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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 17 New Delhi April 16, 2016

Men, Women and the Nation: Semiotics of Hindu Nationalism

Friday 15 April 2016

by Navneet Sharma and Pradeep Nair

Trident (Trishul)is a symbol of Hindu religion and not a weapon.... its distribution is a movement to realise our goal of [the] Hindu Rashtra. —A Hindu fanatic leader

The mobilisation of people on communal lines has been the oldest trick in the politics of the world and nations. In Hindu mythology ‘trishul’ is wielded by Shiva and Durga. Trishul is a polyvalent (trifold or having multiple usage) symbol. The trishul wielder symbolises a virulent and powerful god. The distribution of tridents is hailed as ‘trishul deeksha’ by the organisers. The question is: why ‘trishul’? If it is about god and mobilisation for the religion’s sake, it could have been a damru (triangular conical drum). The distribution of trishuls is not just to abide by the idea of religion or expression of faith, but it creates a jingoistic religious nationalism and politics.

In this article we attempt to understand and appreciate how the semiotics of Hindu nationa-lism works and is employed for vote-bank politics. Another strikingly similar movement was created in the mid-1980s as the Ram-shilaandolan (the stone carved with the name of Ram). It was the brainchild of another veteran leader vociferously steering the Ram Janma-bhoomi movement, who now stands margina-lised, retired and hurt. Every household was expected to donate a brick with the name of Ram; another similar idea is in trend where every household is expected to contribute ‘iron’ for the giant iron statue of the ‘first’ iron man, Sardar Patel, coming up in Gujarat. According to an RSS pracharak, these ‘movements’ not only mobilise people as a cohort or vote-bank but provide for an ‘identity’ or conscience to the ‘Hindus’ in deep slumber for centuries. The question is: who are these people and how would they benefit by ‘awakening’ the Hindus? And the possible answer is: probably to get hold of the monolithic power of the state. This requires a stratagem. This kind of politics creates myths and misnomers like the idea of ‘ideal’ Hindu women, men and nation. In this commentary, we attempt to deconstruct to clarify that: how the semiotics of Hindu nationalism works and is exclusionary and divisive to the core.

Ideal Hindu Woman

The relationship of women to religious politics is mostly paradoxical and complex. Gender in Hindu nationalism is always viewed as a political entity whereby Hindu women are depicted as the repositories of religious beliefs and custodians of purity and integrity of the Hindu community. Hindu nationalism in its core aims to Hinduise politics by constructing a Hindu self—a virile and masculine self which challenges the political assertion of Hindu women on the nationalism agenda. The ideal Hindu woman propagated by Right-wing extremists symbolises the face of the Hindu nation wearing traditional dress (mostly sari) and marching for the nationalistic cause. Ideally women are visualised and symbolised as Sita (the wife of Rama in Ramayana) to be upheld as the national ideal of Indian womanhood. This mostly helps to influence the sentiments of Hindu women in the nationalistic ordeal to serve the ideological purposes. Mother India is consecrated as a goddess modestly dressed in a sari, seated on a lion and holding a saffron flag. The image helps to propagate the message that the Hindu nation is in crisis and it is time for male Hindus to reorganise to defend the Hindu religion and the Motherland. This also helps the religious extremists to legitimise political Hinduism as a vehicle for nation-building— laying the foundation for a Hindu Rashtra.

The Indian national politics till date included women only symbolically into the national body politic and never allowed them the same access to the resources of the nation-state as in the case of men. It only legitimises the dominance of men over women. The images of woman as Mother and nation-as-woman only intensify the male-male arrangements and an all-male history. The Right-wing political organisations support women’s independence only when they find it politically convenient; otherwise they prefer to defend the conservative Hindu conceptions of women’s place. An example of this is the stand of the BJP in the case of the sati of Roop Kanwar in 1987 where they sought justification for sati in Hindu scriptures and idealised women’s role as dutiful wives as Sita and Savitri. The Right-wing political organi-sations many a time had shown their concern towards the inequalities of Muslim law, but at the same time remained silent about the discri-minatory traits of Hindu law. During 1991-92, the Right-wing political organisations claimed women’s electoral support only to affirm their religious commitment and idea of Hindu nation as the organisations found them more devout than men.

