A day of faith

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Lessons from the death of two remarkable women

The grave of Valliamma R. Munuswamy Mudaliar, Johannesburg. [courtesy : Sharada Ramanathan]

‘Birthday’ is a standard word. But not ‘deathday’. Too inauspicious, perhaps. Too grim. But that is surely ahistorical. Some deathdays are to be celebrated for the persons who have died and the circumstances in which they have died bear out Donne’s famous lines: “Death be not proud… for those whom thou think’st thou doth overthrow die not.”

The 22nd of February — tomorrow — is the deathday of a woman who did her life proud by her death. Valliamma R. Munuswamy Mudaliar belonged to a Tamil family from the village of Thillaiyadi, now in the state’s Nagapattinam district. Her ancestors had been indentured, like several others from the Indian peninsula and even from ‘up North’, to work on plantations and in mines in South Africa.

In the early 1910s, these Indian labourers, poorly paid, uncivilly treated, without political or even civic rights, were riled by a racial poll tax — Three Pounds per head — that hurt their pride more than it hurt their purses. This, together with other disabilities like restrictions on movement between province and province and a requirement for getting registered on the basis of finger prints, was resisted by the affronted Indians who faced the consequences — stiff fines or jail. But when, on March 14, 1913, Justice Malcolm Searle, of the Cape Supreme Court, decreed every Indian marriage is invalid that is not registered before a Marriage Officer or celebrated according to Christian rites, more than pride was hurt. By a parallel order, Natal children of resident Indians or their parents were required to produce, if they needed admission in another province, certificates of birth. M.K. Gandhi memorialized the Minister for the Interior, General Smuts, to the effect that marriages celebrated according to Hindu, Muslim or Parsi rites were fully recognized by Indian law and that “it is a well-recognised fact that very few births are registered in India and it is practically impossible to produce certificates of birth except in rare cases.”

The collective selfhood of Indian-South Africans stood insulted, the honour of motherhood stood besmirched. Kasturba Gandhi asked her husband, “Then I am not your wife according to the laws of this country?” He said she was right, adding, “Our children are not our heirs.”

The community rose in a spontaneous protest. Indians, women leading, struck work and marched to break inter-province barriers to say, ‘We will not be humiliated thus.’ And they went on a great march, criss-crossing the border between the provinces of the Transvaal and Natal.

Valliamma, born in 1898 in Johannesburg, at 16 years of age, was among “the marching great” from the Transvaal side, Kasturba from the Natal side. Nearly 40,000 of them courted arrest, with nearly 10,000 being actually imprisoned, Valliamma among them. She went cheerfully and defiantly into the march and entered jail as a sense of duty to her motherland’s — India’s — greatness. Imprisoned in Maritzburg jail, she endured its rigours along with other women satyagrahis who included Kasturba. The sentence for ‘hard labour’ included the task of washing fellow prisoners’ clothes. Many fell ill, seriously ill. Valliamma, very seriously. Released when on the verge of death “with a fatal fever”, she just about managed to get back home where Gandhi came to see her. 

“She was confined to bed when I saw her,” he writes in his classic, Satyagraha in South Africa. “[H]er emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold.”

“‘Valliamma, you do not regret having gone to jail?’, I asked.

“‘Regret? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,’ said Valliamma.

“‘But what if it results in your death?’ I pursued.

“‘I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?’”

Thillaiyadi Valliamma died on February 22, 1914. Her remains are interred in Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg. Gandhi writes: “Valliamma will live in the history of South African Satyagrahis as long as India lives.” Her deathday is a day of celebration, for India lives! A film on the life of this icon by Sharada Ramanathan is expected to be released shortly.

Thirty years later, her jail-mate was in prison again, this time in India. Kasturba had been permitted to join her husband, imprisoned in the Aga Khan’s Palace Prison in Poona, for having heralded the Quit India resolution, asking Britain to exit from India. And she was gravely ill.

A wedding anniversary occurred at this time — that of a fellow prisoner. Kasturba asked Gandhi, “How many years have we been married?” Gandhi looked at her and said, “Why, do you also want to celebrate your anniversary?” Everyone around them laughed, Kasturba too. She was 74 that year as was her husband. They had been married for sixty one years.

On January 6, 1944, Gandhi wrote to the prison authorities: “... the patient has got into very low spirits. She despairs of life... Her state is pitiful.” And he asked for permission to be given to near and dear ones to visit her. As also for an ayurvedic physician for she had faith in that system of medicine. Her health continued to deteriorate and on February 22, 1944, her husband’s hands clasping her, Kasturba died.

She was cremated in the grounds of the prison. A tulasi plant grows on the spot in Poona.

The House of Commons was told on March 2, 1944: “... She was receiving all possible medical care and attention...” Gratefully acknowledging the fact that the regular attendants did all they could, Gandhi responded by saying the help that was asked for, when at all given, was given after a long wait, and the ayurvedic physician was permitted to attend only after he had to tell the prison authorities that if he could not procure the help that she wanted he should be separated from her as he ought not to be made a helpless witness of the agonies she was passing through.

On the Valliamma-Kasturba Deathday, the following thoughts deserve reflection:

First, a prisoner is a prisoner but a woman prisoner is a whole family in prison by proxy because of those, especially minor children, who depend on her. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s report for 2019, of the 4.5 lakh prisoners in India today, about 3.3 lakh are ‘under-trial prisoners’. The overwhelming number of these are going to be found to be innocent. State governments which are in charge of this ‘state subject’ must, especially in our Covid-19 times, see to the urgent release of the women among the undertrials under the salutary Section 436-A of the Criminal Procedure Code introduced in the CrPC in 2005 as, essentially, a human right measure.

