A new book explores the many motivations and dimensions of women’s involvement in rightwing politics in India.
For several decades, women’s involvement in various expressions of Hindu nationalist violence has been the centre of controversy in India. The national media has given enormous coverage to the actions and ideologies of political priestesses who have emerged as prominent leaders within the movement. Whether it was Sadhvi Rithambara’s venomous speeches urging Hindu men to be virile and eliminate “the Muslim threat”, or Sadhvi Pragya’s alleged involvement in orchestrating the bomb blasts that shook Malegaon, a small town in Maharashtra, the imagination of Hindu nationalist women as “home-grown terrorists” has continued to capture the attention of the nation. Ordinary Hindu women are also placed at the heart of communal politics, as rightwing rhetoric consistently blames the Muslim community for being historically untrustworthy, carrying out “riot rapes”, and promoting hatred against majority religious communities. Several political parties come forward to support and speak for all Hindu women. While the Shiv Sena, the dominant Hindu nationalist political party in Mumbai, criticised the actions of the anti-terrorist squad which arrested Sadhvi Pragya in relation to the blasts, the women’s wing of the Shiv Sena, the Mahila Aghadi, distributed chilli powder and pocket knives to women at Mumbai bus stops for their self-protection.
Outside the realm of high politics, female Hindu nationalist cadres continue to informally mobilise men, women and children through either coercion or persuasion. Many urban regions in India are renowned for their prominent schools and colleges that adhere to a regimented vision of Hindu nationalist principles. Most of these institutions are under the purview of women teachers who instill nationalistic values in school children. In many rural areas, Hindu nationalist women play an active role in organising tribal re-conversions or educating tribal communities in the ‘superior’ culture of Brahmanical Hinduism, all these activities remaining couched in the language of seva, or service to the nation. Whether it is at the centre or at the periphery of the dynamic political landscape of the region, women across rural-urban, class and caste boundaries play a prominent role in creating and sustaining the Hindu nationalist ideology.
Kalyani Devaki Menon’s timely book, Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India, shows how women activists at the grassroots level engineer eclectic constructions of religion, national security, history and social responsibility to make Hindu nationalism appealing to diverse communities. She examines the ways in which women use narratives, ideas and practices to reach out to different social groups, and mould them succinctly to address their everyday fears, desires, needs and interests.
Through an ethnographic study of rightwing women in Delhi (1999-2000) Menon explores this expansionary power of Hindu nationalism, which has successfully marginalised religious minorities in India. Her data is based on participant observation, interviews and conversations with members of the movement, and she has also used pamphlets and other written material published by Hindu nationalists to support her research. The activist women studied by Menon were affiliated with multiple wings of the Hindu nationalist movement, mainly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). For most women, the RSS constituted the core of the Hindu nationalist movement and other organisations derived their political significance by drawing upon the Sangh’s ideological essence.
The violence and aggression latent in Hindu nationalist historiographies is introduced, especially in relation to anti-Muslim sentiments born out of communal politics in Gujarat and Kashmir. By focusing on the daily activities of Hindu nationalist women in Delhi, Menon shows how women “use these histories not only to recruit women into the movement to expand its base, but also to reiterate normative Hindu nationalist constructions of the past and ‘naturalise’ them in their social worlds”. She specifically focuses on the iconography of Jijabai, mother of a famous Marathi king celebrated for resisting Muslim invasion and carving out an independent Hindu empire in the 17th century. RSS women use various narratives of Jijabai, especially her accomplishment in raising a valorous son, to underline the vital role of Hindu motherhood in creating a Hindu nation. By emphasising the power and position of Jijabai, instead of her heroic son, the women offer an alternative reading of a masculinist past.
These tales of reclaiming a women’s history had an interesting resonance in my own research among Shiv Sena women in the Mumbai slums, who told and re-told the stories of Jijabai in public forums and private gatherings. However, their agenda was to prise apart Marathi regional and linguistic identities from north Indian Hindi-Hindu hegemony, and reclaim Jijabai’s martiality as the legacy of women in Maharashtra. Yet for most Hindu nationalist women across regional divides, motherhood remained the primary site of female agency and political action. New recruits were particularly encouraged to emulate Jijabai in order to herald the Hindu renaissance and bring forth the new Hindu homeland.
