Volume 1: Number 1 May 1, 1997
|Disciplining the Mother Jude Fernando|
|Gendered Boundaries Richa Nagar|
|Intervening Carefully Ashwini Tambe|
|Beauty Contest Debate K.Philip and P.Gopal|
|Debate: Politics of Resistance Shishir Jha|
These are bizarre times! India recently hosted the Miss World 'beauty' contest. While protesting this blatantly sexist inscription of global capital on the bodies of Indian women, the Left found itself in an uneasy situation of sharing some protest objectives with the Hindu supremacist Right. [See pp. 12-15 in this issue of Ghadar for a debate around the contest.] The media routinely reported on both in the same breath. The reports, especially in the West, often failed to highlight the divergence between the two broad critiques of the event, the Left-feminist and the Hindu-nationalist. This disregard for differences of origins, locations, rationales, and goals of these critiques and protests created an atmosphere where the Hindu-nationalists gave the illusion of occupying a progressive, even feminist, space. It would be na´ve to believe that this was wholly inadvertent or that it did not benefit the RSS (National Volunteers Corps), the VHP (World Hindu Council) or the BJP (Indian People's Party, the major Right-wing Hindu nationalist party) in their movement for Hindu supremacy. Generalizing this effect is a clear objective of the Hindu nationalist strategy. Within India, the Hindu nationalist ideology, referred to henceforth as Hindutva (literally, Hindu-ness), is engaged in a struggle for hegemony. Here in the US, with events like the Global Vision 2000 conference and cultural and religious activities sponsored by the campus chapters of the Hindu Students Council (HSC), the Sangh giroh has been busily wooing the non-resident Indians (NRI) in order to win not only their hearts and minds, but more immediately, their pockets and purses. For the targeted Hindu middle-class, giving benign and seemingly positive spin to traditional patriarchal foundations of Hindutva becomes not merely desirable but, in fact, imperative. In this context, even the mere appearance of progressive sensibility on 'women's issues' can go some ways in persuading fence-sitting NRIs, especially the first generation Indian-Americans, to channel their time and their disposable dollars in supporting the Sangh giroh and it's jaundiced Weltanschauung.
For some, a perplexing aspect of Hindutva is its successful mobilization in the political arena of a section of women in ways that seem to be far more active than traditional ones. The BJP and the RSS, along with their many affiliated organizations like the VHP, Rashtra Sevika Samiti (RSS's counterpart organization for women,(1) National Women-volunteer's Corps), Durga Vahini (VHP's women's wing) and the BJP's Mahila Morcha (Women's Front), have exhorted women to rally round their cause, participate in political activity outside the confines of their homes and, yes, even in militant action. At least on the first approach, as these organizations and their women leaders have averred, this seems to be a move that empowers Hindu women. The iconic female figures of the Hindu nationalist movement - Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharati and Vijayraje Scindia - all seem to be liberated social agents outside the purview of a patriarchal image of society found in traditional Hinduism. Gendered female imagery in Hindutva's rhetoric looks to have shifted from 'self-sacrificing, passive, non-violent victims' to 'self-asserting, active, take-charge, militant fighters on the holy warpath.' The types of appeals made to women have surprised progressive commentators and have made them worry about how to understand this apparent volte face in the type of gendered imagery and appeals tactically deployed by Hindutva. In my assessment, however, the qualitative shift is not dissimilar from those repulsive and insidious ad campaigns for Virginia Slims that tell women that they've " come a long way, (baby!") or that "It's a woman thing." Oh, really! Hey, thanks for the clue.
To show that there has been little real change in the role of women in Hindutva, I shall look at the rhetoric of two women leaders, Savitri Devi and Sadhvi Rithambara, separated by more than 50 years. By my contention, we should see more similarities than differences. It may be true that the iconic women leaders of today have carved out a position (and a role) for themselves that transcends the traditional boundaries set for women as public-political beings. To me, it seems equally true that, as individual success stories, they do not represent the vision of woman elaborated in Hindutva, nor are they really leaders of or for women. While it may seem that Hindu women are granted agency in their rhetoric, closer examination shows that this is merely an effect. What this appearance of agency hides, I believe, is the tactical re-deployment of women as vehicles for masculine agency.
