Commentaries, Essays, Kindling, Opinion

Dear June: A Letter for Pride Month

Image source: http://www.blog.netapp.com

Dear June, 

When I was 22, I remember attending a lunch wearing a black hoodie that had a famous Oscar Wilde quote printed on it. At the restaurant, my uncle told me how he detested the quote and everything associated with Oscar Wilde, because ‘that blighted Wilde was a faggot’. I remember gasping in order to maintain the decorum of my favourite hill-station’s favourite restaurant. I sat quietly while picking at my garlic lemon butter trout with my fork, just the way I did with my pasta when my cousin asked one of our brothers to avoid wearing pink because ‘oh my god, he looks so gay in pink.’ Just the way I sat sipping my empty glass of lemonade when an unassuming elder repeated the f-word (used earlier by my uncle) to describe musical maestros like Freddie Mercury and Elton John.

It wasn’t just on these three incidents that I maintained decorum by focusing on doing something meaningless with my excessively fidgety hands. This habit goes back to my school days, when any two peers with a sense of intimacy were termed as gay as if gay were a cuss word. Atleast for us school kids, it was. And for those of us who refused to become more gender aware, gay and lesbian are still cuss words used as one of the most sure-sought ways of instilling shame in the targeted person. Interestingly, the validity of this claim had little to do with a person’s sexual and/or emotional orientation. It didn’t, actually. In fact, it turns out that being anything that failed to correspond with the present society’s definition of being ‘straight’ or heterosexual1 was something that one had to be deeply ashamed of, if not self- obliterating. Not just heterosexual, but heteronormative, if you will. Could I reason this to be a general reason for you being celebrated as Pride Month? To dispel (in instalments) the cumulative amount of shame that is brought upon the majority of the global populace for not fitting into neat labels, boxes and definitions as per heteronormativity’s assumed taste? 

Every year when I read June newspapers over breakfast as an undergraduate student in Delhi, I would spot pride parades. In other words, the robust and vibrant parades that the more privileged dissenters of heteronormativity2 participated in (mostly) worldwide. The faces, their smiles, the rainbow flags (and not to mention, the dazzling costumes that the bolder segment of the parade donned), all unanimously spelled out ‘freedom’. The rainbow specifically shouted out to its onlooking/ scowling or worse, denying populace that failed to conceive each colour in the spectrum of existence due to their oversaturated monochromes of patriarchal social conditioning. 

As you know June, ‘homophobes’ is the analytical term used to refer to the more radically conditioned populace that arrives at a visceral aversion vis-a-vis non-heteronormativity. Logically then, this term implies their sole characteristic as being ‘homophobic’, which can be defined as a phobia towards all things non-heteronormative. You know why this extended definition is important? Because while my anti-Oscar Wilde uncle was averse to a renowned artist solely on the basis of his homosexuality, my cousin was averse to our brother’s choice of dressing for being non-heteronormative (possibly because for prudes throughout the better part of history, pink is a girl’s colour. Never mind that pink was the preferred shade for boys and blue for girls3, because doesn’t that serve the same binary that you and I denounce? Perhaps I’ll leave this for another part of the letter.)

Now a person who is less fond of June might ask me why I am over-reacting to banal comments on Wilde and pink shirts. 

Because, those are the slightest discriminations against diverse identities that go pardoned,  unapologised for, or even unnoticed. 

Because, those are statements that well-educated and gentrified persons of modern day societies continue to make despite lending a hashtag to #LoveisLove.

Because, these were or are the parents who are sending their kids to homophobic (nevertheless homosocial4) schools to graduate into adulthood and repeat the behaviour of their parents, relatives and friends. 

Because I, and many like me, are tired of the usage of derogatory words to rattle the self worth of any identity that chooses, or even dares to be different. Because we are tired of the constant threatening and even terrorising treatment offered to any ambivalence around heteronormativity.

And most of all, because we are beyond tired of being subsumed for being fluid in our nature and choice of our existential expressions.

As a kid, I remember being labeled as a tomboy for preferring jeans over skirts, Lego over Barbie, sports over makeup and Eminem over Spice Girls. My teenage gait didn’t have the girly hip swing, and my pubescent self began to slouch due to being conscious of my recent developments. Apparently, they didn’t go too well with my ‘sporty jockishness’. And yet, I was fond of applying French manicures, straightening my hair, and got my young heart broken by doofus teenage boys.

Even now, I often perceive myself as tiptoeing deftly on the shores of androgyny. For example, I fasten the longer flicks of my cropped hair with a shimmering pin. On days that I don’t have corporate meetings to attend, I am found in oversized spectacles and plain t-shirts that are flanked by indie pants. My dressing ritual ends with a casual pinning of earrings and a smear of lip colour, in hues that range from subdued nudes to the boldest shades of scarlet. I enjoy musky colognes as I do fruity splashes, and focus on maintaining toned biceps despite failing miserably at performing basic pushups.

What does this hopscotch game amidst so-called binarisms make me? 

They make me who I am, and it is in this fluidity that my essence finds its home.

I was not exempted from the brigade of seemingly benign comments made by close as well as random people such as, ‘beta, it’s so nice to see you become all girly’ ; ‘you’ve cut your hair too short’ ; or ‘you would have been such an eligible boy, if only…’ The lack of validation accorded to my nuanced androgyny did leave me feeling confused about my identity, and at times, frustrated. Overcoming the need to conform to several binaries does originate from a certain amount of privilege, and that is an undeniable fact. But it also arises out of an ongoing internal battle wherein these binaries are vanquished, little by little every day.

My contention against these binaries gained additional zeal when I began to increasingly realise the futility of their artificial imposition.While at LSE, I heard Butler say that gender is nothing but an act of doing, or performativity that is assigned to us from the moment our birth is heralded with- ‘it’s a boy!’, or, ‘it’s a girl’. From that very moment, it is either this way or that. The pursuit of gender justice that unites Butler with humbler selves like me is our mutual wistfulness for a time when birth announcements sound more like, ‘it’s a boy/girl unless (s)he chooses otherwise!’ The finality of birth certificates becomes terrifying to those like us, who’d rather opt for a provisional one that can be revised later by a more evolved and informed version of our adult selves.

Oftentimes, my supposed idealism has been flouted as a bandwagon of western modernity. Those who are more well-versed with the diversity of Indian culture and heritage would agree with me when I say that heterogeneity is unapologetically Indian in its foundations, as is modernity. The temples of Khajuraho, Mahabharata’s Shikandi, the legends of Ayappan, Mohini and Brihanalla only form the tip of a colossal iceberg that swells me with pride for its ancient acceptance, but also pains me for its more recent shunning by the rudimental combinations of imperialism, capitalism as well as patriarchy.

Now keeping in mind your celebratory pretext of LGBTQA pride, I do not mean to undermine the urgency of diverse self-expression making itself more visible through each subsequent June. However, I also wish to bandage an over presumed affliction that rhetorically places a homophobic lot of the society as ‘villains’ against an alienated queer populace as ‘victims’. There are two flaws in this assumption. One, that it is impossible to put an end to binarisms with yet another binary. Two, and more importantly, because this is a redundant mechanism of division.  I’ll tell you why I say that. According to my naïve understanding, gender justice has little to do with vindicating queer identities and avenging homophobic myopias. Rather, the monster that deserves our unanimous fight is the homophobe as well as the queer victim that we carry within us due to the uninterrupted conditioning of heteronormativity wherein we eat, breathe, sleep, and essentially, live. 

Even though my privilege and lived experiences make me more gender-sensitive, I am not a morally upright exception to the conscious or unconscious denouncements that we as a pre-conditioned society make towards fluidity and deviant identities. There are times when the homophobic villain in us takes the subtlest precedences amidst the best of us. And it is this constant internal conflict that I find to be the cause of our alienation. This alienation resides in the very sophisticated boxing of our own fluid selves, as well as everything that we happen to interact with or know. For, how can water be boxed without ice trays?

So June, I end with a thank you for patiently enduring my musings that find more concrete expression with the unfurling of your rainbow flags. But before I sign off, June, I leave you with a crucial endnote that I hope for you and your successors to pioneer. This endnote revolves around an important observation that Amartya Sen shares when it comes to identities. He refutes one’s identity as being a source of accidental discoveries and instead, points at conscious choice as its fountainhead. In other words, we are not passive victims of  stagnant identities that we happen to discover. On the contrary, we are active agents of our constantly evolving identities that we harbinge through choice and mediation in multifarious situations of constraint. But then again, which choice is made in the absence of limitating circumstances?, asks Sen. 

In a nutshell, the presence of never-ending contingencies doesn’t take away the cardinal existence of choices that we are entirely responsible of and accountable towards.