The debate on feminising everyday histories flows into the author’s next concern about the role of Hindu nationalist women in sustaining national insecurities. Menon delves deeply into the politics of anti-Christian lobbying, and the continuous attacks on Christian communities and missionaries accused of proselytisation. The most brutal and notorious was the attack on Australian Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999, burnt alive by a mob while asleep in their station-wagon. Staines, a missionary who had been working closely with tribals and leprosy patients in Orissa, was returning from an annual meeting of local Christians. One of the accused in the Staines murder case informed the media that he attacked the family for corrupting tribal culture, compelling local people to eat beef, and westernising Indian femininity by distributing bras and sanitary towels among tribal women. Through anecdotes collected from nationalist women in Delhi, Menon shows how the powerful imagery of Bharat Mata (Mother India) and the intimate relationship between the purity of Hindu culture, territory and womanhood, effectively cast Christianity as imperial, impure and immoral. Violent attacks on Christianity thus enabled members of the Hindu nationalist movement to imagine themselves as both defenders of the faith and the nation.
This focus on Delhi prompted a question: why only Delhi? Perhaps Menon could have offered an argument stating how Delhi is increasingly represented as the hub of pan-Indian Hindu nationalist politics, or maybe she wanted to carry on the legacy of brilliant research into the politics of RSS women in Delhi (initiated by scholars such as Tanika Sarkar).
Menon goes on to examine a similar crisis presented by the Kargil War with Pakistan during which women marshaled the support of many Hindu communities in the name of protecting the nation. Offering highly evocative examples from the speeches of sadhvis, women from a range of Hindu celibate and renunciate orders, Menon shows how these women used their position as sacred renouncers to instigate men into violent political action. The most notorious amongst them was Sadhvi Rithambara, who straddled the world between the sacred and the profane. Her vituperative speeches left behind a trail of riots when she toured across the northern regions of India. In both chapters, the author highlights the ways in which women successfully initiate clashes between Hindus and Christians over proselytisation, and Hindus and Muslims over skirmishes in Kargil. These conflicts are constructed as sacred battles between morality and immorality described in ancient Hindu religious texts.
The next chapter describes more localised and informal forms of benevolence displayed by Hindu nationalist women towards vulnerable communities in Delhi. Through their daily activities in helping needy patients in government hospitals and poor children in select local schools, nationalist women carried out the crucial task of reaching out to new audiences. The author felt a large degree of sympathy for the confused and impoverished patients trying to negotiate the impossible bureaucratic structures of hospitals. The latter exhibited their easy gratitude towards VHP social workers who helped them to fill up forms and showed them how to use the weight machines.
The author finally probes into the daily activities of a Hindu nationalist women’s residential camp in Delhi, which runs courses on the physical and intellectual enhancement of young women recruits. By shaping the minds and bodies of new recruits and orienting them toward the cultural politics of the movement, these camps were the central site for the exercise of Hindu national governmentality. The example of Bina is given, a young informant at the camp. Even though Bina disliked the sentiments expressed about Muslims and Christians during the intellectual development sessions, she enjoyed the games and the physical aspects of camp life. Games became an important means through which new members were recruited, particularly in a context where participants were influenced by alternative ideological systems that competed with Hindu nationalism. Many girls like Bina were drawn towards the movement because of personal friendships and the fun and laughter shared through physical activities. These two chapters underline the site-specific aspects of Hindu nationalism: the author showed how hospitals, schools, community centres and residential camps not only provided a space for the dissemination and reproduction of Hindu nationalist ideology, but also created a powerful arena to shape the subjectivities, bodies and dependencies of ordinary people.
