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Of Ripped Jeans and Hindutva Warriors

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By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

The hush-hush manner in which the BJP recently changed its Chief Minister in Uttarakhand has been followed, close on the heels, by the screaming headlines about the remarks he has made about women wearing ‘ripped jeans.’ Rawat recalled an incident when aboard a flight a lady occupied a seat next to his. As he surveyed her attire he was shocked to notice that above her ‘gum -boots’ she was wearing ripped jeans that showed her bare knees. When asked to introduce herself she said her husband taught at the ‘JNU’ while she ran an ‘NGO,’ enough to raise hackles of a die-hard BJP-RSS leader, the former for allegedly harbouring the ‘tukde tukde gang,’ and the latter for a suspect ‘foreign hand’ with disruptive effects. Another senior BJP leader, Ganesh Joshi, a minister in Rawat’s cabinet, was quick to add his own comment by emphasizing that the proper domain of a woman was home: ‘Women talk about all things they want to do in life, but the most important thing for them is to look after their family and children.’ The remark in itself is surprising in these modern times when more and more Indian women are joining the workforce with successful performance in diverse fields. Their careers in politics are no less remarkable. The long list of BJP women politicians includes the irrepressible Smriti Irani and the erudite Nirmala Sitaraman. Another shining example is that of Ganesh Joshi’s daughter Neha Joshi, who holds a key position in the BJP national organization as its brilliant and articulate spokesperson. If these ladies had relegated themselves exclusively to the domestic sphere we would have severely missed their contribution to public life.

There are many who would of course concur with Rawat’s remarks on the ripped jeans. Fashions do oftentimes take strange turns. Ripped jeans look unseemly, even weird, and are an affront to our aesthetic sense. Moreover denim as a universal wear is valued, and therefore used, for its functional utility; ripping it in places does just the opposite. A pair of ripped jeans would be some sort of an oxymoron. But the Uttarakhand Chief Minister was not taking this line of reasoning in decrying those wearing ripped jeans. He linked the offending wear to lack of Hindu ‘sanskar.’ And therein lies the rub. The subtext of the Chief Minister’s message betrays an anxiety about the place and role of women in society.

Hindu nationalist narrative of the ‘nation as mother as goddess,’ finds its analogue in the female body which is then used to reinforce the notion of the nation. It is within this logic of religious discourse advanced by the Hindutva ideology of the BJP and RSS that the protection of the Hindu women becomes imperative for a ‘pure’ Hindu nation-state. Women’s bodies symbolize the boundaries of the nation which, if transgressed or violated, can pose an existential threat to the larger social body of the nation. Women must act and dress appropriately to gain acceptance and respect, because Indian culture and values are visibly marked on women’s bodies. Clothing is also about visual and ideological boundaries. Wearing Western clothing or acting in Western ways is inappropriate because there is nothing Indian about them. It outrages the values the community upholds.

In the colonial era, ‘dress’ was part of a larger discussion of who and what was coded Indian. It was a part of the larger project to create the Indian nation through visual markers of belonging to the emerging nation. Women were the focus in creating a national sartorial identity, because of their connections to conceptions of what constituted Indian tradition. The nationalist elite made a distinction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds of the nation. The ‘outer’ world was coeval with the public sphere where the negotiation with colonial authorities over economic and political power took place. In contrast, the ‘inner’ world referred to the domestic realm- beyond the reach of colonial rule- occupied by women who represented the cultural superiority of India. So women’s bodies became the arena where cultural conflicts were played out. Women were presented as ideal, chaste figures as against the crass materialism embodied by the so-called immodest behaviour of Western women.

In the post liberalization era, women not only have been called upon to demonstrate India’s cultural uniqueness and morality, but also its modernity which they do by embracing hybrid fashions (Western and Indian). The women, especially from urban middle and upper classes, have to navigate these conflicting pressures. In India today it is common to see young women wearing kurti tops with jeans, churidar leggings, or salwars. The influx of foreign interaction with Indian cultures and commodity landscapes has introduced new and modified ways of living in the world and women, especially, have found new opportunities for work and public visibility. The traditional indigenous characteristics of society are fast disappearing in the overpowering tide of change in terms of food, fashions, habits and manners. However the strain between a traditional India and a modern India is often illustrated in growing vigilantism and the moral policing of women forcing them to fall in line with the community’s expectations.

Vidya Bharati, the educational wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has a publication called Balika Shikshan (Education for Girls), designed as a guidebook for teachers, to impart appropriate education to Hindu girls. Through the Vidya Bharati’s large number of schools across India it has been possible for the RSS to spread its ideology through a curriculum that emphasizes cultural supremacy and defines citizenship through allegiance to an idea of India that is exclusively Hindu. The publication emphasises that schooling should be directed towards inculcation of pride in the Hindu way of life that has been historically subjugated by the alienating system of western education introduced by the colonial masters. Students, especially the girls, are called upon to return to traditional values and social mores.

The conflation of girls’ education with the well-being of family and community directed towards national ideals has been a pervasive theme in the history of women’s education in India. Anxieties about ‘cultural pollution’ and its effect on Hindu girls provided the rationale for developing a special course of study for Hindu girls. Conduct and advice manuals for women of the 19th and early 20th century were designed to mould a particular kind of ‘enlightened’ domesticity that merely served patriarchy under colonial and postcolonial modernity. ‘Domestic science’ (or Home Science as it is now called) as a ‘discipline’ found acceptance in middle-class families desiring education of their daughters, since it assured secure modes through which girls could be socialized into their natural roles as future home-makers. This has only reinforced the essentializing of women’s roles as cultural reproducers for community and nation.

Exposure to westernized media and a growing culture of consumption are perceived to drive girls’ desires for autonomy and freedom of choice. These in turn represent the possibility of girls asserting their individuality through various modes such as choice of attire and unconventional thinking or behaviour. Such transgressions, it is feared, could seriously undermine the institution of family and community and hence it was felt necessary to develop a curriculum that provided life skills and life style education to Hindu girls in Vidya Bharati schools. A girl is expected to exercise self-restraint over desire and personal needs. A woman needs to be trained to nurture these values, not to empower herself, but to be the carrier of these virtues for children, particularly male children, and their spread to society at large.

Balika Shikshan is most emphatic on the need to discipline the mind and body of the girl to resist the attractions of a media and market-driven globalized modernity that could signal the erosion of tradition. The book enjoins against the use of toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoos, hairclips, packaged food and junk food. Cosmetics are to be abjured because they are superfluously western and modern, even though it is common knowledge that body adornment has been practiced in India since ancient times. Historical icons of ideal Hindu womanhood- Jijabai, Ahalyabai Holkar and Lakshmibai – are emblematized on the cover of the book. They are presented as role models of purity and piety and as viranganas (heroic warrior women). Within the strongly masculinist discourse of the RSS, these women carve out a space with symbols and signifiers that appeal to women without disrupting the discursive unity of the Sangh Parivar.

Ironically the BJP-RSS leaders who manage and run Saraswati Shishu Mandir and Vidya Mandir schools do not send their children to these schools to imbibe Indian culture and acquire ‘sanskars’ but to exclusive ‘English Medium’ private schools. This creates an additional hierarchy of rulers and subalterns. While the rich and the powerful of the Sangh Parivar and their children rule the roost, those with lesser fortunes are turned into the foot soldiers and rabble- rousers of the Hindutva brigade.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)