Prathiba Patil’s wrong on veil: Historians

New Delhi, June 18: Rajasthan governor and UPA-Left presidential candidate Pratibha Patil’s remarks on the purdah system came in for severe criticism from historians, some politicians and Muslim groups on Monday, who said the governor had simply not got her facts right. Speaking at a function marking the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap in Udaipur on Sunday, Ms Patil had focused on the need for women to discontinue practices such as staying in purdah. She had, surprisingly, claimed that the purdah system had been introduced in India during Mughal rule to “save women from the Mughal invaders.”

Historian Irfan Habib, noting that instances of seclusion of women in India went back to Mauryan times, said: “It is silly to talk of the Mughal invasion being the reason for the seclusion of women and introduction of the veil. “The seclusion of women was seen even in Mauryan times. It is, in fact, mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. To say it was because of the Mughals is like saying that they brought sati to India, which is absolutely untrue. From someone who is hoping to be President of India, she should have been more careful. After all, she is an educated woman.”

The debate over the historical accuracy of the statement apart, Ms Patil also drew flak from other quarters. Islamic religious groups dismissed her comment and said it was a religious matter and that the presidential nominee should not have commented on it. Some historians say Ms Patil’s statement is a reflection of the way history has been studied and interpreted over the years. Prof. B.P. Sahu of Delhi University said it was in keeping with the normal tendency of blaming everything on Islam.

“That kind of automatic reading is because of the way history has been written and read in the country over the past 50 years. In early India, the bahu would keep a distance as a mark of respect. Even today, in some parts, they don’t come out in front of outsiders. But these things also depend on the region and society.”

Expressing shock at Ms Pratibha Patil’s statement, the leaders of the United National Progressive Alliance leaders said in Chennai on Monday that it went against the secular claims of the Congress. “Is it honourable for a would-be President to speak the language of the BJP,” asked Mr Amar Singh. CPI parliamentary party chief whip S. Sudhakar Reddy said Ms Patil’s remarks were irrelevant and there was no need to pursue the matter further.

He disagreed with her view that the purdah was used by Hindu women to protect themselves from the Mughal invaders, and said it had more to do with a tradition in which both men and women covered their heads. “President S. Radhakrishnan wore a turban. I remember in my own house, my grandfather and my uncle used to wear turbans. With the passage of time, the practice has been given up in AP. But in Rajasthan, the men still wear the pagdi.”
- Deccan Chronical (June 19, 2007)

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