Padmavati row: Rajput Sabha should focus on the real issues facing the community and its women

Since the brouhaha around Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest film is rooted in history, let us look at the history of the men showing their jauhar (courage) against an unarmed man, trying ostensibly to protect the honor of Rani Padmini.

Let us start with a story that is real, not the imagination of some medieval Sufi poet.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a great Rajput leader of Rajasthan. His name was Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the man who went on to become India's vice-president.

 Padmavati row: Rajput Sabha should focus on the real issues facing the community and its women

Karni Sena members protest against Padmavati. PTI photo

One day, while he was travelling, hundreds of Rajput men surrounded Shekhawat at a railway station with swords, threatening to attack him. The reason: Shekhawat had refused to endorse the demand of Rajputs for glorifying Roop Kanwar, a young woman burnt on the funeral pyre of her husband in a village called Deorala in 1987.

Faced with a bloodthirsty crowd, Shekhawat did not resort to flight. He stood up to them and refused to endorse Roop Kanwar's burning. "My father died when I was a child. If my mother too had burnt herself, who would have brought me up. I condemn the practise of sati," Shekhawat roared.

This story needs recounting for two reasons. One, it says a lot about the mindset of the Rajputs of Rajasthan, a clan that not so long ago wanted a woman who had been drugged, chained and burnt alive in the name of tradition hailed as a Devi, a goddess. And two, Rajput Karni Sena, the group that is now standing up for Rani Padmini's honour has deep historical connections with the organisation that wanted to endorse sati as a legitimate practise in 20th century India.

So much for women's rights, their honour.

Lokendra Kalvi, the burly Rajput from western Rajasthan leading the anti-Bhansali campaign is son and political heir of Kalyan Singh, the man who led the agitation for glorification of sati, deification of Roop Kanwar. And the Rajput Sabha, which is jumping around today to protect the dignity of Padmini, was at the forefront of the campaign to justify the feudal, barbaric practise.

In fact, the history of Rajput organisations in Rajasthan is full of contradictions when it comes to women's rights.

In August 1997, when Diya Kumari, daughter of the former royal family of Jaipur, granddaughter of the late Maharani Gayatri Devi, married Narendra Singh, a cashier at the Jaipur palace, the Rajputs threw a fit. The Rajput Mahasabha, led by the same hot-heads who want Bhansali punished, held state-wide protests, condemned the former royals family for allowing their only child to marry against the community's wishes and even threatened to excommunicate the family and revoke all its titles. Amidst the din, the royal family had to discreetly get the couple married in Delhi.

A few years later, Kalvi and his supporters formed a Samajik Nyay Manch for seeking reservation for upper castes. And how did they run their campaign for social justice? By holding violent protests at meetings addressed by Vasundhara Raje, the then (and current) chief minister of Rajasthan. Rajput hoodlums led by Kalvi attacked Raje at several places, disrupted her meetings and rallies and generally made life miserable for the first women chief minister of the state.

It is amusing to see the Rajputs now stand up for the honour of Padmini, whose very existence is caught on the border that separates fact from fiction: a woman who was perhaps sent to her funeral pyre with hundreds of others in an allegory dreamt up by Malik Mohammad Jayasi.

Imagine the same Rajputs who justified sati, threatened to excommunicate a woman for marrying with the blessings of her family but against the wishes of the community and harassed a woman chief minister, attacking a director who wants to spin a narrative from the love story of the king of Chittorgarh, and the princess of Sri Lanka, who were brought together by a parrot! Fancy all of them getting enraged because they believe Bhansali may have been dreaming of filming a dream sequence that shows the queen of Padmini dancing with Alauddin Khilji.

The problem in this case is the same that plagues every community and religion that looks at myths and legends through the blinkers of faith. Some beliefs, myths and dogmas get ingrained so deep that it becomes impossible to separate fact from fiction, rhetoric from rationale. Call it the 'Mandir Wahin Banayenge' syndrome.

I called up Dr Omendra Ratnu, a Jaipur-based surgeon who is leading the campaign against Bhansali's film to spell out why the Rajputs were against the film.

His arguments: "Padmini is our mother, our goddess... Padmini committed jauhar to ensure no mlechha gets to touch her body. If somebody shows dishonour to her, he should be punished in an open square. It doesn't matter if her existence, the tale of her valour, were documented or not... Many Hindu documents were set on fire in Nalanda. Ours is an oral tradition. For us Rajputs, all Hindus, it is a matter of faith, our pride and honour. Kissi film maker ne apni maa ka doodh piya hai to Jesus aur Allah ke existence pe sawal utha kar dikhae (can some film maker dare question the existence of Christ and Allah)?. Okay, let Bhansali show us the script."

Obviously, Bhansali is up against much more than just a rational, calm debate on a 14th century narrative written three hundred years later that means many things to many Rajputs. In this war of rhetoric, where might is considered right, there could be just one winner.

Politicising the film, turning it into an emotive issue serves the interests of Rajputs. Once the dominant community in the state, it has now been pushed to the political margins by the more politically savvy and astute Jats and Meenas. Rajput leaders like Kalvi are desperate to regain their prominence and show their political heft, if not for the community's future, their own good. So, often they pounce on issues that could unite the community, even if it is a movement steeped in obscurantism, medievalism and barbarity for justifying sati or annulling a young woman's wedding because it didn't get their sanction.

There is, of course, no dearth of real issues — the ones that affect the lives of Rajasthani women, especially Rajput — that need the community's attention and outrage. The Rajputs need to do a lot within the community to empower women, especially those who decide to live on in spite of daunting challenges.

For years, Rajputs of Rajasthan blatantly ignored the rights of women. Widow remarriage was considered a taboo in the community for years, even when it had social sanction in many agrarian communities. It was outlawed by the community. Those who defied the diktat were excommunicated, turned into pariahs. It got the community's muted sanction just a few years ago.

Most of the Rajput women still leave in purdah. At social events and weddings, there are separate quarters for them. It is a practise that has survived modernity. Literacy levels are among the lowest in India, especially in rural Rajasthan. Other social indices like reproductive span, number of girl children in schools, infant mortality rate, sex ratio, age at marriage point to a state where women lead a life of misery.

In 1997, when Rajputs wanted to excommunicate the Jaipur royals, Brigadier Bhawani Singh, the titular head of the Kachchawah clan that established the dynasty, told the hotheads to "pay attention to Rajput poverty, lack of education, instead of railing like obscurantists".

Had they been alive, the former royal 'Bubbles' Singh and the late VP Shekhawat, the man who was hailed as Rajasthan's only Singh, would have been amused by this latest surge of concern among the community's leaders for the pride and honour of women.

Who knows, even Roop Kanwar may be bemused!

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 15:38:50 IST