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[act] Women's Activism & The Vicissitudes of Hindu Nationalism

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    FYI Harsh Kapoor ____________________ Journal of Women s History Winter 1999 Vol. 10, No. 4; Pg. 110; ISSN: 1042-7961 Women s Activism and The Vicissitudes of
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 1999
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      Harsh Kapoor

      Journal of Women's History
      Winter 1999
      Vol. 10, No. 4; Pg. 110; ISSN: 1042-7961

      Women's Activism and The Vicissitudes of Hindu Nationalism: [Part 2 of 3]

      Amrita Basu

      The BJP's anti-Muslim stance is key to explaining its support for a uniform
      civil code. The party uses the language of legal and constitutional rights
      to pit women's rights against minority fights. It interprets secularism to
      mean that Muslims and Hindus should be treated alike, thereby disregarding
      the vulnerabilities to which Muslims as a minority community are
      subject.[12] One consequence of pitting women against minorities is to
      undermine solidarity among Hindu and Muslim women. Bharati commented, "I
      feel for my Muslim sisters, but they do not seem to feel for themselves.
      Why do they agree to wear the burqa [vet]? How can they abide by Muslim

      Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia and the Middle East is inseparable
      from nationalist opposition to Western domination. Deniz Kandiyoti notes
      that while colonial authorities intervened in economic and political
      domains, they provided the colonized greater autonomy in the private
      sphere, the arena that fundamentalists claimed as their own.[14]
      Fundamentalists' desire to veil or reveil women in Bangladesh and Pakistan
      has been a reaction to the supposed Western "unveiling" of women.
      Similarly, in Iran, fundamentalists consider the veil an antidote to the
      virus of gharbzadegi, which is translated variously as "westoxication,"
      "westitis," "euromania," and "occidentosis."[15]

      In contrast to most fundamentalist movements, the principal enemies of
      communalism are internal rather than external. India's relatively strong
      position vis-a-vis foreign capital has reduced popular resentment toward
      Western domination. Historically, the BJP has been a major proponent of
      economic liberalization it moderated its stance by supporting limited forms
      of protectionism, but remains committed to liberalization.

      The BJP seized upon the Indian state's reluctance to pass a uniform civil
      code as evidence of its willingness to "appease" the Muslim community.
      Jawaharlal Nehru passed the Hindu Code Bill, which significantly reformed
      Hindu law, despite opposition from conservative Hindu groups.[16] By
      contrast, he acquiesced to pressure from comparable Muslim groups and left
      Muslim law unreformed. In raising the issue of the uniform civil code, the
      BJP established a parallel between the Congress party's capitulation to
      Muslim leaders in the 1950s and then again in the 1980s around the Shah
      Bano case, which involved an elderly Muslim woman who demanded in court
      that her former husband pay her maintenance. In 1985, the case went to the
      Supreme Court which ruled in her favor in the process, the chief justice
      made some derisive comments about Muslim law. Fearful of the angry reaction
      of conservative members of the Muslim community, Prime Minister Rajiv
      Gandhi reversed the Supreme Court verdict and passed a bill the following
      year that exempted Muslim women from the criminal law of maintenance. By
      decrying the actions of successive Congress regimes on the issue of family
      law, the BJP seeks to demonstrate its own commitment to secularism and
      constitutional principles. "Personal law," Bharati argues, "defies the
      spirit of the constitution."[17] Arun Jaitley, an additional solicitor
      general and important BJP functionary, asserted that the BJP's support for
      a uniform civil code demonstrated that it alone among political parties
      respected the constitution.[18]

      More broadly, the BJP often strives to define itself in relationship to
      Muslims by asserting its own superiority and presenting itself as a
      beleaguered victim. Hindu women play a key role in both of these
      constructions. BJP members often express condescension toward Muslims for
      practicing seclusion and extol the greater freedom of Hindu women. Mridula
      Sinha, the president of the all-India BJP women's organization, described
      the downfall of Hindu women in the aftermath of Muslim rule: "In the Vedic
      era, the status of women used to be much higher than it is today. You can
      see from the statue of Adhinarishvakar, which is half Shiva and half
      Parvati [all Hindu gods], that the roles of men and women were considered
      interdependent and complementary. And women made important contributions to
      four domains: employment, religion, procreation, and the economy. After the
      Muslim invasion all of this changed: Hindus were forced to marry off their
      daughters at much younger ages, they adopted seclusion, and women's role in
      public life declined."[19] Similarly, BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee,
      states: "historically, women were respected in this culture indeed, women
      wrote verses of the Vedas and VedantasŠ.Later on because of foreign
      invasions, various evils cropped up in our society."[20]