The final chapter upholds the voices of women who Menon describes as ‘dissonant subjects’ – they remained within the remit of Hindu nationalism but challenged its patriarchal foundation through words or actions. These women were influenced and impacted by gendered ideology but didn’t conform to the normative expectations of the movement. While engaging with their roles as devoted mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, as well as being committed nation-makers, women did find ways to abandon abusive husbands, conduct extra-marital affairs and even get involved in same-sex relationships.
Menon’s book poignantly opens with the author’s encounter with Ela, a member of a Hindu nationalist organisation called Sewa Bharati, who could not condone the violence and destruction that followed the attack on the mosque in Ayodhya. The author reiterates, however, that these women were marked out as rebellious. Their “romantic and political peccadilloes” were overlooked as long as they stayed out of the public eye and actively contributed towards the movement. Hence dissonance was not only an integral part of the multiple worlds of modern India but was also entangled with the real world of Hindu nationalism and its plural expansionary strategies. “Yeh to sansar hain. Hum sab to insan hain, This is the way of the world. We are all human,” said a Hindu nationalist woman as she gossiped about two women in the movement who were having affairs, forcing herself to reconcile to human fallibility despite the high pressure of political ideals.
Menon argues that these versions of dissonance were not just individual endeavours. In earlier chapters she shows how transgression was woven into rhetoric, collective action and public events. For example, during events to honour the death of martyrs in Kargil, the young widows were invited on stage to receive trophies depicting Krishna leading Arjuna to battle, and given a certificate to honour their sacrifice by the heads of various Hindu nationalist women’s wings. Widows are generally considered inauspicious, at least partly responsible for the death of their husbands. The movement, however, used the Kargil event to partially reconfigure widowhood. Drawing on traditional constructions of female sacrifice and power, the death of a martial husband was perceived as women’s sacrifice for the nation. This ability to forfeit personal happiness for greater Hinduism made widows auspicious, and elevated them to the status of goddesses. This construction of superior womanhood became evident when each widow was greeted by cheers of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” as she ascended the stage.
Everyday Nationalism is admirably well-written book that could have been strengthened through critical engagement with the works of other contemporary scholars who have carried out similar ethnographic projects on Hindu nationalist women in urban centres. Most of these scholars have shown how ordinary and inconspicuous nationalist women sustain a strategic engagement with the Hindutva discourse. For example, Tarini Bedi’s scholarship, as well as my own work on the Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi in Mumbai, discuss similar themes on the complex nature of ‘women-friendly’ Hindu nationalist ideologies, and how they are nurtured through women’s everyday activities and associations. Also, Menon’s repeated references to goddesses and nation-making could have been brought into conversation with Anja Kovac’s intriguing research on how RSS and Durga Vahini women use the imagery of armed Hindu goddesses to refashion their identities. The author’s self-reflexivity in the introduction – “ultimately this book is an attempt to make sense of women with whom I profoundly disagree” – is crucial. This ethnographic dilemma of being a secular woman researching right-wing female activism, has been debated at length by most feminist scholars studying Hindu nationalist women in India, and the author could have been in dialogue with other scholars grappling with this difficult question.
During the outbreak of the Gujarat riots in 2002, an aged Muslim tailor with a small business in Ahmedabad was completely aghast that Hindu women in his locality burnt down his shop with the use of gas cylinders from their kitchen. He lamented that for several decades he had carefully stitched children’s clothes, school uniforms, dresses and wedding saris for all these women, and had built paternal relationships with them. At the end of the day, loving inter-personal associations faded in the face of religious enmities. This incident illustrates how women’s turn towards Hindu nationalism takes place in covert and unconventional ways till they are eventually expressed in overt, direct action. Hence the current academic, activist and political urgency in comprehending the nature of women’s participation in a violent political discourse that has infiltrated socio-political life in India. As Menon assertively states: “The Gujarat tragedy is a powerful reminder that stories are never just so, and women are not bystanders in the violence of men.”
~ Atreyee Sen is Lecturer in Contemporary Religion and Conflict in the Department of Religions and Theology, University of Manchester. She is an urban anthropologist of Southasia, interested in social inequality and violence, has authored Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum (2007) and co-editored Global Vigilantes (2008).