Volume 1: Number 2 November 26, 1997
Rhetoric and Reality in Hindutva: A Reply to Niraj Pant's Facilitating Genocide
by Brendan Larocque
iraj Pant's article Facilitating Genocide: Women as Fascist Educators in the Hindutva Movement (Ghadar 1:1) raises many interesting issues regarding the role of women participants in the Hindu right. The article shows clearly how from the 1940s until now women have had a limited role in Hindutva politics; how women's roles within Hindutva organizations are highly circumscribed by traditional patriarchal gender role expectations; and how Hindutva women are part of a larger fascist project. Also, the article demonstrates how women leaders of the Sangh Parivar, particularly Sadhvi Rithambara, do not represent progressive or feminist interests. Beyond these issues, however, I found that the article had some serious shortcomings and presented misleading conclusions that I feel merit a response more lengthy than a standard letter to the editor would permit.
Reference to the readily available works of a number of researchers and writers on the topic at hand should make apparent the degree to which Pant's article misconstrues some of the fundamental realities of women participants in the Hindu right. For even a cursory look into the topic will show how Pant's claims, due to wholly inadequate bases of evidence as well as a flawed methodology, border on the spurious in a manner that disregards and undermines the growing body of serious writing on the topic.
Pant's article makes the following main points: 1) Women's position in Hindutva has remained virtually unchanged over the past 50 years; 2) Men, not women, are the real and intended audience for Hindutva's women leaders' speeches and writings; 3) Women supporters of Hindutva remain unaffected by their leaders' speeches, because these speeches address women primarily as mothers and wives, ignoring women qua women. Or more precisely, these speeches' only impact upon their female audience is to re-affirm their position within the patriarchal status quo.
What I found most dismaying in the writer's analysis was his answer to the question of agency regarding Hindutva women. In addressing this question, Pant concludes that "While it may seem that Hindu women are granted agency in their rhetoric, closer examination shows that this is merely an effect. What this appearance of agency hides, I believe, is the tactical re-deployment of women as vehicles for masculine agency" [emphasis in original]. This claim is especially surprising since it flies in the face of the explicit conclusions reached by most serious researchers now writing on the subject of women in the Hindu right, including Tanika Sarkar, Urvashi Batalia, Amrita Basu, and Paola Bacchetta. In fact, since the publication in 1987 of Claudia Koonz's Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics, it has become a fairly widespread consensus among feminist scholars that right-wing women generally are not passive subjects upon whom men's wills are perpetually imposed.(1) Certainly the active and consensual participation by women in fundamentalist movements is kept within patriarchal bounds; but the point is that women are not mere "vehicles" in this phenomenon, hapless objects deployed at will to do men's bidding.
A large part of the problem, in my opinion, is that Pant bases his argument primarily on a single speech by Sadhvi Rithambara and one tract by Savitri Devi. It is very dubious to draw any generalizable conclusion concerning women's agency in the Hindu right on the basis of just these two sources. Thus it would seem that the very limited evidence offered by Pant does not by any means substantiate his conclusion that it is "men who alone remain the truly active agents" in Hindutva [emphasis in original]. By making such a bold, yet in my opinion unsubstantiated claim, I feel that Pant's article undermines the writings of those scholars mentioned above who have undertaken what must certainly be extremely difficult and demanding work, that of systematically researching first-hand a fascist organization.
Pant makes the observation that "Gendered female imagery in Hindutva's rhetoric looks to have shifted from 'self-sacrificing, passive, non-violent victims' to 'self-asserting, active, take-charge, militant fighters on the holy warpath.' The types of appeals made to women have surprised progressive commentators and have made them worry about how to understand this apparent volte face." The writer aims to dispel these worries, though, by purporting to demonstrate how such (unnamed) progressive commentators have simply fallen victim to Hindutva rhetoric about mobilizing women. He asserts that women of the Sangh Parivar are not in fact organizing politically, as misguided commentators may believe, and reassures the reader that a proper discourse analysis will make this merely apparent militant political activity vanish. In attempting to do so, the writer, in my opinion, makes an illegitimate leap from the realm of discourse, rhetoric, terms of address, and imagery to that of observable practice. Certainly Rithambara's speech has a powerful impact upon Hindutva supporters' practices. However, any valid claim about this impact (or as Pant purports, a lack of impact in the case of women) would need to offer some evidence based on observed behavior. Yet the writer offers no evidence of this sort. Rather, the text of Rithambara & co.'s speeches and writings remains the sole source for his claims about actual practices. Thus the text stands in for the world. Arriving at such a viewpoint, a writer's recondite hermeneutics become the authenticating stamp of analytical authority. Pant writes that Hindutva rhetoric portrays, and thereby constructs, women as "Not just the child's (m)other but, more starkly, the husband's other. As man's (m)Other she fulfills patriarchy's diktat by sacrificing the possibility of an 'in her own' in the Imaginary." Combined with a lack of any empirical evidence for his claims, such writing does not strike me as particularly informative.
