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Women and society in colonial Punjab

Print edition : Apr 27, 2002 T+T-

Gender, Caste, and Religious Identities: Restructuring Class in Colonial Punjab by Anshu Malhotra; Oxford University Press, 2001; pages 231, Rs.545.

SUBSERVIENCE to the husband is the central quality of a pativrata. A women who tries to live up to the role of a pativrata has to perform innumerable tasks for the husband. These include waking up before him in order to finish her ablution and keep herself free to fetch water, bathe him, cook and serve him and eat only after he has finished his meal. The afternoon should be spent looking after the house, stitching and spinning so that the evening can be set aside for preparing dinner. A woman's salvation is routed through seva or the performance of daily domestic chores, especially those undertaken to please the husband.

Reprimands are reserved for kupattis (quarrelsome women), who do not want to conform to this role. It is acknowledged that such women exist. There are instances when such women are known to be disrespectful to their husbands. These women would address "their husband-kings" with pejoratives such as tu, oye or ve instead of appropriately respectful forms of ji, maharaj or aap. Such women "are so rude as to suggest burning his legs in the chulha (clay oven) rather than wood." What lies in store for such women is rebirth in "hell, be reborn again and again as she-ass, bearing burden and getting beaten".

The intimate advice given by a mother to her daughter at the time of her marriage would include this: "Do not show your body to any one other than your husband, for we have given your body to him. Now this body is a possession of your husband, and you do not have claim over it. It is up to him to be good with your body or to spoil it, to nurture it or beat it, even we have no control over his actions."

As the excerpts above reveal, Anshu Malhotra has effectively pieced together the social history of the Punjab using hitherto unused sources. To substantiate her account, a part of the text above has been extracted from an undated pamphlet issued by the Khalsa Tract Society, titled "Patibrat Dharm". She understands her territory. In this study, Punjab refers to the pre-Partition region.

It is the study of gender relations and not caste that interests Anshu Malhotra. She has produced a book on middle class women - both Hindu and Sikh - in the period between 1870s and 1920s in Punjab. She explains how caste became a significant ingredient of class formation in colonial Punjab, how the understanding of caste grew under British rule, and what the nature of the changes introduced in the caste set-up by the British was. This has been done against a concise and impressive summation of theories that explain the role of the colonial state in the politics of caste. However, it is evident that the study of caste is a corollary and not the main thrust of the work.

Gender relations being the focus, the work would have benefited from roping in people from the low castes in the analysis. Anshu Malhotra acknowledges this when she states that there is further scope for research in this regard.

Early on, Malhotra explains the significance of the sources she has used. She writes: "The specificity of some of these sources related to firstly their 'newness', in the sense that these materials have not been used by historians to construct a 'social history' of Punjab, if they have been used by them at all." Her primary sources are products of the new print revolution of the second half of the 19th century. They include journalistic pieces, tracts, pamphlets, novels, jhagrras and kissas. Jhagrras and kissas are considered by the author as minefields of material that effectively depict the changes taking place in contemporary Punjab. "They transcended the gap between written word and oral tradition in a significant way," she states.

Anshu Malhotra has highlighted the aspects of jhagrras that are full of lascivious talk of women's excessive sexuality or men's legitimate sexual needs. She has shown how jhagrras and kissas were used to control women. They were more commonly written by men of the Khatri caste, which is high in the social order. In this context, she explains that there was a strain in relation between the high-minded Singh Sabha and Arya Samaj reformers. The latter kept away from sexual innuendoes while instructing women to be subservient to men.

