Holier Than Cow
Last fortnight saw two debuts: One, the nation for the first time thronged the streets on the issue of gender. Two, RSS Supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s moment of epiphany was well timed, like never before, for the nation to reflect upon his misogyny and sexism. Bhagwat, within a span of three days, came up with two significant statements: a rapist prefers ‘Indian’ women over ‘Bharatiya’ women and a woman must satisfy her husband for food, shelter and protection. The Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the RSS’s women wing, with 55,000 shakhas all over the country, not just ascribes to the above tenets but also holds camps and indoctrinates thousands of girls-toddlers, adolescents and old— to propagate the idea of a ‘culturally sanitised’ Hindu rashtra and the patriarchal roles it offers women to conform.
The rubber slippers were neatly lined outside the assembly hall. Thirty eight pairs, I counted. The multi-coloured chalks decorated the blackboard, next to the shut door, that announced, ‘12th December, Swadeshi Diwas, Akhil Bhartiya Pracharika Abhyas Varg, Sambhajinagar.’ This, one of the many, three day training camp for the Pracharikas of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti commenced just a day before Gujarat went to polls. A sudden cacophony of hurried footsteps broke the silence, that was powerfully guarded by the hillocks of Jatwada village, 25 km from Aurangabad district for Arya Chanakya Vidyadham, the venue for the this training camp. Three black dots appeared in the corridor where I was waiting. They were three women. Sunita, the first dot, the organiser of the camp in her early 40s, ran to the hall to instruct the pracharikas to maintain silence. Shanthakaka, the Pramukh Sanchalika of the Samiti, and Sharad Renu, the Bauddhik pramukh tried to match the fast steps of Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, the general secretary of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Bhaiyyaji was here to train the pracharikas over the next three days. Shanthakaka’s authority reflected in her salt and pepper hair and double chin, Sharda’s stoic face changed with a flush of reverence and submission. Bhaiyyaji entered the hall, grabbed the microphone and said, “Gaiy jab ghas khaati hai to apne bacche ke liye baandh kar nahin laati magar ek mahila kuch bhi khaati hai to apne parivar ke liye baandh kar lati hai. Is antar ko pehchaano. Yahi ek mahila ki shakti hai (A cow does not pack grass after she finishes grazing but a woman packs some part of it for her family to bring it back home. Identify this difference. This is the strength of a woman.)” While motherhood is taught as the absolute objective for a woman, it is this subordination of Shanthakaka and her battalion of Samiti whole-timers to be indoctrinated by a man with alacrity, that establishes the existence of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, India’s largest right wing women’s organisation.
Even though the RSS was founded in 1925, when women were already active in all shades of anticolonial movements—nonviolent as well as revolutionary extremism—it did not even develop a women's front for the next 11 years. Lakshmibai Kelkar, known as ‘mausiji’, the mother of a Maharashtrian RSS veteran, had approached Dr. Keshav Baliram Hegdewar, the founder and leader of the RSS, many times in the early 1930s for the admission of women, but he was not responsive. At last, in 1936, he agreed to her proposal and advised her to set up a separate women's wing. The Samiti was formed with the intention to create awareness among women about their cultural and social responsibilities. Replicating the RSS schedule, the women are trained in the Hindutva ideology and paramilitary through shakhas, vargs, Yoga and discussions. “Mausiji lived next to my mausi’s house, where I grew up, in Nagpur. Mausiji was touring the region with her son to spread the network of Samiti Shakhas. Her idea of worshipping Devi Ashtabhuja drew me to the Samiti. Devi Ashtabhuja is a symbol of realisation of Hindu women’s image. That of a woman’s chastity, purity, boldness and sacrifice. Above all, a woman has the divine power of womanhood who can nurture a character based society, ”says 83 year old Pramila Medhe, fondly known as Pramila Tai. She is the oldest member of the Samiti and has served with all the four Pramukh Sanchalikas and has been a Samiti Pracharika (whole-timer) for the last 60 years. Epitomising the tenets laid down for a Samiti pracharika, Pramila Tai is a celibate like the pracharaks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The position of Pramila Tai, as a pracharika in the Samiti is a prestigious one. With a high level training in paramilitary and the Hindutva ideology, they are expected to take on the responsibility to move into new and sometimes remote areas to spread the message. Chastity heightens their iconic status for it is deeply associated in Hinduism with notions of spirituality, purity. These qualities also make these women reliable spokespersons for the future Hindu rashtra sons for the future Hindu rashtra (nation). Renunciation—both sexual and material—exercises enormous moral force within the parameters of Hinduism. Immaculately dressed in a pink cotton nine yard Maharashtrian saree and a spotless, crisp white blouse, she gestures me to eat the freshly plucked