The gender ideology of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism reinforces the ‘supremacy of the family over the individual’ with the implication that ‘family considerations should reign supreme’, not only in marriage, but in ‘career’; thus the ability of a woman to assert herself politically is limited by the philosophy it is based on. The World Hindu Council (VHP), founded in 1964 by Golwalkar, asks Hindu NRI women, especially mothers, ‘not to opt for professional careers’. The idea of woman in a Hindu nation is manifested in the concept of motherhood and the creation of Ma Bharati iconography and ideal. The woman is perceived as a chaste mother, victimised by the funda-mentalists (Muslims and Christians) and in constant need of protection by her sons, who at once are virile, physically strong, celibate, and fanatically Hindu nationalist. The women are expected to teach their sons the essentials of Hindu nationalism, fight the Hindu nation’s enemies but, most significantly, desist from being ‘modern’. The very idea of motherhood is the biological act of producing a strong male child like Shivaji. The ‘ideal’ Hindu woman must be dedicated and loyal to religion rather than the self. This ‘ideal’ woman must be pious (vegetarian?!), brave (veerdhatri... an ability to produce virile and brave male child), courageous (to be sati on the husband’s pyre) and chaste (like Kunti and Rohini were). The idea seemingly suggests that if this nation is not becoming the great nation/Akhand Hindu Rashtra, it is because of women. The practitioners (male) of Hinduism and Hindutva are making all the efforts to save and protect Ma Bharati but because of women (who do not have the above characteristics) they are unable to do so.

The ideal Hindu woman is then camouflaged as ‘bhartiya nari’ and embodies the idea of cultural nationalism. The ‘adarsh’ bhartiya nari is a political euphemism to hide bare facts that Indian women suffer from the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world and 88 per cent of expecting mothers are found to be anaemic, so much so as not to produce and participate as strong and able citizens of this nation. Forty per cent of child marriages in the whole world happen in India because this kind of cultural nationalism propagates and survives upon the idea of an ideal chaste Hindu woman who has to seek heaven in her husband’s feet and should contribute to nation-building by further producing virile Hindu males.

Ideal Hindu Man

The ideal (Hindu) man is a man of restraint, a virile male—a man who is respected by his community and emulated by other men and is extremely self-disciplined. A Hindu man should strive to be like the God Rama. By abandoning desire (materialistic), a man can be above that which is basal, mortal, and profane. In a prescriptive sense, Hindu masculinity rejects the self-centred wielding of power. The ideal Hindu man holds his power humbly, rather than forecefully. Rama, and thus the normative Hindu conception of the ideal man, is both strong and passive at the same time. Coded within an early and pervasive philosophical cosmological doctrine, the ideal for masculine in Hinduism is passive whereas feminine is active. Hindu masculinity is associated with inaction and spiritual knowledge—that is, to transcend the world by preserving the superior race—the Hindu Brahmins in this case.

The ideal Hindu man is a ‘dwija’ (twice born) who has knowledge and valour. This man should be a ‘bull’ in behaviour; should know how to satiate women and control them and be ready to take on fights to protect the honour of the country (from the ‘mleccha’ Muslims in this case). The ideal Hindu man’s imagery though suffers from many paradoxes, like he must be strong but Dalits who grow physically strong in due course of survival are not considered as Hindu enough, should be a one-woman man but takes pride in robbing the ‘honour’ of other (religion and caste-wise) women and prevents Love-Jihad. This Hindu man has to be Hindu in simultaneity of being an Arya Samaji. This ideal man should support ‘Hindutva’ and the political idea of ‘Hindi’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindusthan’. This ideal man has to be celibate (Brahmacharya makes one stronger physically) and should produce more children also (the Hindu population is dwindling). This ideal Hindu has to protect many things like his women, cow, country and sperms from enemies (Muslims and Christians). Only a ‘strong’ Hindu, wielding the trident, a Ram-nami and a member of the mighty cultural organisation can alone realise the dream of an Akhand Hindu Rashtra. Obviously no such men are born, they are to be created and crafted by indoctrination and hate-mongering which is done at more than 15,000 shakhas.

Ideal Hindu Nation

An ideal Hindu nation looks at the Hindu community as consisting of all castes, sub-castes, out-castes along with Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains—all ‘indigenous’ religions except the ‘foreign religions’ adhering to Islam and Christianity. The extremists visualise it as a nation whose numerical majority has not translated into a political majority until the 16th Lok Sabha elections held in 2014. But in reality, it is an imaginary nation as it is a celebration and affirmation of Hindutva, an idea which derives its meaning only from a negation of the minorities. The geo-politics of this nation has been created since the late 19th century starting with the Revivalist movements and the beginning of religious-category-based enume-ration through Census. In contrast to the mainstream Indian nationalist movement, the Hindu nationalist movement focused more on the Hindu Self and tried to present it as the Indian Self—rendering non-Hindu Indians as the untrustworthy anti-Hindu, thus anti-Indian. A country having religious, cultural and linguistic heterogeneity, this concept of religious nationalism has many issues. The concept and conflict both took place when the colonial power was about to leave. Before that nationalism was associated with the shared history, culture, language and ethnicity. The two-nation theory was born more out of political considerations rather than religion. The competition for power among both Hindu and Muslim extremists viewed Hindus and Muslims as two different nations—instead of territory, religion formed the basis of nationalism. The Muslim League demanded partition, whereas the Hindu Maha-sabha stood for ‘Akhand Bharat’ under Hindu hegemony.

In the formation of a nation, the question of identity always has prime importance. In an ideal democratic sense and situation, identity is based on a shared sense of history, culture and language. Religion may or may not be common. Religion alone can never be able to provide a viable and cohesive base for nationalism. In Europe, nations were formed on the basis of language and culture; thus in the formation of a nation, common language, culture and a sense of shared history play an important role. Religion shall be always kept in a spiritual and moral category whereas nationalism shall be kept in a political-cum-territorial category. It is always better for a nation-state to fix these two domains separately—religion for common spiritual experiences, shared moral and ethical vision—and nationalism for shared political concerns, cultural practices and historical heritage.

The Crafted Semiotics

In the Indian context the domineering ‘cultural’ organisation propagates otherwise that the adherents of a peculiar religion alone are ‘pure’ Indians and thus only nationalists. The argument is simple: “if you are not Hindu you are not a nationalist” and if you are a Hindu and do not believe in ‘Hindutva’ (the political philosophy of Savarkar and Golwalkar) then either you are a Macaulayputra (son of Macaulay —a product of English education) or a ‘Communist’ which again makes you a traitor to Hinduism and thus to Indian nationalism. A ‘true’ Indian is the one who takes membership and vows that “in the name of almighty god and our ancestors, I hereby vow that I have become a unit of RSS in order to protect the sacred Hindu Dharma, Hindu culture and to achieve the all-round development of the Hindu nation”. The adherence and loyalty to a religion is translated to and directed as loyalty to the nation and vice-versa. The question whether nations are a construct by its citizens or citizens make the nation is of no value in this case.

The imagery of the ‘Akhand Hindu Rashtra’ is created as territorial nationalism from Kandahar to Kamrup and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and men and women who should be ‘native’ of this land are to be crafted and created. The slogans to be chanted are: ‘Hindustan mein rahna hoga to Vande Matram kehna hoga’ (if you want to live in India, hail mother india—bharat mata—a Hindu imagery) and ‘jo Hindu hit ki baat karega, woh desh par raj karega’ (only those shall rule the country who are concerned with Hindu welfare). The implication is that national welfare is nothing but Hindu welfare. For long this cultural organisation did not accept the tricolour as the national flag and the Indian Constitution, its founders and mentors always believed and had faith in the saffron flag and Manu Smriti as the Constitution until their allegiance was made conditional for lifting the ban on it in 1949— post-Gandhi assassination.

Similarly, physical training is imparted at shakhas seemingly to save the nation as it functions as a para-military organisation which can lead to civil strife and communal conflicts in the country. This organisation shies away from the issue of caste. For sheer numbers though it claims that all Dalit Bahujans are Hindus, yet one is hard-pressed to believe it. It would be beyond imagination that this organisation would even take a stand on the Dalits’ entry into the temples. It skirts this issue by a plaintive and simple argument that whosoever raises this is a non-Hindu and thus non-nationalistic or in the trending idiom, a JNUite. The gender construct is Western, according to this organisation. The ideal Hindu woman (wearing bindi, manglasutra and sari pallu) should submit and surrender to the task of building an Akhand Hindu Rashtra by producing male children and telling them stories of valour of Shivaji (who fought the Muslims) at bedtime and thus inculcating and instilling pride into them about the idea of Akhand Hindu Rashtra where he grows with the ethos of ‘tel lagao dabur ka, maaro bacha babur ka’ (use the oil of Dabur and kill the sons of Babur).


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Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

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