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When a feminist turns right

March 30, 2014 16:03 IST

Madhu Kishwar, noted activist, has raised eyebrows with her stand on Narendra Modi, another instance of her long insistence on questioning of peer opinion. Aparna Kalra reports

She hasn't lost firepower. The woman that rebelled against the Miranda House beauty pageant in the early 1970s still hold you -- especially when Professor Madhu Purnima Kishwar is making a point.

And, she has several points to make. Kishwar has had strong, sometimes policy-influencing, views on rape, dowry and sati, not to mention dams, liberalisation, street vendors and, recently, khaps.

But for the past two-odd years, the feminist who refuses to be called that, though she and then associate Ruth Vanita defined the movement for a generation, has taken a sharp right turn. All her fire, strong views and powerful writing have had one object: Promotion of prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

Kishwar has published books and papers giving Modi a clean chit in the Gujarat riots of 2002. She has attacked those who have questioned her.

When I call for an interview, she comes on the line almost immediately and is charming on the phone. She wastes no time, though, in getting down to business. She has to be at the election commission office the next day to file a complaint against former University Grants Commission member and almost-colleague Yogendra Yadav, for his inflammatory speeches, she says.

She compares Modi to Gandhi. "We may not have another candidate like him for the next 50 years." It is this kind of devotion that Modi, a polarising figure, needs to make the leap from chief minister of Gujarat to getting hold of and ruling from New Delhi. His run has been marked by references to development and avoiding the religion plank. A hurdle, though, is that many feel he did not do enough to stop riots in that state in 2002, when mobs killed mostly Muslims.

Contrarian

This suspicion dims Modi's chances of heading a coalition government and he is aiming to win a majority. In this fight, debaters such as Kishwar can prove vital. What works in Kishwar's favour in her support for Modi is that she has taken, and defended, contrarian positions before. She is, also, unlikely to back off.

In the 90s, a decade after boycotting marriages which featured dowry, Kishwar and Vanita put out a view that dowry stemmed from India's skewed inheritance laws, and the Hindu Succession Act needed to be amended to stop the routine disinheritance of daughters. Similarly, she argued that banning sati temples was not a solution to the practice of women burning themselves at their husband's pyre. She argued sati was already on its way down (though it got a fresh lease of life with 19-year-old Roop Kanwar being set on fire) and would die out if women had better options.

She makes it clear that she feels a number of feminists miss the larger, cultural context from which a problem stems. This has been her approach to a recent problem -- that of honour killings and khap panchayats.

"I am the only one who tried to understand the khap. What did I do? I called a meeting of khap leaders. I studied honour killings; only two to three per cent are related to gotra killings. It is all done by families; will you ban families?"

"(Read) my petition in the Supreme Court. I am arguing myself. I managed to stall Indira Jaising's draft law against khaps," said Kishwar. Her voice rises when I argue that condoning a crime might also be a crime and ask her to explain her stand further.

"I am saying, even in (uses expletive) Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, most honour killings had nothing to do with a khap. Khaps are only against sagotra marriage. And, they have never ordered a killing." Kishwar also made a contribution to the street vendors' Bill, which seeks to legalise their existence, so that they stop paying bribes.

Activists younger than Kishwar say there's a fallacy in arguing for women's rights within a cultural context. "Branding certain types of women's freedom as Western as opposed to Indian is a very RSS-type position," said Kavita Krishnan, an activist who has campaigned for justice for women subjected to violence in remote areas of the country and who read Kishwar as part of her journey to defend women's rights.

"Asking older women to be celibate. She (Kishwar) has written about all of it; she has been quick to brand any concern about autonomy, freedom as Western feminism."

Vanita declined comment on Kishwar's politics, but did weigh on women's freedom. "I'm not sure how you are defining autonomy. In my view, autonomy in India is compatible with a very close relationship and interdependence with one's given and/or chosen family, as is clearly seen in many middle-class Indian lives; complete autonomy is a myth" said Vanita, now a professor in the University of Montana, on e-mail.

Personal gain

She says she is the only one who visits sites and does her own fact-finding, except in cases such as the brutal December 16, 2012, gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old in Delhi, where there could not be a counter-version.

Kishwar is also suspicious of "foreign funding and government funding" of non-government organisations involved in fighting for women's rights or ridding them of violence.

She says she has never made activism her livelihood, first holding down a teaching position in Delhi University for many years, and then working for The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (in this city). The journey to Gujarat, for investigating Godhra, was made with a Rs 10-lakh grant from the Centre.

"Kisi gareeb ke naam ka paisa meri jeb main nahin jayega (No money taken in the name of the poor goes into my pocket)," she says, while seated in a spacious, rented flat in North Delhi, where a live-in maid cooks for her.

She denies she is looking for a Rajya Sabha seat in exchange for endorsing Modi, something she is accused of. She said she will approach Modi on issue-based topics, just as she did Sonia Gandhi during the Tehri dam issue.

Writing for independent webzine Kafila, Zahir Janmohamed, who witnessed the post-Godhra riots, countered her tweets and findings in an open letter that was widely read. "She was gracious enough to reply," said Mohamed in an earlier interview. Shows Kishwar, of course, does not back off from a fight.

Aparna Kalra
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