More than perhaps any other major nation or culture, India and Indians worship the mother. It suffuses all aspects of personal lives and public discourse. One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most visually publicized acts on his way to power, for instance, was to visit his mother to seek her blessings.
On 27 May 2014, in his first meeting with Pakistan’s Premier Nawaz Sharif after Modi had been sworn in, the two veteran politicians spoke about… their mothers. Modi had given Sharif a shawl for his mother, Shamim Akhtar, who was born in Amritsar. So, Sharif, in turn, gifted Modi a white sari for his widowed mother.
Visuals of Modi’s mother offering him sweets, the prime minister tweeted, had “touched both Nawaz Sharifji and his mother. He (Sharif) told me after seeing the visuals, his mother got very emotional… Nawaz Sharifji told me that he stays in Islamabad but goes to meet his Mother once in a week.”
That capitalized M was Modi’s; and, last December, on a surprise visit to the Sharif ancestral home in Raiwind, the Indian leader touched Shamim Akhtar’s feet, a traditional Indian gesture of respect for older people.
There is no—not yet at any rate—Mother of the Nation in India, but mother tongue is what nearly every Indian grows up speaking, unless it’s English, which is not a national language, but an official one. The cow, revered by most Hindus, is called Gau-mata, or Mother Cow.
Indeed, the nation itself is lovingly called Bharat Mata, or Mother India. That English name is also the title of an early Hindi film eulogizing the sacrificial role of women in nation-building and of a book by American author Katherine Mayo that was shredded by Mahatma Gandhi as the “report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon”.
The narrative of Mother India loomed large over Parliament when it resumed sitting for the all-important budget session. Human resource development minister Smriti Irani fished out a piece of paper that she said was a pamphlet that had been found at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where a small group of students planned to offer prayers to a half-beast half-man called Mahishasur, possibly the biggest baddie of Hinduism, an implacable foe to its many Gods.
Rather than celebrating the festival (puja) for Durga, the 10-handed goddess who finally slew Mahishasur, they were marking his ‘martyrdom’, Irani said, and read out from the pamphlet’s ostensibly derogatory references to the goddess and laudatory ones to the demon.
There was a massive uproar—a minister can’t just start reading out from pamphlets in Parliament, the opposition protested—and the Speaker adjourned the House and expunged Irani’s remarks.
At the heart of the debate was the issue of caste, which has been troubling the Narendra Modi government ever since the suicide of a Dalit (lower-caste) scholar in Hyderabad Central University. It’s a sensitive and complex subject and no government in India has been able to either fully tackle it or address the many questions caste throws up. Instead, successive governments have opted to take the easy way out by offering caste-based quotas in education and government jobs.
Also at play was politics. Elections are due this year in West Bengal state, where Durga is worshipped with a great deal of zeal—the closest thing to a presiding deity of an Indian state. Even atheists and hardened Communists take time off to join in the annual celebrations in West Bengal.
“Who wants a debate on the streets of Kolkata, I want to know,” Irani thundered. “We worship Ma Durga—no one can hurt religious sentiments,” said Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, a member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress, which rules West Bengal and opposes Irani’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Observers say the feisty Irani may have bitten off more than she can chew this time. By professing her love for Ma Durga, she may have pleased her supporters—and even a Bengali or two—but it certainly didn’t please the disconsolate mother of the scholar who had killed himself in Hyderabad. She held a press conference where she accused the minister of lying in Parliament about the circumstances surrounding her son’s suicide.
On the day finance minister Arun Jaitley unveiled a budget proposing fresh funding to support a hub for lower caste and tribal-entrepreneurs, the opposition moved a privilege motion against Irani, charging her with misleading Parliament. The incandescent mother’s grief and anger is a very human story that’s playing out on the margins of a roaring national debate on caste, freedom of expression and what constitutes nationalism.
Smriti Irani made her name as an actor with the TV serial Kyonki Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi (translation: Because the mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law). She would do well to remember a famous dialogue from an iconic Bollywood movie called Deewar (The Wall).
In an emotionally charged scene, the anti-hero confronts the hero (happens to be his brother, now an honest police officer). “I have buildings, property, money in the bank, bungalow, car,” he asks, “What do you have?”
Hero: Mere paas Ma hai! (I have my mother!)
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1