Elevate Difference

Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India

Everyday Nationalism, a publication in "The Ethnography of Political Violence" series, offers readers a provocative and sometimes disturbing look at Hindu nationalist organizations and the role of Indian women in representing the nationalist movement. Kalyani Devaki Menon conducted her principal fieldwork in and around Delhi from January 1999 to January 2000, acting as a participant observer; interviewing women activists; visiting schools and training camps associated with the movement; and taking part in women's education classes, meetings, rallies, and protest marches. She reports that “gender and sexuality were pivotal to the narratives of self and 'other' produced by the women” she worked with, and that women played a crucial role in building the broad-based support for the movement that brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into power from 1998 to 2004.

The nationalist movement in India remains powerful, drawing thousands of women and men to accept a sociopolitical vision that is “xenophobic, exclusionary, and tremendously violent,” a view of India that sees Muslims and Christians as invaders, defilers both of Hindu women and the sacred soil itself, the body of the goddess Bharat Mata (Mother India). Hindu nationalists assert the need for “violent reclamations of Hindu masculinity” and for vengeance on outsiders who have violated the honor of Hindu women. Menon asserts, "This gendered construction of history, that perpetuates the logic of revenge, is widely promulgated to young female recruits, and remains central to mobilizing support for the politics and actions of the movement today." She makes clear to readers that she disagrees with this policy, yet she does not comment directly on the horrible irony of a politic that encourages Hindu youth to rape Muslim women and Christian nuns as payback for the sexual assaults said to have been enacted on Hindu women now and in the past.

The image of women as vulnerable victims is somewhat offset within the movement's various organizations by efforts to strengthen and toughen girls and women. Camp sessions include military drill, endurance training, yoga, and rough physical games. Women are taught to overcome their fears and to defend themselves. One woman activist said, “Girls today want to be free. We ask them, do you want to be free or strong?” Hindu nationalists criticize the desire to be free like Western or feminist women, claiming Indian women should be strong in order to serve the Hindu state, but still subservient to their husbands and male leaders. In Hindu societies, women are traditionally seen as “mothers, wives, and caretakers of their families.” Nationalists consider the whole Hindu nation to be an extended family, and in this context, women find reasons for civic activism: they become, in a sense, mothers of the nation.

Most Indian women marry, and many Hindu women nationalists are married, but many activists in the movement are either female renouncers; religious sadhvis, who give up worldly attachments but remain political; or pracharikas, unmarried celibate female volunteers who devote all their energies to the movement. A number of other women activists are widows or separated from their husbands. In a sense, the political organizations to which they belong become their families. Women find a favorite role model in a historical figure, Queen Jijabai, mother of the Hindu king Shivaji in the seventeenth century. Male historians concentrate on Shivaji himself, but the women nationalists portray Jijabai as an “enlightened mother” who played a key role in the nation's destiny by inculcating Hindu values in her son.

Menon's witness is compelling because she acts as intermediary between the people she studies and her readers, who need to understand what's going on in the crucial Indian subcontinent. Just as she translates Hindi texts into English, she explains many customs and beliefs that may be unfamiliar to non-Hindus. I found her presentation enormously helpful and would recommend _Everyday Nationalism _to anyone interested in religious movements, rightist politics, or both.

Written by: Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring, May 9th 2010