      Hindu communalists claim that Muslim rule by force and example contributed
      to a decline in Hindu women's position. Hindu men encouraged their wives to
      retreat into the domestic sphere to protect them from Muslim invaders. In
      claiming that the subjugation of Muslim women reveals the "backwardness" of
      the Muslim community, the BJP ironically echoes the colonial view that the
      downtrodden Indian woman signifies the "backwardness" of Indians. In
      response to this very charge, the nineteenth-century social reform movement
      sought to "uplift" Hindu women in order to demonstrate Indians' ability to
      govern themselves. Similarly for the BJP today, the lowly status of Muslim
      women signifies the inferiority of Muslims.

      Anthropologist Joseph Alter finds an expression of cultural nationalism in
      male celibacy among Hindus. He argues that Hindus invest in celibacy
      notions of the fit body, disciplined according to a rigorous regimen that
      produces a citizen who embodies national integrity and strength. He further
      contends that the brahmacharya (one who adopts vows of celibacy) developed
      in opposition to colonial characterizations of upper-caste Hindu men as
      emasculated. In response to feelings of powerlessness amidst social change,
      Hindu men responded by demonstrating their capacity for self-discipline and
      self-restraint through celibacy.[21]

      Conversely, Hindu nationalists depict Muslim male sexuality as
      unrestrained, undisciplined, and antinational. They advocate rigorous
      measures to control Muslim family size, prohibit polygamy, and punish
      rapists. Indeed, Hindu nationalists' most vicious slogans, speeches, and
      graffiti allude to Muslim sexual practices. A Sadvi Saraswati cassette, for
      example, begins with Saraswati decrying polygamy, which Muslim law
      sanctions. Not only does polygamy turn Muslim women into sexual objects and
      breeders, it results in large Muslim families. For every five children that
      Hindus have, Muslims have fifty. "And who feeds these fifty children?
      Hindus do! After Muslims divorce, then the waqf [religious endowment]
      boards support the children with taxes that we payŠ.Within twenty-five
      years you will be living like a poor minority in this countryŠ. Muslims
      have forty-six countries but Hindus have only one, Nepal! If you become a
      minority in this country then who will provide refugee status for you? None
      of the neighboring countries provide the kind of orphanage that India
      does."[22] By conjoining the "backwardness" of Muslims with the "weakness"
      of the Indian state, the BJP can extol the superiority of Hindus and the
      Hindu nation. Women, who figure in fundamentalist movements as symbols of
      tradition and continuity with the past, function in communalism as symbols
      of progress and modernity.

      Dismantling Communalism and Fundamentalism

      Certain distinctive attributes of communalism help explain why the BJP has
      encouraged women's activism and why women have been responsive to its
      appeals. However, there is some danger associated with sharply
      differentiating between communalism and fundamentalism and assuming that
      the BJP is exempt from traits that characterize fundamentalism. One of the
      BJP's major strengths is its ability to speak in many voices.[23] Thus,
      while in some contexts the party may present itself as a champion of
      women's rights, in others it defends conservative Hindu conceptions of
      women's place.

      An excellent example both of the BJP's double-speak and of its selective
      conservatism concerns the issue of sari, the Hindu ritual of women
      immolating themselves upon the funeral pyres of their husbands. The British
      government banned sati in the early nineteenth century, but several
      incidents of it occurred in the pre-and post-independence periods. The most
      notorious was Roop Kanwar's sati in Rajasthan in 1987. The BJP played the
      role often associated with fundamentalist positions: it sought
      justification for sati in Hindu scriptures, idealized women's roles as
      dutiful wives, and accused feminists of being azadi (promiscuous),
      westernized women.

      Some of the features that are associated with fundamentalism characterize
      both the RSS and the Samiti. In contrast to the BJP women's organization,
      the Samiti possesses a coherent worldview and Sevikas (women who serve in
      the national organization) enjoy a distinctive lifestyle. The differing
      views of the BJP and the RSS are exemplified in a debate that occurred in
      January 1994. The Shankaracharya of Puri, a prominent spokesperson of the
      Hindutva movement, attended a religious function in Calcutta where a woman
      was reciting passages from the Vedas. He threatened to walk out unless she
      stopped, on grounds that she was violating Vedic injunctions. To the dismay
      of the RSS and the VHP, the BJP opposed the Shankaracharya's actions.
      "Anything attributed to the scriptures or any practice which denigrates the
      position of Indian women deserves outright rejection. The BJP will oppose
      all such practices which belittle the position of women."[24] The
      differences in the overall positions of the RSS and the BJP are rooted in
      the distinct sources of legitimacy they seek: electoral for the BJP and
      religious for the RSS.[25]

