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In her story about herself,Madhu Purnima Kishwar is a woman without attachments,an ideological free agent.

Even before her Modi turn,Madhu Kishwar was always a solo act

In her story about herself,Madhu Purnima Kishwar is a woman without attachments,an ideological free agent. She can say it like it is because she sees it like it is. After years of research and advocacy for women,the urban poor,for other misunderstood causes,she has now dedicated herself to presenting us with the truth about Narendra Modi,a man she thinks we never got a chance to know.

She has already produced several installments of her Modinama,after visiting Gujarat and listening to people. With these,she means to counter the “intellectual terror” of a media and civil society that,she claims,are proud to vilify the Gujarat chief minister. “I’m not running a campaign,I’m bringing you better information,” she tells me,in her peaceful office in north Delhi,at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies where she heads a project on Indic studies.

Many of her peers think that this time,she has exceeded herself. After a spat on Twitter,actor-activist Shabana Azmi signed off: “I know another Madhu Kishwar,and you are someone else. Goodbye”. When she spoke at a book launch at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre,some in the audience jeered at her motives in whitewashing Modi,others rose to their feet to defend her cause. Some of her former fellow-travellers,who did not wish to be on record,have spoken darkly of her “selling out”,“wanting a Rajya Sabha seat”,and that this is only to be expected from someone whose dizzying shifts in opinion are calculated to bring her maximum attention. A nasty Twitter account called Madhu Mausi insinuates that she has a crush on Modi. Madhu Kishwar,meanwhile,collects these tokens of outrage and opposition,and posts them all on her website.

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For those dimly aware of her,Kishwar is a pioneering feminist. For those who know her better,she is notable for having rejected many of the default positions of the women’s movement. She has defended practices like dowry and sati,spoken out against the proposed women’s reservation bill for being a “zenana dabba”,stalled the court’s ban on khap panchayats,citing the right to association. She has used her magazine,Manushi,to convey a cranky but valuable take on politics,history,society and culture. Through the ’90s,she broke with her comrades,the “leftists and feminists” whom she now considers a herd of independent minds.

In 1971,as president of the students’ union at Miranda House,then Delhi’s best-known college for women,Kishwar campaigned to end its annual beauty contest. “No one knew who topped the college in physics,but everyone knew who Miss Miranda was,every year.” She also casts it as a combat between her and others in the women’s movement she witheringly refers to as “beauty-cuties”— “All these women,now our leading feminists,were on the other side then,fighting to keep it.”

“The press called me the Kate Millett of India,but back then,I didn’t even know who she was,” she says. She didn’t come to political action out of grievance,or from chafing against limits imposed on her. In her telling,her family treated her like a “special divine creature who had descended in their midst”. She was born in a family of Punjabi Partition refugees in Delhi,people she describes as public-spirited,but not political. Even as a child,she says,her “word was law”,she had as much freedom as any man anywhere. “But I was too busy being a daughter of Mother India,had no time for my parents.” Kishwar describes her early life as a reel of achievements,where she was “best debater,best student,best everything”.

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At Delhi University,she was active in student politics,and was fielded by the Communist-affiliated Students Federation of India (SFI) for Delhi students’ union president. She taught English at a local college,and did an MA in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In 1978,she started Manushi,the little magazine that she still runs,which then called itself “a journal about women,by women” but has changed direction since and ceased print publication.

Ruth Vanita,now a literature and queer studies professor in the US,was one of the first people to join her. She has written of those tumultuous years with wistfulness and some distance: “Our first office was Madhu’s motorbike,on which I rode pillion,with a manual typewriter inherited from my grandfather on my lap,and files in a shoulder bag.” Many women volunteered time,but it was mainly Kishwar and Vanita,working seven days a week out of a dinky flat in Lajpat Nagar. Manushi intervened in public debates,reviewed books and films,conducted its own investigations,organised protests,offered legal aid.

But it didn’t play well with others. Gail Omvedt has written an account of how,at a 1985 national conference of the women’s movement,Manushi was accused of being autocratically run: “Internationally considered the voice of the Indian women’s movement,Manushi is not closely associated with women’s groups…it often uses its editorial power to attack other feminist activists.” Madhu Kishwar,a few years later,wrote a famous essay titled “Why I am not a feminist”,where she argued for a fact-by-fact assessment of a case rather than assuming an overall solidarity as feminists.

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For all her professed impatience with “label warfare” and ideological reflexes,there is a clear body of sentiments that Madhu Kishwar stands for. One can imagine a random generator of her essays — respect for tradition,even when constricting for individuals; some concept of desi good sense over imported “isms”; citizen’s initiative against a stifling state; “doers” rather than talkers and networkers.

“What’s the sum total of her positions,what does Madhu seem to be saying? Leave tradition alone. What’s the BJP doing? Hamara dharm hai,sanskriti hai,ise mat chedo”,says the feminist publisher and activist Ritu Menon. On social issues,Kishwar’s impulse is to punch holes in the progressive position,once voiced by others. And for all her talk of her lonely intellectual trail,these calls to conserve rather than change are guaranteed crowd-pleasers too.

Vanita left Manushi in 1991. Now Ruth-less,Madhu Kishwar’s individual positions became sharper,her voice rang clearer. She changed many of her own views,relishing her battle with what she saw as unexamined activist assumptions — on dowry,on personal law,on domestic violence. There’s nothing surprising about anyone’s slide from left to right over a few decades,but Kishwar is not so easily filed and dismissed. On Kashmir,for instance,she canvassed opinion from across the spectrum,moving beyond the nationalist discourse.

She championed economic reforms right from the start,when the prospect was frightening or repugnant to many. She argued that it was most important for the poor to be liberated from the state’s tentacled grip of licences and permissions. She has poured herself into campaigns for economic freedom for those she calls “nano-entrepreneurs”,trying to reform policy on street vendors,to free rickshaw pullers of arbitrary caps on licences. She lobbied governments,she documented evidence,she petitioned the court,and she won.

“It’s very important,necessary work,and there are very few people doing it,with this kind of missionary zeal. And she’s been successful. I think it’s the same kind of energy and perseverance that she applies to everything. Now,if she’s supporting Modi,she’ll do it the same way,” says Menon. Another acquaintance,who did not wish to be named,puts it archly: “Madhu doesn’t have the usual need for approval — it’s almost the other way round.”

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Now,she has put that formidable reputation in the service of Narendra Modi. It brings together her political instincts,and her desire to show up the rootless liberal elites she affects to disdain.

Her writing on Modi,though,is a tissue of partial claims. It is based on the impressions of unreliable narrators,like businessman Zafar Sareshwala,Najma Heptullah,and Asifa Khan — who cannot be considered credible informants any more than,say,police officer RB Sreekumar,whom she has dismissed as motivated by his own grouses. Kishwar says she verifies what others tell her,but she reproduces stray facts that don’t square with the data,whether about Muslim presence in the Gujarat police or the tourist inflow to the state. If she intends this to be a document that can engage those disinclined to support Modi,it needs more scrupulous footnoting and revising. When asked about these problems,she says: “You just wait and see,I’m still writing. Main likh rahi hoon. I’ll come to everything.”

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Perhaps,this turn is not entirely unexpected. Madhu Kishwar is intoxicated with her own image as an independent thinker. She thinks that once she makes up her mind,she only has to wait for the world to catch up. And for someone who considers herself sui generis,takes pride in detaching herself from the plural,Modi may be just the ticket.

First published on: 02-06-2013 at 07:51:17 pm
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