custard apples as she goes on to explain the basic values and the purpose behind forming the Samiti and the role of a pracharika. “Pracharikas pledge their lives to the making of the Hindu rashtra instead of running towards material and domestic bliss. Once we commit ourselves to the cause, it is the Samiti’s responsibility to take care of our well being. In that process we need to learn to live humbly and simultaneously train ourselves to be strong enough to travel to villages, often alone and use public transport like bus, trains etc.” Once the pracharikas are trained, they establish new shakhas in their areas and train other sevikas in physical or intellectual skills and organize campaigns. It is important to note that the name Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh means ‘Nationalist Volunteers’. In contrast, the term Rashtra Sevika denotes women who serve the nation. This difference in the meaning does hint at the conventional humble service that is expected of a sacrificial woman. The sense of autonomy and self-choice that are associated with the word "volunteer" are notably missing. The pracharikas are categorically told that the difference between the Rashtra Sevika Samiti and other women’s organisation is that unlike others they do not fight for women’s rights, instead they fight to create a Hindu rashtra. With the ‘bhagwa’ (saffron) flag for guru, the Samiti believes that the Indian women already enjoy equal rights in an egalitarian Hindu rashtra. “It is the western women who had to fight for their rights in the 1920s unlike us,” says Tai emphatically. When I ask her how possible is it in a patriarchal society like India where women are expected to conform to the subordination, she is outraged and echoes the same ‘social contract’ Mohan Bhagwat talked about last week, “We are not feminists, we are family-ists. We believe in ‘dampatya’ (conjugality) where a man and a woman together need to bring up a family.” The Samiti does not confront them with the larger problems of their socially exploited sisters, so that the Hindutva women are never forced to choose between gender and their own class/caste privileges. It keeps them tied to family interests and ideology while spicing their lives with the excitement of a limited but important public identity.
The gong rings and pracharikas break for lunch. I am invited to join them as they sit in queues, legs folded, waiting for their turn to be served food by the volunteers. That is when I got a chance to interact with Sunita, the organiser of the camp. Sunita, originally from Aurangabad was sent to the Northeast to organise shakhas and mobilise women to join the Samiti. Her posting was a follow up to the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983 where the Bangladeshi Muslims and Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin were targeted as ‘outsiders’ by the locals. Official records suggest that over 1800 people died and several injured. The report submitted by the Tiwari Commission in 1984 was never made public by the government. “I have been working there for the last 25 years under difficult circumstances battling the Muslim and Christian invasions.” Conflict areas like the Northeast, often ignored by the Indian state, sometimes for their remoteness and mostly because of cultural alienation, are the breeding grounds for indoctrination. Kokrajhar, an Assam district, recently in news for communal riots has been at the receiving end of the tensions between the locals and the Muslims, who have to keep proving their East Bengal origins. With increased competition for livelihood, land and political power has led to frequent violence in this district due to its geographical proximity to Bangladesh. In 2008, in an exact replica of the recent violence in Kokrajhar in July this year, Bodos-minority community violence killed 100 people and displaced nearly 2,00,000. Twenty eight year old Karabi’s house was also burnt and she lived in the refugee camps for the next three months. “The food was limited, there was no place to even sleep. My family was dispersed and my mother died during the riots. The camp was infiltrated by the Bangladeshi immigrants. It is then when I met Sunita didi. She took me to the Samiti shivir where I learnt how to fight for my rights and to take away what is mine.” Karbi, originally from the Bodo tribe is now a carrier of the Hindu religion in Assam. Roma Chakraborty, a Grahini sevika (part-timer) who joined the Samiti in 2009 after retiring from her job at a local power grid, is helping Karbi organise bal shivirs in Silchar district in Assam. They are required to travel to all the tribal villages in the state and distribute Hindu literature, lockets, pamphlets. According to them, travelling to Muslim villages in particularly difficult. “By the end of January 2013, we wish to see photographs of Bharat Mata in each household in this area.” says Roma. The increasing conversions to Christianity in Arunachal Pradesh is another threat that needs to be tackled. “The Christians have money and that's how they are luring the tribals and converting their faith.” To fight this, 13 pracharikas from Assam have travelled to train themselves at the camp. Roma also hints at a joint action that is being planned by the Samiti along with the RSS to stop the Bangladeshis to cross the border and stay in the refugee camps at Kokrajhar. The bal shivirs