Furthermore, the writer claims that women Hindutva leaders' real audience is men alone. The conclusion that Hindutva women are not agents is thus supported by the claim that women leaders' speeches elicit responses from men, while alienating women by addressing them only as relational beings: Pant writes that their speeches "'proper' function (at the time) is, again, to elicit a shamed macho response from men, not women. The imagery deployed is still a function of familial ties and, from what I have seen and heard, motherhood remains the 'proper' project for a woman in Hindutva." The implication is that by addressing women in their capacity as mothers, Hindutva leaders leave no space for real agency or active response among these women. This is a mistaken and dangerous assumption. For here the writer's claim buys into the notion that, since Hindutva discusses women's primary role in terms of motherhood, women followers are therefore, by definition, not responsive or responsible agents. But the concept of "motherhood" has been invoked before as a cover for participating in undeniably destructive activity, as Claudia Koonz has pointed out regarding Nazi Germany. Koonz writes that "The women who followed Hitler, like the men, did so from conviction, opportunism, and active choice. Far from being helpless or even innocent, women made possible a murderous state in the name of concerns they defined as motherly" [my emphasis; pp. 4-5]. Based on the now established (though ignored, or overlooked, by Pant) widespread participation of women in the Hindu right, the same can certainly be said in the case of Hindutva. For while the "proper" role for women as propagated within Hindutva is mainly that of being mothers (and wives), it is clear that at the same time Hindutva women actively contribute to a fascist transformation of society and state.
On several significant points, many of Pant's claims are in agreement with statements previously made by Amrita Basu in her discussion of Sadhvi Rithambara and Uma Bharati, though regarding women's agency, Pant's conclusion is the opposite of Basu's.(2) For example, Pant's article reiterates Basu's claim that the success of women leaders in Hindutva is "premised upon their denial of collective identification with other women" [p. 178]. In regard to the relation between Hindutva and Muslim women, Pant's conclusions also echo Basu, when she writes that Hindutva leaders "seek to annihilate Muslim women" [p. 164]. Yet while Basu concludes that "While [Hindutva women leaders'] directives are most specifically targeted at Hindu men, this female leadership implicitly sanctions and indeed encourages women's exercise of violence" [p. 159], Pant sees the calls to militancy and violence as merely appearance, having no practical impact. Basu bases her conclusions, inter alia, on evidence gathered by personally interviewing numerous women supporters of Hindutva throughout North India. In his article, Pant bases his diametrically opposed conclusion on the basis of 1) a speech made by Sadhvi Rithambara in 1991, just prior to the demolition of the 16th century (not 6th century) Babri Masjid; 2) Savitri Devi's tract A Warning to the Hindus from 1939; and 3) talks with Hindutva men involved in the destruction of the Babri Masjid. I do not see how any valid conclusion whatsoever regarding the response of Hindutva women to Rithambara's speech can be made simply on the basis of this evidence; certainly it does not persuade me to agree with his conclusion over Basu's finding.
Hindutva forces have themselves published a large amount of literature regarding the active and militant role of women in their movement. For example, the RSS, under the leadership of M. D. Deoras, began around the late 1970s to actively recruit support from lower castes, tribals, and women; a record of this shift can be seen in the RSS headquarters' addition of an entirely new section to the 1980 edition of Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts, with several chapters dedicated to this new strategy. Also, the RSS's publishing house, Sevika Prakashan, published in 1991 a collection of essays, Kar Seva mai Mahilayon ka Yogdan ("The Contribution of Women to the Voluntary Work [to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya]"), which includes impassioned essays by women who militantly participated in the Kar Seva movement, at times even battling the police. The Hindutva magazine Vishvambhara published an issue in October, 1996, devoted to commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, and discusses the convention hosted in New Delhi and attended by over 10,000 RSS women. This gathering, as is the case with the regularly occurring meetings of Hindutva women, received coverage in the mainstream Indian media. With just a little research, examples of large-scale and often militant organizing by Hindutva women could be multiplied.
Pant argues that "there has been little real change in the role of women in Hindutva" from the 1930s to the 1990s. No one would deny the fact that during this period the forces of Hindutva have made massive gains in the social and political life of India. Yet, according to Pant's analysis, all this success has been achieved without the Sangh Parivar making changes in its attitudes or practices concerning women. In other words, Hindutva has always upheld a static, ahistorical patriarchy. But in reality no aspect of Hindutva has been immune to the forces of history. On the contrary, it is precisely the Sangh's shrewd and assiduous regard for changes in the political and social environment (including feminist movements) that has led to its astonishing success.
Finally, Koonz's observation about women in Nazi Germany is not without relevance for the perception of Hindutva when she writes that, "After all, the image of politically inert women reinforces cherished myths about motherhood. A fantasy of women untouched by their historical setting feeds our own nostalgia for mothers who remain beyond good and evil - preservers of love, charity, and peace, no matter what the social or moral environment" [p. 5]. Such a politics of nostalgia can only serve to reify Hindutva myths of family and home.
(BL is a member of Chingari and a student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)
1. For example, see Victoria De Grazia's How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945, (1992). Specifically regarding women and communalism in South Asia, see K. Jayawardena and M. de Alwis (eds.), Embodied Violence: Communalising Women's Sexuality in South Asia (1996). See also Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Batalia (eds.), Women and the Hindu Right (1995); and Tanika Sarkar, "Women's Agency Within Authoritarian Communalism: The Rashtrasevika Samiti and Ramjanmabhoomi," in G. Pandey (ed.), Hindus and Others, The Question of Identity in India Today, (1993).
2. "Feminism Inverted: The Gendered Imagery and Real Women of Hindu Nationalism," in T. Sarkar & U. Batalia (eds.), Women
and the Hindu Right, (1995).