The relationship of women to religious politics is not only paradoxical, it is also complex. Traditionally, India had seen a woman as a member of the family or a group and not as an individual with an identity or right of her own. Discrimination against women in most parts of India emerges from the social and religious construct of women’s role and their status. Cultural factors significantly influence anti-female bias in India, both directly through preferences and by altering the economic constraints faced by households. Women have only been included symbolically into the national body politic since no nationalism has ever allowed men and women the same access to resources of the nation-state. Nationalism legitimises the dominance of men over women. The images of women enshrined as Mother and the rhetoric about the nation-as-woman further intensifies male-male arrangements and an all-male history. The BJP is an example of this phenomenon. The BJP supports women’s independence to the extent it is politically convenient for them. On the one hand, it advocates women’s rights where as on the other, it defends the regressive ideas relating to position of women in society. An example of this is the close association of the BJP with the sati of Roop Kanwar in 1987 where it sought justification for sati in Hindu scriptures, idealised women’s roles as dutiful wives and accused feminists for being increasingly westernised.
The position of women in Hindutva politics is complicated. While Hindu nationalism may preach both democracy and authoritarianism, its aim encapsulated in Savarkar’s slogan to “Hinduize politics and militarize Hinduism” involves a ‘specific construction of Hindu self – a virile, masculine, aggressively communal self’ which is intolerant ‘of other conceptions of Hinduism’. This inherent conviction in Hinduism of a male ideal, challenges the notion that the provision for Hindu women’s political assertion could ever be a simple issue on the nationalist agenda.
Gender has emerged in RSS ideology as a politicised entity whereby women are depicted as the repositories of religious beliefs and the keepers of purity and integrity of the community. During the 1990s, communal violence witnessed the emergence of Hindu women as a crucial impulse for much of the partition violence was centred on allegations of abductions by Muslims. This led to the Hindu community dissolving into the figure of the threatened woman, and violence became necessary for the restoration of Hindu male honour. It is argued that the idea of the endangered Hindu woman was an extraordinarily potent weapon for violent mobilization against the Muslims who were projected as ‘the Others’. Such ideas were a direct consequence of Hindu nationalism, better known as Hindutva, evoked by organisations such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), including political parties like the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Neverthless, the BJP, RSS and the VHP have their active women’s organisations. The Rashtra Sevika Samiti, a branch of the RSS, stresses virtues such as physical strength and courage and provides paramilitary training for some women but its major objective is to inculcate the ideals of Indian womanhood. They teach the battered women to accept their situations and blame themselves for their misfortunes. They discourage divorce and legal action, silencing protests through invocations of Hindu patriarchal examples- the legendary wives who accept their fate with a smile. Radical women’s organisations for women’s liberation, teaching women to think for themselves, are often condemned and result in the social isolation, emotional deprivation and insecurity of women who form part of them. On the other hand, the RSS organisations guarantee the safety and protection of women who become members. It can be observed then that the RSS gender ideology is a form of submission to patriarchy, in which the Samiti enhances the cause of the RSS. It is retorted that if women do not perform their cultural role in a proper manner, then the family suffers and then the nation. Feminism, an alien westernised concept, is highly disregarded and believed to be the enemy of the Hindu family. There is a new generation of women leaders in India in political parties such as the BJP who preach inflammatory and divisive politics, but they apparently seem to have restricted success in mobilizing even Hindu women to their other politico-religious causes. Hindu woman’s ability to assert herself politically is ultimately limited by gender associations inherent in Indian culture.
The politics behind the Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s inception is telling of RSS gender ideology. The group’s founder Laxmibai Kelkar first approached RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar seeking the possibility for women to join the RSS, but was turned down. Women were denied membership in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was only in 1936, eleven years after the formation of the RSS was the Rashtriyasevika Samiti born. The Samiti, being the dharmapatni or wife it was meant to be, sticks faithfully to ‘Guruji’ Golwalkar’s dictum— ‘Disparity is an indivisible part of nature, we should live with it. It has never been a celebration of feminity. Rashtrasevikas are referred to more modestly than their swayamsevika male counterparts, to whom they are ‘related but subordinate’. As a means of mobilizing housewives and education, or conditioning, children to the cause, Hindu nationalist groups combine the Nazi philosophy of ‘with the cradle and the ladle’ with that espoused by their Hindu heritage that ‘the husband be a song’ and the wife simply ‘a verse.
