President Joe Biden hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state dinner tonight at the White House. This is the second time Modi will be accorded the honor. (The first was during the Obama administration).
Once again, the event will be marked by the conspicuous absence of Modi’s wife. The 72-year-old has long presented himself as a bachelor. Only in 2014, when he ran for elections at the national level, did he acknowledge he was married. In an affidavit form, he said his wife’s name was Jashodaben.
Who is Jashodaben Modi?
Narendra and Jashodaben were married in their late teens. As per Hindu tradition, it was an arranged marriage. But the future Indian prime minister soon abandoned his wife. Yet he never divorced her. (Divorce is frowned upon, if not forbidden, in traditional Hindu society.)
Modi never allowed Jashodaben to move on, remarry, and build a family of her own.
For his part, Modi dedicated his life exclusively to making India a Hindu majoritarian state. He joined the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh paramilitary group, rose up in its ranks as a worker, and was appointed the chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2001.
As Modi’s stardom rose, he would be feted by Indian industrialists and investors from around the world who attended gatherings like the Vibrant Gujarat global summit.
But none of that fame trickled down to Jashodaben. She lived alone and in anonymity in a one-room shack with no bathroom while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat.
A 2009 report in Open magazine described Jashodaben’s living conditions as her lawful husband ruled the very state in which she called home:
In this and other accounts, Jashodaben is described as a beloved teacher, including among her Muslim pupils. Ironic given the climate of hate and violence fueled by Modi against Muslims.
While Modi did nothing to give his wife a semblance of dignified living conditions, he does appear to have subjected her to state surveillance. A journalist who interviewed Jashodaben in 2009 quotes her as telling her boss, a state functionary: “I will not say anything against my husband. He is very powerful. This job is all I have to survive. I am afraid of the consequences.”
After Modi rose to become prime minister in 2014, Jashodaben still held out hope he would call her. But he never did. And in all likelihood, he never will.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.