Competition Entry #30 | Freedom to Dream: India at 70


ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry

The Freedom to Dream: India at 70
Prachi B, 21 years old, Pune


A little over a hundred years ago, Rokeya Shakhawat, a fearless writer living in politically volatile Bengal, penned a story titled Sultana’s Dream. The story envisioned a world that challenged all that was fundamental to Rokeya’s own reality, and rejected the widespread notion that women are naturally suited to the confines of the home. Rokeya commented on the binary of the home and the outer world, using the tool of dystopia. She defied the inferior status accorded to women by men, and was critical of the position women were forced to occupy as emblems of culture. The story ends with Sultana waking up to a world that has little regard for women.

Feminist dreams and aspirations, even a century ago, were not contrived and most certainly were not borrowed from the West. On the contrary they were all responses to the lived experiences of their authors. Unsurprisingly, Rokeya’s ideas were criticised for being anti-national for portraying Indian culture as inferior to that of the colonisers. She was not alone in facing castigation. A rich body of literature exposing the patriarchy exists, but has been rendered invisible by mainstream historical narratives. The accusation that such works are western in ethos and incompatible with ‘Indian culture’ still hold leverage today.

Common to all these works is the rejection of the idea that women are primarily mothers, daughters, wives, and their representation as emblems of culture. They argue that such conceptions have been used to justify the control of women and their bodies by the state and their male kin.

To understand why this is so, we must revisit a debate that played out between ‘liberal social reformers’ in alliance with the colonial state on the one hand, and those who stood against social reform on the other. The answer also demands a visit back to the moment 70 long years ago when Jawaharlal Nehru declared that it was time we realised the tryst we had made with destiny.


The Debate

One reason cited by the British to justify their rule was that they were on a mission to civilise the savage indigenous populations. “How could a people who did not treat their women justly, rule themselves?” Thus began the project of social reform accompanied by polemics about widow remarriage and the abolition of sati among many other causes. History textbooks unwittingly extol these ‘reformers’ for having virtuous intentions to ‘uplift’ women from deplorable conditions. In fact, women had no say in what constituted this debate. They were merely an idea around which a new culture was defined, to fit the colonisers’ narrative of modernity. No one really wanted radical change – not the British and certainly not ‘native’ men. The reform project solely sought to assemble good housewives who would produce a new generation of colonial subjects taught to uphold colonial values of modernity.

Perhaps inevitably, the reaction that emerged to ‘defend’ Indian culture from foreign interference also sought to define a homogenous Indian woman and the values she ought to embody. The project of British social reform included the colonisation of Indian homes, which until then had been the native male’s domain of control. Thus a renewed form of cultural nationalism captured the imagination of the masses. The integrity of the nation now rested on its culture; central to which was the ideal, chaste Indian woman who put family and national integrity ahead of her own rights. Any mention of feminist reform was treated with suspicion and contempt, akin to an invasion by the West.


A New India?

On the midnight of 15th of August 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru announced to the world that India had woken up to “life and freedom”, women across the country woke up to a world not too different from the one in which they were colonial subjects. To be clear, it was not as though the new nation had no place for women, but that there were specific roles that the nation saw fit for women to occupy.

Even today, patriarchal societies and the patriarchal state dictate women’s lives in India. While support is shown for the project of ‘women’s empowerment’, any call for radical change is suffocated, allowing patriarchy to operate uninterrupted. It is evident that when patriarchal forces preach women’s empowerment, they do so with a tone of paternalism. The colonial legacy makes it all too easy to label feminists as parkati mahilayein or ‘beautiful, painted women who have no idea what ground realities look like’.

And yet, Sultana’s dream among many others, lives on. There is a growing realisation that as dreams dissipate, freedom diminishes. The 70th year of Independence is a reminder to us all of the many freedom struggles we still need to wage to be truly free. The mass hysteria around the concept of the nation itself rather than its people is a comment on the unfortunate times we live in.

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