First let us check out Rithambara's 1991 'popular' speech. This particular sample comes from her speech at Nagpur, cassette copies of which were made available to Giroh members. It is from a series of speeches presaging the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Speeches whose primary purpose was to whip up mass frenzy for the hateful, unconstitutional, and criminal act of destroying the 6th Century mosque.
My mothers are present here today and their participation in this movement has been noteworthy. On 6th January, the day that I was arrested, 55,000 women were with me. India's women have created the nation from within the four walls [of their home]. But today the time demands something else. Mothers, the bangle-covered [fragile] arm with which you served your husband and sang lullabies to your son, the same bangle-covered arm must now brandish a sword. You must take on the visage of Ran Chandi [mythical battle goddess]. And demonstrate that our Krishna knows how to crush under his heel the head of a poisonous snake [the mythical Vishdhar, in this case, the Muslim] We Hindus adorn the goddess Chandi with garlands of severed human heads. Let us not forget that in battle Krishna's flute knows how now to come out of the home [into the public arena]. Wake up! Without your guidance the [nation's] boys are wandering aimlessly With your awakening, the temples, the religious orders [maths] will also awaken. Your forehead will [soon] illuminate this earth like the Sun and the Moon.
[I want the] mothers [to] give evidence of their participation in this movement by a [collective] lion-roar. [Rhyming slogans:] [Today] courageous Rana Pratap's slogan echoes everywhere, [so, raise your fists in the air and] say with pride 'We're Hindus and India is Ours.' Beware! Anyone opposed to Lord Rama, Krishna, or the Ganga [in other words, anyone opposed to the Hindu supremacist agenda] will die a dog's death here. Hey, the mlecchas have been challenged [to battle] today by the sons of [the valiant goddess] Durga, [so] say with pride 'We're Hindus and India is Ours.' As death-incarnate, we will now clash with the enemy [i.e., the Muslim, secular citizens, leftists and other assorted mlecchas] and we'll build the temple exactly on the spot [which we believe/claim marks] Lord Rama's birthplace [i.e., we'll surely destroy the 6th Century old Babri mosque] Hey, how come some of you in the back aren't raising your fists [to my rhyming slogans]? Are you unsure of your Hindu parentage? [Rhyming rhetorical litany:] Hey, how come all this commotion due to the [rampant use of the] word 'Hindu?' [Hmm ] your father must be a Russian or a Japanese [i.e., you must not be a pure-bred Hindu]. Mother's [i.e., Mother India's] violated veil [chunar, its violation represents personal/sexual violation] is shaming you to action, [so] say with pride 'We're Hindus and India is Ours.' The day Lok Sabha [the elected House of the Parliament] will be wearing the saffron cloak [i.e., when the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP (whose color is saffron), would have a house majority], every street of India will be renamed Vrindavan [a place associated with the mythical Krishna's life; i.e., we would destroy and rename, stamp as Hindu, Muslim structures and places with impunity]. The earth sways, the sky dances and every star is excited, [so] say with pride 'We're Hindus and India is Ours.' [End of the speech.]
Let us leave aside the easy issue of the grossly exaggerated figures of women participants. Notice instead the term Rithambara uses to address women: Not "sisters" (the term of choice, even habit, among progressive speakers in India and world over) but rather the decidedly awkward phrase, "my mothers." Addressing them collectively as "sisters" will place her in a lineage she wants no part of. The purpose of her address of choice, "my mothers," is to deny even the merest suggestion of progressive solidarity for women, to squarely place 'woman' as patriarchy's brood mare. In fact, the freedom that Rithambara, Uma Bharati and such other women leaders enjoy is in direct relation to their distancing themselves from any collective identification with other women, to foreclosing the possibility of identification based on gender experience.
