Byline by M..J. Akbar: A Speck of Dust
We no longer expect politicians to write, but we still expect them to read. There will probably come a moment when they will neither read nor write. The descent from Jawaharlal Nehru will then be complete.
The lady who would be President, Mrs Pratibha Patil, clearly did not write the speech she delivered at Udaipur to mark the 467th birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap. What is less clear is whether she had paused to read the transcript. In any case, she has offered a view of history that might have been entertaining were it not so frivolous.
Muslim women, she claimed, began to wear the veil during Mughal rule in order to "save" themselves from "Mughal invaders".
Was this a slip of the tongue? No. Your tongue can slip for a sentence, or even two; it cannot slip for two paragraphs.
Mrs Pratibha Patil was obviously referring to the face-veil, rather than a head-cover. Why? Well, to begin with, Mrs Patil covers her own head in public. She certainly chose to do so when she came to Delhi to be presented as the ruling coalition candidate for President. Check out the pictures.
I am no advocate of the face-veil, a practice that was borrowed by the Arab Umayyads in the seventh century from their elite counterparts in the Christian Byzantine and Zoroastrian Sassanid lands that they conquered. Covering the head with a scarf, or the pallav of a sari, or a dupatta or a scarf, but keeping the face visible, is the more traditional expression of modesty among women across faith lines, as is evident in the manner that Mrs Patil wears her sari. I do not know if this will surprise her, but when Muslim women go to Mecca for Haj, they are not obliged to cover their faces. Iran has women in its armed forces: they carry guns and do not cover their faces. They only cover their heads.
The logic of Mrs Patil's thesis runs thus: Indian culture has always respected women; the face-veil - which is an affront to self-respect - system began during Muslim rule to "save women from Mughal invaders". Muslim women used the face-veil to hide their beauty, to avoid becoming targets of Mughal lust.
From one angle, of course, I suppose those who are interested in protecting the reputation of "Muslim rule" should be delighted. The Mughals were the last Muslims to invade India, not the first. If, as per the history of India written by Mrs Patil, the veil began only during Mughal rule, one must infer that there was no need for it before. This is high exoneration of all Muslim invaders prior to the Mughals. The ghost of Mahmud of Ghazni is probably writing a thank-you note to a possible future President of India at this very moment.
I do not want to show the tiniest bit of disrespect to Mrs Patil, who has made the dignity of women the central point of her manifesto. But I have to add, with the greatest respect, that she was talking utter rubbish.
Purdah existed among the upper echelons of Indian society long before the Mughals came to our country; and it existed, in different forms, in the ruling Rajput families. This did not mean that women were not respected; it was part of the elite culture of the time. In addition, the practice of sati was prevalent among Rajputs.
Mrs Pratibha Patil did not mention this, not because she forgot to, but because she was selling an argument.
Part of her motivation was, I suspect, political. She was a surprise nominee; in fact, it was a male Patil, home minister Shivraj, who did most of the running till the last minute. Since loyalty could hardly be advertised as her principal virtue, a politically correct justification had to be drummed up. Gender was the easy way out. The bureaucrat who wrote the speech may have shoved in the theme of "women's self-respect" to bolster the new image. Nothing in Mrs Pratibha Patil's record suggests that she has ever launched a crusade against the veil during many decades in public life.
The issue is not that the facts are wrong: politicians who barely read and rarely write are prone to such mishaps. The problem is a mindset in which the most obvious communal overtones never raise the slightest inner doubt.
The Pratibha Patil thesis is a perversion of history in which the Muslim has been vilified into an iconic invader and rapist. It is not an accident that the Mughals, arguably among the most enlightened and sophisticated of the many dynasts between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, are being vilified, for to destroy their reputation is to distort in public memory the finest examples of political synthesis and shared culture.
Mrs Patil was not a politician bending the rules in search of votes when she made the speech; she was governor of a state of the Indian union, and guardian of a Constitution in which secularism is a basic principle.
India's political class has long lost the sensitivity that would have once made such a speech a touchstone. Her invidious reference to 'Mughal lust' has already been shrugged off as a speck of dust that can be dusted off without any damage to the official ideological lustre.
I wonder what Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh would have said if President Kalam had ever made a speech like this.
But little specks of dust are like little drops of water. They add up. The Mumbai Central District Cooperative Bank has sent a notice to a sugar factory in Jalgaon, which was floated by Mrs Patil, for default on a loan of Rs 17.70 crores. The notice is not part of a conspiracy; it was sent following a Nabard directive to cooperative banks to recover bad debts after all efforts to do so had failed. People with political clout tend to believe that they will never be held accountable for loans taken from a government bank.
Whatever this may say about Mrs Pratibha Patil, it does say one thing about the Congress: the simplest form of due diligence was not done when nominating a candidate for the office that may not be the most powerful in the country, but certainly remains the most honourable.
By coincidence, the 39th volume of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, edited by the eminent historian Mushirul Hasan, reached me while I was writing this column. On 31 October 1957, Nehru sent a note to his Principal Private Secretary about a riot in 1956, at a place called Orai, in Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Congress. "As a result of this, I am told that twelve Muslims and two Hindus were killed," writes Nehru. "According to the report I have received, no step was taken against any Hindu, although so many Muslims were killed. A case was, however, started against the Muslims, and recently judgment has been given in this case, convicting about nine of them. I should like you to get full particulars of this case from the Uttar Pradesh Government. A copy of the judgment should also be obtained. You should enquire from them also, if any steps were taken against any Hindus because of these disturbances at Orai."
Nehru spent his life in service, to his nation, and to the minorities whose pain he felt deeply. Many Prime Ministers later, service has changed to lip service. If Mrs Pratibha Patil becomes President, even that lip will be removed from service.