ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Empire, Nationalism and Women's Rights

unabashedly slanderous statements that Empire, Nationalism spoke of premature sexuality of Indians, hinted at sexual abuse of children, or spoke of a virtual epidemic of impotence, but and Women

Empire, Nationalism and Women’s Rights

Spectres of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire

by Mrinalini Sinha; Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006; pp 366, price not mentioned.


rinalini Sinha’s new book Spectres of Mother India is a dense study of a relatively small period of time, 19191935. But it is neither focused on the growing strength of nationalist politics in this period nor on the process of decolonisation, though both these aspects form the necessary background against which she discusses the coming to its own, so to speak, of the question of women’s rights. Sinha’s book is important for three reasons. First, as some other recent works, Sinha rehabilitates the “event” in history. Not all events, Sinha seems to point out, are ephemeral, rather the contingent event can sometimes have deep ramifications and profoundly destabilising effects.

The publication of the American journalist Katherine Mayo’s Mother India in 1927, with its vicious indictment of the social, cultural and sexual conditions of India, was one such event, the momentousness of which Sinha explores by exposing the politics behind its publication, and the massive though unexpected and unpredictable global reverberations it had post publication. Secondly, as the title of her book suggests, Sinha places the event in a global context, showing the paranoia of declining British imperialism in the inter-war period, the growing clout and power of capitalism in the US with increasing imperialist sympathies as it fashioned its own “empire”, also the global linkages of women’s movement and feminist politics across three continents, and that of nationalist politics and agendas. Thirdly and most significantly, Sinha opens up the question of women’s rights, how these came to be even imagined when “communities”, under the auspices of colonial genealogy, were seen to control women and keep them in a tight embrace within the inner domains, tracing both the emergence of women as rights bearing citizens, but also the continued hold of communities and nationalist priorities on their lives.

Mayo, the Author

“Drain Inspector’s Report” is how Gandhi had famously described the scurrilous nature of Mayo’s book, a book that we know produced in India a cottage industry of responses. Sinha’s bibliography lists more than 50 books and pamphlets, mostly written to denounce Mayo’s extravagant claims not so much as falsehoods, as half truths written in a framework meant to deliberately create false and scandalous impressions. However, what Sinha brings is also a peek into the career of Mayo, marked as much by consistent efforts to shore up the conservative, protestant and anti-immigration politics in the US, as it was driven by enhancing the imperialist and capitalist interests of the US abroad. Her book on the Philippines, Isles of Fear, written two years ahead of Mother India, tried to reverse the policy of “Filipinisation” inaugurated a few years before, by showing the deteriorating public health in the islands because of policies that favoured political power in the hands of the natives. The agenda for Mother India was similar; indeed Mayo became a likely candidate to write this book because of the success of her Philippines venture. Sinha uncovers for us the extent to which Mayo received official patronage in India and Britain, as she did the backing of certain significant institutions in the US that were flush with funds, to undertake this task of denouncing social conditions in India that patently disqualified them for political power against the background of promises for devolution of power made by 1917-1919.

Unexpectedly, however, the book produced not only a storm of protest in India, but a barrage of criticism abroad too. Feminist groups, anti-racist organisations, sympathisers of nationalist movements, anti-capitalist clubs, even a number of missionary groups in India expressed misgivings about Mayo’s agenda. It is not only that she made unsubstantiated and unabashedly slanderous statements that spoke of premature sexuality of Indians, hinted at sexual abuse of children, or spoke of a virtual epidemic of impotence, but also where she quoted hospital statistics or official figures; the import given to these numbers was done in a frankly imperialist framework. The unpredictable outcome of such skulduggery, Sinha posits, was not so much the indictment of Indian society as that of an external regime with its questionable modernising record. Far from exposing the Indian society as the root cause of her woes, it was intransigence of the British colonial state in India, and its convergence of interests with the conservative elements within the Indian society that was seen to create obstacles in pushing through social reform measures. From 1829, when the colonial state emerged as the champion of modernising reform with the abolition of sati, to 1929 when the Sarda Act (Child Marriage Restraint Act) was passed despite the considerable reluctance on the part of the colonial state, the wheel had turned a full circle.

The Agenda of Reform

There has been a lot of work in recent years seeking to demonstrate how the 19th century reforms for women were less about women than about defining the contours of authentic culture; of how cultural nationalism especially pushed women in the inner domain, an authentic traditional space over which men exercised control; and how colonial patriarchies converged and aligned with indigenous ones producing newer constraints on women’s lives. The most significant aspect of Sinha’s book under review is to show how in the debates that developed around the Sarda Bill, and other parallel bills and efforts to raise the age of marriage/consent, initiated in legislative assemblies even before Mayo’s book, but whose urgency increased subsequent to that event, prised women out of the grip that communities held over them. The semantics of the new debate was framed in terms of women’s rights, women as individuals were the rightful recipients of certain “inalienable rights” as Harbilas Sarda, the initiator of the bill put it, and as Sinha would have it, from being objects of others’ discourse, women became the subject of their own. It was the formation of women’s organisations in this period, their clamouring and lobbying for the bill,

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

and the insistence on speaking for themselves rather than allow others to champion their cause that pushed the government, after stonewalling for a long time, to finally pass it.

Thus rather than the tame measure suggested by the bill itself, it was as Sinha shows, the rhetorical and ideological possibilities that women’s participation in the debate created, or the emergence of women as rights bearing citizens of universal rights that occurred, which was important. Sinha’s close reading of women’s organisational and individual responses to the bill and to the Mayo controversy, to my mind forms the most readable and important part of the book. Sinha undoubtedly provides new insights to the manner in which the question of women’s rights developed in the 1920s and the 1930s, and backs it up by solid research. A comparison between the responses of “communities” to the Age of Consent controversy in the last decade of the 19th century and the Sarda Bill, illustrates that the new dimension in the latter case was the emergence of the vociferous voice of women themselves. The applicability of bill beyond the hold of the communities and their personal laws, its transformation from being a Hindu Child Marriage Bill to the eventual Child Marriage Restraint Act, a penal Act covering all communities, is what gave it a national resonance and women’s rights as individuals became paradigmatic for the nation’s citizens as such.

Sinha also demonstrates the more ambiguous outcome of the question of women’s rights and the communities’ hold over their women in the 1930s when under growing nationalist pressure the modalities of devolution of power began to be worked out, leading to the Government of India Act of 1935. In the face of a restricted electorate the jostling for power took up in real earnest the question of joint or separate electorates, and women’s organisations came to grapple with the painful dilemma of either asking for special privileges for women’s representation or show women as above communal, caste and class affiliations, as the Congress urged them to do. Sarojini Naidu’s denial of her being a feminist, often seen as an egregious embarrassment by feminists, Sinha shows, has to be understood in the context when women wished to carry forward the universalist understanding of citizenship, which had brought them success at the time of the Sarda Bill, but now by default served the interests of the upper caste Hindu male. Women, both aware of their thorny predicament, as of the limited nature of their appeal that rarely went beyond elite middle class circles, saw their political voice losing relevance as their special interests were negated by the logic of their own choices, and women came to be incorporated within communities again. The Hindu majority and Muslim minority were seen to also cater to the needs of their women, and by choosing abstract universalism over particularist interests, women unwittingly put nationalist agendas ahead of other concerns. Sinha, however, stresses the contingent nature of this outcome, denying any “naturalness” to third world countries’ apparent preference for nationalism over feminism.

The book is heavy with details and requires a patient reader (not “unputdownable” as quoted in one of the blurbs but rather a plod through it). Spectres of Mother India’s strength is that it goes far beyond the tropes of looking at a defamatory Mother India or a eulogistic one embodied most memorably in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, to understand the changing contours of the “women’s question” in the first three decades of the 20th century. Sinha has obviously done enormous research in many archives in the US, UK and India to produce such a detailed account of these years. This research has also yielded some delightful cartoons by Shankar that the book has reproduced. Mrinalini Sinha’s new book is thus a very welcome addition to not only feminist history, but to those looking at the nation at the seams. The book also breaks new ground in studying the international ramifications of an event normally not viewed as having any relevance beyond India’s borders.



Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top