December 10, 2016

India: Draupadi’s Travels and Travails (Urmimala Sarkar Munsi)

EPW, Vol. 51, Issue No. 50, 10 Dec, 2016

Draupadi’s Travels and Travails

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi (urmimala.sarkar[at]gmail.com) is with the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Mahasweta Devi’s play Draupadi is an explicit challenge to a vision of statehood that a particular form of socially conservative patriarchal nationalism has long sought to claim. Placing itself within the narratives of exploitation of the lives in the margin and inverting the common practice of shaming and disciplining, this story inverts nakedness into a tool of defiance and resistance.

On 21 September 2016, Draupadi, an adaptation of the translation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story by the same name was staged as a play by the students of the Department of English and Foreign Languages, Central University of Haryana in a function commemorating her recent death. The story itself was already a part of the readings for the students and the play had the full support of the university administration.

On 22 September, an aggressive hate campaign was organised by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which mobilised local families of army personnel to protest against showing Indian soldiers in poor light in the play. The academics and students were accused of “anti-national” activities. The university gave in to external pressures and distanced themselves from the two teachers responsible for the event, to allow an Intelligence Bureau enquiry against them.

In reaction to the episode, concerned members of the academic community responded with a letter to the vice chancellor of the university in support of the two faculty members, Snehsata Manav and Manoj Kumar who came under attack from the ABVP.

Mahasweta Devi who, as you know, is universally recognised as a towering figure in contemporary Indian literature. Her writings, translated into most Indian languages, have highlighted the struggles of oppressed and marginalized women and men. Her story ‘Draupadi’, whose dramatised version has been highly acclaimed and performed all over India, deals with the sensitive but enormously important question of the ethics of deploying the armed forces in dealing with civil disturbances within the country. This question, along with specific instances of rapes committed by army personnel in different parts of India, continues to be debated in the Indian public media and has engaged the attention of political leaders as well as the courts. (Nigam 2016)

This episode is part of a wider pattern: the imposition of a virulent masculine nationalism intended to circumscribe intellectual freedom in places of higher learning. It is, however, particularly interesting that it was Mahasweta Devi’s play Draupadi that the ABVP sought to silence. A particular form of socially conservative patriarchal nationalism has long sought to claim Draupadi’s mythic body for itself; Mahasweta Devi’s play is an explicit challenge to that vision of statehood. In this article, I offer a partial, fragmented history of that challenge.

From the Present to the Past

Many ABVP supporters as well as the protesters who demanded suspension and severe punishment of both the faculty and the students had probably never heard of Mahasweta Devi. They probably had not read the play or its translation, had not seen the play at the university or elsewhere, but were violently objecting to the supposed abuse that the soldiers who die for the country were being subjected to. However, ignorance about the play is not important here. The motive was clearly to take advantage of an opportunity to play on the public sentiments around nationalism to suppress the independent thinking of university students. As a result, like many other university spaces in the past year, the Central University of Haryana became the site of another mobilising frenzy to instigate violence against intellectual freedom in a place of higher education.

This current controversy has brought this powerful story written by Mahasweta Devi in Bengali once again into the public domain, and requires us to see the life and complexity the prominent woman character Draupadi/Dopdi has acquired in different times and spaces within India.

“Draupadi” was first published by Mahasweta Devi as part of a collection of short stories, Agnigarbha (Wombs of Fire) in 1978 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The writer was well known for her Marxist feminist ideological commitment to social change. She won numerous accolades during her lifetime for her novels and short stories in the context of what Gayatri Spivak (1981: 385) calls “a presence of leftist intellectualism and struggle since the middle of the last century” and was considered to be a progressive vernacular writer in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.

In the epic Mahabharata, Draupadi’s wedding is an example of polyandrous marriage customs. She was married to five Pandava brothers at the same time, legitimising their rights to her body at the same time and taking away her agency of choosing her partner(s). In the story of Mahabharata, Draupadi’s marital relationship and subjugation is “legitimately pluralized” (Spivak 1981: 388). Thus, Draupadi belongs to many husbands and is “designated a prostitute” (Spivak 1981: 388). She could be pawned along with all the possessions that her eldest husband Yudhishthir owned, in a game of dice. With no one person responsible for the “protection” of her honour, she is brought into a court and disrobed in public. Draupadi prays and waits for the god Krishna to come to her rescue, and he does not disappoint her. The saree turns into an infinite drapery which goes on covering Draupadi as the enemy tries to relentlessly get it off her.

Draupadi’s sense of honour and faith in justice and dharma (whereby she has complete faith in the patriarchal system in which her honour is to be protected by a supreme male authority—Krishna) is completely dislodged in Mahasweta Devi’s story.

This story is set in West Bengal in the times of the Naxalite rebellion against feudal landowners; a movement against upper-caste exploitations and against existing caste, class and gender-based hierarchy. In her story, the state is projected as immensely powerful, and controlled by the upper-caste landowners, exercising the rights to use oppressive tools specifically fashioned for neutralising disobedient subjects. Here women, as soon as they seem to be disloyal, can be violated as they have seemingly lost their rights to “protection.”

