpoint would portray Sita quite differently. Sita’s submission to Rama is not merely that of a wife to a husband, but it is also that of a devotee to her god. Within Hindu tradition, Rama is not merely a human being but he is considered an avatara of the god Vishnu. Thus, when proving her loyalty to Rama by accompanying him into exile and undergoing the test of agni-pariksha, Sita is also proving her loyalty to God. 12


She is providing an example of a true devotee whose aim is not to find justice or freedom for herself, but to live a life of uncompromising devotion to God. Moreover, while waiting for Rama to rescue her from Ravana’s clutches, Sita portrays her unwavering trust in her husband and, thus, in God. Even when the monkey-king Hanuman, sent by Rama, comes to rescue her from Rama’s clutches, Sita refuses to leave unless it is Rama who is coming to her rescue. From this perspective, even if Sita repeatedly subjugates herself to her society’s patriarchal norms by submitting to her husband’s authority, she is doing so in order to attain a higher goal--the devotion to God. Her willingness to comply with her society’s patriarchal norms does not define or determine her agency. In fact, the concept of agency has no value in Sita’s life because she exchanges it for the ultimate submission to God. Thus, a non-liberal interpretation can nuance the liberal feminist notion which asserts that Sita provides an ideal example of a subjugated woman. LALLESHWARI Lalleshwari, like Sita, challenges Manu’s depiction of women; yet, in contrast to Sita, she also overtly challenges the social order prescribed by the Laws of Manu. There is little information available to historicize the life of Lalleshwari. Most scholars agree that Lalleshwari married into a Brahmin family at a young age. She then suffered the constant criticism and hateful actions of her mother-in-law because she disobeyed the social norms prescribed for a Brahmin’s wife. She refused to partake in rituals conducted by other women in her village and spent much of her time in solitude. While in her room she conversed with the god Shiva. In one episode, her family overheard a pair of voices coming from her room and urged her husband to believe that she was having an affair. Her husband angrily marched into her room but to his family’s dismay and his own he found Lalleshwari alone talking to the Lord Shiva. Over time, Lalleshwari decides it is best for her to leave her home. Living life on her own terms, Lalleshwari defies the social norms set for women by her society and embraces the life of a wandering ascetic.17

When Lalleshwari leaves her husband’s home, she decides to leave the guardianship of her husband and overtly denies the rules for women prescribed by the Laws of Manu. The Laws of Manu do not give women the liberty to make independent decisions.18 However, when Lalleshwari leaves her home it is one of the most significant decisions a woman can make, for it implies that she is deserting the protection and authority that men are supposed to provide for her. A decision such as Lalleshwari’s still remains a social taboo for many Hindu women in the contemporary era. Moreover, Lalleshwari repeatedly asserts her independence by making her own decisions. This assertion is clearly depicted during Lalleshwari’s stay with her husband’s family. During this time, Lalleshwari decides to meditate, even when her family forbids it, and she refuses to participate in social festivities even when her mother-in-law insists that she do so. Eventually she decides to leave her husband’s home without any permission from his family or him. Lalleshwari also explicitly defies social norms through her decision to become a naked wandering ascetic. However, like Sita, Lalleshwari provides evidence that women are not driven by their desire for sex. When Lalleshwari wanders and sings without clothes as a naked ascetic, she is not pursuing sex. She sees herself as liberating herself from social customs in order to completely and freely devote herself to Shiva. Her nakedness reveals her separation from the world and its materialistic nature and from sexuality.19 Significantly, Lalleshwari never performs any action that hints at sexual infidelity towards her husband, or at any type of sexuality. Her actions are clearly asexual. Moreover, Lalleshwari challenges Manu’s notion that a “good woman” is one who controls her “mind, speech, and body”. Her poetry, read by many to this day, reveals that her mind and speech were not controlled. Her poems, reflecting her deep introspection, Lord Shiva, and the problems within in her society, verbally attest to the freedom Lalleshwari SUBJECTS OF FEMINISM


17. Kaul, Jayalal. Lal Ded (Delhi, India: Bharti Printers, 1973), 3-18. 18. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 155. 19. Odin, Jaishree K. To the Other Shore: Lalla’s Life and Poetry (New Delhi, India: Pauls P, 1999), 34.

20. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 99-104. 21. Odin, Jaishree K. To the Other Shore: Lalla’s Life and Poetry (New Delhi, India: Pauls P, 1999), 38-42 22. Odin, Jaishree K. To the Other Shore: Lalla’s Life and Poetry (New Delhi, India: Pauls P, 1999), 40-41. 23. Odin, Jaishree K. To the Other Shore: Lalla’s Life and Poetry (New Delhi, India: Pauls P, 1999), 29.

granted her mind and speech. The Laws of Manu also prohibit particular actions amongst the four varnas and provide guidelines on how to become a proper ascetic. These prohibitions assert that Brahmins are not to engage in activity with lower classes and that it is not permissible for one to become an ascetic until he/she has lived the life of a forest dweller.20 Lalleshwari blatantly rejects these norms. She becomes a wandering ascetic after living the life of a householder’s wife and interacts heavily with the lower castes.21

Many of Lalleshwari’s overt challenges to the Manusmrti can be easily analyzed from a liberal feminist framework. By defying her society and leaving home, Lalleshwari establishes her agency. She refuses to conform to social norms even when her mother-in-law forcefully insists that she do so. When Lalleshwari embraces asceticism, she most clearly proves her independence from all things – society, family, gender norms, etc. Furthermore, Lalleshwari emphasizes meditation as a form of devotion, and during meditation she does not subordinate herself to a male deity. Instead, Lalleshwari portrays Shiva as a transcendent reality rather than a male deity.22 Through this type of devotion, Lalleshwari establishes a system that transgresses the male-female binary. As a result, through meditation, Lalleshwari creates a sphere in which she herself has complete control and agency.23 In light of non-liberal Western feminism, Lalleshwari provides an interesting case of study. Like Sita, Lalleshwari provides a contrast to liberal feminist theory through her devotion to God. The scholarship published on Lalleshwari provides an analysis through a liberal feminist lens. Consequently, Lalleshwari is often depicted as an independent woman who truly defies all patriarchal structures in her society to pursue the life she envisions for herself. However, to argue that Lalleshwari defies the patriarchal norms in her society for the sake of her own freedom does not do justice to her immense bhakti towards Shiva. Any decisions that Lalleshwari makes, including her decisions to refrain from many social practices and to leave home, are made so that she can continue her strong devotion to Shiva. Without the desire to devote herself completely to Shiva, it is difficult to determine whether Lalleshwari would have left her home to embrace the lifestyle of a wandering ascetic or confronted her husband and family. In Lalleshwari’s case, as with Sita, it is clear that agency and freewill are concepts with minimal, if any, significance. Lalleshwari’s own agency and freewill are eliminated when she decides to devote herself wholeheartedly to Shiva through bhakti. She conforms her will to the will of God, namely Shiva, and forsakes her agency to live according to Shiva’s ascetic ways. In other words, Lalleshwari is attempting to dissolve her will to the will of God and is relinquishing her own agency and free will in the process. As a result, a non-liberal feminist approach interprets Lalleshwari not as the free woman depicted by liberal feminism but, rather, as an individual whose submission to God guides her actions, thoughts, agency, and will. DRAUPADI Unlike Lalleshwari, who explicitly defies the normative patriarchal structure of the Manusmrti, or Sita, who subjugates herself to this structure, Draupadi provides a more subtle challenge to the Manusmrti. What is significant about Draupadi is that she challenges the reasoning that Manu uses to justify his laws. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi emerges from a fire sacrifice conducted by her father Drupada to avenge Arjuna. Her great beauty, dark complexion, and strong devotion to Krishna make her famous throughout the land. Eventually she marries the five Pandava brothers as the result of a swayamvara hosted by her father. In this contest, the mail suitors had to hit the eye of a fish as it rotated on a rod using only the image of the fish reflected in the water. Arjuna, the third of the Pandava brothers, successfully completes the swayamvara; however, the Pandava brothers decide to share Draupadi as a wife because their mother had instructed them to share whatever little they had with each other. Draupadi accompanies the Pandavas in their adventures and thus becomes infamous for her part in a number of key events which lead 14