In Rithambara's speech, the mention of women as agents comes for less than 3 minutes at the very end of a long, 43-minute harangue. Given this, women certainly do not seem to rate very high with the Sangh girohis. Virtually all of her speech is directed at Hindu men. Rithambara may be a leader who is also a woman but she is not a women's leader. Not by a long shot. Primarily, her job is to shame men and rile them to violent action against the Hindutva's favorite whipping boy, its Other, the Muslim. Her other function is to mark, by her mere presence, the absence of Muslim women from the (public) space where she and her cohorts operate, to show Muslim women up, to show Hindu men as progressive by contrast to Muslim men (for allowing women's participation in a public arena). It is a mistake to think of the Giroh's women leaders as leaders of women or for women. I agree that the issue is surely more complicated than this: It is impossible to predict the direction this leadership might take or the impact it may have on instigating participation of women in violent militant action. But presently, I do not see these leaders as more than icons who serve the purpose of instigating Hindu men, deriding and even annihilating Muslim women while helping Hindutvavaadis (proponents of Hindutva) feel good about themselves. They also circulate as models of triumph in adversity for Hindu men(2). I know from talking to men who participated in the demolition of Babri mosque these women elicit the response: "Look! If a woman is capable of violent public action then shame on me if I can't kill a few Muslims." A response quite simpatico with Hindu patriarchy.
Now here is the lineal ancestor of Rithambara's vitriol in Savitri Devi's 1939 tract, A Warning to the Hindus. During the 1930s and 40s, with the rise of fascism in the West, she could reveal Hindutva's true colors more freely than Rithambara in the 1990s. Savitri Devi, a Greek who converted to Hinduism (married an attorney from Bengal and settled in India), was one of the most passionate and influential champions of the Hindu supremacist cause. The present-day Girohis owe a substantial debt to this mystery nouveau Hindu for not only systematically presenting the fascist case for Hindu supremacy(3) but also for providing the stamp of Western approval for it. In some ways she was the precursor of contemporary apologists and legitimizers, like the (Belgian) Koenraad Elst, and the (Indian) Arun Shourie and Swapan Dasgupta, busy giving fascism a face lift for the urban Hindu middle class both at 'home' and here in the West.
She argued that the Hindus were needlessly sympathetic to the 'so called' plight of undeserving people, like "the 'poor' Jews" (p. 107). That their biggest flaw was thinking in terms of moral categories like "right or wrong." For her, the only true criterion for judgment was whether an act would benefit "Hindudom" or not. And not until everyone else, especially Hindu women, started believing the same would there be "some hope for Hindus" (pp. 107-8):
[Political training] begins at home, from very childhood, and depends immensely upon the mothers of a nation. Every great nation is a nation where the women have a strong consciousness of their country's greatness. Take the instance of Japan or of Germany, today. Take the instance of the Rajputs, in Indian history, or of the Romans, in the days of Cornelia Hindu women embody some of the finest virtues of womanhood. They are devoted wives and tender mothers [but what they lack is a] strong nationalist mentality (emphasis in the original, pp. 108-9). [And, to this end, formal education was certainly wasted on women unless, of course, it could be made useful in the Hindu supremacist cause:] Women's bookish education is but an ornament of the mind, and, half the time, an ornament out of place - an ornament in bad taste (emphasis mine, p. 110).
Savitri Devi presented a scenario of Western boys playing war as a particularly laudable example of character-building activity for the Hindu youth and recommended that they imitate this 'natural' behavior: "We would like to see four year old little Indians playing 'Indians and Mlecchas'(4)
with two batches of toy soldiers(5)
and those who go to school showing each other, on the map, what they would like Greater India to be one day..." (p. 111). Where do women fit in all this, you ask? For her, the importance of women in inculcating a dehumanizing amoral numbness (to violence upon the chosen enemy) simply could not be overstated. In the same paragraph she argued that... in every Hindu home, mothers and children [must] discuss not merely how to be 'good'... but how to be strong, how to rebecome a great nation." (sic, ibid.)" To rule, one day," she declared, " it is not sufficient to be 'good'." (ibid.)