Karbi and Roma are set to organise, are popular tools to inculcate ideas and cognitive Hindutva strategies in the kids. These kids, often in the age group of 5 to 8, attend camps of different durations ranging from one day to three day organised by the Samiti. “Isn’t it better if they learn ‘Bharat desh, mera desh, meri mata aur pranesh, meri jaan, mere praan, Bharat mata ko qurbaan’ instead of ‘Baba black sheep, have you any wool’, says Radha Mehta, Delhi Prant Karyavahika. The malleable minds of these kids are worked upon through games, patriotic songs, arts and crafts workshops to teach the importance and the need of a Hindu rashtra. “We make them draw Lord Ram, Rani Laxmibai and Lotus flower and make them curious enough to ask about these figures,” she adds. Door to door campaigns and counselling of the families helps them convince the parents to send their kids for the camps. Lure of free food and clothing are often reasons enough that these kids become regulars at these camps, the importance of which is best realised in conflict zones like the Northeast, poverty stricken areas like Vidarbha or the ghettos in metros like New Delhi that accommodate the migrants from the villages. Another training camp targeted at the adolescents is called the kishori varg. In Delhi alone, last year over 250 girls attended the 15 day camp. Door to door campaigns, targeting young girls who hit puberty and thereafter are engaged in ideological discourses about Hindutva and paramilitary exercises like sword fighting and martial arts. The social base of the women of the Hindu Right, however, is easily identified as overwhelmingly upper caste, middle class, and urban. When I ask Radha, sitting in the drawing room of her West Delhi home, with the embellishments accordingly matched to her maroon velvet sofa and cushions, about the socio-economic status of these girls who attend the camps, she is evasive, “We get volunteers from all classes. There are several migrant families near our office in Paharganj. And then there are girls from areas like Chandni Chowk from ‘well to do’ families.” At this point, it is interesting to note that in the last elections in the Chandni Chowk constituency in New Delhi in 2009, it was recorded that the Muslim electorate went down from 40 percent to 13.38 percent with a 62 percent Hindu population, mostly dominated by OBCs and SCs. Inducing the alacrity in the parents to send the daughters to the kishori vargs is lined with initial complications. “People are often apprehensive about sending their daughters to the camp because they think like the pracharikas, their daughters too will opt out of a family life,” says Roma.
Dressed in a salwar kameez, with the dupatta slung across one shoulder and tied on waist diagonally, she was serving food and refilling the pracharikas’s plates at the Aurangabad camp in the most efficient manner. Supriya Hattekar, 22, has been associated with the Samiti since she was 12. When I sit her down and ask her where is she from, she emphatically says, “Sambhajinagar.” In January, 2011, the ruling Shiv Sena in Aurangabad passed a resolution to rename the city to ‘Sambhajinagar’. Several centuries ago, the city was named Aurangabad after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb whose mortal remains are buried in the city. The city has almost 60 percent Muslim population. Supriya is a student of Master of Computer Application and aspires to become a software engineer. “Besides unemployment, there are two major problems that need to be addressed”, she says. “One is that young girls must be stopped from putting their pictures on social networking websites like Facebook. They risk their honour and then their pictures are morphed into nude ones and circulated. They invite blackmailing by this. Secondly, when girls are eve-teased, they are scared to talk about it for the fear of defamation. There is a need for a body which these girls can approach to avoid this.” It reverberates the misogynist comments like that of BJP leader Sushma Swaraj who described a rape survivor as a ‘zinda laash’ (living corpse). To add to that it also reminds of the fatwa issued by Madarsa Manzar-e-Islam of Dargah Aala Hazrat, an organisation of Sunni Muslim clerics, last month, who termed as 'haraam' the uploading of photos on the internet for matrimonial purpose and on social networking sites. Curiously but expectedly, the patriarchal idea of female honour, a commodity that needs to be protected, and the religious practice of putting the onus on women for being wronged, are deeply manifested in Supriya’s notion of female values. It is also significant that female-pattern violence is more often characterized by self-defence as opposed to male pattern violence. The body-cantered practices for women have old and varied meanings and values within different currents of Hindu patriarchy. Supriya also volunteers to teach sword fighting and martial arts at the kishori vargs. These trainings can be witnessed at the training camps: elaborate, passionate drills with cries of ‘Jai Shiv Shankar’ and ‘Jai Maa Durga ki’ follow after each attack on the opponent. When I ask Pramila Tai, the purpose of training the girls in sword fighting in this day and age, she says, “I know it is obsolete. But it gives the girls a confidence that if an invader attempts to violate them, they can turn around and hit him hard with any object that