to the great Bharata war.24

Draupadi defies the Manusmrti by creating an avenue of agency for herself when her male guardians, namely her husbands, cannot protect her. The Manusmrti requires men, fathers, husbands, and brothers to guard the women to whom they are related.25 This guardianship is established to prevent women from acting independently and to protect women from the men; however, Draupadi’s five husbands cannot guard her, so she is forced to act independently. When the eldest Pandava brother, Yudhishthira, gambles away all his possessions, including his brothers, Draupadi, and himself, Drapaudi is forcibly dragged from her personal chambers to the main hall. When Duryodhana orders that Draupadi be publicly stripped and given the simple sari of a servant, only her husband Bhima voices any opposition who is soon quieted by his own brothers. Draupadi begs her husbands to save her from public humiliation; yet, they do nothing for her because they, as servants now, have no authority to voice any opposition to their master Duryodhana. When she sees that her husbands cannot provide the protection that she needs, Draupadi decides to take action for herself. She presents a rational argument to the men in the hall, stating that it is impossible for her husband Yudhishthira to lose her, his wife, in a game of dice if he has already lost himself. For a slave has no possessions; thus, he does not have the ability to gamble anything away. Draupadi’s argument is logical, but nonetheless it is rejected. As Dushasana begins to unravel Draupadi’s sari, Draupadi prays to Krishna for assistance. Her prayer is answered when her sari becomes elongated to the extent that Dushasana stops stripping her out of sheer exhaustion.26 This moment comes to be regarded as a miracle and a manifestation of Draupadi’s deep bhakti towards Krishna.

In this situation, Draupadi does not control her “mind, speech, and body” as the Manusmrti requires of a “good woman”.27 By questioning the men in the hall, Draupadi clearly violates the control she is supposed to exercise over her mind and speech as a woman. Her logical argumentation attests to her mental prowess. Furthermore, her upfront and rhetorical questioning reveals a refusal to restrain her speech. In this difficult situation, when her honor is placed at stake, Draupadi does not remain silent like Sita and she does not accept her husbands’ decision. In contrast, she questions the integrity of her husbands, especially Yudhishthira, who gambled her away.28 Manu argues that by controlling her “mind, speech, and body” a woman is better able to remain loyal to her husband. However, Draupadi’s mental activity and passionate speech allow her to remain loyal to her husbands. Her silence would have led to her public stripping, a moment of neither her husbands or her want to experience. She is saved from the humiliation caused by her husband Yudhishthira because she speaks her mind and prays to Krishna. Thus, Draupadi challenges the reasoning behind Manu’s Laws. Draupadi proves to be a woman of situational independence when analyzed from a liberal feminist standpoint. As a woman, Draupadi is expected to remain silent and accept her husbands’ decisions. For example, when questioning whether her husbands may gamble her away and risk her honor since they have already lost all liberties by gambling themselves away first, Draupadi overtly defies her society’s patriarchal norms. Yet, Draupadi does not remain silent. She confronts her husband, Yudhishthira, who is responsible for her pawning and asks him to justify his actions. For a woman to question the authority of a man, that too in front of an assembled group of men, sharply conflicts with social customs and norms at the time. In addition, Draupadi repeatedly asserts her agency by attempting to preserve her honor, not by dishonoring herself.29 She portrays herself as an independent woman who has the capacity to protect her own honor. She represents a woman who is pushed to act independently, or assert her agency, as a result of her husbands’ inability to protect her. She does not act independently at other moments. Thus, although Draupadi may at first seem to be an independent woman and celebrated by



24. Narasimhan, Chakravarthi, trans. The Mahabharata (New York: Columbia UP, 1998), 25-215. 25. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 155. 26. Narasimhan, Chakravarthi, trans. The Mahabharata (New York: Columbia UP, 1998), 53-57. 27. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu (New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 157. 28. Narasimhan, Chakravarthi, trans. The Mahabharata (New York: Columbia UP, 1998), 53-55. 29. Goldman, Sally. “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” (American Oriental Society 109 (1989)), 67-72.

Western liberal feminists, her independence is limited to precise situations throughout the duration of her life.

From a non-liberal feminist perspective, Draupadi proves to be a complicated case study. Unlike Sita and Lalleshwari, who live their lives in submission to God, Draupadi’s decisions do not necessarily stem from a deep devotion to God. Furthermore, although Draupadi defies patriarchal authority like Lalleshwari and asserts her independence, she does not do so to submit herself to God, but does so to preserve her honor in order to continue living a life of modesty and purity. When Dushasana attempts to remove her sari it is a threat to Drapaudi’s modesty and respect. She is forced to assert herself in order to protect herself. Her independent actions do not necessarily need to stem from her free will but may alternatively be induced from her decision to succumb to a life of purity and modesty that guides her way of life and needs to be protected. CONCLUSION Today, feminists burn the Manusmrti to liberate women from its confines; yet, Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi were challenging this scripture centuries ago. More importantly, Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi are revered within the Hindu tradition to this very day. Their lifestyles and life stories may differ greatly; however, all three women present themselves as challenges to the Laws of Manu. Hindu tradition considers Sita to be the ideal role model for all women, and she strives to uphold the status of an ideal wife. Ironically, the very woman, Sita, who is idealized is also incompatible with the Manusmriti because she challenges Manu’s depictions of woman as lustrous and unfaithful. Similarly, Lalleshwari challenges Manu’s characterization of women as lust-driven. However, Lalleswari also breaks through the social regulations patriarchy places upon women in the Manusmrti by leaving her husband and his family to pursue the life of a wandering ascetic. Lastly, Draupadi, defies the Manusmrti to protect her honor when her husbands are unable to protect her and challenges the reasoning used to justify the Laws of Manu. She reveals that a woman is capable of protecting herself. As a result, although the Laws of Manu lay down norms for the way in which women should act and be treated, the Hindu tradition itself supplies a counterweight to these norms in the examples of Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi.

More importantly, although Sita, Lalleshwari, and Draupadi contest the Manusmrti, their contestation can be understood in more than one way. In this paper, I have presented both Western liberal and non-liberal feminist analyses for each woman. These analyses depict that feminism inhabits variable notions of its own fundamental tenets such as agency and free will. In other words, fundamental concepts of feminism have multiple interpretations and multiple potential interpretations. A compilation of these analyses allows one to gain a more comprehensive understanding of women and feminism itself. It is only with such an open mind that more comprehensive and complete analyses can be presented to broaden not only our interpretations but our horizons.



BIBLIOGRAPHY Goldman, Sally. “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” American Oriental Society 109 (1989): 68-76. Griffith, Ralph, trans. 2008. Http:// Internet Sacred Text Archive. Mar. 2009 <>. Kaul, Jayalal. Lal Ded. Delhi, India: Bharti Printers, 1973. Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Narasimhan, Chakravarthi, trans. The Mahabharata. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Odin, Jaishree K. To the Other Shore: Lalla’s Life and Poetry. New Delhi, India: Pauls P, 1999. Olivelle, Patrick. The Law Code of Manu. New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Suryanarayan, V. Sita above Suspicion. Bangalore: Foundation of Vedic Sciences, 1992.




Prashanth Kamalakanthan was born in Tirupati, India, immigrating to the United States at a young age. He plans to pursue a double-major in Political Science and Environmental Policy. Outside of formal academics, he is interested in the structures of capitalist power as they shape society, postcolonial theory, and libertarian socialism as an aspirational model for social organization. He seeks to ref lect these interests in his work; his previous publication was in the student academic journal The Concord Review for a paper tracing the effects of Mexican agrarian policy on armed peasant rebellion. Having been profoundly impacted by his experience as part of the Indian diaspora, Prashanth is also fascinated by the individual and societal implications of immigrant displacement. In his spare time he enjoys watching documentaries, reading, listening to catchy jams, and occasionally recording a few himself.