In her gender-specific vulnerability, Dopdi Mejhen is a widow, whose husband, a revolutionary, is shot dead by the armed forces. She continues to be faithful to him and his political beliefs, both as an extension of her love for him and as something that she sees as her social and political duty. The story centres around her being hunted and caught by the army. She is brutally raped by multiple army men in the violent process of making her submit to them and betray the political organisation and all that it stood for.

Unlike Draupadi of Mahabharata, Dopdi Mejhen, a Santal woman from a small village in Bengal refuses to beg for someone to come to her rescue, and instead stands in front of the senanayak (the chief of the army group) without clothes and challenges him to “counter” her.

In the translation of Mahasweta Devi’s (spelled “Mahasveta” by Spivak) Bengali story, Gayatri Spivak’s ends with:

Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation, What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?

She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak’s white bush shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says, There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me—come on, counter me— ?

Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid. (1981: 402)

Both the Draupadis—of the epic Mahabharata and of the short story of Mahasweta Devi—led their parallel lives in theatrical performances. Mahabharata or sections of it continue to be popular themes for performances, televised commercial serials and feature films. It reached an international audience worldwide when the story was made into a grand multicultural performance and subsequently filmed with an international cast by Peter Brook.

The only Indian actor in the play and the movie by Brook was the famous dancer/actor Mallika Sarabhai in the role of Draupadi. Brook’s carefully constructed scene of Duhshassan’s disrobing of Draupadi after she was pawned in the game of dice never suggested a serious physical assault like rape and her reactions and Krishna’s interventions remained rather inconsequential (Bharucha 1988: 1645). The spectacle produced by Brook was devoid of any specific feminist insights, and played safe on social readings, and hence did not even claim responsibility of looking critically at characters or their interpretations.

Mahasweta Devi carved out a completely different life and a new social space for Draupadi. Subsequently, when Gayatri Spivak took up the responsibility of translating this powerful short story, neither she nor the writer could have imagined the impact and aftermath this story, and later the play, would have. Placing itself within the narratives of exploitation of the lives in the margin it made ripples at the epicentre of debates on excessive use of violence to subjugate and discipline the “dangerous” undisciplined women in marginal societies. Challenging the common practice of shaming and disciplining, by parading Dalit and tribal women in India, this story inverts the nakedness into a tool of defiance, whereby the naked body of the woman becomes a tool of resistance.

Draupadi of Manipur

Mahasweta Devi’s female protagonist in the story “Draupadi” was a political character, created specifically to critique the state and its oppressive machinery, where the plight of the marginalised and exploited people was highlighted alongside the additional vulnerability of the women in those communities. This story was made into a play by one of the most important contemporary theatre directors of Manipur, Heisnam Kanhailal, who created a production on an adaptation of the story in 2000, where Heisnam Sabitri, Kanhailal’s actor wife, played the lead role.

Sabitri’s powerful acting of Dopdi, who refused to clothe herself when she was presented to the army chief, after she was repeatedly raped by the men of the security forces, stunned and overwhelmed the audience time and again in different performances. The play created a strong impact and deep agony by forcing the audience into becoming witnesses of the heinous and violent acts of violation carried out on women through the times and spaces within the Indian territory. The play first staged in Imphal and then in Delhi, brought Kanhailal immense fame and critical acclaim in later years along with national recognition to Sabitri as an actor of greatest ability.

However, my focus is not only on the play itself but what followed it, and the possible connections between performance and life that makes us think of the relationship between enactments and lived realities. In 2004, Thangjam Manorama Devi, reported as a dangerous member of the People’s Liberation Army by the security personnel, was tortured in the presence of her family at her home and then arrested and taken away by members of Assam Rifles. Her bullet-ridden and ravaged body was found later.

According to an official inquiry, Manorama was killed after she had been brutally tortured through the night and repeatedly raped. A historic and unprecedented protest took place as the local community reacted to the death of Manorama. Demanding the repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a group of women from the Meitei community of Manipur staged a naked protest in front of the Kangla Fort, where the Assam Rifles had its headquarters, shouting “Indian Army Rape Us!” They also said, “We mothers have come. Drink our blood. Eat our flesh. Maybe this way you can spare our daughters.”1

The press reported that an Assam Rifles officer came out with folded hands in a manner of pleading, and begged the women to put on clothes. Only after much pleading did the women decide to give up their protest. There may be no direct connection between the performance of Draupadi that uses nakedness as a form of protest and the real life deployment of nakedness as an embodied resistance after Manorama’s death; the connections through geographical and temporal affinity are too close to not be speculated upon.

In any case, Draupadi as a play got strengthened by the 2004 real life protest, and the protest got a speculative and performative presence in the media because of its similarity to the play. The connection remains unclear and debated, but it is important to note that Kanhailal in his interview in Amar Kanwar’s 2007 documentary says that he received a call saying, “Your play Draupadi was performed today by 12 Imas [mothers] in Kangla. The newspapers are calling you a prophet, and the people as well” (The Lightning Testimonies 2007).