      Perhaps the issue that most reveals the BJP's affinity with fundamentalist
      movements is its anxiety about the moral corruption that modernity entails.
      For Hindu communalists, political and sexual morality are intertwined
      deeply. Having been accorded the role of the guardian of moral values,
      women are suited ideally to express outrage at the supposed decay of social
      values. A central theme running through Rithambara's cassettes is the
      notion that India has lost its moral bearings. "Things have deteriorated to
      the point that everything is now bought and sold, minds, bodies, religion,
      and even the honor of our elders, sisters, mothers, and sonsŠ. We cannot
      auction our nation's honor in the market of party politics." In a sweeping
      gesture, Rithambara ingeniously links the corruption of the political
      process, capitalist development, and sexual objectification.[26]

      Women's organizations' concerns for sexual morality are also expressed
      around the issue of pornography. Purnima Sethi reported that the BJP
      women's organization for Delhi established a major campaign to ban
      "obscene" publications. It organized raids of three hundred establishments
      which exhibited "obscene" material and pressured the press commissioner to
      confiscate this material. In Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, and other cities, BJP
      women coordinated direct action campaigns that entailed blackening
      billboards that displayed women's bodies. The BJP also demanded that the
      board of film certification censor vulgarity in Indian cinema.[27]
      According to Shashi Ranjan, president of the BJP film cell, "Mainstream
      cinema is being shamelessly imbued with innuendo and vulgarity which is
      threatening to strike at the very core of our culture so steeped in decency
      and decorum."[28]

      The Ayodhya movement and the events that surround it have given expression
      to conservative ideas cloaked in religious garb. The Gita Press in
      Gorakhpur published a series of cheap, readable books on the proper roles
      of Hindu women in the form of treatises which draw upon the authority of
      religious scriptures. Portions first appear in Sanskrit and then in Hindi
      translation. Some chapters are written in question and answer format where
      a disciple poses questions to which he or she receives authoritative
      responses, presumably from religious authorities. The books lay out codes
      of conduct for women around minutiae of social life: how a woman should
      behave around her relatives, what she should eat while pregnant, what
      ornaments she should wear after marriage, and whether she should use birth

      The central message for women in these books is the importance of devotion
      to their families and the dangers that await those who refuse to conform.
      How to Lead a Household Life, for example, states that misery awaits brides
      who choose their own husbands and sisters who demand a share in their
      fathers' property. It counsels daughters-in-law to accept the harsh
      treatment of their mothers-in-law and "to pay attention to the comfort of
      her husband, even at the cost of her own comfortŠ. What should the wife do
      if her husband beats her and troubles her?" A religious authority answers:
      "The wife should think that she is paying her debt of her previous life and
      thus her sins are being destroyed and she is becoming pure.' Another
      question is raised as to whether a widow should remarry. The response is
      that it is "beastliness" for the family to remarry her when she is no
      longer a virgin and thus cannot be offered "as charity" to anyone else.[29]
      The fear of widows' attainment of economic independence in these texts
      echoes Muslim fundamentalists' worries about Shah Bano receiving
      maintenance payments from her husband.

      A pamphlet, entitled Disgrace of Mothers' Prowess, opposes abortion on
      grounds that it denies the unborn child the possibility of moksha
      (liberation through rebirth) and thus constitutes a sin. Author Swamy
      Ramsukhdas argues that the sin of abortion is twice as great as the sin of
      killing a Brahmin. Thus, a man whose wife has an abortion must disown her
      and the only acceptable form of birth control is celibacy.[30]

      These publications echo many of the ideas that are associated with
      fundamentalism. They juxtapose Indian with Western values and emphasize the
      links between women's biological and social roles. Nari Siksha, in
      particular, engages in a diatribe against Western feminism for supposedly
      destroying the family and moral backbone of society.[31] It insists upon
      the sanctity of motherhood for Hindu women and enjoins them to reject
      Western notions of liberation. Nari Siksha states that for women to become
      satis they must possess dharma and treat their husbands like gods. Among
      other things, this entails cooking well for guests and in-laws, rising
      early to clean the house, and demonstrating deference to in-laws.[32]

      The concepts of communalism and fundamentalism are imprecise and heavily
      laden with unintended meanings. It is difficult to explain peoples' views
      if one assumes from the outset that these views are irrational. It is also
      difficult to uncouple the concepts of communalism and fundamentalism from
      religion, even though the growth of communalism has more to do with
      conflicts over the distribution of power and wealth than with religion per
      se. Furthermore, the beliefs and practices to which fundamentalists and
      communalists refer are filtered selectively from religious doctrines which
      afford many interpretations.[33]

      It is erroneous to assume that fundamentalists, unlike communalists, are
      doctrinaire. Indeed, they often have compromised their principled
      commitments to women's subordination out of political expediency. In
      Pakistan, for example, although the Jama'at-i-Islami previously had opposed
      the idea of a woman head of state in 1965, it nominated a woman
      presidential candidate out of electoral considerations.[34] Similarly, the
      Islamic state in Iran has allowed women more public roles than it
      originally permitted.[35]

      Moreover, women's activism is an important feature of many fundamentalist
      movements. There are several accounts of women's active support for the
      Iranian Revolution, including its veiling of women. In Egypt, many women
      justify women's political participation on grounds of religious commitment.
      In Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, fundamentalist women associated with
      the Jama'at opposed feminism for eroding the barriers between male and
      female worlds because their activism was premised upon sexual segregation.
      There is no evidence to conclude that women's activism is greater in
      communal than in fundamentalist movements.

      There is also a danger of implying that communalism represents a
      progressive force which encourages women's activism and empowerment whereas
      fundamentalism does the opposite. This notion draws on the assumption that
      Hinduism compares favorably with Islam in its views on women's place. Susan
      Wadley notes that Hinduism rejects notions of women's inherent weakness and
      considers them powerful and thus potentially dangerous.[36] The varied
      personalities of female deities in Hinduism may inspire a range of female
      personae in political life. Ascetic women have the freedom to remain
      single, travel extensively, and engage in worldly pursuits.[37] And even
      for "ordinary" Hindu women, religious devotion has provided a culturally
      sanctioned escape from domestic drudgery and an opportunity for

      The qualities of Hinduism, however, cannot explain women's activism in
      religious nationalism. The BJP has taken a decentralized, pluralist,
      religious tradition and rendered it more hierarchical. Given its
      willingness to transform Hinduism in such far-reaching ways, it is hardly
      bound by religious doctrines on questions concerning women. Islam, too, can
      be interpreted in diverse ways while feminists have emphasized its
      emancipatory features, fundamentalists have found within it justification
      for sexually repressive practices.

      Both communalism and fundamentalism are responses to the strains of
      modernity: the erosion of state legitimacy, the integration of postcolonial
      economies into the global capitalist system, and the influx of Western
      cultural influences. At the same time, however, both communalism and
      fundamentalism employ gendered images of motherhood to romanticize the past
      and suggest continuity with it. Hindu communalism also finds in motherhood
      imagery, particularly mother goddess worship, a basis in religion. But
      motherhood imagery is not confined to communalism or fundamentalism it is a
      staple of nationalist movements.

      By virtue of its stated commitments and its actions, the BJP can best be
      described as a religious nationalist party as it asserts a deep affinity
      between Hindus and the nation. This supposed alliance rests upon the notion
      that Hindus were the original, and thus most legitimate, inhabitants of
      India, The BJP employs an organic conception of citizenship and assumes
      that the Muslim minority, and the Congress party which supposedly appeases
      it, are implicitly antinational.

      In many respects, the recent growth of majoritarian nationalism signals a
      response to the steady growth of minority nationalism in India. The BJP's
      predecessor, the Jan Sangh, often mobilized around such Hindu issues as cow
      protection and the use of Hindi, following periods of minority linguistic
      and ethnic mobilization. In the recent past, the backdrop of secessionist
      movements in the Punjab and Kashmir played a key role in the BJP's renewed
      commitment to Hindu nationalism. The growth of minority nationalisms is
      vital to explaining how the BJP convincingly can present Hindus, who
      dominate economic and political life in India, as beleaguered victims.

      The BJP ultimately is less committed to women's rights than to the denial
      of Muslim rights. While it highlights the inequities of Muslim law, the BJP
      is remarkably silent about the inequalities of Hindu law.[38] Thus, Jaitley
      defended differences in inheritance rights of sons and daughters on grounds
      that women's equal rights to inheritance would fragment family
      landholdings.[39] There are many indications that the BJP's interpretation
      of a uniform civil code would be modeled on Hindu law. Furthermore, the BJP
      has only championed women's rights in a narrowly legalistic fashion. Its
      women's organization has not campaigned to oppose violence against women.
      It accepts the dowry system and avoids the issue of dowry deaths, the
      practice of husbands and in-laws conspiring to murder the bride on grounds
      that the dowry her family gave them at the time of marriage was
      insufficient, which enables the husband to remarry and collect another
      dowry after his wife's death.

      It is important to refine the concept of women's activism. Many of the
      women who took part in processions, campaigns, and riots seemed exhilarated
      by the opportunity for activism that this provided: leaving their homes,
      putting aside domestic work, and devoting themselves to a cause.
      Particularly for lower-middle-class housewives, who form an important part
      of the BJP's constituency, Hindu nationalist mobilization offered a rare
      opportunity for self-realization. But Hindu women's activism has not
      necessarily challenged patterns of sexual inequality within the home and
      the world. Nor are women necessarily drawn to the BJP because it advocates
      their rights. Mridula Sinha stated emphatically, "For Indian women,
      liberation means liberation from atrocities. It doesn't mean that women
      should be relieved of their duties as wives and mothers. Women should stop
      demanding their rights all the time and think instead in terms of their
      responsibilities to the family."[40] Mohini Garg, the all-India secretary
      of the BJP women's organization echoed: "We want to encourage our members
      not to think in terms of individual rights but in terms of responsibility
      to the nation."[41]

      A striking feature of women's participation in the activities of the BJP
      women's organization is their reenactment of conventional gender roles
      within the public arena. Nirupuma Gour, the secretary of the BJP women's
      organization in Uttar Pradesh, reported that in preparation for the BJP
      procession to Ayodhya in October 1990 (the dress rehearsal for 1992), women
      developed an elaborate ritual for sending the kar sevaks (volunteer
      workers) like warriors to the battlefield. They would congregate at
      designated spots in train stations with food, portable stoves, and other
      paraphernalia. As the men would board the trains, the women would garland
      them, place tilaks (vermilion marks) on their foreheads, and give them
      freshly prepared hot food. Gour said women were instructed to prepare up to
      fifty thousand food packets each day.[42]

      Gour estimates that five to six thousand women arrived in Lucknow from all
      over the country. Many others could not travel to Ayodhya because
      transportation was inadequate. But those who reached Lucknow assumed
      responsibility for protecting men from repression. Thus, when trains
      approached Ayodhya, women would sound the alarms to stop them men would
      disembark immediately while women would confront the train conductors. At
      Ayodhya, women would encircle the men to prevent the police from wielding
      their lathis (bamboo sticks). When the kar sevaks broke through the police
      cordons and climbed atop the mosque, however, women were absent.[43] I
      asked Mala Rustogi, a member of the Durga Vahini in Lucknow, why women had
      not participated in this final culmination of their actions. She responded
      that it would have been undignified for Hindu women to be climbing a mosque
      in their saris.[44]

      The particular roles that the BJP assigned to women in its expensive,
      elaborate electoral campaigns are also significant. Whereas men had primary
      responsibility for addressing large public gatherings, women engaged in
      door-to-door campaigning which brought them into contact with housewives
      who might have been less willing to speak with men. Women's reenactment of
      their private roles in the public arena plays an important part in the
      BJP's attempt to challenge the public/private divide. The party's central
      platform during the period of its ascendance in the late 1980s was its
      demand that the Congress government sanction the construction of a temple
      in Ayodhya. Implicit in this demand was the BJP's attempt to accord a
      centrality in political life to religious matters. Women served as
      emissaries of religion into the public sphere and the BJP's supposed
      religious commitments into the home and family. BJP leaders felt that
      women's electoral support would affirm the party's religious commitment
      because, they claimed, women were more devout than men. During the 1991
      elections when the election commissioner prohibited the BJP from shouting
      religious slogans, I marched with groups of women who appeared to be
      observing these dictates on the streets. But as soon as they entered the
      courtyards of people's homes, cries of "Victory to the Lord Ram!" and "We
      will build a temple there!" filled the air.

      What did women gain from being assigned a role that enabled them to venture
      out of their homes without challenging norms of sexual subordination? The
      experiences of Rustogi are instructive. Rustogi claimed when she first
      began working with the Durga Vahini in 1989, she feared the opposition of
      her husband and in-laws, as her daughter was only three years old at the
      time. To her surprise, they supported her. She described a newfound sense
      of pleasure in serving others, "Serving one's husband is expected of women
      and of course it is important. But serving a third person who you don't
      know and aren't expected to serve is much more exciting-for just that
      reason."[45] Her comment captures some of the traits that were mirrored in
      women's activism: their experience of self-affirmation through
      self-sacrifice and their empowerment through public activism which
      ultimately renewed their commitment to domestic roles.

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      www.indiana.edu/iupress/journals. (Copyright 1999, Journal of Women's
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