In the era of globalization and a burgeoning global capitalism on a massive scale, the phenomenon of the call center has attracted much attention as a “paradigmatic example”1 of today’s shrinking world and its related sociocultural implications. Call centers are themselves a product of the West’s creation; corporations in developed economies such as those of Britain and the United States, in order to minimize labor costs in the area of consumer service, have increasingly turned to offshore sites in the Anglophone East to base their service-sector operations. The so-called “developing” economies of India and the Philippines provide fiscally attractive options for businesses seeking to outsource their voice-based customer service provision, due to the immensity and comparative inexpensiveness of the countries’ English-speaking educated workforces, which exist as a consequence of their colonial histories. Within this broad relationship overarched by the structure of the call center, the more particular implications for the actual call center agents—still largely Indian and female—that provide daily service to a Western consumer base raise several problems that have been at the center of an extensive anthropological literature.2 In order to examine the precise extent and nature of the effects of the cultural contact, and resultant conflict, that the call center has produced, however, we need to have an understanding of how the phenomenon has arisen from global capitalism with its inextricable economic determinism.

That the call center is governed foremost by economic determinism is a fundamental premise for the repeated abuse of call center agents. The manner in which this determinism functions, superficially, is through generally disparate global economic conditions. The relative cheapness of Indian labor in contrast to the employment costs of American workers in exactly the same telephonic voice-service industry, as a product of the inequities of living standards between the “developed” West and the “developing” East (or the global North and South, respectively), serves as the primary motivator for Western capital’s wholesale offshoring of its service industry. This basic economic motivation is reflected in the growing trend of Western enterprises turning away even from India in recent years, where rising living standards have necessitated higher wages, and toward the newly cost-efficient Anglophone workforce of the Philippines.3 On the Indian side— the engaged rather than engaging partner in the hegemonic capitalist exchange—the fact that so many of the Indian workforce know English allows for the commoditization of the language in the workplace. Proficiency in English accordingly becomes a skill, which, alongside a prospective agent’s level of education and job experience, is an attribute to be marketed to call centers. The reduction of English from a language carrying cultural and social significance to a commoditized skill in the job market introduces the first level of self-alienation which the call center worker must undergo. Often used as a public secondlanguage in India, English serves a particular social function in the society, appearing in television broadcasts, popular radio, and the daily transactions of the educated classes, those that inevitably comprise call centers’ staff. Transposition of English to a job skill, indeed the most important for an employee providing remote voice service, effects a distance between the speaker and the often-habitual sociocultural qualities of the language. Thus, commoditization of English in the call center job market requires an aberrant breaking-off of those social circumstances and intimate personal associations of language use previously present in Indian society. Such aspects are then supplanted with the artificial impositions—whose nature remains to be explored—of American values, accents, and attitudes, all foreign elements divorced from the actual traditions of Indian English usage.

It is of specific importance that the de facto language of the Indian call center is English, functioning within the framework of what Selma Sonntag calls “linguistic hegemony.”4 The concept of a linguistic hegemony must immediately be differentiated from notions of “linguistic imperialism,” implying a relationship of forced coercion and the overt, repressive foisting of a dominant language upon a subject population. Instead, the THE CALL CENTER AS A SITE OF TRAUMATIC BILINGUALISM


1. Selma K. Sonntag, “Linguistic globalization and the call center industry: Imperialism, hegemony or cosmopolitanism?,” Language Policy 8 (2009): 5. 2. Ibid., 6. 3. Eric Friginal, The Language of Outsourced Call Centers: A Corpus-based Study of Cross-cultural Interaction (John Benjamins, 2009), 17. 4. Sonntag, “Linguistic globalization and the call center industry: Imperialism, hegemony or cosmopolitanism?,” 10.

5. Chetan Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center (New Delhi: Random House, 2007), 133. 6. Kiran Mirchandani, “Enactments of Class and Nationality in Transnational Call Centers,” The Emotional Organization: Passions and Power (2007): 93. 7. Mirchandani, “Enactments of Class and Nationality in Transnational Call Centers,” 98.

hegemony of the English language as manifested in the call center is a dominance-by-value, where Gramscian “consent” is manufactured as a result of economic conditions. The “willing” submission of prospective agents to the lingua franca of English demonstrates on their part neither an eager cosmopolitanism nor a desire to embrace American values at the cost of Indian ones, but it is rather a mere accession to the realities of the global capital exchange. One of Chetan Bhagat’s outspoken call center agent characters in his novel One Night at the Call Center (2005), Vroom, indignantly observes this dynamic, claiming that call centers exist “because [the United States] is rich and [India] is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because… India [is] one of the poorest countries on earth.”5 Choice, in this respect, becomes a murky concept: although resistance to the utilization of English as a skill is possible for young Indians, to do so would be to counter the commonsensical economic incentive of a relatively high wage, in what is perceived as a respectable, “white-collar” job.6 Bhagat’s Vroom, despite the apparent contradiction of his inward perception of the call center as demeaning and his outward complicity toward his employment, embodies the subtle coercion of the linguistic hegemony of English and the wider cultural hegemony of the West. The overwhelming societal pressure to acquire proficiency in a marketable English is thus informed, once more, by economic circumstances, one that designates English as the language of the consumer, and therefore, the medium for capital exchange with materially prosperous Americans.

Without this economic determinism, call center agents’ submission to their work environment could not be possible. That is to say, the acquiescence of call center workers to traumatic conditions of abuse occurs foremost on economic grounds, but to employ a vocabulary of “abuse,” “trauma,” and “submission” necessitates study of the call center environment itself. Greg Stitt’s 2002 documentary Diverted to Delhi provides a compelling portrait of call center hiring and training, as well as its accompanying requisite processes of identity-masking as identity-formation and value-acquisition. Job training for apprentice agents in an American firm’s offshore customer service operation primarily means learning American English and the staple cultural values that comprise the common American discourse: in short, the “aesthetic labor” of mirroring their Western clients’ traits and outlooks.7 Yet, Diverted to Delhi illustrates that even as a part of this seemingly innocuous program—of crash courses in Western individualism and facts about major US cities, both unfamiliar to the average Indian—there coexists an implicit, simultaneous devaluation of indigenous values. Indian patriotism or resentment toward American ideals, when detected in trainees, is quickly diffused and pruned, since such forms of resistance would be noticeable during phone interactions with consumers and may cause losses in business, triggered by agent-instigated conflict. The intolerable nature of this mode of conflict, in contrast to disputes instigated by consumers, owes itself to the orientation of the service industry around the consumer-as-god, and around the Western conception of the service-recipient as the final arbiter for the transaction’s success. Since failure of a transaction—the consumer’s problem left unresolved at the call’s termination—is harmful to business, the consumer-as-god must remain venerated and unaccountable. To allow otherwise would be to commit the cardinal sin of undermining the economic motivation that determines the existence of the transnational call center in the first place. Indian labor, in abundance, must satisfy the abundance of American demand. An additionally odious aspect of the aesthetic labor which Indian agents are expected to undertake to satisfy Western demand is the adoption of American names in the workplace. Call center agents are generally required, as shown both in Diverted to Delhi and Bhagat’s fictional narrative, to adopt English-language names (Sam instead of Shyam, in One Night at the Call Center, for example) as a symbolic and duplicitous transformation of identity, which is intended to offset the obvious transcultural gulf created by offshore service operations. Thereby, in addition to the commoditization of language, identity, too, 20


as outwardly marked by a name, becomes part of the performance on the job.