Finally, here's how she saw women as 'active agents' tackling an all-pervasive "social problem":
[In] Hindu public meetings, the fact is often recalled of the number of
Hindu girls and women driven away
by Mohammadans [i.e., Muslims]. There are
rowdy protestations against these daily outrages
against many sorts of
'Mohammadan injustice,' Mohammadan tyranny'(6)
[What] the Hindus may say [however] is
mere talk as long as they cannot do anything to back it [up]; as long as they
are weak, 'Mohammadan tyranny' continues, unchecked; and so does the abduction
of Hindu girls and women. For 'Mohammadan tyranny' means: Hindus' [read Hindu
men's] weakness. And insult to Hindu women means: Hindus' [read Hindu men's]
weakness. There is no liberty, no justice, no honour, no religion for the weak.
We would like the Hindus [read Hindu men] to realize it and react
the original.) [As for women:] They should feel ashamed; they should feel
indignant; they should promote to action their husbands, their brothers, their
sons; at least ask them: 'What can be done?'; repeat to them that 'something
must be done' (my emphasis, p. 112).
[What] the Hindus may say [however] is mere talk as long as they cannot do anything to back it [up]; as long as they are weak, 'Mohammadan tyranny' continues, unchecked; and so does the abduction of Hindu girls and women. For 'Mohammadan tyranny' means: Hindus' [read Hindu men's] weakness. And insult to Hindu women means: Hindus' [read Hindu men's] weakness. There is no liberty, no justice, no honour, no religion for the weak. We would like the Hindus [read Hindu men] to realize it and react (emphasis in the original.) [As for women:] They should feel ashamed; they should feel indignant; they should promote to action their husbands, their brothers, their sons; at least ask them: 'What can be done?'; repeat to them that 'something must be done' (my emphasis, p. 112).
These two samples present snapshots of Hindutva at its most militant half a century apart. Looking at feminine agency and the role of women, there are only minor differences between the two. After all is said and done, she only seems to have "come a long way (baby!)"
In closing, let us quickly review the common threads:
Women as 'early childhood educators': "Without your guidance the [nation's] boys are wandering aimlessly " (- Rithambara) and "[Political training] begins at home, from very childhood, and depends immensely upon the mothers of a nation" (- Savitri Devi). The strategic role of women in this 'battle' is to produce the foot soldiers and to ensure that they get the proper ideological training to operate, when the time comes, as homicidal maniacs, hateful of the scapegoat, the Muslim, and capable of justifying genocide in the name of religion or nationalism.
The woman 'in her own': For both Savitri Devi Rithambara, the primary mode of addressing 'woman,' of talking about her is not 'in her own.' In fact, here there is no 'in her own' for 'woman.' She is ipso facto a relational function. Specifically, the mother. Not just the child's m(o)ther but, more starkly, the husband's other. As man's (m)Other she fulfills patriarchy's diktat by sacrificing the possibility of an 'in her own' in the Imaginary. Quite literally, what these leaders are telling Hindu women is that for them the only way to be, to exist, is to live vicariously through their sons and husbands. The woman remains totally alienated. Raju ki ma or Ramesh ki biwi,(7)
deriving psychic sustenance exclusively through the macho valor of the son or the husband.
Women as political 'agents': "Mother's violated veil is shaming you to action " (- Rithambara) and " insult to Hindu women means: Hindus' [read Hindu men's] weakness" (- Savitri Devi). Quel agency! Perhaps only to reiterate, the tactical role of women here is to shame and goad men into violent action against the patriarchy-prescribed enemy. For both, problems like illiteracy among women, financial dependence on men, systemic disenfranchisement of women, real problems related to Hindu patriarchy, are not on the agenda whereas an imagined enemy, the Muslim, is. The only action available to women in this vision is the patriarchy-sanctioned stereotypical nagging and shoveling shame at men who alone remain the truly active agents.
'Exemplary' women figures: "You must take on the visage of Ran Chandi " (- Rithambara) and "Take the instance of the Rajputs, in Indian history, or of the Romans, in the days of Cornelia" (- Savitri Devi). The examples of feminine agency are all drawn from mythology or mythologized history. Not some flesh-and-blood woman, not even an historical one for Rithambara. And Savitri Devi either invokes Rajput women, women most thoroughly under patriarchy's yoke in any period of Indian history, or finds it necessary to hark to the 2nd Century BC. The sole purpose of these figures is to allegorize systematic and brutal annihilation of the imagined adversary, the Muslim, or Muslim men. The goddess Chandi is not invoked simply as role model for women, rather she functions as a hyper-masculine sign reminding men of their 'true' calling, to kill and destroy. Reminding them what it means to be a 'real' man, a macho man.
