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There’s much to admire in the way Modi treated his wife

We believe that everything about Narendra Modi is fair game and have no hesitation in trashing every aspect of his life, both personal and political.

Neena Haridas  New Delhi | 26th Apr 2014

School teacher A.R. Goswami shows an old photograph of Narendra Modi (2nd L) taking part in a play at a school in Vadnagar, Gujarat. Modi spent his childhood in a modest three-room dwelling made of mud and brick nestled in a narrow, crowded lane in Vadnag

s Narendra Modi a misogynist? Is he a man who cruelly abandoned his wife? If you have been following the liberal narrative over the past few weeks then the image of Modi as a chauvinist who mistreated his young wife will be a familiar one. But speaking as somebody who could never bring herself to vote for Modi and who still remembers the tragic events of the 2002 riots, I have to say that this is one charge that simply cannot stick. Whatever my views of Modi's politics, there is much to admire and respect in the way he treated Jashodaben, his wife.

The facts are simple enough. Narendra Modi and Jashodaben were married off by their parents in an arranged match when they were both teenagers. In that era — and perhaps even now — people of Modi's background did not question what their parents wanted. Accordingly, he went along with their wishes and entered into an arranged marriage.

A few months later, Modi came to the conclusion that marriage was not for him. He had a sense of mission. He wanted to work within the RSS for his version of social welfare and societal improvement. Marriage had no place in this sort of life. Accordingly, he told Jashodaben that he saw no point in persisting with the marriage. He advised her to go and study and make a new life for herself as a modern educated woman. She took his advice and went on to become a school teacher, who was capable of supporting herself. For his part, Modi turned his back on family life and worked within the Sangh.

When I hear his critics berate him for his actions now, I wonder if any of them asked themselves the obvious question: what else should Modi have done?

Should he, like so many other Indian men, have kept his wife at home, uneducated and downtrodden while he went off to do his own thing? Should he have treated her as no more than a provider of services, always present to look after his home, wash his clothes and make sure that his meals were ready on time? Is it better to continue in a loveless and pointless marriage only because it is convenient for the man to ensure that his own needs are satisfied?

The way Modi's critics tell it, they would have preferred for him to have taken this route. Even feminists fall into the trap of seeing the wife in a failed marriage as a victim. They want Modi's acknowledgement of Jashodaben, who seems to have moved on in life. Instead of recognising that the end of the marriage actually empowered Jashodaben and released her from the shackles of an unsuitable and unhappy childhood arrangement (she was under 14 when the match was arranged), they fall back on the tired old conservative argument in which wives must remain in failed marriages forever and the man is obligated to keep his wife at home and support her long after the marriage has ceased to have any meaning for him or her.

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By the standards of that era, Modi’s behaviour was forward-looking. His personal life should not be a matter of public or media interest.

There are many good reasons for opposing Narendra Modi. But let us accept that when it came to his child bride he did the sensible and enlightened thing. It is significant that his wife bears him no ill will. She recognises that the marriage was an unsuitable match forced on them by their parents. And she is proud of the new life she made for herself once the marriage ended and she went out and found an education. We should admire her for her independence and we should respect her for not asking him for any help or maintenance.

But of course we won't do that. So many of us have now got to the stage where we dislike Narendra Modi so much that we have lost sight of the larger principles of gender equality and empowerment. We believe that everything about Modi is fair game and have no hesitation in trashing every aspect of his life, both personal and political.

Jashodaben Modi

In the process, we have abandoned the rules that have governed political discourse in India. Till now, we have never regarded the private lives of political figures as being journalistic fodder unless there is evidence that their private actions impact their public behaviour. Perhaps Jawaharlal Nehru did have an affair with Edwina Mountbatten. Perhaps he didn't. Perhaps a former President of India was a homosexual. Perhaps he wasn't. Either way, it does not matter very much. One of the better practices governing the conduct of the Indian media — and of the political class in general — has been our unwillingness to wallow in the dirt and filth that sometimes surrounds the private lives of our elected officials.

That distinction is now being eroded. Even if you believe that Modi treated his wife badly, it is hardly a valid subject for political discourse, but must remain a private matter between the two individuals — especially as his wife has never complained to the media about any mistreatment. The point, of course, is that I don't think he treated her badly. In fact, by the standards of that era, his behaviour was forward-looking.

The sad reality is that in today's climate, none of that matters. Forget about gender equality. Forget about an individual's right to choose, and forget about the privacy traditionally afforded to public figures. We are ready to attack Modi with any stick if it suits the moment.

As somebody who does not support Modi, I find this erosion of long-standing principles deeply distressing. In trying to make political capital out of Modi's marriage, we insult Jashodaben for her achievements in first, educating herself, and then, educating others. More significantly, we also insult the victims of the 2002 riots. Their pain is forgotten; their fate becomes just one more in a long list of grievances, real and imagined, against Narendra Modi.

Neena Haridas is an editor with Marie Claire International

 
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