Imposition of American names, however, must be regarded as a “violence” in Abdelkebir Khatibi’s sense.8 Through the process of christening, a previous identity is stripped away to make room for a more favored, circumstantially apposite one. In conjunction with the transposition of English into the skill-set, then, language and identity in the call center become ontological spaces in which one encounters the otherness in oneself, facilitated by the alienation of both qualities from their normally intimate and personallyspecific contexts into the impersonal and externally-controlled dictates of the capitalist service market. This otherness manifests itself within the capitalist paradigm as a fluid outward identity amicable to the shaping forces of whatever an American or British clientele desires, acting alongside the personally-divorced features of English-as-a-skill. The image of a prospective call center employee seeking to market this “otherness” forcefully recalls Serres’s “professional stranger” for whom receiving calls must be “an exercise in cosmopolitan alterity.”9 Unlike the idealized Francophone writer, though, that Bensmaïa describes as “wandering” through the ontological space of language in order to discover “the pleasure” of “the Diverse” in the global ethnoscape,10 sheer economic necessity is the seminal factor for the call center agent, underlining the disturbing self-coercion produced by Western hegemony. As Bhagat’s ever-impassioned Vroom notes, “Salary has hooked me… The Americans fuck me… and the funny thing is, I let them do it. For money, for security, I let it happen.”11

Hence, as necessitated by their environment, agents simultaneously entertain two seemingly contradictory value-sets, usually of concomitant native pride and consent to the dominance of American values as epitomized in Vroom’s case. Such internal conflict cannot persist in light of the general human need for the alleviation of cognitive dissonance,12 and accordingly, call center workers regularly develop a corpus of resistance techniques to maintain notions of dignity and self-worth. Diverted to Delhi portrays groups of call center agents that, in their afterhours, become religiously fundamentalist and observe the most rigorous Hindu rites. Bhagat’s characters commonly joke about the stupidity of the American general public: “there are ten smart guys in America,” notes Sam, “and the rest call us at night”13; there is even description of a “35=10” rule being taught to rookie employees, equating the normal intelligence of an American 35-year-old with that of an Indian ten-year-old.14 These techniques all amount to necessary forms of self-defense, constituting what Mirchandani calls “emotion work.”15 This labor is indispensable in agents’ struggle to maintain perceptions of dignity and professionalism, despite the perpetually degrading peripheral knowledge of submission that accompanies employment in the offshore consumer service sector.

From the struggle to uphold self-worth arises the inherent trauma characteristic of call center work. The term itself, derived from the Greek τρᾶυμα, connotes in this case a “wound” that is inflicted by the abuse of the workplace and must be healed through processes of resistance as embodied in emotion work. Agents’ traumatic experience does not consist solely of their dignity-wounding complacence with Western dominance, of which Bhagat’s more astute characters lament, but also of their obligation to receive overt nationalistic abuse and racism from consumers.16 Resistance against such abuse, which can never be displayed in the actual calls themselves due to the nature of the business transaction, must be channeled through the inward apparatuses of emotion work, such as agents’ self-construction as “professional therapists,” or simple acknowledgement of the class differences between the mostly university-educated Indian call center workforce and the perhaps poorly-educated American caller.17 Whatever the means, the process of healing for these workers is, to be sure, a “labor,” a personal duty inseparable from the job. When attacked, the agent’s internalized response is to place the burden of reconciliation upon himself, diverting the natural culpability for the mistreatment away from the THE CALL CENTER AS A SITE OF TRAUMATIC BILINGUALISM


8. Abdelkebir Khatibi, Love in Two Languages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 25. 9. Réda Bensmaïa, “Multilingualism and National ‘Traits’,” Experimental Nations, Or, the Invention of the Maghreb (2003): 134. 10. Ibid., 135. 11. Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 208. 12. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957). 13. Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 89. 14. Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 55. 15. Mirchandani, “Enactments of Class and Nationality in Transnational Call Centers,” 93. 16. Ibid., 90. 17. Ibid., 93.

18.Mirchandani, “Enactments of Class and Nationality in Transnational Call Centers,” 91. 19. Geeta Kapur, “Globalization and Culture: Navigating the Void,” The Cultures of Globalization (1998): 192. 20. Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center, 161.

untouchable consumer, if only to reorient it inwardly or toward the workplace institution.

The consumer-as-god conception can once more be pinpointed as the precise reason why repeated abuse can be inflicted by the caller but never attributable directly to the caller himself. Overvaluation of the consumer correlates directly with undervaluation of the worker, and the causal origins of the trauma that call center agents experience stem from this fundamental relationship of inequity. Foremost, that an offshore service call from America to India is a transnational transaction-act implies the situation of its two actors in vastly different respective time-spaces. Yet, because the call is initiated at the consumer’s convenience, and masked by the time-space alienation of the telephonic medium, the American consumer is only minimally—if at all—aware of this disjuncture, while the Indian worker is maximally aware, most patently through adoption of a nocturnal work discipline simply to receive any such calls. The god-myth of the consumer is further played out on the call center stage via the gross discrepancies in accountability between caller and agent; while callers are “free from the normative requirements of public interactions” as they initiate calls from the leisure of their chosen locations, workers are subjected to extraordinary scrutiny and surveillance through a range of monitoring devices.18 Any ruptures in the blissful illusion of time-space continuity (and therefore, assumed sociocultural continuity) inflame the American consumer, whose purchase in the service-transaction includes not only resolution to his original problem but also the comfort of the aesthetic labor executed by the Indian agent. When the “sounding-right” does not actually sound right, the aesthetic labor—a deceitful and self-negating act of outwardly demonstrating an American accent, values, name, and identity—is not up to par, and once more, the culpability for the illusion’s demise returns to the worker. Since the medium of exchange is telephonic, only the “sounding right” as expressed through voice can be the marker of identity that the consumer evaluates through the normative, many times national, filters of slang and accent. Consumer perceptions of language ownership and the resultant offense caused by failed attempts to feign possession of English (meant to be a strictly American or British endeavor as based on the context) arise from the unique Western position of being the engaging partner in the global economic hegemony. That is, as Geeta Kapur asserts, “what is being globalized is… American-style capitalism and its implicit worldview,”19 and this worldview places the American consumer in a self-conscious position of economic and cultural domination, while the Indian worker occupies the submissive role.

The aesthetics of call center work, as prostration—or as Bhagat’s characters might have it, prostitution—before the dominance of the West, together with the abusive construction of the workplace itself, have been shown to constitute the traumatic experience of the service worker. The responses that are evoked by these very conditions, such as internal resistance motivated by the attempt to maintain dignity by means of emotion work, illuminate the landscape of the agent’s conflictive bilingualism. That is, where the violent imposition of the capitalist notions of language-as-a-skill and fluid identity enters into opposition against an innate association with language and personal-cultural identity, the internal space of this perpetual confrontation becomes the site of two conflicting ontological narratives. By the nature of call center agents’ complicity with their submissive role in the capital exchange, their public subscription is toward a unilinear globalization, where the West as the “center” must engage peripheral India in order to facilitate its progress toward modernity. In one of the most jarring episodes of One Night at the Call Center, the workers’ manager writes an email to the client company’s corporate branch, addressing the American senior management while only carbon-copying their Indian counterparts. This serves as a tacit but arresting reminder of the center-periphery model as performed through the most banal of formalities.20 However, it has been shown through the behavior of Indian workers in Stitt’s film and other studies that this view enters into conflict with 22


perceptions fostered by emotion work: of service agents as therapists, or the image of the irremediably stupid Westerner. These constructions, for their own part, inform another, more buried, convictional milieu: a celebratory view of globalization in the vein of Appadurai, where India is conceived as a coequal (or even more valuable, as a compensative response) member of the global ethnoscape, while economic engagement with the global North remains relatively insignificant a propos self-worth.21