And, finally, the different Strokes:
'Right' to homicide: Rithambara's imploring of women to take up arms is certainly a move away from restricting their role as early educators which we saw in Savitri Devi's writing. There is no doubt that both Savitri Devi and Rithambara endorse violence rather strongly and it would be wrong to believe that they, and the women who may follow their lead, are any less capable of physical violence than men. However, I still do not see this as a 'sincere' call to arms, a call which is actually addressing women. True, for some Hindu women, it may work to displace anger at patriarchy and Hindu masculine violence and focus it insidiously onto the Muslim, or Muslim men, seen as abductors and rapists. But for the most part, its 'proper' function (at the time) is, again, to elicit a shamed macho response from men, not women. The imagery deployed is still a function of familial ties and, from what I have seen and heard, motherhood remains the 'proper' project for a woman in Hindutva.
The allegorical sophistication: With Rithambara we see the frequent use of allegory. Gone is the 'unsophisticated,' 'regular' bluntness of a Savitri Devi. A la Rithambara, we now have the ultra chic, extra slim, 'low tar' version that satisfies all the demands of the oxymoron 'new and improved.' Though no less lethal, it is decidedly less clumsy, more cleverly blended with the mythical/religious stories from the "little tradition," less didactic, more participatory and 'entertaining' than its lineal kin. With a rhyming cadence reminiscent of a pravachan (Hindu sermon) or a jugrata (the night vigils with sermons and trance-inducing music), Rithambara delivers the familiar, rich and full flavor of the original (fascism) that we find so satisfying. Under new packaging, her rhetoric is "as old as the sun, with [bloody] teeth"(8)
and still packs the same deadly punch. Only now with the bonus of (appearing to grant) 'agency' to Hindu women in the 'liberating' act of killing the Muslim. Like Savitri Devi, she too provides the same Grade A leadership that (Hindu) women really need (like a hole in their head).
[Niraj Pant is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh]
1. The RSS is still inimical to including women as members.
2. Quite like someone who, having lost the use of their hands, taught themselves to paint using their toes.
3. To my knowledge, only Golwalkar, in We, or Our Nationhood Defined, ever came close to her chilling vision or her bluntness in elaborating it.
4. Originally the term of derision for the non-Hindu/non-Aryan tribes; now a general slur term meaning low caste, untouchable, unclean, inherently impure, not-Hindu, 'not us,' including anyone we don't like.
5. For Savitri Devi the terms 'Hindu' and 'Indian' were synonymous: "If the Mohammadans [i.e., Muslims] of India would only put India above Islam, then we would have no objection to their existence in India. They would be, then, Mohammadans as religious beings in search of their personal salvation; but, as Indians, they would be loyal Hindus [Such clever turn of phrase!] They would be then an actual part of Hindudom, and it would be of no use 'reconverting' them" (sic, emphasis in the original, p. 106). In this context, it should not be too difficult to surmise just who she means when she uses terms such as 'mlecchas': The term includes the Muslims along with the British. Note also that such summary pronouncements by militant Hindu supremacist leaders during the 1940s reveal how "the partition" was never solely a matter of intransigent separatism of the Muslim leadership.
6. In Indian history Hinduism and Islam have at certain times both joined in popular syncretic fusion of faiths and at other times have provided ideological support for war and persecution by the rulers. But here, in the 1940s, at the time of a near-total eclipse of Indian rule by the British, Savitri Devi presents ad hominem rumors of abduction (and implied rape) of Hindu women and girls (theft of enjoyment by the Other, a commonplace in patriarchy the world over) by Muslim men as fact (without any evidence to support them).
7. Raju's mother or Ramesh's wife.
8. Sorry, Bjork (Gundmundsdottir)!