Since you advocate the freedom of diversity more than any other month, I welcome you yet again with the earnest hope of leading each one of us to reclaim the choice of being who we are and how we conduct ourselves. I welcome you yet again with a pledge to continue the uncomfortable, yet undenyingly worthwhile quest of self discovery and self truth. As the world continues to be gripped in the fangs of a dreadful pandemic, I welcome you yet again as the month of freedom and diversity. I hope for you to usher it to a more sincere, accepting, and liberating means of existence. May you end after weakening the impostors within us, and undoubtedly, the biggest impediments to our own freedom.

Sincerely, 

Your fan. 

Footnotes : –

  1. A person sexually or intimately attracted to people of the opposite sex (only sex, not gender). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
  2. A term related to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation (and conduct). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
  3. 1918: Smithsonian on magazine Earnshaw’s Infants Department (stated in Vintage News by Khadija Bilal)
  4. Relating to social interaction between members of the same sex. Source : Google dictionary.

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Commentaries

An excerpt on Hope from my Quarantined Musings

For what it’s worth, we can derive some validation from the fact that the haplessness caused by Corona is rapaciously gnawing at everyone, some more than others. For those of us who are privileged enough to have food and shelter, a perplexity over the vast, interminable disruptions caused by an infinitesimal virus is alienating to say the very least. Many might exit from this existential scrimmage feeling an existential convulsion. But given our unwilling habituation vis-a-vis the peculiarities of time, I suspect that you and I might end up being antipodes to some our or contemporaries, in gliding past this windswept phase feeling just a tad bit querulous but with more garrulity and an inexorable hopefulness that renders our physiological duress as superfluous.


I don’t mean to imply that hopefulness is a masked substitute for optimism. On the contrary, one can be hopeful even while being pessimistic. Pessimism is, for the most part, an alternative for optimism when the latter becomes too cumbersome to endure. You could, as a pessimist, mournfully cite the bleakness of the present situation that extends onto its future prospects while also continuing to push your rock as Sisyphus despite that bleakness. Hope is often known to flounder, not against the seeming impossibility of something, but despite that impossibility. This is one of the primary reasons why I am so fascinated by, and aspiring of hopefulness.
My admiration for hope also stems from the overarching grace that makes it hover above and beyond the present contingencies, in a might that almost strips the situation of its authority, and all this with the daring audacity of a single, mushy heart. That is all that hopefulness essentially needs to reside in, survive, or be nurtured by, given the paucity of courage, strength and willingness. Instead, hope is culpable of enlivening courage, willingness and strength, and can even fan their sparkling into a fire that the mighty big contingencies find difficult to douse.


I am not penning down this random musing out of an afternoon slumber that resulted in a utopian daydream, but after reflecting over some of the murkiest segments of my lived experiences.
Since one’s infatuation towards hope is thoroughly subjective, and yet, never stagnant, I find that the highest contribution that our humble selves are sometimes capable of offering is the very act of according their hope towards what they stubbornly yearn for. A wise person once said that the Universe loves a stubborn heart, to which I would like to add that the Universe, is in fact compelled into loving a stubborn heart (as Bauji is compelled into loving Raj in DDLJ), because it is exhausted of any valid reason to dislike it after all. Hope shares this attribute of stubbornness at its very core. Thus, if our imagination remains stubborn enough in its yearning, and is caused by that stubbornness to persist, the Universe is left with no alternative but to surrender to it.


Sincerely,

A Hopeful & Privileged Romanticist in the times of Quarantine

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Commentaries, Opinion

An Open Letter to Ms. Sara Hussain

On the 3rd of January, 2018, Ms. Sara Hussain, a senior writer of an online media forum known as Homegrown published an article titled, “Why Do Indians Insist on Keeping Royal Titles Alive?” I write this letter to her in genuine response, humble esteem and noble (oops, that might sound as if I am making a royal association), *scratch*, good intention.

Dear Ms. Hussain,

I am slightly unclear on whether you’re annoyed about a news-surplus of frivolous titles; or over the excessive fascination that Indian citizens continue to associate to modern-day royalty; or that Martand owes you some missing fountain pen; or all of the above.
Anyhow, let me treat these reasons in unification and begin.

Before I do, I would like to thank you for providing me the opportunity to wake up and shake up my grey cells on a dull January morning in the smog-smothered capital of India. I will also clarify that due to the inherent ambiguity of written tones, it is easy to misread one-another as cynical and reactionary at so many levels nowadays. However, like most believers of reasonable dialogue, I believe in constructive critiques and not criticisms, so please bear this in mind should you wish to spend your worthy time reading the rest of my piece through.

READER DISCRETION: for the sake of narrative and analytical convenience, I have divided my letter to Ms. Hussain into four sections. I apologise for the length of this piece in advance, which, despite my best efforts to remain concise, has spilt over in a worthwhile compensation to Ms. Hussain’s extensive and slightly perplexing set of convictions.

PART I. Historical Obfuscations

In case you’re not as fond of reading the Indian Express as I am, I’d recommend you to dig through its online archives to find the opinion column of the 24th of October, 2017 by Audrey Truschke. In her piece titled Taj and bigotry, she writes, “the Indian subcontinent has a long, rich history, but the Indian nation state has had a quite brief existence to date. When people conflate the two, they lose the bulk of Indian history and end up making nonsensical statements.”
Pardon me for seemingly implying that your statements are nonsensical, but my humble discretion perceives your article to be compressing a history as extensive as India’s into the stifling confines of 70-odd years of just the Indian nation state, as if it were so easy to absolve it of its thoroughly nuanced, almost shadow-like past. And worse still, your meticulously jotted-down chronological acts and Prime Ministerial legacies form a rather careless conflation of history to validate a media-related annoyance.

Coming to think of it, it’ almost uncanny as to how things come full circle.
Just last year, I had responded to a historically inaccurate and mildly inciting piece written by Mr. Kuldeep Samra on WordPress, titled The Royals of Cuckooland (unfortunately, Mr. Samra’s original piece cannot be accessed anymore since he independently conceded to my rebuttal by taking down his post. However, you can read my response through the link that I have provided at the end of this article). Coming back to the point, while Mr. Samra’s piece was far more naïve and careless than yours if I am to make an analytical comparison, I would like to re-iterate an African proverb from there which says, “until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter”.

The history of the Rajputs, if I may bring to your kind notice, far predates the Nehruvian and Gandhian eras. Belonging to the Kshatriya varna of India’s caste system, it comes as no surprise that Rajputs bore a negligible volume of self-accounted histories. In fact, the most (and probably only) concise account that we possess on ourselves was written by an East India Company officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod. It is 2018 and yet, we continue to rely on the extraordinary contributions made by a well-meaning Scotsman that were published as long ago as 1873 by Higginbotham & Co. in Madras. Our collective reliance on a singular, antiquated piece of historical non-fiction can be attributed to the simple fact that unlike the Bombay, Madras and Bengal presidencies, the erstwhile princely conglomerate of Rajputana lacked their equivalent of an integrated Bhadralok, or anything that even came close to a similar literary stature.

That said, there are a few notable personal memoirs no-doubt, but by no means would these qualify as concise histories to provide an internal account of what went on when the glorious acts banning royal titles and privy purses were passed in pre and post-independent India (you could even span back to the Policy of Annexation, Doctrine of Lapse and their various predecessing acts that our school books enlist in abundance). If you looked past your media-saturated news inlets, in an old dusty archive shelf somewhere close to the Presidential estate, you may come across some personal testimonies of our ancestors and ancestresses being locked up without warrants while their privy purses and familial treasures were being translated into multiple decimals in a statesmens’ Swiss bank account (again, no points for guessing).

Wait, but why am I telling you all this?

Because, my Dear Ms. Hussain, belonging to the same millennial generation as me, I would trust your post-structuralist faculties to be comprehensive of the fact that you and I are destined to read fractured accounts of history that are, partial at best. So by all means, you must have done your history teacher proud, but the very subject is in itself limited by what stands documented, by whom and for whom.

I will not make the slightest hesitation in offering you due credit for at least addressing the systemic debunking of India’s princely paraphernalia as breaches of contract and broken promises that remain uncompensated to this day, because they were precisely that. However, I won’t waste time indulging myself in wishful thinking for history to have played out differently in ways that would earn my community your validation. I have made peace with a useful insight offered by Shashi Tharoor wherein he states, “one cannot take revenge upon history; history is its own revenge”.

Why?

Maybe because bearing resilience without seeking pointless revenge is a virtue that has been historically habituated into us Rajputs, and as a matter of fact, into us Indians in general, whose country has been witness to the subsequent rise and falls of so many dynasties (I hope for this shared acknowledgement of resilience to portray me as more democratic for your liking.)