Even before Manorama Devi’s family knew about her death, they had complained to the police and requested her release from the custody of the Assam Rifles. They lodged a criminal complaint and also demanded to be given the postmortem report. The Assam Rifles tried to cover its path by lodging a criminal complaint against the victim, and alleged that she had died while trying to escape from custody. On 12 July 2004, a commission of enquiry was ordered by the Government of Manipur. What followed was classical case of the state manufacturing and manipulating evidences to strengthen the logic of use of extraordinary force on any “dangerous” subject, sidestepping repeatedly, the issue of extrajudicial murder and rape in custody. The police even cremated her body without her family’s permission, ignoring their repeated demands for a proper assessment of the injuries on her body (Manorama Death Inquiry Commission 2004).

The commission report noted that Manorama “a lady of small stature (4 feet 11 inches)” could easily have been prevented from escaping by “13 armed, well trained, and able-bodied Assam Rifles personnel … I am pained to note that the firings were unnecessary, a valuable life had been made to suffer harshly at the hands of the reckless armed Assam Rifles Persons” (Manorama Death Inquiry Commission 2004).

Surabhi Chopra, writing on the use of sexual assault on the women who are considered “dangerous” by the forces responsible, writes:

Manorama Devi was by no means the first person to be extra-judicially executed and tortured by the armed forces. But her killing was so brutal that it triggered extensive public protests in Manipur. (2016: 331)2

Chopra also points out that Manorama Devi’s case was an alarming and extraordinarily grave example of experiences of women under national security laws in a wider spectrum of women’s experiences in India. However, these particular instances alert us to “women’s vulnerability to unlawful violence under the cover of security laws, and the challenges victims face in seeking redress” (Chopra 2016: 354). Due to well documented cases like Manorama Devi’s extrajudicial murder, the atrocities committed by the Assam Rifles are now well known. Formal inquiries by the inquiry commission set up by the Manipur government led to the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission’s directive to the central government to pay ₹10 lakh compensation to Manorama Devi’s family finally in 2014. As several other such equally serious cases have also been documented by different civil society organisations all over India (Chopra 2016), the instances of use of extreme force and several forms of violent abuse (mostly including those of sexual nature in case of women) are accepted facts.

Nationalist Propaganda

The incident of 21–22 September 2016 at the Central University of Haryana made us remember the outdated Dramatic Performance Act that the British government introduced in 1876. Like “sedition,” a word used over and over again to put charges against students and other citizens in past months, this act also seems to have made a comeback to impose censorship on intellectual and artistic freedom.

Looking at the right-wing protest and violence in yet another university episode—using the now familiar nationalistic jingoism, one is struck by the relentless use of the rhetoric of sacrifice of armed forces in the propaganda against intellectual freedom. In the process of praising the security forces, all their past deeds are now legitimised to the extent that facts are being replaced by aggressive narratives of praises, mostly by people who are neither concerned nor aware of facts concerning the atrocities committed by them against women. Neither is the woman’s question of any use in this hyper-masculine chest-beating civil society that is encouraged through the promises of achhe din, whose only resistance and critique is coming from university spaces within India. Therefore, the vanishing of Draupadi and all the women she represents is just another case of collateral damage in Central University of Haryana—while she continues her marginalised journey from Mahabharata till now.


1 Interview with L Gyaneshori, President, Thangmeiban Apunba Nupi Lup, Imphal, 26 February 2008, as quoted in Human Rights Watch (2008).

2 Chopra observes that the women become additionally vulnerable in state actions against terror, where “dangerous” women face extreme and brutal sexual violence apart from the standard treatment meted out to their male counterparts. According to media reports and human rights documentation the “female suspects face sexual violence not just in state custody, but even before they are detained or arrested” (2016: 339).


Bharucha, Rustom (1988): “Peter Brook’s Mahabharata: A View from India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 23, No 32, 1642–47.

Chopra, Surabhi (2016): “Dealing with Dangerous Women: Sexual Assault under Cover of National Security Laws in India,” Boston University International Law Journal, Vol 34, No 2, pp 320–54.

Human Rights Watch (2008): “III. The Killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi,” Human Rights Watch, September, viewed on 22 October 2016, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/india0908/3.htm.

Manorama Death Inquiry Commission (2004): “Report of the Commission of the Judicial Inquiry,” Chairperson, C Upendra Singh, viewed on 27 October 2016, http://www.hrln.org/hrln/images/stories/pdf/report-of-commission-of-the-....

Nigam, Aditya (2016): “Academics’ Letter to the VC, Central University of Haryana Regarding the ‘Draupadi’ Affair,” Sabrang India, 22 October, https://sabrangindia.in/article/academics%E2%80%99-letter-vc-central-university-haryana-regarding-%E2%80%98draupadi%E2%80%99-affair.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1981): “ ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi,” Critical Inquiry, Vol 8, No 2, Writing and Sexual Difference, The University of Chicago Press, pp 381–402.

The Lightening Testimonies (2007): Film directed by Amar Kanwar, independently produced.

- See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/50/commentary/draupadis-travels-and-travails.html