Nevertheless, it cannot be asserted that either of these narratives holds greater weight than the other, and it is indeed the conflict of the two, one or the other gaining greater comparative validity in distinct situations, that underlies the conflicts central to literature such as Bhagat’s. Call center agents must wrestle with this dual interior monologue and understand the situational appositeness of their unique bilingualism in order to simultaneously maintain identity while serving as accommodating, compliant service providers. They are, once more, “the other”22 contained within themselves, produced by the state of their labor. The question to ask is whether this continuously reproduced torn state, half-functioning from both diametrically opposed stances, is a necessary product of the transnational service industry. In other words, can a humane call center, free from traumatizing processes, be realized? It must be acknowledged that so long as the need for service is produced, and Indians (or Filipinos, or the subsequent untapped population) remain a cheap source of labor, the service industry will continue as a sustainable enterprise. Since it is the consumer-as-god that ultimately drives the economic engine of global capitalism, the burden of this transformative duty lies with the consumer, who alongside acceptance of the service agent polyglot—or Appiah’s “Man with a Bicycle,” evidence that “we are all already contaminated by each other,” —must relinquish the notion of English ownership along national or racial lines. Americans and British must too consider themselves “Anglophone,” speaking an English, one of many, that echoes the society in which it took shape. Those of both colonizing and colonized histories can then recognize and legitimate a humane vision of globalization that does not position societies on a scale of unilinear progress to an undefined “Modern” or place them at odds; one that neither concedes to identity as inseparable from historical paradigms, nor to an unequivocal embrace of a cosmopolitan vision where self and culture are liberated from any such contingencies. What is needed is the recognition that “differences… have real and material consequences, where agency… is not ghost-driven nor collapsed into a series of metonymically disposed identities,”23 and also that these “real and material” differences are, concomitantly, not fully binding. Perhaps through these prerequisite concessions, the ultimate aspiration for a globalization that enables coequal cultural engagement can be achieved and finally enacted through the transcultural service call, in which the call center agent is no longer a figure torn by conflict but instead one that possesses an extra voice with which to explore the world’s diversity.



21. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 3. 22. Kwame A. Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?,” Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1996): 354. 23. Kapur, “Globalization and Culture: Navigating the Void,” 201.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Appiah, Kwame A. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Ed. Padmini Mongia. Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1996): 55-71. Bensmaïa, Réda. “Multilingualism and National ‘Traits’.” Experimental Nations, Or, the Invention of the Maghreb (2003): 99-144. Bhagat, Chetan. One Night at the Call Center. New Delhi: Random House, 2007. Diverted to Delhi (2002). Prod. Greg Stitt. Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957. Friginal, Eric. The Language of Outsourced Call Centers: A Corpus-based Study of Cross-cultural Interaction. John Benjamins, 2009. Kapur, Geeta. “Globalization and Culture: Navigating the Void.” Ed. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi. The Cultures of Globalization (1998): 191-217. Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Love in Two Languages. Trans. Richard Howard. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. Mirchandani, Kiran. “Enactments of Class and Nationality in Transnational Call Centers.” Ed. Stephen Fineman. The Emotional Organization: Passions and Power (2007). Sonntag, Selma K. “Linguistic globalization and the call center industry: Imperialism, hegemony or cosmopolitanism?” Language Policy 8. (2009): 5-25.




The Power of Ritual in Indian Politics Jacob Clarkson

ArizonA StAte UniverSity

Jacob Clarkson was born in Kumamoto, Japan and raised on job sites across Arizona. Before studying at Arizona State University, he managed construction companies and even owned his own contracting firm for the last five years. Currently, after graduating from ASU, he lives in Mesa, Arizona, with his wife Christy and their six children. When he is not researching or writing, he enjoys playing the bass or mountain biking through the hills near his home.

1. Leonard A. Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat and subhas Chandra Bose (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 349

ABSTRACT The political ascension of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was not serendipitous. His political success was only possible through his public, spiritual persona as the Mahatma. Gandhi linked these separate aspects of spirituality and politics through a detailed ritualizing of Indian politics. Gandhi’s consistent methodology was noticed by a young follower named Subhas Chandra Bose, who co-opted these rituals to create his own following as India’s Netaji. The nationalist movement is encapsulated in the bestowal of the honorific titles of Mahatma and Netaji.

Gandhi’s and Bose’s successful political campaigns give insight into the masses they attracted. Through letters, memoirs and speeches we gain a deeper understanding of the independence zeitgeist that permeated India from 1920 until independence was won in 1947. Gandhi catered to the nationalist energy that wanted to create a new political movement representative of a traditional, authentic and great Indian society. While Gandhi propounded historic principles of non-violence and passive resistance, Bose attracted those who were impatient with altruistic non-violence. Bose tied his violent revolution to Indian history through language and his progressive politics to modern symbols of power. These different political platforms collided in the winter of 1939 when Bose succeeded in defeating Gandhian politics in the Congress party elections. The narrative of this struggle serves as a contextual microcosm for the multifaceted independence movement. For the first time, Gandhi is forced to abandon his strict ideals of dharma to reacquire his party. While Bose sought a compromise with Gandhi, Gandhi was unwilling, despite Bose representing a growing sentiment. Eventually, Gandhi not only forced Bose from the Presidency but out of India entirely. In his effort to consolidate power, Gandhi was able to impose his understanding of Indian nationalism on the Congress but he would never impose it on all of India. This essay shows how the Congress party conflict in 1938-1939 was indicative of India’s struggle to define itself as a nation in the 20th century. 1938 In the winter of 1938, Subhas Chandra Bose returned to India after two months of convalescing at a Swiss resort, after five years in prison and exile. On 24 January, Bose’s plane landed in Calcutta, where he had previously held the office of mayor.1 Arriving with much fanfare, Bose immediately reinserted himself into Bengali politics and the workings of the Congress. His imprisonment had drained his health but strengthened his progressive resolve as well as his following among the youth of India.

A generation younger than Gandhi, Bose possessed the energy that Gandhi once had. Bose had been an devoted satyagrahi in years earlier, but his impatience and his growing political clout emboldened Bose to adopt a much more progressive ideology. His relationship with Gandhi could be described as intense love/hate at best. Gandhi saw strength and potential in Subhas Bose and hoped to harness it by nominating Bose for the Presidency of the Congress. This was Gandhi’s subtle way of maintaining authority in the Congress without holding an official position. Historically, after Gandhi’s endorsement, the election was mere formality. The pattern did not change with respect to Bose’s election. What did change, however, was what Bose did after he was elected. Bose took to the office with his signature energy and charisma. His first official act as president was to lay out a socialist agenda in his inaugural speech to the chagrin of every Gandhian in attendance. Gandhi had dominated Indian politics for more than twenty years and now faced a fierce ideological challenge. The following year was tense for India as Europe and East Asia geared up for war. By 1938 Gandhi had worked for more than two decades to realize his vision of India’s in-



dependence and greatness. Unfortunately, as Gandhi spoke of non-violence and simple living, international industrialization and warfare were foisted upon India by the British. In order to successfully gain independence, Subhas Bose represented a shifting paradigm that saw these as inevitabilities that India must embrace. An examination of Bose’s political career reveals two inseparable yet ironic facts: Gandhi’s long term success both facilitated Bose’s ascendancy and his eventual political demise. In the end, his movement would crumble despite adopting Gandhi’s ritualized politics of symbolism and language. MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI When Gandhi returned to India after his long stay in South Africa, India already had many aspirants for the nationalist position of “Father of India.” The pluralism that marked 20th century India spawned political movements and leaders that covered the entire political spectrum, all of which worked to craft a national identity. Nationalism was not limited to India—it was exhibited globally as colonialism began to decline and the concept of the nation/state was adopted. In India, other factors played a role in the nationalist movement. For the first time, many Indians were being exposed to ancient Hindu literature, art, and philosopy. A reconciling of modern Indian culture with the recently rediscovered past was the impetus for the nationalist movement.2 Indians began to see themselves as something more than the colonized subjects of foreign rulers. With these expectations and in this atmosphere, Gandhi launched his satyagraha campaign in an attempt to define decolonized India. For many Indians, Gandhi’s weak stature and passive nature appeared inconsistent with strong and vibrant leadership. Also, history had provided numerous examples of successful nationalist movements that had succeeded on their leaders’ energy, charisma, and, in some ways, their physical bearing and actions. George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Simon Bolivar were men who inspired through speech and bold action. Gandhi’s non-violent message was also at odds with certain aspects of Indian culture and history. For example, Hinduism included the violent imagery of Krishna. Also, for centuries, India had only known the sovereignty of invading foreign rulers—those who imposed their will by the force of arms. Despite the British Empire assuming control without conquering, they maintained control by violently quashing rebellion. Though strong active leadership had not worked to benefit the Indians, in the right hands, it certainly provided an effective model for consolidating and maintaining power. In many ways, Gandhi did not fit this model, but his success pivoted on his ability to ritually involve people in his interpretation of India. RITUALIZED POLITICS The power of symbolism and ritual in politics is evident throughout the ages, including diverse cultures and locales. It wasn’t until the theorist Clifford Geertz recognized and defined this power that there was a theory matching this practice. Geertz recognized that rituals could use symbols and action in order to establish or maintain political power. Additionally, rituals were effective in teaching followers the way the world is and what the world should be.3 Gandhi’s effective and detailed rituals provide further evidence for Geertz’ theory.