Other sources used include school journals - the Kanya Mahavidyalaya's Panchal Pandita and Sikh Kanya Mahavidyalaya's Punjabi Bhain, to cite two of them. Anshu Malhotra says that these "journals were major vehicles for the transmission of the ideologies of the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha movements to women, and their readership was not confined only to those associated with schools." The articles, which were written by both men and women, were "topical, historical, informative or morally instructive in nature." Some of the periodicals that have been used include The Arya, The Arya Patrika and The Regenerator of Aryavarta - all written in English. The sources written in the Gurumukhi script include tracts and pamphlets, particularly those published by the Khalsa Tract Society, which was set up in 1894 by Singh Sabha reformers. Writes the author: "A study of these tracts has been rewarding from many points of view. First, they have uncovered the peculiar mind-set of an emerging middle class, high-caste society, with its own phobias and insecurities." The novels used for the study include those written by Bhai Amar Singh and Bhai Vir Singh.

No doubt, these sources are untapped material, which has been analysed by Anshu Malhotra. She has performed a laborious task in collecting and going through them. A pertinent question that arises in this context is how much credibility can be placed on these materials in the depiction of contemporary Punjab. One measure of gauging this would be to note its readership. This question is addressed by Anshu Malhotra when she admits that in terms of the readership of such material, she is "dealing with no more than a few hundred concerned individuals". She adds: "The school journals, on the other hand, had a captive audience amongst their students, but these will again amount to a very limited number." She concludes by saying that there must have been a common, almost an imperceptible, agreement on the mode and contents of education between the parents who sent their girls to school and the teachers who tutored them. One is left wondering about this possible agreement.

NOTWITHSTANDING these doubts, the book is a welcome addition to gender studies. The first chapter examines how the colonial state affected the middle classes of Punjabi society. It holds that the colonial perceptions of Punjabi society created a sense of insecurity among the middle classes, which then turned to reformist organisations. This introspection meant a change in their attitude towards women which restructured the patriarchy in this period. The author then takes the argument to class formation, arguing that control over women's sexuality increasingly became the index of being high-caste and became an intrinsic part of middle-class identity. There is no doubt that a variety of factors led to the reform movements in Punjab. The contribution of colonial rule in causing such movements cannot be ignored. However, one is left wondering if the author is not being too simplistic in ascribing too much importance to the impact of colonial rule on the reform movements.

The chapter details how the Arya Samaj and Singh Sabha movements pushed forward the idea of a pativrata which, Anshu Malhotra says, was a "weapon with which to subjugate all women".

The second chapter gives details of social ills, including infanticide and the gifting and selling of daughters. It explains the various kinds of marriages that were taking place in Punjab. These included pun, without price; takka for a bride price; and vatta, by exchange involving a reciprocal betrothal. One gets to know that vatta or marriage by exchange was looked down upon as it involved the taking of money for the hand of a daughter or a sister. The genesis of the Punjabi taunt sala can thus be traced to the uncomplimentary role of the brother that was evident in such marriages. This chapter also highlights the changing attitude of the British to some of these practices. There was hardly any condemnation of the selling of child brides, "reflecting a shift in the state's earlier morally righteous stand in relation to infanticide to a more pragmatic attitude."

The third chapter includes a detailed discussion of widowhood, which was considered a problem by upper caste reformers, the colonial state, and the missionaries in Punjab. It explains the Arya Samaj's growing embarrassment over the doctrine of niyog, which envisaged once-a-month sexual congress with suitable partners chosen by the community elders. This gave a special urgency to finding ways to manage the widowhood issue in Punjab by Arya Samajis, the author asserts. Remarriage of widows came to be seen as a good option where it tied the widow's sexuality to one man who in any case was considered an enlightened and progressive person if he agreed to such a match.

The chapter on the topic of controlling women has some interesting details. It explains how women were told that the best way of 'controlling' their men was by serving them. "If women were willing to accept their subordination, then, they could be invested with an artificial power and moral authority," writes the author.

This and the last chapter show how at times the repressive model of the pativrata created its own space for women to fight oppression. There is then always some scope to look at the other side of the coin. Now that it is more than a century since some of the problems that Anshu Malhotra has written about emerged, it is a little bit more possible than it was earlier to look at them with detachment. At the same time, most of the social ills that Anshu Malhotra has written about remain in one form or the other in Punjab even today. In this context, one is often left wondering, if at times the element of detachment is missing in this obviously painstaking work of research.