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Mother goddesses and warriors: RSS women as ideologues

By Rakesh Shukla

Paola Baccheta's new book explores the minds and ideological constructs of women who are part of the nationalist Hindu movement

Gender in the Hindu Nation: RSS Women as Ideologues
By Paola Baccheta, 2004
Feminist Fineprint
Published by Women Unlimited, an Associate of Kali for Women
Price: Rs 200

 Foreigners may not become prime minister but they do pretty good research in this country! Gender in the Hindu Nation, RSS Women as Ideologues, a recently released collection of essays by Paola Baccheta, Associate Professor of Women's Studies at University of California, is a case in point. Baccheta, who published her MPhil thesis, 'From the Mother Goddess to the Warrior: On the Shifting Place of Women in Communal Discourse in Contemporary Ahmedabad, Gujarat' in 1986, almost 15 years before the 2002 violence in Gujarat, is almost prophetic about the role played by Hindu women in the recent communal violence in Gujarat. Baccheta's essays have been published under the 'Feminist Fineprint' series brought out by Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women. Judging by the price of Rs 200, the claim of being a moderately priced new series with essays with theoretical and political insights on issues of significance within India and South Asia seems authentic.

The founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925, its rigidly hierarchical structure with the Sarsanghchalak at the top and the system of appointment of leaders rather than elections is well-known to an Indian audience. Though the Sangh is open to married men, the 'Grihastha' (householder) is on a slightly lower footing than the 'virile but celibate' son of Bharatmata embodied in the 'Pracharak'. Ironically, like the exclusive Lords club, the scene of many a cricket battle, the Sangh accepts no women members. The first essay, 'Hindu Nationalist Women as Ideologues' focuses on the first-ever member of the Sangh Parivar (family), the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti for women. The Parivar never looked back and is by now an extensive family including the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the earlier and now defunct Jana Sangh, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for students, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) for workers and others covering almost all sections of society.

At the very beginning, Baccheta deconstructs the absence of the word 'Swayam' (Self) in the name of the Samiti and its presence in the Sangh: "Man's self is individual while a woman's implies not only the individual self but also family, society, nation, religion and culture." She goes on to explain the differential conceptual constructs and symbols of the Sangh and Samiti within the overarching militant Hindu discourse.

Interestingly, the English language publication of the organisation offers as the reason for the formation of the Samiti the impact of westernisation leading to the women's struggle for equal rights with the risk of women becoming less committed to love, sacrifice and service integral to imparting good 'samskaras' (culture/values) to the family. Addressing a different constituency, the Hindi language text offers founder Lakshmibai Kelkar's increasing awareness of the sexual exploitation of Hindu women and the need to fight back as the reason for the formation of the Samiti. In fact, harking back to the abduction of Sita by Ravana in the Ramayana, the text concludes that Hindu men cannot defend Hindu women and therefore the need for the Samiti to train women to defend themselves.

To the three reasons -- Hindu disunity, Muslim invasions and British colonisation -- given by the Sangh for the decline of the nation, the Samiti adds marriage of Hindu men to 'non-Aryan' women, subjugation of Hindu women to Muslim men and reification of Hindu women in the British period. The depiction by the Sangh of geographical territory as a chaste female body (often a mother) along with the threat of violation by foreign invaders in order to whip up nationalism is well worked out.

The Samiti on the other hand represents 'Bharatmata' not as victimised mother in need of virile sons but as the 'protector of saints', 'the very source of all power' and 'originator of all divinities'. Male apprehensions of women's power gone out of control and trampling masculinity have been interestingly linked by Baccheta to Kali dancing in celebration of victory over demons and trampling Shiva almost to death.

Compared to the presentation of women, regardless of age or marital status as mothers and little sisters by the Sangh, the wider representations of women by the Samiti as pracharikas, citizens, warriors like Rani of Jhansi, daughters or the use of symbolism of Ashtabhuja, the eight-armed goddess carrying weapons, are shown to be divergences for wider appeal but falling well within the Hindu nationalist discourse.