Women are often described in their role as mothers and sisters and, therefore, as asexual beings in the official RSS propaganda. By denying their sexuality and describing them purely in terms of their relationship to men – mothers and sisters, not wives – women are essentially devoid of independent desires and personality. This is reflected in the official line on married life disseminated through seminars and literature for RSS members. Girls are supposed to acquiesce to the parental selection of a groom and self-choice is strongly discouraged. The tradition of the docile, defenseless wife is stressed. Rather than stand up for themselves, women are supposed to obey and support their husbands and blame themselves for any marital difficulties. Male behavior, including infidelity, on the other hand, is often excused by pointing to biological differences. These ideas and behavior tend to diminish the value and status of women in the social, religious, as well as economic spheres in India.
Hindutva politics has ideologically played a significant role in withholding women’s liberation. The ordinary Hindu women have no choice. Believing in Hindutva policies only ensures bread on their table. In order to understand the part played by women in Hindu nationalism, it is important to understand the Hindutva ideology first. It then goes to show that these organisations use women not only symbolically (in myth and art) but also quite literally so as to cater their extremist and nationalist cause. Nevertheless, there exists a link between anti-female bias and an ideological proximity to the Sangh Parivar, literally a “family organization” of political parties, social institutions and paramilitary forces affiliated with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
As mentioned above, gender relations in the Parivar are shaped by a particular nationalist agenda (Hindutva) that frames the current environment in terms of the defense of Hindu India against Muslim aggression. Based on a particular interpretation of high-caste Hindu norms and combined with a strong anti-Muslim rhetoric, that is occasionally backed up by violent action, men are seen as the dominant force in gender relations with the male Hindu warrior image featuring strongly in the ideology. In a patriarchal society, women have been and still are constantly defined by the men in their lives; they are somebody’s wife, daughter or sister. Hindu ideology presents women with the core belief that either praises or vilifies them, either they are a good wife, or daughter who is under the control of men or they are sexually free and a danger to society. The BJP’s real attitude towards women is based on a fascist communally-based politics in which women are seen not as individuals with rights, but as bearers of their community’s honour, to be protected or raped, depending who they are.
The rhetoric of the Sangha leaders reflects their ideology and their perception towards the position of women in society. For example, in response to a high profile gang rape in Delhi, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of RSS, stated that such incidents only happen in cities, not villages. He further blamed “western values” for the increase in rapes in India. It has been successfully contested that statistics show that rapes also happen in rural India but often go unreported. Mohan Bhagwat on a different occasion had remarked that women should restrict themselves to doing household chores, according to what he calls the theory of social contract. According to him, theory of contract, theory of social contract, a husband and wife are bound by a contract which says ‘you (woman) look after the household chores and satisfy me, I (man) will take care of your needs and will protect you’, and until she delivers her duties without fail, he keeps her on the contract and if she fails to honour the contract, he disowns her and if it is the same with the husband who is not honouring the contract, she can also abandon him and go for a new contract then. This is the respect and the position RSS offers to the women of India. The systematic use of gang-rape as a weapon occurred in the Surat riots after the Babri Masjid demolition, and an ugly innovation was the videotaping of the gang-rapes. This was not a case of some random bystander filming the attacks, but a meticulously-planned spectacle with the venues flood-lit despite the fact that electric wires to the rest of the neighbourhood had been cut. Sexual violence was also evident in the anti-Christian pogroms in Kandhamal (Odisha) in 2007-2008, including the gang-rape of a nun, Sister Meena. This was nothing but ‘using women’s body to inflict all kinds of violence, attack on children, rape of young girls and women and subsequent killings’. In Maharashtra too, Hindutva vigilantes target Hindu women in consensual relationships with Muslim men. In the Gujarat pogroms, Geetaben was sexually assaulted and brutally killed by the Sangh Parivar because she tried to save her Muslim husband, and she was not the only Hindu woman attacked. If women are not acknowledged as persons, then their will and consent are not recognised either.
Therefore, Hindutva is a force that is potent enough to reverse all that the women’s movement has achieved in India. When the BJP was the ruling government (until the 2004 General Elections when it was routed from power) it had planned to rename the Women Studies Centres across the nation as Family Studies Centres; substitution of the word ‘women’ with the word ‘family’ shows the grotesque patriarchal aims of the Parivar to convert and convolute the agenda of Women Studies. Now that the Hindutva force has female faces on its leaders list does not dilute the fact that the Sangh Parivar is an anti-women, casteist, patriarchal organization. Although women of the Parivar have been prominently placed in the public sphere and also serve as kar-sevikas and members of semi-militant factions of the Parivar-like Durga Vahini, they are all made to conform to the stereotype of the Hindu Woman. No matter what their positions of power, the women of the Sangh are only instruments of upper caste patriarchy.
As rightly said by Shri Rahul Gandhi, RSS chief M S Golvalkar was not in favour of granting voting rights to women and had said that “giving voting rights to women is a mistake. The present leadership of RSS and BJP strongly support ideology and there is a remarkable difference between what the BJP preach and practice.
* The Author is an Advocate and National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress.