Not quite what it seems

  • One can dismiss Janakpur incident as politically motivated propaganda of hill caste politicians and media
- Pramod Mishra, Kathmandu
This unwelcome, instead of becoming a pretext for the Oli government to seek vengeance, should work as an occasion for President Bhandari to insist on a mediated compromise among the political parties

Dec 24, 2015-President Bidhya Bhandari’s Janakpur visit last week to attend Bibhah Mahotsav (annual marriage celebration of Ram and Sita) at Janaki Temple caused turmoil in Janakpur and uproar among Kathmandu’s politicians and media. CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal termed it as an insult to world’s women while Nepali Congress’s Sher Bahadur Deuba expressed his outrage at the news that the Madhesi Morcha workers washed and purified the temple because Bhandari, a widow, visited the temple. Many Nepali language newspapermen, too, found fresh ammunition against the Morcha and the Madhesis.

The Madhesi activists went on a damage control mode, realising that this news would tarnish the image of Madhesis and the Morcha.  They refuted the charge by terming it a propaganda by the government and the hill caste media. The priest, too, said that the temple had been violated when the security forces entered its premises in leather boots with security dogs. And the Morcha activists vandalised the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, protesting the priest’s invitation.  The implication, of course, was that the temple premises had to be purified because 

dogs and shoes represent pollution in the Hindu tradition.  

The KP Oli cabinet condemned it and set up an inquiry to book the culprits. Since then, politicians, media persons, National Women’s Commission and columnists have assigned politically charged, complex meanings to the entire episode.  Sympathisers of the Madhes movement have blamed the hostile Kathmandu media and Pahadi response as propaganda against the agitation, while the opponents of the movement have insisted that it was nothing but Madhesi’s backwardness and prejudice against women in general and widows in particular that occasioned such an incident.  

 Whatever might have been the reason behind purifying the temple with holy water, the damage control mode of Madhesi sympathisers of the Madhes movement and the propagandist and holier-than-thou attitude of the hill caste politicians and media can only go so far in explaining the socially 

symbolic event.

Fate of women

Madhesi sympathisers were both right and wrong in explaning away the widow explanation as a freak remark or a Facebook post of an unthoughtful Madhesi individual.  They were right because Hindu widows, not just in the Madhes but elsewhere in north India, spend much of their time in temples involved in holy activities.  So, to say that the temple was purified because a widow—even in the person of the president—visited the temple is pure bad faith.  

However, these Madhesi activists do not tell the whole truth if they say that there are no taboos against Madhesi widows attending a marriage ceremony. As the son of a widow myself, I can tell you, and you can read books and watch a Deepa Mehta film, Water, that Hindu widows, especially upper castes, are traditionally not readily welcome when a marriage ceremony takes place in the wider, especially upper-caste Sanatani, culture.  For one thing, widows lack economic power in a patriarchal social and economic formation. And tabooed by Manusmriti and caste conventions, an upper-caste widow can neither remarry nor occupy pride of place in religious functions.  In many Dalit and Tarai castes, widow remarriage, although not a common phenomenon, does take place. It is more common among indigenous groups.  For example, as a child, I had attended a Rajbanshi ceremony called chuman to fetch a widowed bride for my widower uncle (my mother had made his sister her Bhaya, ritual friend). As for respect for women, despite the scourge of purdah, dowry and arranged marriage in the Madhes, hill castes have little to show for in comparison with Madhesi culture. For example, I never heard my father address my mother without the honorific aahaan (the highest of the three second person singular pronoun in Maithili), whereas I have never heard a traditional Pahadi husband addressing his wife without tan (the lowest form of the five second person singular pronoun) or the wife addressing her husband without the third highest (tapain) or fourth highest (hajoor) in return.  In both cultures, couples of the younger generation have come up with their own intimate pronouns, such as timi. So, the hill castes, despite getting influenced by the hill indigenous communities’ freer customs, acculturated to the hill geography and made flexible by the remoteness of the seat of Hindu culture in India and word-is-law tyranny of the rulers who promoted or demoted at will in caste matters, have little to boast regarding the status of women over the Madhesis. 

Just an example would suffice. Among the Madhesis, menstruation does not bring untouchability to women. But even now among the educated hill castes in towns and cities with running water and electricity, women suffer from menstrual untouchability every month. A cultural practice acquired in a time and place where scarce water, cold climate, unsanitary conditions combined with the scriptural idea of purity and pollution still works as enablers for the patriarch and the priest to impose this practice of menstrual untouchability.  

Political than social 

But how far modernity—political posts, education, political and economic power—can trump or has now trumped social beliefs, customs and scriptural sanctions? Can the post of head of state override social and customary sanctions? Certainly, part of the outrage of Kathmandu parties and 

media over temple cleaning by the Madhesi Morcha is political but it also partly stems from the fact that political power or the post of head of the state, which otherwise would override all other considerations in the traditional Nepali context, failed to do 

so in this case in a region under ‘internal colonialism’.

Of course, President Bhandari possesses a dignified personality. Even as a student leader at Mahendra Morang College, Biratnagar, in the early 1980s (I had just begun teaching there), she was one of a kind, always exuding dignity, determination, and defiance, a unique young woman among the run-of-the mill female students. But both her dignified personality and the gravitas of the post of head of state have failed to elicit welcome and felicitation from the Madhesis of Janakpur because of the political turmoil. This unwelcome, instead of becoming a pretext for the Oli government to seek vengeance, should work as an occasion for President Bhandari to insist on a mediated compromise between the Madhesi parties and the UML-Maoists-Congress. Only if that happens can we assess the social and cultural achievements or failures of this third but the longest Madhes movement. Until then, it would be futile to blame the Madhesis because one can easily dismiss it as politically motivated propaganda of the hill caste politicians and media of Kathmandu. 

Published: 24-12-2015 09:46

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