This brings us to the second essay, 'All the Goddesses are Armed: Religion, Resistance and Revenge in the Life of a Militant Hindu Nationalist Woman'. Though based on the life, personality and psyche of one woman alone, the essay manages to bring out the spaces offered by militant Hindu nationalism for greater independence and autonomy of women than are permissible in the general model of domestic femininity. Kamlaben, the protagonist, wears jeans and shirt, often travels alone in connection with the work of the Samiti, is trained not only in unarmed combat but also in the use of weapons! The acceptance of these departures from notions of a saree-clad, husband-devoted Hindu woman through expression within the discourse of non-demure armed goddesses slaying enemies offers a possible pointer towards the appeal of the Samiti for a section of young women.

Travelling across the country in the cause of serving the Hindu Nation and protecting Hindu women does seem to offer a chance of greater autonomy and a life less controlled by family and society. Ironically this space is dependent upon a venomous hatred of Muslims and 'Muslim invasions', 'vivisection of Bharatmata', rape of Hindu women, demonisation of the Muslim male, justification of para-military training and ultimately violence and killing of Muslims essentially as defence, revenge and in fact a duty along the lines of the slaying of evil demons. Even though the interview with Kamlaben is extensive, too much can't be hung from a single peg.

The last essay is 'Communal Property/Sexual Property: On Representations of Muslim Women in a Hindu Nationalist Discourse'. Emphasising the elimination of the feminine and homosocial conception of the material world by the RSS, Baccheta draws attention to the fact that from the beginning of the Sangh in 1925, all through the first Sarsanghchalak Dr Hedgewar's reign upto 1940, Hindu women found place only in an idealised symbolic form like Saraswati. Muslim femininity was totally absent as the Muslim 'race' could have no ideal symbolic dimension for the women to inhabit.

During Golwalkar's reign from 1940 to 1973, the representation of Muslim women through articles, stories and satire takes the shape of 'baby-producing factories' making a 'population bomb' against the Hindus. Ignoring the widespread prevalence of bigamy among Hindus, the favourite hobby-horse of polygamy among Muslims is flogged to stoke fears of a burgeoning Muslim population which would soon outnumber Hindus in the sacred land. Muslim motherhood is reduced to a biological act and in sharp contrast Hindu motherhood is glorified.

In a parallel discourse, Muslim women are also portrayed as victims of Muslim males, to be rescued by nationalist Hindu male heroes. Outlawing of polygamy and purdah within Islam and a call for the emancipation of Mulsim women also find place in that period. Interestingly, Hindu women demanding rights in relation to Hindu men are represented as westernised and non-Indian!

During Sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras's regime from 1973 to 1994, mass conversion of lower-caste Hindus to Islam led to the projection of Muslim women as luring Hindu women into their community using their sexual charms. Satire and modified mythological stories represented Muslim women as overly sexual, desiring Hindu nationalist men who are too chaste and committed to the Hindu nationalist discourse to desire them. The Shah Bano case, which led to the passing of legislation exonerating Muslim men from any responsibility for maintenance for the wife in the event of a divorce, saw the Sangh take on the mantle of protector of victimised Muslim women from the perceived evils of Islam and Muslim men. Articles about 'progressive' Muslim fathers wishing to marry their daughters to Hindu males to protect them from the evils of polygamy and talaq (divorce) appeared periodically in publications.

Interconnections between the emasculation of virile sons by the existence of the Babri Masjid as a phallic symbol which colonises the Hindu Mother, and the destruction of the Masjid for the restoration of Hindu male virility and Hindu feminine purity have been well made. Written before the 2002 Gujarat violence, it tries to explore violence against Muslim women through the incident of gang-rape in Surat which was simultaneously videotaped. Interviews with Hindu men would have added significantly to the conclusions and enriched and deepened the understandings of the processes at work. Nevertheless, all in all, the book is a must for those interested in engaging with the underpinnings and direction of current militant Hindu nationalist discourse.

(Rakesh Shukla is an advocate at the Supreme Court, New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2004