comes handy.” Muslim lust for the Hindu woman has been one of the staples of RSS propaganda and selective memories of rape during the Partition riots are well known. The ‘invader’ here is a direct reference to non-Hindus i.e. Muslims and Christians. From Savarkar's formative writings on Muslim rule in India, the stereotype of an eternally lustful Muslim male with evil designs on Hindu women has been reiterated. While the women are made to establish themselves as political subjects through an agenda of hatred and brutality against a besieged minority, it is love jehad that is seen as a crucial combat that they need to collectively and strongly engage in. Says Shanthakaka, “Muslim boys are encouraged to elope with our girls. The money they are paid to elope and marry a Hindu girl depends on the caste of the girl. The remuneration for Rajput girls is Rs one lakh and for Brahmin girls is Rs two lakhs.” Girls from lower castes are not seen as a good ‘catch’ neither does it bother the Samiti enough. The kishori vargs are most potent tools to entangle seething teenage emotions with patriarchy. They propagate the idea of gendered spaces, curbing young questioning minds to aspire for domesticity and motherhood instead of independent, ambitious, liberated lives. Says Rekha, “ When the girls join the camp, they question us when we ask them not to wear western outfits like jeans or backless tops. They are told that it not our tradition to show the shape of our body parts. It takes time to make them understand the logic.” Comparatively, this may seem a lesser battle to fight. The Samitis regard higher education and professional careers for women as desirable, even though strictly conditional upon parental consent. Not surprisingly, most pracharikas are graduates and postgraduates. However, the Samiti manual clearly mentions that ‘after marriage, a girl will have many responsibilities in her new home. It is not advisable for her to bring disquiet by refusing to compromise. If ordained by her fate, her husband will permit her to study.’ This stems from the clear understanding that domesticity is the sole purpose of a woman’s existence and that equilibrium has to be maintained at all personal costs. Similarly, love marriage can only be allowed through parental consent. Kemi Wahengbam, 26, has been a whole timer for the last two years. Originally from Manipur, her association with the Samiti dates back to when she was a teenager. Initially hostile and then hesitant to talk to me, she said, “Our work is like sugar in water. You cannot understand it unless you taste it.” Kemi later reveals: “I grew up amidst the army rule, bombs, killings. Association with the Samiti was a welcome change. Religion not just gave my life a direction but also a chance to see the rest of the country.” Kemi has been posted in Gujarat for the last two years and under her tutelage at least 50 new girls have joined the Gujarat shakha. When I ask Kemi about the Gujarat riots and the killings of 2,000 Muslims she resorts to the age old definition of a riot, which is irrational, spontaneous violence, not once acknowledging the possibility of it being organised. She says, “It was a reaction. Hindus are very tolerant by nature. Hindu kings have even funded the construction of mosques and churches in this country. So clearly, during Gujarat 2002, all thresholds were crossed for the Hindus to turn so violent.” Kemi’s answer exposes the complicity of the Samiti in the riots and the violence against the Muslims in the way that involves their informed assent to the brutalities against Muslim women which involved gangrapes, slicing of their breasts and the tearing open of pregnant wombs. Refusing to talk to me further, Kemi leaves the dormitory, where the pracharikas were staying for the camp. I turn to Sharda from Jabalpur. In her late-20s, Sharda has been a whole timer for five years. She tells me that apart from the shakhas, the Samiti also counsels women in their respective areas. There is a manual that is followed. When I ask her, “What advice would you give to a victim of wife beating?” she answers, “Don't parents admonish their children for misbehaviour? Just as a child must adjust to his/her parents, so must a wife act keeping in mind her husband's moods and must avoid irritating him. Only this can keep the family together.” Similarly, divorce is also a non-option for women. She says, “Our task is to keep the family together, not break it. We tell the women to adjust. Sometimes, we try to counsel the husband too.” Discussion in the Samiti are no mindless gestures but highly informed convictions. Knowledge and education are often used to vociferously debate contemporary issues in the light of Hindutva. The next session was to discuss such issues. FDI, the most recent point of opposition evoked passionate debates among pracharikas. Pramila Tai goes on to give an example, “Twenty years back, there were television commercials for food products that claimed that it is like ‘home-cooked food’. Now a days, the television commercials sell food products with a tagline that it is ‘restaurant-like’. Isn’t this an insult to women?” Her argument against capitalism is seen through the prism of the domesticated roles assigned to women. She adds, “Even when I may have ideological differences with Indira Gandhi, she took great care to meet the smallest of demands of her sons, Rajiv and Sanjay.”