Indian politics had been ritualized long before Mohandas K. Gandhi appeared on the political landscape. Rallies, slogans and songs had been employed to define and foster Indian nationalism. Gandhi separated his rituals from his predecessors through his attention to ritual detail. Political rallies served as ritual experiences where the Gandhian method was lived. Although Gandhi spoke in a language familiar to India and molded his satyagraha ideals from the Indian tradition, his philosophy was demanding and apNETAJI V. MAHATMA


2. The Indian renaissance of the 19th century and its cultural impact are well documented and discussed in Searching for the Cradle of Civilization by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley 3. Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions--Revised Edition, Reissue ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009) 66

4. Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997) 146 5. Guha, Dominance, 154 6. Ibid., 148,149 7. Balaram, p. 76 8. Hind swaraj. 64-65 9. S. Balaram, “Product Symbolism of Gandhi and its Connection with Indian Mythology”, Design Issues 5, No. 2 (Spring, 1989): 73, http://www.jstor. org/stable/1511515 10. Abida Sultaan, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess (Karachi: Oxford University Press, USA, 2004),158

peared almost foreign to the India which had been colonized by the British since 1757. Gandhi organized his movement, including symbols and rituals, in order to bridge the gap between the colonized mentality and his definition of nationalism and eventual independence.

Gandhi’s soft-spoken personality belied his stubborn attention to ritual detail. In his book Dominance without Hegemony Ranajit Guha documents Mohandas Gandhi the political manipulator. The central tenet that guided the organization of a Gandhi rally was the idea that control of a crowd was an extension of soul control.4 When Gandhi visited an area and set up a rally to promote hartal, khadi or amritsa the audience was brought into a political ritual. If the rallies were at night Gandhi insisted they were done by candlelight in symbolic protest to modernization in the form of kerosene lamps. The uniform dress and self-discipline of the satyagrahi, along with Gandhi’s dhoti, and sandals conveyed two very important messages to the audience. First, Gandhi projested the personal charisma and influence to organize these perfectly disciplined meetings and second, the rallies described the way India would be through hind swaraj.

Gandhi was well aware of the difficulty inherent with adopting swaraj. Non-violence, boycotting British services and facing imprisonment required strength and faith in satyagraha as a nationalist movement. He worked to hone an image for his volunteers that would be projected on and hopefully adopted by India. Moreover, Gandhi rejected satyagrahis who behaved poorly in public and insisted that volunteers exhibited strong discipline before they would be allowed to work at large gatherings.5 He expressed anxiety that a misbehaving satyagrahi would reflect poorly on Gandhi and his movement. Of undisciplined volunteers he stated: “He only hinders rather than helping. Imagine the consequence of the introduction of one untrained soldier finding his way into an army.” According to Guha, Gandhi sought to install his hegemony in lieu of colonial hegemony through manipulation of Hindu symbols and political ritual.6 Political treatises and printed propaganda would be ineffective in communicating with the illiterate lower castes. When Gandhi humbly asserted “my life is my message,”7 in effect petitioned India to be like him. Dress as he dressed; speak as he spoke and live as he lived. Gandhi saw the individual attaining his ideals as “true civilization;”8 and realizing his vision of decolonized India. Gandhi employed symbols such as the spinning wheel, and dhoti to define nationalism. Gandhi’s followers wore khadi, the home spun cotton cloth, was adopted as a symbol of self reliance. Additionally, the spinning wheel or charkha symbolized the act of resistance.

Mohandas K. Gandhi was a complete political symbol embodied in his persona with his simple dress and thin build that identified his struggle with the poor.9 By abandoning the British style of dress he had acquired in England and adopting the dhoti he exemplified the doctrine of hartal. Gandhi’s photo opportunities were not at high social events. They were spinning cotton and walking with children. His goat was omnipresent for health reasons but added to his image as a man of the peasantry.10 These symbols accompanied by his wearing of sandals and simple round glasses fulfilled his declaration “my life is my message.” Any bystander saw the essence of hind swaraj when they looked upon the barrister turned spinster. Although Gandhi verbally denied supernatural abilities or divine incarnation, his ritualizing efforts linked his spiritual strength to nationalism. By maintaining his public persona of passivity, simplicity, and discipline he was reified as Mahatma and Bapu of India.

The reification of Gandhi as Bapu or Mahatma allowed Gandhi to employ another political ritual with great effect: fasting. Many misunderstood his doctrine of amritsa or lacked the conviction to attain hind swaraj, but his well publicized fasts as penance for the mistakes of others spoke clearly to those who would listen. When Indians broke from



Gandhi’s definition of nationalism through violence he would use fasting ritually to impress his ideal.

In addition to ritualized political action, Mohandas Gandhi employed language in his attempts at establishing hegemony. Satyagraha was a term Gandhi contrived while honing his political craft in South Africa. Gandhi defined satyagraha in the metaphysical terms “soul force.” Although satyagraha was defined in such a nebulous way, it would come to define the complete Gandhian political method and synonymous with nationalism. Gandhi went on to manipulate the language for the purpose of galvanizing his idea of hind swaraj. Hind swaraj was a clever turn of phrase that Gandhi invented to connote both a future rule of India by Indians and the spiritual rule of one’s own soul.

Gandhi’s success in orchestrating the nationalist movement was wrought by ritually, and symbolically instructing the bourgeois in what nationalism entailed and how independent India must be. Symbols and language were used to provide a reinterpretation of what it meant to be Indian. His dilemma and success is seen in the people’s perceptions of him. GANDHI AS THE MAHATMA Gandhi enjoyed support from the masses because many viewed him as a benevolent father figure and many more saw him as superhuman. Although Gandhi verbally denied supernatural abilities or divine incarnation, his efforts to reify his status as Bapu of India proved effective. Gandhi’s consistency in symbol, ritual and language created the impetus needed to overcome the disparity between his decidedly weak persona and the physically strong leader as expected by Indians of the 20th century. In her memoirs Abida Sultaan gives insight to the dilemma which Indians faced. Abida accompanied her grandmother to the 1932 Roundtable Conference in London. On the steamer were many of the Indian leaders including Mohandas Gandhi. She noticed that all the politicos traveled first class except for Gandhi who traveled third class with his goat and two nieces.11 Sultaan addresses the wide gap between her Indian ideals and the magnetism of Gandhi.

I had been intrigued by Gandhiji’s hold on the masses especially as he symbolized the opposite of what we had been taught were the essential ingredients of leadership: bravery, charisma, physical strength, sporting prowess and controlled aggression. Gandhi was cerebral, physically weak, self-effacing and spiritual.

