A Sangh rethink on women
The Sangh is an incurably patriarchal set-up. But for the very first time in 97 years, a woman—mountaineer Santosh Yadav—will be the chief guest at annual Dussehra celebration next month. What gives?
Writing for the pro-RSS news portal OpIndia in 2019, one Priyanka Deo rubbished the popular belief that the Sangh is anti-women and has regressive views on gender issues. “I have lived in the USA and the UK. I am a die-hard Beyoncé fan who touts feminism. I play tennis and regularly wear short skirts and tank-tops on court…in South Mumbai I have worn a skirt and walked outside but I am uncomfortable wearing it in Washington…,” she wrote to debunk the idea that modern, independent women have no place in the RSS.
For good reason, she did not address the numerous outrageous statements about women made by the Sangh and its leading lights. Savarkar had of course advocated rape of non-Hindu women as an act of nationalism and disapproved the failure of Shivaji to do so (‘The Six Golden Epochs of Indian History’ by V.D. Savarkar, p.71). The then president of BJP mahila morcha, Mridula Sinha, had told The Telegraph, “I gave dowry for my daughter and received dowry for my son.... Wife-beating is bad, but if it has to be done to bring the woman on proper track it’s right... Women in their own life should not take independent decisions about marriage and other things. The family should take these decisions.”
Krishna Sharma from the VHP women’s wing reiterated, “It is the man who must earn sustenance and support his family (while women manage the household), his education is more important. This division of labour is natural.” (Quoted in ‘Women and the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays’, Ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia. New Delhi, Kali for Women)
Therefore, when the RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat in 2013 asserted that rapes took place in India and not Bharat, and that rapes were a result of following the Western culture, it triggered outrage but not much surprise. It was a slip of the tongue because Bhagwat never repeated the statement. But it did betray his mindset.
The same year he declared that husbands could disown their wives if they failed to keep their end of the ‘contract’, of taking care of the household, the husband and the children. “Till the time the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her. If the wife violates the contract, he can disown her,” Bhagwat, a man who has never married, had said. Earlier in 2006, the then RSS chief K. Sudarshan had exhorted every Hindu woman to produce at least five, if not 10 children.
That the RSS had opposed the Hindu Code Bill is also well documented. The Hindu Code Bill gave women four basic rights—the right to divorce, to inheritance, the choice to marry and the right to expect monogamy from their husbands. Traditionally, Hindu upper caste men had a better deal as they were allowed to marry unlimited number of times without divorcing the women or giving maintenance to the wives they abandoned.
RSS is yet to condemn unequivocally the Manusmriti which describes women as no better than a dhor (beast of burden), ganwaar (ignoramus) pashu (animal) or shudra (untouchable)—all worthy of being kicked into submission. In a significant pointer, however, the RSS has dropped the references to Manusmriti in the latest editions of ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ by M.S. Golwalkar.
Cut to 2022. Addressing a gathering of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, Bhagwat asserted that barring biological differences, men and women were equal in every way and had equal potential and capabilities.
“Women are Jag Janani (mothers of the world) but at home they are treated as slaves. Empowerment of women should begin at home and they should be given their rightful place in society. Men don’t need to attempt uplifting women because they are more capable than men and it is beyond the reach of men to guide them,” he asserted. There was no need for a debate on whether men or women were equal—they were two wheels of the same chariot, one could not run without the other, he added.
If the dramatic shift was not startling enough, the RSS announced that for the first time in its 97-year history, a woman will be attending the annual Dussehra rally at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur on October 5. Mountaineer Santosh Yadav—the first Indian woman to have climbed the Mount Everest twice—had accepted the Sangh’s invitation, it announced.
She is an achiever, hails from the OBC community that the Sangh and the BJP have been wooing, can be relied upon not to embarrass the RSS and can be held up as a role model, having taken care of her husband and children. Being an athlete, she can be inspiring for the Durga Vahini, the militant women’s wing, which trains women in martial arts and use their physical strengths to combat the enemy.
There was yet another surprise in store. Last week the Business Advisory Committee of the Uttar Pradesh assembly decided to allocate one full session to allow women legislators to raise gender and women-related issues. Tokenism or not, it was a welcome step that nevertheless made people wonder why the Sangh and the BJP, which now seem so concerned about women’s welfare, have not moved to provide 33 per cent reservation to women in Parliament and state assemblies, a promise the party had made in its manifesto.
RSS insiders confide that ahead of August 15 this year, the Sangh reluctantly admitted that its mission of a Hindu Rashtra faced two stumbling blocks—one from women and the other from Dalits.
A two-pronged strategy was unveiled. The first was the deification of Babasaheb Ambedkar—who, ironically, was against idol-worship—and encourage worshipping Ambedkar’s busts and statues. The second was to reach out to women, who constitute 50 per cent of the population and voters.
The fascination of women for the current government, it was realised, was for Narendra Modi and not for the RSS, its goals or ideals. This fascination of women for Modi in mostly northern, north-eastern and western states could end as and when Modi ceases to be active in politics. Hence, the original idea of declaring India as a Hindu Rashtra, sections within the Sangh acknowledged, was shifted from 2025—when the Sangh celebrates its centenary—to 2047 when the country will be celebrating 100 years of independence. A higher proportion of women will be inducted into RSS affiliated bodies, their percentage increasing to 50 per cent by 2047.
Shyam Pandharipande, who was born into an RSS supporting family, says that the Sangh is full of tokenism. “What did naming a Dalit for the President do for the community? Similarly, one is sceptical that a tribal woman President will achieve much in terms of social reform for either women or the Adivasis. What, after all, have the women in the Modi cabinet achieved? They are good only as missiles against the opposition,” says Pandharipande, who was turned off by Sangh’s ideology, RSS ideologue Dilip Deodhar disagrees. “We may have ignored women in the past but we do have a Rashtra Sevika Samiti,” he points out.
“But the women hold positions in the Samiti, not the Sangh. They cannot become a general secretary of the Sangh as the Samiti is a different organisation. What is more, the women ‘pracharikas’ too are forced to remain single even as more and more male pracharaks are now getting married,” says a source within the RSS on condition of anonymity.
The women ‘sevikas’, say RSS insiders, are not given any cerebral roles but are used merely to infiltrate the ranks of women where male pracharaks cannot go and would be treated with suspicion. Will the RSS recruit the sevikas to their higher ranks? “I doubt it,” says the source.
The shift in its position on women is also part of the RSS’s attempt to bridge the gap between them and increasing number of people joining BJP from other political parties with no previous links or affiliation to the RSS. These politicians are with the BJP for transactional reasons and need to be indoctrinated over time.
Even as the RSS seeks to make distinctions between allegedly regressive Muslims and supposedly progressive Hindus, says an observer, “Will Bhagwat endorse modernity in Hindu women in terms of their sartorial preferences or would he continue to allow the old-fashioned veils to cover the head and the face? Will he continue to allow women to wash his feet wherever he goes?”
Deodhar bristles at the comparison. Hindu society, he argues, has always embraced reforms after intense debates and initial opposition. “Hindus are a ‘nation’ by themselves, not a ‘state’. And they are just one. Moreover, Hinduism is not closed but continuously open to reforms. RSS is representative of Hinduism, so the Sangh too is open to reforms; it can take criticism in its stride.”
But others are convinced that RSS is merely paying lip service to reforms to counter the liberal resistance to their goals. Women particularly must heed the spider who asked the fly, “Won’t you come into my parlour?”—only to swallow it up whole.
This is just a lure, they warn.