The most important song on the Union side during the American Civil War of the 19th century was ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. That war was fought to free the United States of slavery. This song was written as an inspirational call to action for soldiers and civilians alike by Julia Ward Howe, using the tune of a another song called ‘John Brown’s Body’. Mrs Howe and her husband, who pioneered education for the blind in his country, were both known in their time for anti-slavery politics.
‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ became a highly popular American patriotic song and is apparently so even today. Like many others in India, I too was taught this song at school in Bombay, with its rousing chorus of ‘Glory, glory, Hallelujah!’. This freedom song against slavery was reportedly a favourite with Sir Winston Churchill, who found it inspirational in the war against Hitler. But he sang another tune when it came to the Indian freedom movement.
It’s that sort of irony that Indian women and their male supporters now face. The usual suspects are in the usual defensive crouch about how the Sacred Feminine has a gold crown and a lion, that (three?) horseback heroines and as many millennia have thundered out to battle, hooves shaking the powdery plain. Will they explain why it’s impossible for women to cross the road unmolested?
Presently, there’s nowhere to hide from the odium (‘a state of disgrace resulting from detestable conduct’) of being Indian. Strangers feel empowered to accost you outside restaurants and tell you how they will never go to India because we are such horrible people, as happened with me this week. Even those whose own countries are a mess and whose religion and culture are totally patriarchal are having a field day patronising us.
If we remain in the grip of the deranged control freaks whom many follow as cultural leaders, we will remain the losers that everyone rightly calls us today.
And if anyone is minded to try samosa politics about how this or that religion is better, we’re watching to see how they address the fact that that nobody’s culture shines in how it treats women. The men of India seem right in step with our old national enemy, Winston Churchill. What now, ‘Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel’?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture