Ram Madhav
July 29, 2023

From Delhi to Manipur

(The article was originally published by Indian Express on July 29, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first female created from clay. She was sent by the Greek god Zeus to the Titan Prometheus with a jar of evil spirits to teach him a lesson for stealing fire from heaven. Pandora opens the jar and releases the swarm of spirits that “forever plague mankind”. That is where the saying “Pandora’s Box” came from. This theme of women as wicked and cunning creatures continued in the European tradition.

The Babylonians restricted women to the role of housekeepers and wives. In the Greek epic The Iliad, Homer’s Helen of Troy, the queen of Sparta, comes out as a weak and compromised woman who left her husband King Menelaus and eloped with the Trojan prince Paris.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was enraged by Helen’s promiscuity and argued that freedom for women caused Sparta’s ruin. His opinion that women bring disorder and evil, and were “utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy”, led to later philosophers like Thucydides to command that “the greatest glory for women is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame.”

Through the story of Eve, Western literature perpetuated this myth about women as lesser beings. In a moving article in The Washington Post about the condition of women in Western religious societies, Pamela Milne wrote: “In the second century, Tertullian taught that all women share the ignominy of Eve. Like Eve, all women are ‘the devil’s gateway. . . the unsealer of that forbidden tree. . . the first deserter of the divine law’ who destroyed ‘God’s image, man’. Ambrose, a 4th-century bishop of the Latin church, concludes that “a woman is a good helper of less importance.”

Milne bemoaned that “themes of inferiority, evil and seductiveness” continued to be emphasised in the writings of Luther, Calvin and Knox and remain disturbingly prominent in places as diverse as papal encyclicals and fundamentalist preaching on TV. “The consequences for women of our day can be devastating”, Milne warned.

They are indeed devastating, and their impact reached not only the European lands but even countries like India. How else can one explain the ongoing ruckus over atrocities against women?

Incidents in Manipur are grotesque. The Babylonians equated women with the household property of men. The same attitude reflected in the incident of parading women naked and publicly molesting them because of the rumours that women of another community were subjected to a similar atrocity in another district. If you damage my property, I will damage yours?

But is the selective outrage inside Parliament, TV studios and on the streets by a few political parties justified? Don’t such incidents happen in many parts of the country? In 2008, a woman journalist, returning late from work, was killed in Delhi. Recall the victim-shaming by the then Chief Minister, who was quoted saying, “All by herself till 3 am in the city… you should not be so adventurous”.

The brutality of the December 2012 rape stirred the nation’s conscience. But atrocities against women didn’t stop, in spite of a new Act that stipulated capital punishment. Hence, this selective outrage becomes hideous. Selective outrage leads to whataboutery. Sensitivity and sympathy go missing.

A decade after the Delhi rape, the Manipur incident shook up the entire nation. Women have played leading roles in Manipur’s social life. Meira Paibis are the women torchbearers, considered the “guardians of the civil society” in the state. Ema Keithel or Ema Market in Imphal is the world’s largest women’s market with more than 5,000 women vendors. The atrocity against the two women shook the Meira Paibis too and they came out in large numbers protesting the dastardly act, irrespective of religion and tribe. However, our political attitude to women’s plight remains one of selective outrage and ill-informed arguments, instead of shame and sensitivity. The weaponisation of a woman’s body is an old evil in all societies and nations. Politicisation is a new scourge. In both cases, women are denied justice.

In the West, women had to wage relentless battles and raise flags of feminism to be heard and accorded dignity. But we belong to a tradition in which justice to women was regarded as “Param Dharma” — the ultimate obligation — for which great wars were waged. The renowned British Orientalist H H Wilson said: “It may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst Hindus”.

Helen of Troy became a victim of the politics of contemporary Greece. The goddess Aphrodite persuades Helen to go to bed with Paris because she was grateful that Paris recognised her as the most beautiful goddess. In gratitude, she decides to fulfil Paris’s evil desire of capturing Helen. When forced by Aphrodite into Paris’s bed against her will, Helen sneeringly says: “Go sit by him, yourself. Abandon the paths of the gods, never again turn your feet back to Olympus; no, stay with him, forever whimpering around him and watching over him, until he makes you his wife — or else his slave.” Yet, she knew she was powerless to resist the gods.

Let our women not remain helpless like Helen of Troy. We belong to the tradition of Draupadi who stood up to politics and the weaponisation of a woman’s body, forced a mega war and ultimately regained her dignity by decimating the Kuru evil.

Draupadi laughs out loud twice in the Mahabharata. Her laughter in Maya Sabha led to a Dharm Yuddha. But after the war, when Bhishma, from his deathbed of arrows, set out to explain statecraft to Yudhisthir, Draupadi laughed out loud once again. This time her laughter was about Dharm Rajya, where politics don’t take precedence over the dignity and honour of women.

Bhishma had no answer to Draupadi’s questioning laughter: “You are speaking of Raj Dharma. But were you not a mute witness to Dushasana’s evil attempt at disrobing me? Are you qualified to teach Dharma today?”

Our polity must demonstrate a national will for justice lest other Draupadis laugh at us in posterity.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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1 Comment

  1. Very well written article on the situation in Manipur, with inputs from millennial history. Excellent presentation on dharma and adharma wrt politicisation of the sensitive issue. The people of Bharat are observing the happenings very closely and all are for the restoration of peace in Manipur @ the earliest.

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