Unable to reconcile this dilemma, Abida attempted to match one of Gandhi’s fasts. After six days, she felt weak but insisted “anything the slender fakir could do, I could do better.”12 She was unable to match Gandhi’s fasting effort and her fast ended after seven days when she suffered a heart attack. Gandhi’s asceticism and self-sacrifice answered her conundrum. Although she would never support hind swaraj because of the negative impact it would have on her as the heir apparent to a princely state, she understood the magnetism of Gandhi and respected him for that. Gandhi was so successful in spite of his effeminate disposition and politics that opponents feared that he would upset the traditional social order beyond recognition and repair. It was a major motivating factor held by those who conspired to assassinate him.13

Fortunately, we have records of their views from other sources. For example, in her memoirs Abida Sultaan gives insight into how the uneducated saw Gandhi. Sultaan herself was the well educated daughter of the Nawab or Prince of Bhopal. In the spring of 1922 when Mohandas Gandhi’s initial non-cooperation campaign was at its height, Edward, the Prince of Wales visited Bhopal. Sultaan comments that Gandhi “called on the Indian people to boycott the Prince of Wales’ visit.” Despite Gandhi’s plea, Bhopal welcomed the prince enthusiastically. While in Bhopal Prince Edward went tiger hunting



11. Sultan, Memoirs, 158 12. Ibid.,159 13. Ashis Nandy, At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture (Bombay, India: Oxford University Press, 1980), 78

14. Sultaan, Memoirs, 31 15. Shudha Mazumdar, Memoirs of an Indian Woman, ed. Geraldine Forbes (U.S., M. E. Sharpe, Inc.: 1989) 167 16. Shahid Amin, “Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District. Eastern UP, 1921.” in Subaltern Studies 3: Writings on south Asian History and Society, ed. Ranajit Guha (New Delhi, OUP, 1984), 18 17. Bose, Struggle, 293 18. Ibid., 48 19. Gordon, Brothers, 58

and failed to see any tigers while others in the party shot and killed multiple tigers. The hunting guides “being a tribe of ultra-superstitious people” explained that a “spell cast by Mr. Gandhi that had led to the disappearance of the tigers.”14 It could be argued that this English educated Muslim noble was biased in her interpretation of the guides’ explanation; however, there is another instance of a similar mentality.

Another memoir provides further evidence of Gandhi’s ritual success by being elevated to Mahatma. Shudha Mazumdar was a wealthy Hindu woman from Calcutta. Specifically, she comments on how excitement built around the symbolism that Gandhi employed. She doesn’t cite a correlation specifically but ends her account of the Gandhi hysteria with a story her son told of the police attempting to hang Gandhi and the rope broke. Also, “the police tried to pierce him through with a spear and it broke.” Mazumdar goes on to say that these “wild rumours” accompanied Gandhi’s influence expanding into the villages.15 Although she mentions the power of the Mahabharata and its images of battles and warriors as ideals of masculinity, it was Gandhi’s symbolism and ritualizing that gained her devotion to satyagraha. It is contrary to hind swaraj and Gandhi’s ideas of empowering the individual, but it was this perception of supernatural ability that propelled satyagraha as nationalism.

The scholar Shahid Amin concurs citing several newspaper articles from the Gorakhpur District. Gandhi’s well organized political rituals combined with his personal charisma led to weeping, praying and a belief that the peasants were being visited by an avatar of the Mahatma. It was claimed that Gandhi appeared in more than one village at the same precise moment.16 In fact, Amin provides anecdotal evidence that the mythical powers of Gandhi were rumored throughout the entire province. Gandhi had achieved a status greater than that of masculine Indian; he was saint or demi-god. Such status shifted the debate over his tactics from whether he was emasculating to whether he was divine. Although he vocally denied this supernal magnetism, his power over the peasant farmers and untouchables was his greatest political capital. Gandhi’s methods and influence over the bourgeoisie were masterful. Speaking of Gandhi’s mastery of symbols Subhas Bose eloquently states:

His simple life, his vegetarian diet, his goat’s milk, his day of silence every week, his habit of squatting on the floor instead of sitting on a chair, his loin-cloth—in fact everything connected with him… has brought him nearer to his people. Wherever he may go, even the poorest of the poor feels that he is a product of the Indian soil—bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.17

When Bose details Gandhi’s political strength he states “He [Gandhi] had gathered round his head a halo of saintliness which was of inestimable value to him in a country where the people revere the saint more than the millionaire or the Governor.”18 Bose recognized that Gandhi had succeeded in redefining what it meant to be Indian. If only he could coopt this success and provide a more progressive definition of nationalism. SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE Bose was ambitiously active in the Gandhian independence movement early on. Naturally, this meant that he must operate under the Congress and Gandhi if he had high aspirations. Like some Indians, Bose saw Gandhi’s ideals as merely tactics dictated by the situation.19 As the years passed, and compromises were made and opportunities lost, Bose came to represent the growing number of people in modern India that yearned for independence by any means. Subhas Bose would never read Clifford Geertz theories but he recognized the strength of Gandhi’s political symbols and rituals and attempted to create the anti-Gandhi symbols. Although Gandhi had his many detractors, only Subhas Bose mounted a threat 30


within Gandhi’s own All India National Congress. By symbolically defining nationalism in a way familiar to the people, Bose’s political base widened. His ultimate goal was to redefine nationalism in a more assertive and progressive way; he only needed to turn the symbols and actions to his ideology.

As Bose developed his politics he saw great potential in playing Gandhi as foil to his aggression. When Gandhi employed symbols of passivity and conservatism, Bose could employ opposing symbols in an effort to play to growing frustrations. While Gandhi defined nationalism in terms of patience and forbearance, many remembered foreign rulers and British forces crushing the revolution of 1857, and many believed martial capacity was necessary for leading India. Gandhi used rituals, symbols and language in effectively defining what it meant to be Indian. Bose would do the same while giving voice to those Indians who saw nationalism in broader terms than satyagraha. Although Bose insisted on living a similar asceticism and self-discipline, his was more in the vein of Spartan military exactness. This subtle difference was noticed by would-be adherents. By effectively employing very specifically anti-Gandhi tactics, Subhas Bose hurled along at a trajectory that would inevitably pit him in a power struggle with Gandhi.

Shudhar Mazumdar gives account of Bose’s tactics early in his career. In December 1928 she and her husband attended a session of Congress convened in Calcutta. Outside, Bengali youth worked crowd control from horseback dressed in military uniforms. Her husband points out, approvingly, that these youth were “Subhas Bose’s volunteers.”20 Later she includes an anecdote of Bose marching young boys through Manikgunge in riding boots.21 Mazumdar was a Gandhian; however, her husband represents the Indian nationalists who wanted a netaji who could inspire action or even violent revolution. Bose wasn’t organizing a militant group but at the same time inspired militancy. Bose wore swadeshi while his Congress volunteers wore a type of military uniform and carry lakthis, the large sticks that played a role in Indian mob violence.22 Political rallies fro Bose appeared more like military exercises than the satyagraha of Gandhi. Instead of disciplined non-cooperatives, Bose organized a disciplined military force. Although he preached non-violence he was preparing for what he saw as possible if not inevitable. Describing those who worked for independence as “freedom fighters” was a similarity shared by Gandhi and Bose; however, in the context of Bose’s inaugural address of 1938, the term “fighters” delivers a different message. After quoting Vladimir Lenin he describes the “fighters” as endangering the “capitalist elites” of Great Britain. He goes on to define the movement: “We who are fighting for the political freedom of India and other enslaved countries of the British Empire are incidentally fighting for the economic emancipation of the British people as well.”23 This veiled reference to Lenin’s call for a violent worldwide communist revolution was not lost on the audience, thus a symbolic shift in how Bose defined a freedom fighter.