Second, recalling what Gandhi said in South Africa about the lack of the practice of paper documentation in Indian families, we must ask: what papers can families required to produce them to establish their citizenship in the Republic of India possibly produce? Is it right, is it fair, for some fellow-citizens to be asked to produce such paper proof?

Third, Indian women in 1913-1914 South Africa responded to the unravelling of the man-woman bond in terms of religion, a cause to which Valliamma martyred herself. Is the classification of marriages by religion, in the Republic of India, as is being sought in certain sections of our body politic, legally sound, morally right and, above all, civilizationally justifiable?

No politicians, no lawyers, no agitation-addicts but two Indian women, one from India’s western seaboard, another from its southeastern, gifted with a rare commitment and great clarity, ask for February 22, their shared deathday, to be, for Indian women in prison or in fear, to be their Faithday.

courtesy : “The Telegraph”; 21 February 2021

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

India began as a plural democracy; respect for diversity was the core value. The provisions of safeguards for minorities were in built. These safeguards were formulated by the Constituent Assembly’s committee on Minorities headed by Sardar Patel. Seven decades down the lines where do we stand in matters of security and economic welfare of the religious minorities. Most of the inquiry commission reports related to communal violence, the scholarly works on communal violence by the likes of Paul Brass, Asghar Ali Engineer and recently from Yale University give a very painful picture of the communal violence, showing that the Muslims minorities in particular and lately Christian Minorities have suffered adversely. Sachar Committee Report (2006) showed the economic marginalization of Muslim minorities.

The events of last few decades and more so of last six years show the rising intimidation, marginalization and increasing fear among this community. The lynchings in the name of cow-beef and the harassment around love jihad have brought to fore the type of problems our country is facing on the scale of democratic freedoms. This was most clearly demonstrated when the large section of media with full support of the ruling dispensation coined the terms  like ‘Corona bomb’ and ‘Corona Jihad’ in the wake  of rise of Covid. To add salt to the wound, the present Government initiated NRC in Assam on the grounds that over 50 Lakh Bangladeshi’s have infiltrated into India particularly in Assam. When the final count came only 19 odd lakh people were found without proper citizenship papers out of which 12.5 Lakhs were Hindus!

Undeterred by this the ruling Government brought in Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in which the persecuted communities in neighboring countries are entitled for citizenship barring the Muslims. The trap was clear that those people who were without papers and were Hindus will get the citizenship through the back door while millions of Muslims without proper papers will be disenfranchised from citizenship to be shunted to detention centers.

It was in this background that our ex-Vice President Hamdi Ansari wrote his memoirs “By a Many Happy Accident: Recollections of a Life”. In discussions and interviews by different channels around the release of the book he voiced some of the concerns. He tried to emphasize that our citizenship is not based on religion. As most of the comments on his book and also on his life revolved around his being a Muslim, he underlined the fact that in his diplomatic and political life Muslim ness did not matter, what mattered was professional competence. As such this sums up his career which spanned over four decades and served the country in a very honorable way.

That apart the communal elements constantly targeted him for his being Muslim. In one of the republic day parade (2015), when army saluted as Jan Gan Man, national anthem was sung. A picture was circulated to create misconception that Ansari did not salute when the anthem was being sung. In this picture President is seen saluting along with him Prime Minster Narendra Modi and defense Minster are also saluting. Ansari stands still and picture highlights his not saluting. The criticism of his not saluting tricolor was propagated. At such an occasion only President, who is Commander-in-Chief of army salutes. No one is supposed to salute at that time. What Ansari did was as per the protocol, while those who saluted with President did not follow the guidelines laid down!

When Ansari retired in his farewell speech the Prime Minster took a dig. “. “A big part of your working life was in West Asia... in the same atmosphere and debate... after retirement, it was minority’s commission or AMU... that was your circumference,”

In the response to release of his book the communal forces again are uttering that India gave you so many top positions and your are disgruntled! You can very well leave the country and stay in the one where you feel at home. These types of comments show the mindset of the sectarian nationalists who see the citizens only in their religion’s identity. Ansari is not talking of his personal unhappiness. Being a thorough democrat and Indian nationalist, he is trying to draw our attention to declining ethos of our country. Since the identity issues, the emotive issues like Ram Temple, Cow-beef, Ghar Wapasi and Love jihad have taken the front stage our democratic foundations are being eroded to no end.

Similarly he points that with current Government the word secularism has gone into eclipse, it has disappeared from Governments dictionary. One can argue that even earlier the practice of secularism was on a weak wicket, e.g. the responses to Shah Bano Judgment did go contra to the values of secularism. Numerous reasons can be attributed to the weakness in practice of secularism. Still at most levels it had honorable place. What was missing was the astute sense of implementing it in the complex scenario where intense propaganda against protective clauses for minorities was projected as ‘minority appeasement’. Now there is not even an iota of consideration that as a secular state Prime Minster should not inaugurate a religious place of worship or issues like violence in the name Cow-Beef should not enjoy impunity. There is not even smallest consideration that in CAA how we can bar granting of citizenship to people of particular religion.

Ansari points out, “Overall, the very fact that Indian-ness of any citizen being questioned is a disturbing thought,’ and “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians” and the “illiberal form of nationalism that promotes intolerance”.

The critics of pluralism and diversity assert that what is prevailing is the genuine secularism as it has balanced the earlier tilt towards minorities. They also try to equate few other killings as lynching’s, to show that there no insecurity for dalits and minorities as such. Ansari’s observations need to be taken seriously and course correction of our democracy needs to be undertaken.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED