The recent statements by Pragya Singh Thakur, better known as Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lok Sabha candidate from Bhopal, have raised a number of socio-political issues. The image of the saffron-clad woman, who is also the prime accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts, brings to mind a specific version of political Hindutva—one which seeks to establish a cultural hegemony of a homogenised and often exclusionary Hindu Rashtra, and which demands for its realisation a ready and unwavering support of both ‘sons’ as well as ‘daughters (of the soil)’.
Since its inception as a form of Hindu nationalism in the early decades of the 20th century, political Hindutva has engaged at length with the identification of the role, status and participation of women to carve out its distinctive brand of imagining the nation.
The reification of the nation as ‘mother’—primarily a mother in distress requiring her brave sons to take up arms to protect her—that culminated in the various representations of the Bharat Mata has been one of its most enduring contributions.
So persuasive was the idea that parallel reform-based nationalistic discourses popular in Bengal and other presidency towns also focussed on casting the nation as a woman, reiterating the idea of the nation as a goddess—pure and bountiful, embodying the spiritual core of an ancient, glorious civilisation—in need of protection from outsiders who for centuries had kept her shackled.
Even these imaginings, described by scholars as the nationalist resolution of the women’s question, in spite of their modernising components, essentially fostered a conservative idea of womanhood. It confined women’s roles within the home whereas the outside, representing the sphere of instrumental social exchange, became the prerogative of men.
Such an imagining of men and women’s roles whose origins can be traced to the way in which the idea of the nation has been fabricated has, over the years, led to a valorisation of the mutually complementary positioning of instrumental masculinities vis-a-vis affective femininities, especially within the dominant upper-caste, middle-class psyches.
This partly explains the credibility that assertive and often virulent masculinities—represented by cultural trends such as political Hindutva—find among large sections of women who get drawn to it despite the asymmetrical power relations that it engenders often to their own disadvantage.
While Indian feminists have repeatedly drawn attention to the potentially dangerous social outcomes of subscribing to the cultural might of an overtly politicised Hindutva, even more so for women, the movement has nonetheless managed to retain some degree of moral authority among its followers.
This has received a further impetus in recent years following the repeated outbreaks of communal disturbances and the subsequent reiteration of the image of the Muslim ‘other’ from whose ever-increasing ‘threats’ the Hindu nation has to be shielded.
Some studies on the direct participation of women in right-wing political movements—most notably Atreyee Sen’s Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum—have attempted to draw attention to the agency that such acts give women whose lives are incumbent within deeply communal and patriarchal social realities.
While it is true, as in case of Sen’s respondents, that it was women who incited their menfolk against Muslims during the Mumbai riots, the implication that this gave the women a semblance of say in matters outside the household needs to be evaluated in the light of larger issues at play.
Very often such techniques only serve to bring frustrations—rooted in a deeply regulated and hierarchical gender order within the community—to bear upon a weaker and disadvantaged minority without altering gender norms in the first place. The preference displayed by some women for political Hindutva essentially reflects deep-seated insecurities that could be read as byproducts of Brahmanic Hindu patriarchy.
Anasua Chatterjee is an assistant professor of sociology at Miranda House, Delhi
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