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The Women Of The Sangh

By Jyotirmaya Sharma

24 September, 2004
The Hindu

In the past few weeks, two events in public life have overshadowed everything else. One is the spectacle of Uma Bharti, flag in hand, emerging out of prison and setting out on her Tiranga Yatra, and the other is the question of the growth of the Muslim population in India. On the face of it, these two seem unrelated. A closer look, however, reveals a thread that runs through both, and also a pattern. Both have something to do with the Sangh Parivar's portrayal of women in general, and Muslim women in particular.

When the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (henceforth, Samiti) was founded in 1936 as the first auxiliary organisation within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (henceforth, Sangh), K.B. Hedgewar confessed to its founder, Lakshmibai Kelkar, that he knew nothing about women. By the time the 1980 edition of M.S. Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts was published, a chapter on ideal motherhood in relation to nationalist sons was added to the text.

These minor shifts of emphasis, along with an excellent account of representation of women by the Sangh and the Samiti, is to be found in Paula Bacchetta's outstanding study of the representation of women in the Sangh Parivar titled, Gender in the Hindu Nation: RSS Women as Ideologues (New Delhi: Women Unlimited). Ms. Bacchetta identifies the Sangh's idea of women manifest in the concept of motherhood and the creation of the Bharatmata iconography and ideal. She is perceived as a chaste mother, victimised by Muslims and in constant need of protection by her sons, who at once are virile, physically strong, celibate, and fanatically Hindu nationalist.

In sharp contrast, the Samiti does not divest Bharatmata of all warrior qualities, but gives her some of Durga's fierce qualities. Simultaneously, it creates for itself the figure of another goddess, the Ashtabhuja, the one with eight arms, which hold a saffron flag, a lotus, the Bhagvad Gita, a bell, fire, a sword and a rosary. The eighth hand is held in a gesture of blessing. Ms. Bacchetta argues that while the Sangh works systematically to reinforce masculinity, it does so at the cost of diminishing the scope and symbolic potency of the feminine.

Golwalkar's chapter, `Call to the Motherhood', in his Bunch of Thoughts, implores Hindu women, who without exception are ideal mothers, to teach their sons the essentials of Hindu nationalism, fight the Hindu nation's enemies, but most significantly, desist from being `modern' (read Westernised). Modern women, argues Golwalkar, lack in virtue and think that `modernism lies in exposing their body more and more to the public gaze'.

During July-September 1969, the RSS journal, Organiser, conducted a debate in its pages on women and their role in public life. Ms. Bacchetta sees the entire debate not merely as a reaction to Indira Gandhi's rise to power, but also as representing the Sangh's view that women ought to remain in the background with occasional forays into the public realm. The debate in the Organiser endorses this view: whenever women have been invested with absolute power, it argued, they have caused havoc. It, then, turns to an interpretation of Freud by arguing that the physical changes in women's bodies supply the motivation to their actions and influence their thinking.

While the Samiti and the Sangh are tied together in their mutual quest for the Hindu nation, suggests Ms. Bacchetta, they do not necessarily have the same entity in mind. Therefore, the Samiti, while it borrows the figure of Bharatmata from the Sangh, does not represent her as a victim needing the protection of her masculine, Hindu nationalist, sons. Neither does the Samiti valorise virility and machismo. The Samiti sees negative Hindu males as those who harass Hindu women, fail to respect them, and who marry outside their caste and religion. Similarly, negative Hindu women are usually hapless and ignorant victims, `modern' women, feminists.

What about Muslim men and women? Here the Samiti's representation of Muslim men, argues Bacchetta, is more rigid than the Sangh. It views Muslim men as entities that degrade women and Muslim women as weak and inferior compared to Hindu women. The Sangh, while it banishes sexuality from its ideal of the Hindu male, projects what it has rejected on to Muslim men who are portrayed as sexually overactive and a threat to Hindu women. The Sangh proceeds to liken Muslim women as reproductive organs of their enemies. Ms. Bacchetta gives a detailed account of the arguments and texts where the Sangh blames Muslim men and women for India's overpopulation, and its consequent economic woes. It claims that the Muslims use the `population bomb' through polygamy to overwhelm the Hindus. What is significant in all accounts of the Sangh and the Samiti is the total absence of any notion of Muslim motherhood or motherliness. The very idea of motherhood is reduced to the biological act of producing babies.

The Sangh relentlessly argues for the liberation, enlightenment, education and employment of Muslim women, something that it rejects in its notion of the ideal Hindu woman. In a pamphlet produced in 2000, it marginally alters this view in relation to Hindu women by suggesting that women have a right to a role in public life as long as they remain committed to the family and motherhood ideals (Nari Jagaran Aur Sangh). Other than this minor concession recently, the Sangh played a negative role in the debates leading up to the Hindu Code Bill in the 1950s. It claimed that granting of rights to women would "cause great psychological upheaval" to men and "lead to mental disease and distress" (Bacchetta, p.124). The result would be a race of effeminate men. Similarly, the Sangh opposed the Hindu Law of Succession on the grounds that it was regressive.

To understand Uma Bharti, therefore, is to understand fully the implications of her rejection of the Sangh-favoured model of the ideal woman, represented symbolically by the Bharatmata figure. Her fiery speeches, her ability to court controversy and remain forever in the public eye represent her rejection of the Sangh's model of `domesticated femininity'. To accomplish a break from the rules set by the brotherhood of saffron and to assert her individuality, she must assume the warrior qualities of Ashtabhuja. At the same time, she must assert her fidelity to the cause of the Hindu nation by an excess of compliance with the ideal.

If this translates into a fanatical opposition to Muslims, Christians, things and people foreign in all forms and guises, including a regressive model of swadeshi, and an unapologetic allegiance to the Ram temple movement, it is only an assertion of an otherwise truncated model of womanhood available within the Hindu nationalist paradigm. In this attempt at asserting her own individuality, coupled with her status as a renunciate and the lack of `upper' caste status, Uma Bharti manages to imitate to a great degree the Sangh's model of the ideal male while privileging the more aggressive aspects of femininity outlined by the Samiti.

The Sangh Parivar's quibble about a growing Muslim population is also part of this demonology that helps keep afloat the goal of a Hindu nation. Demeaning Muslim women is only one instance of this strategy. The real issue is the failure of the Hindu nationalist project to persuade Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, tribals and Dalits, to register themselves as Hindus. As early as 1931, the Hindu Mahasabha was passing resolutions demanding a more inclusive notion of the Hindu community. This failure led to the theory that the increase in the Muslim population was primarily due to conversions, only to be followed by the `population bomb' theory.

Uma Bharti and the Sangh Parivar's anxiety about its perception of the growing number of Muslims represent the ultimate failure of the Hindu nationalist enterprise. The Sangh grants itself the idea of individuality by affixing `swayam' in its nomenclature, while the Samiti is meant merely for Hindu women to `serve' the Hindu nation defined and determined by men. In the case of Muslim women, the Sangh recognises them neither as individuals nor as part of a collectivity. This is where the dream of a Hindu nation justifiably falters.






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