Addressing assemblies in military regalia, in addition to riding boots and military garb for his followers, engendered the martial mindset. His inaugural address as a first term president of the Congress includes a short description in how to militarily defeat the British. “[A]ir force has revolutionized modern warfare, destroyed the insularity of Great Britain and rudely disturbed the balance of power in world politics. The clay feet of a gigantic empire now stand exposed as they have never been before.”24 Hardly, the language Gandhi used! Bose saw the airplane as more than a tool or weapon, Bose saw the advent of air power as a symbol of modern national power. Therefore, he chose to fly when he traveled, except for his clandestine submarine voyage. His detailed redefining of the symbols of nationalism was replacing the more conservative model of Gandhi’s nationalism. NETAJI V. MAHATMA


20. Mazumdar, Memoirs, 198 21. Ibid.,203 22. Gordon, Brothers, between 150 and 151 23. Subhas Bose, Selected Speeches of Subhas Chandra Bose (Delhi, Publications Division: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Government of India: 1962), 73 24. Ibid., 74

25. Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press: 2006), 177 26. Ibid., 175 27. Bose, Horizons, 181 28. Stephen P. Cohen, “Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army,” Pacific Affairs 36, No. 4 (winter, 1963-1964) 416, http://www.jstor. org/stable/2754686 29. Ibid., 428 30. Sugata Bose, Horizons, 179 31. Gordon, Brothers, 545-546 32. Ibid., 542

BOSE AS NETAJI In order to better examine the tactics of Subhas Bose it is necessary to address the period after the 1939 conflict. After Bose was forced from the presidency of the Congress in 1939 he left the party and was able to form his own independent movement replete with his own political rituals and symbols. Subhas Bose recognized the political genius of Gandhi’s complete political statement through rituals and symbols and he attempted to employ the same tactics in order to reify his status as the Netaji. His attempts at compromise left him without a political party and forced him from his own country. Subhas Bose left India as a fugitive and sought to return on the strength of an invading army made of expatriate Indians living in Southeast Asia. On 2 July, 1943 Bose arrived in Singapore and quickly worked to organize both an army and a provisional government; a government that Bose believed would govern India after a military defeat of the British.

Much of his language began to hearken to the violent rebellion of 1857. While aboard the Japanese submarine en route to Singapore, Subhas wrote a speech calling for the women of India to militarize. He named the woman’s division of the army, Rani of Jhansi, after a revolutionary of 1857.25 He also adopted the slogan “On to Delhi” in another reference to the violence of 1857. His reference to India’s past indicates his attempt to tie India’s violent, progressive future to India’s past. Bose had not invented violent revolution; it was a part of India’s cultural legacy. The time for satyagraha had passed and Bose’s appeal for “total mobilization for a total war” appealed to many including thousands of Tamils who felt underappreciated as a martial race by the British.26

In addition to a change in diction, Bose’s freedom movement was replete with the symbols of his nationalism. For instance, the chosen name for the provincial government Azad Hind doubled as the battle cry “Free India.” The chosen flag for Azad Hind, a leaping tiger, symbolized Indian power, strength, and action. Additionally, the leaping tiger was reminiscent of the rebel sultan of Mysore who resisted the British in the 18th century.27 There was no ambivalence in the message Subhas Bose was making and its effects were noticed more than his politics. As Gandhi epitomized satyagraha symbolically, Bose epitomized Azad Hind. After World War II ended the officers of the Indian National Army (I.N.A.), were courtmartialed for deserting the British Army. In their testimonies they list several reasons for joining the I.N.A., but according to the British, the most threatening reason was the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose.28 The British preferred the mass non-cooperation of Gandhi to a military assault by a Bose led army.

A major criticism of Subhas Bose the political theorist is that he lacked an organized ideology or political structure. Military historian Stephen R. Cohen observes: “Bose demonstrated that doctrinal purity is not a precondition for popularity in Indian politics (and may become a handicap) when a leader has a clear-cut popular goal and demonstrates a willingness to act.”29 At this juncture, the British appeared weak and distracted by the war with Germany and Italy; the nationalist tide had turned opportunistic and violent. Bose harnessed that sentimentality to organize his army and government; policies were secondary to action. This fervor helped Bose raise large amounts of money from expatriated Indians.30 However, Bose’s army failed in reaching Delhi and he would never set foot in India again. His mystique as Netaji grew when he was pronounced dead on 18 August after his plane crashed en route to Japan. Many in India refused to believe Bose would surrender life so young and so abruptly.31 In life he attempted to reproduce classic Indian leadership in a modern guise and died a self-proclaimed martyr for Indian freedom.32 The legacy of Bose was his ability to give voice to the growing mass who were tired of Gandhian idealism. 32


1939 Returning now to the narrative of the Subhas Bose and Mohandas Gandhi struggle where it was left in the year 1938, we see the political savvy of both the Mahatma and the Netaji. Nearing the end of 1938 it had become clear that the political void between Bose and Gandhi had grown. Gandhi had made a mistake in providing a platform to the younger, progressive Bose and he sought to correct that by endorsing a more conservative candidate, Pattabhi Staramayya. With a rising tide on the left side of the Congress, he saw a chance to assume the helm of the independence movement in the winter of 1939 when he ran for reelection for the Presidency of the Congress. Bose vowed to run again and Sardar Patel, a highly regarded Gandhian, issued a formal request that Bose step aside and allow for the election to be a unanimous election of Gandhi’s candidate. Bose declined, ran a sharp campaign and won.33 With Bose’s victory over the Gandhi endorsed candidate, Gandhi had to veer from his course. Gandhi called in outstanding favors and convinced twelve of the fifteen members of the top executive Working Committee to resign; leaving Bose publicly abandoned by his party leadership. Subhas Bose worked through illness in order to reach a compromise; however, Gandhi wouldn’t have it.34 Through several letters, Gandhi challenged Bose to organize the left and provide the revolutionary movement the people sought.35 The Congress decided that Gandhi’s guidance was essential. When Gandhi refused to compromise and the Leftist element in Congress turned on Bose because he worked for a compromise, Bose was forced to resign from the Presidency on 30 April, 1939.36 Gandhi had successfully quashed his greatest rival. CONCLUSION In most cultures, names are social markers. Names often declared occupation, status, or even geographic origin. This social function of names was quite pronounced in colonial British India. Certain family names declared caste, along with region and occupation. The giving of titles also carried a similar weight in Indian society. When a peasant referred to Gandhi as Mahatma it carried an acceptance of his greatness and a relationship as his disciple. Likewise, when youth referred to Bose as Netaji this established a relationship as general and soldier. By linking his violent revolution to the past Bose legitimized his modern and progressive brand of nationalism and reified his status as Netaji. Gandhi enjoyed many years experience over his energetic and youthful antagonist. Bose saw the strength of Gandhi‘s event organization, symbolism, and diction. Indians grew impatient and were tired of seeing opportunities pass by to expel the British Empire. Bose employed Gandhian tactics but in reverse in order to play to that frustration. Gandhi knew this and it both saddened him and inspired him. The masses were proud of their rich cultural past and initially viewed the Mahatma and his political vision as the fruition of this cultural greatness. As the years went by, this worldview was confronted with the harsh realities of the 20th century. Bose provided a different and progressive interpretation of what constituted Indian greatness. The political battle of 1939 wasn’t between two men, it was a battle of national identities embodied in Mahatma and Netaji. Although Gandhi was politically adept enough to expel Bose from politics, Gandhi was unable to expel the militancy that Bose represented. Gandhi foresaw the mass rioting and intense violence that accompanied independence as the inevitable result of Bose’s nationalism.

Some commentators of the day opined that the Machiavellian tactics Gandhi employed in the winter of 1939 were blight on Gandhi’s career, anathema to his philosophy and not in the interest of Indian nationalism.37 To all those Indians who respected the Mahatma but did not interpret their culture as he did, it was exciting to see the capacity for Mohandas Gandhi to behave as Netaji. NETAJI V. MAHATMA


33. Gordon, Brothers, 372,373 34. Mushirul Hasan, ed., Towards Freedom: Documents on the Movement for Independence in India 1939 Part 2 (New Delhi, Oxford University Press: 2008), 1278 35. Ibid., 1272 36. Gordon, Brothers, 389 37. Hasan ed., Towards Freedom, 1289, 1612

Volume 1, Issue 2 | Spring 2011


ISSN: 2155-6229

Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies

DUJSAS - Vol 1, Issue 2  

Volume 1, Issue 2 of the Duke Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies

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