Live-in relationships are seen as an anomaly. “They do not guarantee legal rights to the women, neither do they provide the framework for a family and children to lead a normal life,” says Poonam, the pracharika from Delhi. She goes on to discuss homosexuality, “These days, western concepts like lesbianism have seeped into the Indian culture. They are destructive and abnormal.” Falling female sex ratio emerges as another talking point. Sharda, the Bauddhik Pramukh argues, “If the number of girls will go down, the number of Hindus will decrease. And it has been historically proven that whenever, the number of Hindus has gone down in this country, the nation has suffered a crisis.” In an ideology, where women are predominantly mothers who could help the Sangh cause most by rearing their children within the RSS framework of samskaras— a combination of family ritual and unquestioning deference toward patriarchy and religion, these responses are predictable. However, the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance, sexuality, and reproductive rights in this context also define the place of women and assign them a subordinate status within the community.
When I ask them about Hindu terrorism and Sadhvi Pragya, Tara from Panipat jumps to the defence of Hindutva, “She cannot be involved in such an incident. It is a conspiracy to malign Hinduism as a religion. The Samiti teaches the concept of ‘vasudev kutumbakam’. A Hindu can never be a terrorist. Terrorism in itself is an ‘American concept.’ She cannot harm her own family members. What she did could have been a reaction.” I see this as an apt moment to bring in the age old debate about the Ram janamabhoomi and Babri Masjid. There is tense silence when Pramila Tai decides to take the lead. “The ASI has handed over evidence of the mandir. In spite of that, we have been suffering the humiliation of not being able to construct a mandir. When we demand it, we are branded as communal. Hindus have a history of tolerance. Unlike, in Russia where people demolished the statues of Lenin and Stalin, we have allowed mosques to exist that were built during Aurangzeb’s era. Instead of appreciating that we are denied our rights and are instead misinterpreted.” In the company of such forthright women, it is only pertinent to ask why women still do not hold powerfully political positions in the country. Shathakaka answered,” We do not believe in satta [power]. Parliament is simply a law producing machine. We believe in reforming the society which cannot happen through the weak foreign and economic policies of the political parties.” No wonder, when compared to the women’s organisations of the Left like the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the Samiti has always taken a backseat in initiating social reform movements. The Samiti has led a low priority, non innovative, routine-bound existence and it is that passivity and unquestioning attitude that is being indoctrinated in young girls through these camps. They are brainwashed with that Hindu nationalism that has always sought legitimacy in notions of female selflessness, sacrifice, and martyrdom. The image of a sustaining, nurturing community is then used to undercut all left attacks on political and social hierarchies—be it the demands of the states for greater autonomy or of the lower castes, classes, and women for equal rights and affirmative action. The Hindu right wings notions of a family need to be questioned in the light of recent statements of a Mohan Bhagwat propagating patriarchy and blaming western attacks on family values as the reason of rape in the urban India and that of Asha Ram Bapu who said, “the woman could have been saved had she attempted to evoke brotherly sentiments in the six rapists.” The Sevika Samiti, entangled in its own patriarchal values, will never attempt to don this mantle. Or get rid of its myopic vision to see that family values are no less corrupted by the corrosive effects of individualism, consumerism and injustice. As Pramila Tai says, “Women demand extra freedom at the cost of the family. This is destructive.” Instead it legitimises gender differences embodied in traditional attitudes. It never empowers women and alter gender relations in the household. In the Samiti, the women continue to be neither subjects of the democratic discourse, nor active participants in it, but the invisibilised site on which masculinist arguments about state transformation unfold.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print