"Your lives must be like that of a pencil. In such a life sharpening oneself-periodically, leaving a mark on paper and being always directed by other, greater hands, are the essential conditions. But you must guard against being reduced to a mere toy in the hands of another. Your decision-making regarding your destiny must be your own." These words were spoken by Shanta Akka, the pramukha Karyavahika (chief executive) of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women's wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The national meet of the Samiti, held recently in Nagpur after a gap of several years (the last meet was in Delhi in 1996) is captured well in those words - women must be directed and independent at the same time!
The meet received extensive coverage in the local media, mostly for the spectacular floats, processions and disciplined route marches by sword-wielding and drum-beating young sevikas, which - the organisers could not tire of emphasising - had been "planned and executed entirely by women." But parallel to this grand spectacle, the meet also witnessed an interesting exercise in the forging of a gender discourse that ostensibly moves away from the Sangh's patriarchal stance, but also visibly shies away from recognising the social and political dimensions of gender-related issues.
The fact that this meet of the women's wing should be organised at this juncture after a gap of many years has its own significance. Says Chandrakant Wankhede, editor of the Nagpur-based Sakal and a known expert on the RSS, "At this juncture, with its control over the BJP slipping, it is crucial for the RSS to not just make a public display of its strength, but also to project a 'modern' and 'with it' image of itself. A meet of women combines both purposes beautifully." It is also not a coincidence that the meet should come just a few months ahead of the birth centenary celebrations of RSS philosophical mainstay M S Golwalkar Guruji, and be preceded by a mere few days by a 'preparatory meet' of editors in this connection, chaired by Sangh chief Mr Sudarshan. Under these circumstance it was hardly surprising that the gender discourse at the womens meet should be caught between the opposite pulls of vintage RSS patriarchal expotulations and attempts at a more progressive stance.
The keynote of sorts was struck by two comments from Yoga expert Ramdevbaba, who inaugurated the meet but is not directly connected with the Sangh. The first was an admonition to mothers and wives to "refuse to let money from corrupt sources enter their households," which, he insisted, was the only sure-shot cure for corruption in the country. The second was a direct denunciation of the demand for reservation for women: "Rights are to be commanded, not demanded. Women must increase their capacity instead of demanding reservation."
As the meet progressed, one witnesses this over-simplification and sentimentalisation of serious issues being painstakingly juxtaposed with a 'modern' and 'progressive' sounding gender discourse. The result is a constant oscillation between the Sangh's traditional emphasis on the woman's role as predominantly familial on the one hand, and attempts to project women as agents of social, even in bits, political change on the other. And the 'compromise' affected between the two is not always uniform.
But is such a resolution forward-looking, anticipating how women's roles might change in the coming years and decades? Wankhede doesn't believe so. He believes that ""... the RSS is presenting an updated gender diction without moving from its basic patriarchal stance. Tell me, why is it that if they are so liberated in their thinking, why is there not a single woman in the Sangh itself? Why have the women been confined to the Samiti? If such an issue had been raised at the meet, the exercise would have been valuable. Similarly, crucial questions of caste has been skirted. All the uncomfortable issues have been left untouched."
Sadhvi Ritambhara, for instance, started off by giving a passionate call for women to fight corruption which is swallowing up human values. But within minutes she lapsed into pontifications on how women, in their capacities as "mother, wife and daughter", can stem the demon of corruption through "compassion, patience and dedication." And finally she went on to the "need for women to enlarge their motherly qualities in order to attain peace."
A cleverer marriage of 'the home and the world' was pulled off by Pramilatai Medhi, the Samiti's second-in-command. "Women must not suppress themselves at any level. Why, if a woman has the capacity to be a rocket scientist, she must become one! But her career must not be for the fulfillment of her personal ambition. She must never forget that the main aim of her reaching out into different fields is to make these fields better through her 'mothers touch'. Just as she holds her family together with her love, she must extend this love to include all of society, and use it to cure society of its ills."
- Pramilatai Medhi
Understandably, therefore, the resolutions at the end of the meet didn't offer much for women's empowerment, and focused instead on exhorting the faithful to follow Hindu tradition in all areas including language, food, social interaction and so on; conserving food, electricity and financial resources; fighting internal enemies and organising Hindu power; regular practice of satsang, self-study and yoga; and creating a harmonious society by removing discrimination. When questioned about this glaring absense of any action plan on gender issues from the resolutions, Pramilatai Medhi had this to say, "You see, we do not believe that change can be brought through rights. Demand for rights only creates conflict. Our resolutions are not for the outer world, but for our own internal change. This change will finally awaken the power of womanhood, you will see."
But is such a resolution forward-looking, anticipating the roles of women in the coming decades? Wankhede doesn't think so; in his view "the RSS is presenting an updated gender diction without moving from its basic patriarchal stance. Tell me, why is it that if they are so liberated in their thinking, why is there not a single woman in the Sangh itself? Why have the women been confined to the Samiti? If such an issue had been raised at the meet, the exercise would have been valuable. Similarly, crucial questions of caste have been skirted. All the uncomfortable issues have been left untouched."
Voices of dissent were rare, but at least two prominent women politicians present at the meet refused - in different ways - to adhere to this dialogue of equivocation. BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj, known for her 'consensus' approach to advocating women's rights within traditional norms, refused to be drawn into the gender debate, confining her address strictly to party politics. Of course, her tactical silence is open to interpretations. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, however, struck a conspicuously different note when she spoke about the schemes she has introduced for women's economic empowerment, and stressed the point that such change was made possible by women (like herself) acquiring positions of power.
Although the meet ended without much consideration of their inputs, the import of their views was surely not lost. The independence of these leaders from the divergence that marked the meet was telling; Swaraj simply avoided the paradox of discussing women's empowerment in a patriarchal order, and Raje went further, seemingly arguing for women's independent roles. Whether their views mark the road ahead for the BJP and the Sangh, or paths they will continue to resist, remains for the next meet to address.