Women Of The Sangh
24 September, 2004
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
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.
`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'.
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
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