PART II. The Political Economy of Royalty

It would help your annoyance to a great extent if you applied this very logic to the way that we consume news and media today, the very content of which seems to have motivated your article. In a capitalist world, we live in the most consumerist of times where, as you rightly said, there exists an unprofessed media ‘hype’ over the most unwarranted of topics. Indeed, there is far too much content- produced, re-produced, overproduced to the point of insipidity, at the cost of over-used and exhausted data , accompanying false notions and stereotypes. Since you assumably pass off as an active consumer of tabloid news and media, I urge you to consider a direct and very simple insight from someone who belongs to both, the media industry as well as India’s Rajput community (my apologies for not acquainting myself to you beforehand).

Simply speaking, as a result of commercialisation, consumerism, capitalism (and an entire shebang of terms that I could hurl at you as a social scientist but would choose to save for another time), several identities, histories and hell, even familial customs as sacrosanct as marriages suffer from an external commodification of sorts.

Difficult to grasp?

Let me put it in another way.

A cardinal rule of economics states that in order to be successful, companies make commodities out of and trade what ‘sells’. In similar logic, branding their products as per popularised and fantasised notions of existence fortifies the ability of companies to ‘sell’ their product(s) far more effectively, in the same way that capitalism sold itself to the world when it did. In urban societies such as ours, and it could be said for most postmodern urban societies of the world, the glamorised notion of royalty ‘sells’, just as say, Ayurveda does. This continues to be the case for most industries, with the media and film industries being the most convenient points of reference. Much to your disappointment, I won’t moralise this issue at all, as I am well-aware that we all have bills to pay. So if a harmless, fantasised notion helped someone, who cares? No problem, I would think.

Let’s take this a notch higher.

Who cares even if these fantasised notions make charades out of a diverse and historical community, at the cost of their inherent stereotyping? Who cares that, ironically enough, those playing these charades (your ‘nawabs of nothing’) are entirely different from those selling them (the media)? Who cares about the class-based reverse-discrimination and pre-conceived notions/ stereotypes that the ‘nawabs of nothing’ battle in their day-to-day lives for no fault of their own?
You see, this is precisely where the problem(s) begin(s), Ms. Hussain.

One of my favourite gender scholars, Judith Butler calls this ‘the citation of a norm’, wherein the facades of one’s identity are promulgated by those around them, in their repeated hailing as a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, as manly or feminine. In similar regard, the entire edifice of titles that your sensibility seems plagued by could be credited to a bustling political economy of film, media, as well as societal imaginations and fantasies where royalty ‘sells’.

PART III. OMG! Are You A Princess?: A Metamorphosis of Identities & Stereotypes

As I had written to Mr. Samra last year, “my community is as royal as you make (or unmake) it.”
If I could get a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “omg! you’re a princess??” just because I disclosed where I came from, I’ll leave you to do the math.

Growing up, shy that I was anyways, I learned to be so conscious of my regal roots that I metaphorically became that school kid who hadn’t polished her shoes. Standing in line to be checked, I would brush aside my familial background at the back of my socks in order to blend in with the other kids until recently, when I realised that being privileged and acting entitled could be two entirely different things- it was simply a matter of choice. And that I had the right to be proud of my familial history, just as you are of yours. That I had the right to be unapologetic about living my life, while choosing to live as a responsible, law-abiding and tax-paying citizen of the country, just as you might be.

I can assuredly say that I’ve never felt the entitled need to correct someone calling me  “Urvashi” to call me out as “Princess Urvashi Singh of Khimsar”. Since Mriganka and Martand happen to be your schoolmates, I trust you to check with them on the same and can almost instantaneously predict that theirs would be the same answer. You see, Miss. Hussain, in full agreement with your observation of them in school, we all had a perfectly normal childhood, with a small (and yet, determining) difference.

And the difference was, that we lived a life of dual existences- one in the city, and one in our place of ancestral origin. These were two different worlds- one where the modern Indian nation state resided, and the other, where bards of battle, songs of blood and sword are nostalgically taught upto this living day. The city- where we polished our shoes and blended with a sea of children; and our ancestral thikanas- where it had been blasphemous for our grandparents to even bend to tie a shoe lace during their childhood.

Every year, when Delhi is rife with its Diwali taash parties, my family and I return to our ancestral village to reunite with our fellow residents in what we call ‘Rama Shama’, a bi-annual meet and greet ceremony that comes around Holi and Diwali, where we exchange sweets, saffron water while asking and being asked about one another’s well-being. Relational bygones (if any) are dissolved in good faith to pave the way for fresh beginnings. Year after year, we go back to customs such as these, and then return back to the city, embracing the best of both worlds.

Well-aware of the rapidly changing times that we live in, we were taught by our parents from a nascent age, the importance of gaining a footage in the modern world while balancing our familial heritage with utmost responsibility and humility (read humility and not entitlement). I am not trying to brag, but my community possesses innumerable examples of financially-privileged families who do not require any modes of formal employment to ensure a stable source of income for their entire lifetimes (despite seized privy purses and scattered farmlands due to the various land-ceiling acts). They’d be perfectly comfortable reclining with a silver spoon in their mouths, nestled in their family’s bygone glories of pre-independent, pre-integrated India.

But guess what?

The face of Dia Color that you see is a tiny spec of Mriganka’s larger existence, which would also include an active role within the Delhi Society for the Welfare of Special Children. As for Martand, he bears a professional background in PR and has also immerses himself in the Dogra youth politics of Jammu and Kashmir. They are both passionate travellers, Mriganka is particularly fond of equestrian sports and motorbiking.

If you’d allow me to delve a little bit deeper, Mriganka and Martand’s grand fathers- Dr. Karan Singhji and late Madavraoji Scindia, who need no prior introduction, have carried institutions in themselves, as have their grandmothers, i.e., late Vijayaji Rajye Scindia- a prominent political personality; and late Yasho Rajya Lakshmiji, who was a pioneering philanthropist of her time. Their continuing generations, which include the present-day Kashmirs and Scindias are too immersed in balancing their careers, personal lives and acts of goodwill to derive a leisure-time of asserting titles. The list of the people you mentioned goes on, but I choose to particularly account for these two people as I’ve grown up alongside them and in front of their family, and it pains me to think of the stereotypes that have been accredited to them, again, for no apparent fault of their own.

PART IV. The Perils of Armchair Idleism

You drew a fine line between the good-for-nothing, over-entitled royals on the one hand and the good, philanthropist and dissolving royals on the other, all so easily. If only it were so simple, Miss. Hussain. Just a note of discretion: we do not live our day-to-day lives as they come to be portrayed through Hello! and GQ. With all due respect to such credible and highly-reputed publications, these are deliberately-planned and executed branding strategies that cater to specific media algorithms. A temporary intermission from your armchair idleism to span through the lengths and breadths of our glorious nation would help you grasp certain familial, political and sociological legacies that have far-outlived the trials and tribulations of the Indian nation state, its constitution and the various acts that have come to presently be known. If and when you end up there, please consider telling the present-day rural voter to cast his vote without voting his cast, to which I console your disappointment beforehand.

Welcome to the India that popular media is yet to duly authenticate and glamorise.

Also, isn’t it ironical as to how, no-one seems to have a problem if a Jain’s marriage is arranged with another Jain, an Aggarwal’s to an Aggarwal, a Parsi’s to a Parsi, but that a consensual, intra-community Rajput marriage is blatantly stereotyped as a deliberate echo of exclusionist elitism? So yes, you’re right, feudal titles have been legally-dissolved, and privy-purses seized, but the associated (and equally-feudal and entitled) stereotyping and bigotry seem to have only just begun.

However, we still won’t lament, whether it is about being on the unfortunate side of history or being the rightful recipients of an immense moral debt that the Indian nation state owes to our families. Because we have let bygones be bygones. It is the 21st century and as proud citizens of post-independent India, we’re all contributing towards our nation’s GDP and thriving in our professional sectors, because we recognise something known as self-respect.

Another side note, should you wish to open your esteemed readership of commendable Rajput youths of today, your biased view points might be pleasantly surprised by the content that I bi-annually publish through a magazine known as Rajputana Collective. The lions are learning to write (and be written about) after all 

Lastly, no offence but your statement: “levels of celebrity that we so easily prescribe” made me laugh a little. Are you trying to say that Dhinchak Pooja is deserving of stardom? Trust me, we have more pressing matters at hand that are genuinely detrimental to our democracy, Miss. Hussain.
As I said earlier, it is what ‘sells’. And what ‘sells’ might convey more about the buyer than who is, and what is, selling.

Sincerely,

Who cares?
Just another ‘Princess of Nothingshire’

PS: Only because you mentioned the Padmavati/ Padmavat issue (for what reason, again I am not sure), I offer you a small nuance with my sincere compliments: a reactionary right-wing Rajput group known as Karni Sena has taken up this opportunity to gain political footage on a national platform through the deliberate ignition of communal sentiments. Most of us don’t even know them or associate with them. In fact, we’re rather keen on seeing the film in the true, unbiased spirit of Indian filmography. Should you wish to read my opinion on the issue, its link, too is pasted below.

USEFUL LINKS : –

1) MS. HUSSAIN’S ARTIClE

https://homegrown.co.in/…/why-do-indians-insist-on-keeping-…

2) MY RESPONSE TO KULDEEP SAMRA

https://www.missmalini.com/…/girl-best-response-publicatio…/

3) PADMAVATI ARTICLE

https://urvashisingh.wordpress.com/category/commentaries/

4) RAJPUTANA COLLECTIVE FACEBOOK LINK

https://www.facebook.com/rajputanacollective/

Homegrown #homegrown

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Lions & an Insecure Herd of Sheep: My Views on the Padmavati Film Controversy

Earlier last year, when I launched my public response to a generalising and historically uninformed post over the contemporary Rajput community (which also served as the trigger post to have started Rajputana Collective), I was reminded by several commentators that “lions didn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.” I hereby make a gentle re-iteration of the same in times when we need to urgently preserve the wise difference between self-assured lions and an insecure herd of sheep.
To begin with , I have shared the link of a well-documented and historically- sound argument made in #Firstpost about the consequential results of Rajputs being on the unfortunate side of history across the various eras of time. Playing on similar nuances as my Masters’ thesis that was based on mythified anxieties triggered by fundamentalist politics (link pasted at the end of the article), Ashraf pays due acknowledgement to externally-triggered complexes and anxieties that are levied onto present-day communities in order to advance political motives that have little to do with them.
Being what I determine as a reasonably informed and educated person of the Rajput community, it has taken me much time and deliberation to voice my opinion on the Padmavati issue. Not because it wasn’t my responsibility or that I belonged to a distanced lot of spectators, but because it is too much of my responsibility to guard my people against rapid anxieties and sensationalism, neither of which belong to us.
The manner in which the Padmavati film controversy has played out over the past few weeks raises two very simple questions : –
a) Since when did we, as an ethnic community require external warranting for our valiant histories?
and
b) Are our perceptions of Self so fragile that they could be dislodged by the creative imagination and commercial exaggeration of a Bollywood film crew?
As a film-loving 90’s kid in India, I have grown up obsessing over the classic list of Bollywood’s over-the-top dramatisations (historical and otherwise)- be it Bharjatiya’s stifling family dramas that my naive pre-adolescent self once swooned over; or Johar & Chopra’s commercial rom-coms that are responsible for most of my romantic misconceptions; or the man in question- Bhansali’s overtly artful narratives of history and/or drama. What I can commonly say about Bollywood’s versatile genres is that I enjoyed their characters, filmy songs, dance numbers and dramatic quirks (and may I add, kitsches) that fortunately & unfortunately belong to Bollywood as some of its key characteristics.
To put it in simpler words, my blatant appreciation/ acknowledgement of Bollywood’s limitations & excesses are attributed to one overarching paradox- the political economy of commercial film-making, a.k.a. ‘the box-office success’. Which simply means that commercial film-making is focally dependent on the numbers and eventually, what sells at a larger level is all that really matters (aren’t all commercial enterprises about what sells at a larger level?). This fact is neither new nor surprising to a populace that has bred the largest film-making industry of the world.
Recent cinematic trends display the irrespective and often even thematically irrelevant addition of a Badshah or Honey Singh-led number as a deliberate strategy to gain greater ratings from their tremendously populated and monied fan belts. The same principle applies to voyeuristic fantasies of Sheila, Munni, Jalebi Bai & Baby Doll (I’ll let a new age item song in a horror movie do all the talking for you). Several endorsements and counter-litigations, such as Fevicol, Jhandu Balm (and the list goes on), again point to the unparalleled importance dominated by the commercial success of a film. Speaking of Bhansali’s films, the creative maestro has skills that bear far too much sophistication to bank on cruder instruments such as these. That said, even with a director of Bhansali’s stature, his films’ central dependence on commercial success could be moralised at several levels no doubt, as is the case with Padmavati.
Sure, even I pointed out the aesthetic inaccuracy of the film’s Ghoomar song video, which fundamentally contradicts the customary restraint that Rajput queens exercised in their discretion against joining dance ceremonies, especially in the presence of menfolk. Further, several ghoomar experts would argue against the choreographic inferiority that Bhansali and his crew have accredited to the dance act. Even in general, Padmavati’s official movie trailer aroused my curiosity towards the manner in which Bhansali would depict Khilji’s obsession towards Rani Padmavati. In opposition to Khilji’s ruthless deceit and plunder of her kingdom, Rani Padmavati’s legendary act of inspiring and conducting a mass self-immolation/ Jauhaar ceremony made her go down in Rajput history as the epitome of honour, courage and dignity, and rightfully so. Rani Padmavati is, has been and shall remain an immortal legend for all of us. Which, once again reinforces my questions: “since when did we, as an ethnic community require external warranting for our valiant histories?”; and “are our perceptions of Self so fragile that they could be dislodged by the creative imagination and commercial exaggeration of a Bollywood film crew?”
Bhansali’s depiction of the historical drama that is inspired by the legend of Padmavati is most likely to default vis-a-vis the accuracies that we demand. In what measures, remains the question. In owing my cinematic sensibilities some reason and patience, I sincerely believe in the common-sensical practicality of forming a more concrete opinion of the film once I have watched it. After all, how long can we go on arguing over visual and theatrical content that we are yet to fully access? With the legal (and sometimes dubious) existence of a supposedly-accountable apparatus for film censorship (the CBFC), my optimism lends their faculties the due wisdom of balancing freedom of expression & creativity with the protection of heritage & culture.
Moralising creative imaginations and commercial exaggerations of Bollywood, however, isn’t even the issue here. Open but uncompromisingly peaceful dissents (hear hear, our dearest Karni Sena brethren) are paramount features of a democratic society just as much as freedom of expression & creativity are. The issue that disconcerts me is that my community is falling prey to overarching political agendas, whose hegemonies fundamentally depend on reactionist sensationalism and collective anxieties. Over the past few days, as the admin of Rajputana Collective’s Facebook page, I have received several videos made by fundamentalists vowing to hack off Deepika Padukone’s nose, break down halls screening Padmavati and what not, in bids to join their angry voices. The defenders of these violent protestors would justify their actions based on comparisons by fringe elements of fellow religions, hence validating their anxieties by similarly-triggered anxieties. But here’s the myopic catch- in playing out simultaneously, violence does not become right. Rather, it serves as a multitudinous reminder of the same political manipulation being carried out through different religions, sects, factions and communities.
Through what was an erstwhile issue of censorship over creative accountability at best, we as the Rajput community are presently contending with a direct verification of perceptive communal identities. Sure, protestors bear every right to express their disapproval vis-a-vis the graphic representation of their histories. Online and offline media reflects some very interesting and constructive debates over the matter. However, the indirect sanctioning that this issue is providing fringe elements with to outrightly vandalise their surroundings and threaten their fellow-citizens; and the silent leniency of the higher order makes me shudder a little bit. As much as I hope against it, I see my community getting enveloped into the advancing Saffronisation of democratic India. In situating a virtuous Hindu kshatriya kingdom against an ultra-virile and licentious Muslim aggressor, Bhansali’s film has already done the homework for the vulturine instigators to trigger the anxieties of mensfolk who possess little historical or academic familiarity to begin with.
By the virtue of bearing greater educational and informative privilege, we as a readership are levied with a burdensome, yet vital imperative of sanctioning our voices with utmost responsibility and awareness. Whether or not Bhansali’s film diverges from our historical legends is by no means a yardstick of communal virtue. It is, at best, a dramatic re-telling from which we can enjoy taking as much, or as little as we wish. That, in my humble opinion, is the power and beauty of being a cinematic audience. And for the time-being, keeping in mind the highly limited cinematic content of Padmavati that I have had the opportunity of accessing, I take away what Deepika Padukone as Rani Padmavati re-iterates at the end, “Rajpooti kangan mei utni hi taakat hai jitni Rajputi talwar mein.” Bearing strength and resilience in every grain of our existence is a claim that is believed to have been promised by the shero herself. Her posthumous valour deserves more dignity and discretion than we are presently accrediting it with.
(courtesy: Aanchal Singh)
To read my bridged Masters’ thesis https://wordpress.com/post/urvashisingh.wordpress.com
To view the official trailer of Padmavati, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_5_BLt76c0
To view the song video of Ghoomar, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cKErCWrb44
To contribute your opinion on the Padmavati issue for the Opinion section of our upcoming edition, kindly write to mail@rajputanacollective.com, we’d love to hear from you!!
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Commentaries, Essays

The Ramayanification of India: Gender Mythification & the Saffron Agenda

ABSTRACT

While Indian academia is abundant in nuanced analyses of Hindu fundamentalism spanning across various decades and issues, my analysis is a modest effort to formulate Hindutva’s quest for ideological hegemony during the 1980’s. Belonging to a Hindu household myself, I pride the philosophical richness of Hinduism and its ability to withhold several strands of dissent. As a feminist scholar, it is the fundamentalist and distortional use of my religion for sectarian and political gains that I academically prosecute.

Using a postcolonial lens and borrowing from Foucauldian, Gramscian, Nietzchean, Althusserian concepts, I compile an understanding of how religious fundamentalism targets the psyches of those that it seeks to govern. My approach adopts the televised broadcasting of Sagar’s Ramayan as a classic example of Hindutva’s hegemonic agenda through popular media in the 1980’s, and I utilise several thematic examples from the TV series to progress my account. My analysis highlights the centrality of gender in Hindutva’s ideological imperative, and the subsequent implications that its it bears on our conceptions of gender relations, the Self and the Other. Addressing the primal role played by gender in communal contestations leads me to eventually forge a discursive link between gender and the nation.

PART I : Hindutva & Sagar’s Ramayan

Background: The 1980’s

Arguably one of the most politically volatile decades in the history of independent India, the 1980’s were characterised by a culmination of a lot of political ferment from the previous decades, namely, the end of the Nehruvian consensus and a decline of the Congress as the national spokesperson. The State’s centralising tendencies, along with the developmental plans that it undertook resulted in enormous wealth inequalities, income disparities, regional imbalances and secessionist movements, all of which resulted from and added to the State’s crippling legitimacy, and jointly qualified as a crisis of the Indian State.

The political climate was brewing further with the three M’s of the 1980’s, namely, Mandal, Mandir and Market. Firstly, the Mandal Commission that would soon recommend caste-based affirmative action, contributing a new dimension to the centuries-long casteism, particularly among the middle classes in northern India. Simultaneously, the Babri Masjid- Ramjanmabhoomi issue in Ayodhya added to the already-abundant communal tensions in the country. Lastly, a failure in Nehru’s socialist models had put the Indian market in a financial deficit, which would result in a serious economic crisis by the end of the decade. An increasingly crippling State’s incompetency to deal with these problems led to its delegitimisation even further. These factors profoundly impacted those who had maximum stakes in the present contingencies- India’s enormous and yet-emerging middle class, and gave rise to a greater consciousness of what divided India- caste, class, religion, ethnicity, linguistic and regional differences, rather than what united it.

A general crisis in terms of the Indian identity was beginning to rise along with the question- who was the real Indian? Was it the Brahmin or the Dalit? The Hindu or the Muslim? The wealthy elite, or the aam admi? The Hindi-speaking UP-ite or the Tamil who didn’t converse in Hindi? Or was it everyone in between?

During the same decade, the increasing incidents of violence against women, including dowry deaths and bride burning led to a sharp upsurge in feminist movements. Moreover, the growth of consumerism and the rising costs of living amounted to a larger percentage of women entering workspaces in the country. The active presence of women in political activism and employment spheres, along with a general modernisation of the Indian society posed an enormous threat to patriarchal and fundamentalist strands of Hinduism, collectively referred to as Hindutva*.

At this precise juncture, Chhachhi (1989) convincingly identifies a wedlock between right-wing Hindu fundamentalism-Hindutva, and the crisis-ridden Indian state. Hindutva was sanctioned by the State to “create ideological unity through the sponsoring of religious fundamentalism”1, thereby transforming it into the national identity and redefining Indianness on communal terms. Despite the stakes, an increasingly weakening State was handing over the responsibility of national integration to whom it considered to be a promising player. As for Hindutva, it was amplified onto the national platform like never before, and this was a chance for the Sangh to re-instate patriarchal order as well as seize political victory. A win-win situation for both, the onset of this ideological-political agenda would change the face of Indian politics forever.

Hindutva as the National Ideology

Hindutva, like most religious fundamentalisms, is typically “the political spokesperson of some group claiming to represent a religious community2”, but in its purely distorted and instrumental use of religion and false conceptions of community, not only does it fail to represent its professed community but also “mock[s] the idea of religion3”. Stipulating exclusivist criterions of being a Hindu, which include a specific fatherland, race, culture and holyland that are all Hindu, it aims to create a Hindu nation state and claims that only Hindus can be true patriots of India4. Its cardinal organisation, the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh identified itself, not as a Hindu organisation but a national one, which identifies “Hindu cultural regeneration”5 as its primary task. However, it can be argued that this claim of “cultural regeneration” provides a benevolent disguise to a peculiarly invasive and effective form of social control”6 for the purpose of Hindutva’s darker side of ideological hegemony and as a result, religious fascism.  For this purpose, culture is harnessed by Hindutva “as an apparently innocent middle term invested with Hindu religious meanings and associations”7.

Speaking of hegemony, the Gramscian framework states that hegemony can only be established with “cultural consent, discursive centrality, institutionalism and marginalization/ delegitimisation of alternatives”8. After going through numerous Hindutva manifestos, political rally videos, documented speeches and various scholars critiques of Hindutva-led fascism, I have theorised Hindutva’s establishment of hegemony in a very systematic way. As a part of its hegemonic agenda, Hindutva ideology consciously generates two mutually-reliant cultural conceptions in specified temporalities- of the past and the present.

On the one hand, it conceives a utopia, a mythicised and misrepresented** picture of India’s past, a “Hindu golden age”9, from which India has fallen and a nostalgia thereof. On the other hand, it induces anxieties regarding kaliyuga– the dark times that have presently befallen India, whipping up a “fear psychosis and a sense of injustice among the majority community”10, that are direct and exclusive results of the collective defilement of the Indian society and culture by the Other. Seen in contrast then, this professed mythicised past is characterised by the fact that unlike the present, it was “uncorrupted by Other cultures”11. Hindutva’s uncorrupted past and the defiled present are consequently brought together through the concept of “monumental history”12. A brainchild of Nietzsche, this concept is used in the construction of the past whereby “the writer drives home the point that greatness which was once possible and existent can be therefore, really be possible again”13. In other words, Hindutva invokes nostalgia for a utopian past and stresses upon anxieties vis-à-vis the present to jointly imply that: “the mythicised lost golden age could seem recoverable within a new political community of the Hindus”14.

In proclaiming itself to be the bulwark of this new political community (where the utopian past can be restored), Hindutva is able to contribute to, as well as derive legitimacy out of its status as the nation’s ideological hegemon. Hence, Hindutva gains much of its meaning and authenticity by virtue of its professed nostalgia, anxieties and a bid to redeem what has been lost. As a result of invoking a constant state of threat and anxiety among the middle class about its demographics, Hindutva “evokes complicity in morally offensive and violent policies and practices among people who would otherwise be repelled by them”15. And yet, these cultural conceptions of nostalgia and anxieties are not forcibly imposed, but carefully generated. This could be explained by the Gramscian concept of “civil society” which rules, not by force but by the means of hegemony that manufactures consent16. Hindutva’s manufacture of consent can be viably approached by adopting a Foucauldian analysis.

By the virtue of its normative and discursive powers as the nation’s cultural denominator, Hindutva constructs and disciplines subjectivities to produce “docile bodies”17 that are instrumental to the maximisation of its political interests. For example, by stipulating specific notions of what it means to be a Hindu, it thereafter directs these ideals as constituting the past and being compromised in present times. In similar logic, Hindutva promises a better future through their actualisation. As a result, subjects begin to embody and contest its notions of being Hindu, in the conception that the constant state of anxiety, inadequacy and loss can apparently be overcome by endorsing Hindutva as a way of life. It is in this endless conformity towards Hindutva and contestations with alternate notions of the Self that consent for Hindutva is manufactured. In short, Hindutva devices its hegemony by creeping into people’s vulnerabilities- first by conceiving and selling a false sense of inadequacy and threat to the collective psyches of subjects, followed by bidding their redemption.

Thus, by disciplining and regulating the desires of its subjects in accordance with its professed nostalgia (of a utopian past) and anxieties (vis-à-vis the present), Hindutva succeeds in manufacturing consent and ensuring its ideological legitimisation as the architect of the nation’s future. However, this agenda is carried out rather inconspicuously, behind the veil of a benign self- portrayal of itself in aiding the process of identity- creation.

However, the subjectivities that Hindutva disciplines and regulates in strict accordance are, “not universal, but sexed and gender specific”18; and as Chhachhi (1989) notes, pertain to gender relations as well as to individual and collective conceptions of gender. That is, the notions of being Hindu as per Hindutva’s ideologies cannot be described without referring to gendered notions of maryaada purshottam, mardaanagi, adarsh Bharatiya naari, pativrata dharma, or in other words, gender idealisations, norms and gendered notions of conduct.  A contending claim has been made by Das, who notes that “the drive to ‘fix’ the Indian state’s identity…had enabled the state (or its leaders) to incorporate gender to articulate divergent national identities…”19. Thereafter, by attaching particular notions of masculinity and femininity to the symbolism of the entire community20, gender identities get attached to communal identities21 and Hindutva’s strategy is “skilfully constructed to strike at the heart of identity- the intersection of community and gender”22. Thus, gendered subjectivities are discursively conceived through Hindutva’s cultural conceptions (nostalgia and anxieties) to constitute a culturally homogenised community and gradually, to determine the national destiny of a Hindu nation-state.

Chakravarti argues that “this is being done today not through powerful writing but through the power of the visual medium, the cinema and the television. It was a fairly conscious move by the state to telecast religious mega serials, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’…took off on the on the theme of a fragmented nation, carrying mythological tradition forward in a more coherent way emphasising a joint xenophobia against the enemy within”23.

Ramayan as Hindutva’s Ideological Apparatus

On Sunday, the 25th of January, 1987, the state-owned national broadcaster Doordarshan aired the pilot episode of Sagar’s Ramayan.  The quarter- hour serial was broadcasted nationwide on every Sunday that followed it until August the next year, and the national phenomena that this TV series created needs no prior introduction. Choosing to air Ramayan every Sunday morning ensures it was transmitted to the audience at a time when the typical Hindu middle-class family enjoyed a leisurely morning, off from work, with the family and closer to the time of their routine prayers. With lesser television sets back in that time and cable TV as its only source had very different bearings on the audience and viewership than it would have now, and I leave the reader to discern the politics of cable broadcasting/ collective viewership for herself/himself. What is certain is that Ramayan’s ubiquitous appeal formed an inescapable bait for anyone who lived in the immediate vicinity of a television set.

Broadcasting the mega serial through state-sponsored media finds resonance in Althusser’s conception of the Ideological State Apparatus, more specifically, “the communications apparatus by cramming every ‘citizen’ with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc, by means of the press, the radio and television”24. Treating the televised Hindu epic as a hegemonic state apparatus to prevail Hindutva’s agenda, a lot is derived out of its formalisation of a national community primarily through interpellation, or “hailing”25, which is discussed in part II of this article.

In its televised form, Ramayan represented a microcosm of the vast spectrum of Ramayans that have travelled across time and space, in the form of traditional folklore, popular literature, storytelling, visual arts, scriptural articulation, the Bhakti movement and dramatic folk enactments (Ram Lila). At a basic level, Ramayan is the story of a Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in his supreme quest to recover his abducted wife Sita from Ravan, the demonic king of Lanka. Argued to be one of the “oldest surviving text of a story that has been continued to be retold for over two thousand years”26, the narrative tradition of the Ramayan displays “the ability to support both authoritative and oppositional tellings.”27 Moreover, the epic’s narrative discourse bears sufficient evidence of not only encouraging contradictory strands, but also providing the impetus for negotiations28. Ramanand Sagar’s televised telling of the Ramayan, for its selective and manipulative scripting of the epic forms one of the most serious contraventions to this tradition. His imposition of “one master narrative of a unified Hindu community”29 that chose to emphasise on the “unity of all these versions [of the epic] rather than their differences”30 helps one draw close correlations between Sagar’s treatment of contradictory strands of the epic and Hindutva’s treatment of difference “as a need for homogenisation rather than the signs of emerging plurality of voices.31” Sagar’s homogenisation (and if I may add, gross distortion) of an extensive narrative tradition, apart from leading to “cultural loss”32, was granted by authoritative sanction by being broadcasted on Doordarshan whereby the State was not just complicit but actively endorsed in the propagation of the hegemonic narrative of the “national past”33.

Ramayan’s “ready availability”34 for Hindutva’s ideological agenda stems from its placement in a past that used to be glorious, but which has undergone significant deterioration and attributed to the “tragedy of the nation”35. The “theme of loss… that underlay the entire serial”36 corresponds to Hindutva’s cultural conceptions of nostalgia for its bygone glories, present day anxieties, as well as a strong resolution to reclaim what has been lost in time. Hence, Ramayan marked one of the first instances of a highly self-conscious”37 televised Hindu epic being “harnessed to the Hindu nationalist political cause”38.

PART II : Mythification & Othering in Ramayan

Both, the Hindutva discourse and Ramayan base their authenticity and cultural superiority on a history constitutive of a distinctive culture, a construct that is “overwhelmingly created on gendered lines”39. This distinctive culture is highlighted in Ramayan through the mythification of gender idealisations exhibited by its protagonists, thereby collectively constituting an “imagined urban past”40. This past is put into jeopardy by the series’ antagonists that it systematically Others, which is then redeemed by its protagonists, adding to their glorification at the cost of demonising the Other. I proceed to argue that Ramayan as Hindutva’s Ideological State Apparatus interpellates gendered subjectivities vis-à-vis Hindutva’s cultural conceptions of nostalgia and anxieties through the twin-processes of mythification and Othering.

Mythification

Not only does “the power of the visual image”41 in Sagar’s Ramayan impart “the mythical, nonspecific material quality of the epics”42 a “given materiality, a reality”43, it imparts this materiality and reality onto very carefully constituted myths, in strict accordance with objectives of the Hindutva agenda. “Gain[ing] its authority by representing the world of the divine”44, Ramayan imparts divine sanctity to its content, primarily through the process of mythification. By “deploy(ing) the tool of mythification in order to construct a dramatic narrative- as a morality play of fall, rise and redemption”45, Ramayan de-contextualises and de-politicises history and oversimplifies complex factors by projecting them as free of any contradictory strands altogether. Mythification does not deny the presence of these contradictory strands but “it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact”46. Furthermore, “by eliminating all nuances that can permit a non-patriarchal code to operate and which are very much an integral part of the epic’s natives”47, Ramayan confirms its nature as a manipulative discourse in close conjunction  with Hindutva’s patriarchal gender norms. This can be further elaborated while considering the series’ gender idealisations.

Ramayan’s male protagonist- Ram is portrayed as the living embodiment of maryaada purshottam– the “epitome of male perfection”48– an obedient son, a loving brother, a virtuous leader, and supreme upholder of moral obligations whose primary virtue is constituted by truthfulness and dharma. Moreover, Ram personifies “ideal behaviour not only for a ruler and citizen, but in relation to family, caste and gender hierarchy as well”49. The series’ female protagonist Sita, who is Ram’s wife is systematically denied of any meanings that she had previously been associated with in her own right and is cast primarily in relation to Ram. She is selectively constituted in the televised epic in her least assertive form, as the “epitome of ideal womanhood”50 for her chaste, passive, self- sacrificing and unconditionally enduring nature. Sagar’s Sita relentlessly prides herself herself as a devoted wife (pativarta nari), solely constituted by her wifely duties (naari dharma) towards Ram. Hence, Ram’s masculine bravado, heroic valour and honour aren’t placed in a gender binary opposite to Sita’s feminine meekness, chastity and fidelity, but are done so relationally, on two unequal planes. That is, while Ram’s being is partially conditioned by Sita, Sita’s existence is entirely structured around, and conditioned in accordance with Ram. As the signifier of ideal womanhood, Sita equates feminine virtues with wifely devotion and sanctifies a woman’s being as being wholly and solely focused around her husband. What’s more- Sita is granted supernatural powers for her supreme devotion to Ram, just as a patriarchal society awards brownie points to conforming women.

She can be identified as what de Beauvoir (1989) calls “the absolute Other”51, the empty signifier, through whom the man, the signified, attains meaning. However, unlike de Beauvoir’s absolute Other who suffers a lack of agency, Sita is shown exercising her active discretion against the exhibition of these powers due to a lack of her husband’s lack of permission thereof. Further, not only is Sita shown confining herself within what she deems permissible by Ram, but settling her own confines in ways that would further glorify her husband. For example, during the time she spends being captured in Ravan’s Lanka, Sita makes an active decision neither to make use of her powers, nor seek any opportunity to free herself, “because that would mean that Ram would not obtain the glory invoked in rescuing her”52. Here, Sita is shown as exercising her active agency as a devoted wife to deny herself any self discrimination as a self-sufficient woman if it compromises the exalted image of her husband. This can be seen as a powerful denominator of Hindutva’s expectations of its women at the time of modernisation and neoliberalism, where choice and agency emerge as the new mantras. In this way, Hindutva logic skilfully encourages the power to exercise choice and agency, but tempers a woman’s discretion to dispense these powers in ways that would further the cause of Hindutva and patriarchal motives.

Thus, as an ideal woman, Sita’s gamut of choices and her purpose of living are inextricably tied to her husband’s glorification as the signifier, whereas the sole purpose of Ram’s being as the signified is to uphold his own glorification as the icon of masculine valour. In exhibiting their gender virtues in these specific ways, both Ram and Sita are mythified and glorified as “Hindu ideals”52 and “moral exemplars of the Indian society”53

Apart from being the “ideal monogamous model for the Hindu marriage”54, the marital union of Ram and Sita ultimately results in the inauguration of Ram Rajya, or the rule of Rama, the “urban archetype… situated in an imagined past”55 towards which Hindutva imparts much nostalgia. In serving as preconditions of the establishment of the ideal state, gender subjectivities embodied by Ram and Sita authenticate Hindutva’s discursive creation of gendered subjectivities without which, the ideal nation-state stands inconceivable. Ramayan’s purposeful formulation of the contradiction-free utopian state based on gender idealisations can be seen as aiding the Hindutva agenda in further silencing dissent against Hindutva’s imperatives and producing docile bodies in a strictly patriarchal code.

Cusack makes a noteworthy observation that in its abundant iconography, Hinduism “lacks explicit distinctions between this world and the otherworld, and between the gods and human beings”56. Thus, not only do the iconographies of Ramayan’s various characters capture popular imagination and identification, but also serve to justify their gender idealisations as enactable and the resulting utopian state as attainable.

As discussed in this section, gender idealisations are powerfully mythified in Ramayan while being embodied and conducted by the series’ protagonists, thereby imparting them with a distinct physicality. The divine images of Ram played by Arun Govil and Sita by Deepika Chikhalia instilled much devotion and love among the viewership community. However, mythification as an interpellative tool is limited in that it only goes thus far to instil nostalgia towards idealised gender norms and a utopian community. In order to have a viable effect on the viewer’s psyche, the entire edifice of mythification revolves on a crucial lynchpin- the Other.

Othering

In her renowned work, postcolonial scholar Chandra Mohanty (1991) described the process of Othering as the creation of a “cultural and composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourses”57. In similar consistency, Wu (2008) points out that the creation of Ramayan coincided with the upsurge of Hindutva, “which was partially fuelled by the series’ presentation of a Hindu world menaced by demons (the Other)”58.

In Ramayan’s representational discourse, most of the female protagonists like Sita play as the normative referent, the signifier to the male signified in a binary analytic. However, their binarism is primarily gendered. These gender idealisations and the consequent nostalgia that they invoke have to be met with their antitheses in the form of the Other and their inhabitation of an anxiety-ridden present. It is only with the bid to redeem this present that the Self can be glorified in both- the Ramayan as well as the Hindutva discourse. As Mishra (2002) indicates, “the ‘rakshasization of the Muslim Other was crucial to the recovery of this myth”59. In order for this demonisation to materialise, Ramayan conceives what I have identified as a process of Othering, a racial, cultural, sexual discrimination between the protagonists and antagonists, which is collectively transposed onto the moral realm.

In its representational discourse, Ramayan provides crudely different iconographies to the protagonists in comparison to the “racial and cultural Others”60, as reported by Sagar’s son Subhash, to invoke divine images in the minds of the viewers61. The “overdone divinity”62 imparted to all the leading and supporting protagonists ensured they had fair skin, attractive features, firm physiques and ornamental dresses, qualifying them as what Madhu Jain calls “moving calendar art pictures”63. In comparison, the series antagonists such as Ravan, Khara, Dushan and Shurpanakha amongst others, were deliberately featured as dark-complexioned, with often-deformed features, unshapely bodies, coarse voices, draped in tribal-styled attire, and are often shown uttering animal-like laughs. Their evil powers are further dramatised by exaggerated abjection and crude production techniques such as artificial graphics. Moreover, while the protagonists are strictly bound by “normative roles ad prescriptive behaviour”64, the antagonists are shown as sexually unrestrained and “morally ambiguous”65. However, two characters on the side of the antagonists such as Ravan’s wife Mandodari and his brother Vibhishan, who are mythologically perceived as innately humane and ‘caught on the wrong side’, were deliberately depicted in the same iconographic fashion as the protagonists. Concurrently, the series’ monkey characters such as Hanuman, Sugriva and Angad were portrayed more humanely than the Others, despite being of animalistic descent, because of their superior morality. This serves as a classic example of Sagar’s iconographic demarcation of protagonists and antagonists by casting their conflicting moralities onto exaggerated corporealities. In addition, the distinct regional affiliations of the protagonists (towards the northern part of India) versus the antagonists (to an exotic land called Lanka) renders demarcations more tangible and consequently “proffers an invigorated sense of identity”66, a rudimentary step towards Hindutva’s directed xenophobia.

In being “profoundly a text of ‘Othering’”67, Ramayan makes no delay in its constitution of the Other. Right from its pilot episode, one sees several gods, sages and celestial beings approach a sedate and reclined Lord Vishnu in the heavenly abodes of Vaikuntha, expressing their anguish about the state of affairs on Earth. They lament the slow demise of truth and righteousness due to the growing powers of the demon king- Ravan. Prithvi, the Earth goddess equates his rule with that of unrighteousness and immorality after which, a brief iconography of Ravan and his demons is shown, appearing to cause havoc. After being jointly invoked by this divine cohort to cast his earthy intervention and restore order, Vishnu decides to descent on earth as Ram, making the beginning of Ramayan. Thus, the formulation of an anxiety-provoking present is a deliberate cue to justify the worldly intervention of a divine force, an act that preconditions the glorification of the protagonists who embody morality in their crusade against immoral demons.

One can easily draw parallels between this celestial lamentation and Hindutva’s repeated anxiety-inducing discourses such as Saffron Demographics and Ghar Vapsi; and between Vishnu’s bid to restore order and Hindutva’s necessitation of ethnic cleansing to create the Hindu nation-state. Moreover, it is interesting to note that not only do Ramayan and the Hindutva discourse jointly treat difference between the Self and the Other in racial, cultural, sexual and iconographic terms, but their anxiety vis-a-vis the Other “is cast in a moral discourse of Good versus Evil, such that the other is implicitly evil”68. Hence, overcoming the Other in this bid to restore moral order is cast as an epic tale of moral redemption.

However, the fight between the Good Self and the Evil Other is not always contested over neat demarcations69. How then, is the Other differentiated?

PART III: Gender & Sexuality in Ramayan

Several scholars ranging across discourses on Hindutva converge upon the line of argument that gender and sexuality are crucial implications in Hindutva’s drive for ideological hegemony. It is of no co-incidence then, that Ramayan as its ideological apparatus heavily invests in tactics of mythification and Othering to interpellate subjectivities in gendered and sexual terms, progressing as “primarily a story of sexual intrigue”70.

Hindutva’s Ideal of Masculinity

In her article regarding the semiotics of communal violence and rape in the 2002 Gujarat Riots, Sarkar argues that “there is a dark sexual obsession about allegedly ultra-virile Muslim male bodies and over fertile female ones, that sustain figures of paranoia and revenge”71. While this sexual insecurity vis-à-vis the Muslim Other has been accounted for in several documentations of communal violence, it has also been reported to being closely linked to colonial conditioning of the Hindu self image as emasculated, “impotent, meek” and incapable of defending the Hindu nation”72. As a result, a bid to revitalise Hindu masculinity combined not just an attempt to counter these claims of emasculation, but to do so while maintaining a distinct upper hand in the spiritual realm73, and hence, morally superior.

Most divine masculinities in Ramayan are embodied by Kshatriya protagonists, who are actively endorsed in the life of a householder74. However, they are mythified and glorified as being “pure and free from lust”75 to the extent of being desexualised in comparison to the sexually predatory Other. For example, several tellings of the epic account for Kaikeyi’s sexual blackmail to force Dashratha to put her son Bharat on the throne instead of Ram. In carrying the risk of portraying Dashratha as sexually blackmailed, and hence, lustful, is completely censored in Sagar’s Ramayan. Sen Gupta perceives this as “a complete brushing away of female or male sexuality wherever it proves to be uncomfortable with a masculinist, heterosexual and puritanical worldview”76. On the other hand, the series provides no respite in Kaikeyi’s sexual portrayal, because this depiction of hers serves a functional role in that it augments her image as morally culpable and hence, inferior to the rest of the protagonists.

In similar context, Mankekar draws close parallels between Ram “with a bow and arrows slung on his shoulder… frequently shown meditating, praying, and leading the ascetic life of a renunciate”77; and Bankim Chandra’s construction of “ideal masculinity [that] combined militancy of the kshatriya [warrior] and the spirituality of the renouncer (sanyasi)78”. I take this argument further by suggesting that Ram’s manifestation of these two elements is contingent upon the Other. Meaning, that an otherwise sedate and meditational Ram’s militant aggression only manifests in defence against threat and aggression directed by the Other. Moreover, while Ram and other Kshatriya protagonists exemplify Hindutva’s ideal masculinity through their depiction of moral ascendency, self-adequacy and competency to triumph the Other against all odds, their apparent stability rests on thin ice. In other words, the inherent vulnerabilities and anxieties of Hindutva masculinity vis-à-vis the Other are displaced onto, and seek re-assurance through female sexualities.

Female Sexuality

Sattar points out that although male protagonists and antagonists can be morally demarcated as good and bad, “the split between women characters is far more pronounced and is always expressed in terms of sexuality”79. Similarly in Ramayan , while Sita, Kaushalya, Arundhati among other female protagonists are shown as domesticated, submissive, chaste, conforming and sexually restrained, antagonists, primarily Shurpanakha and Tadka are cast as demonic, deviant, untamed, sexually untamed and hence, threatening. Most, if not all their traits are defined in sexual terms and their moralities stem directly from their honour, which is wholly located in their sexual chastity.

Furthermore, masculine protection of women’s sexual chastity and honour is justified by rendering female sexuality as “fragile and easily fractured80” and under a constant threat of the carnal Other. The apparent threat posed by the Other serves a functional cause to the extent that in its sheer absence, gender contestations cease to be viable. Hence, for gender subjectivities to be implicated as per Hindutva’s conceptions, this immanent threat needs to be fabricated (and thereby redeemed) even when all empirical evidence and logic fails, as is the case with Saffron Demographics. In identical logic, the mutilation of Shurpanakha and the consequent abduction of Sita in Sagar’s Ramayan serve the same functional cause. It is interesting to note that without these two significant events, it is almost impossible for the series’ narrative to progress forward.

Shurpanakha’s mutilation results from a sexually deviant demoness and sister of Ravan, who takes the form of a bejewelled damsel after being enamoured by Ram and proposes to marry him while he is on his exile. A highly bemused Ram expresses his vow of monogamy towards Sita and provokes the demoness to take her proposal to his brother Lakshman instead, deliberately signalling his availability as against his actual marital status. After being amply mocked by Lakshman too, an infuriated Shurpanakha returns to her demonic form and threatens to eat Sita up, seeing her as the cause of her rejection. At this point, Lakshman is asked to intervene, whereby he mutilates Shurpanakha by cutting off her nose. Vowing to destroy the two brothers, Shurpanakha departs for Lanka, where she pleads her brothers to avenge her humiliation. Ram then remarks to Sita that it is a shameless woman (lajjaheen aurat) who causes of the downfall of her entire community. This act of Shurpanakha’s mutilation can be symbolically interpreted as a gendered punishment for non-conformist behaviour. Shurpanakha’s transgression stems not just from her overly sexual appearance and vanity thereof, but as Das suggests, from her direct disavowal of patriarchal norms of male protection, through her agency that enables her to give out her own proposal without a mediating kinsman. At the same time, the reason for her mutilation is attributed to her attempt to attack a defenceless and innocently meek Sita. However, when seen in the light of the ongoing argument, Sita is instrumentally implicated here to mask the real threat that Shurpanakha’s unrestrained sexuality posed to Ram and his brother, or rather, their masculinities.

Apart from functionally serving as an opportunity for the valorisation of divine masculinities by ‘protecting’ their woman, this scene serves as the core catalyst to the subsequent narrative by “move[ing] the story to top gear”81 and hence inciting the demons led by Ravan to avenge their sister’s mutilation by abducting Sita. Moreover, it is of no co-incidence that Ramayan’s narrative progression relies on the rational digression of its female characters- Manthara, Kaikeyi and Sita, thereby creating situations to justify masculine intervention at the behest of of feminine lack of judgement. Evidently, The entire plot of Ramayan is based on the mutilation, abduction and retrieval of women by men.

What operates implicitly here is the displacement of Hindu masculine insecurities and anxieties vis-à-vis the ultra virile Other onto female sexualities, which, by being cast as threatened, serve as a battlefield for masculine contestations. The constant defence, protection and retribution of female sexualities allows for Hindutva masculinities to seek re-assurance under an equally masculine veil of male protection.

When these gender contestations enter mythological content and iconography, not only are they decontextualised, but are placed in a larger moral imperative, thereby gaining the status of an epic tale of “fall and rise, continue with a re-signification of woman… and triumph in a coda of redemption”82. Equivalently, Ramayan constitutes a moral battle between the Self and the Other, where the lines demarcating the two are constantly re-inscribed by contesting through female sexualities, their mutilation, abduction and retrieval, where gender and sexuality serve as the most salient markers of Otherness.

PART IV: Gender & the Nation

In communal and nationalist discourses, female sexualities are commonly relegated to the symbolic realm and come to determine communal honour83. This is purposefully done to profess communal, and consequently national honour as vulnerable and threatened by the licentious Other, and thus, in need of male protection. In similar logic, masculine ascendency is sought over the Other community through the sexual defilement of their women, equated with the defilement of their honour. Counter-claims to this ascendency then follow in the form of retributions in similarly sexual ways, as is evident in most cases of communal and sectarian violence. Thus, as Nussbaum argues, by being relegated as symbols of communal honour, women are limitlessly reduced from being persons, ends in themselves, to mere instruments, means of expressing “male power, honour and security”84. One can find endless examples of the instrumental use of women subjectivities throughout Ramayan and the Hindutva discourse, for the contestation of masculine insecurities, anxieties in search of re-assurance and stability, that jointly result in the “gendered nature of nations and nationalisms”. Thus, masculine contestations across mythological, communal as well as national discourses come to be centred upon, conditioned by and reassured through the differential sexual chastity and honour conferred upon, and persevered by the women of the epic, the communities and the nation.

*

Notes

* Officially coined by V.D. Savarkar in 1923, Hindutva is used as a term to refer to Hindu nationalism and present-day Hindu fundamentalism in India. This ideology was soon adopted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on its formation in 1925, thereby marking the inception of the Sangh Parivar or conglomerate of organisations representing Hindutva, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini and several others.
**
Several scholars such as Chakravarti (1990) and Roy (1995) have highlighted the fraudulence of these claims by highlighting selectively constituted national historiographies that entail a very distorted conception of the past, which have in turn been utilised by Hindutva to gain genealogical and cultural authenticity. 

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Commentaries

“The Power Is Yours!!”: Eco-friendliness As a Lifestyle

Contending among the leading economies of the world, India’s developmental and industrialisation plans, coupled with climatic changes are resulting in environmental damage that is going to be unsurmountable. A ticking time bomb, environmental damage and the ghastly future that looms with it are not unheard or unknown in today’s day and age. While numerous privileged citizens might perceive environmental threats more generically, many of us are contending with gross pollution on an increasingly frequent basis. The average urbanite of India is familiar with the blanket of smog that welcomes them while their flight descends into their destination city. Unexpected patterns of rainfall, the rising heat, extreme winter temperatures, crop failures and appalling rates of deforestation, among other factors as we know, are deeply correlated and collectively manifesting into disastrous outcomes.

Everybody is aware of recent reports that rate our national capital as being the most polluted city in the world. Studies appearing on many news channels and tabloids link Delhi’s air pollution to decreased life expectancy levels among its inhabitants. Simultaneously, the country is facing a rapid depletion in its groundwater levels, even in its most rain-dense patches. One can only imagine the adversity of these impacts on the country’s flora and fauna. And while many of us live under the perception that “survival of the fittest” is a conception that is limited to the animal world, we might need to think again.

An article that I recently came across in Rajasthan’s Hindustan Times newspaper titled “Don’t Water This Down” highlights the issue of water wars- trending conflicts over the resource and ways to conserve it. It notes that the irresponsibility and unaccountability of several development plans is causing diversions of drinking water in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, and hence, sparking water-based conflicts among the rural populace. While discussing the political economy of developmental plans in these areas, it highlights the lack of parity between the Centre and States over water projects, and the importance of evaluating the environmental effects of water projects.

The article also mentions an uprise in inter-state water conflicts and a horrifying statistic, whereby over 100 million people dwell in areas with poor water quality. According to studies, predictions have been made that by 2030, national supply is predicted to fall fifty percent below demand rates, and that is a scarier situation than we currently face.

While crucial policy decisions are to be made to mitigate the conflict between developmental plans and environmental health, one of the biggest factors that contribute to environmental pollution is domestic negligence and a general lack of initiative among citizens on individual and collective levels. Environmental pollution is a reality that grips each one of us, and while the human civilisation has grown increasingly habituated to reaping its benefits, it missed out the crucial importance of paying back the respect that we owe our environment. A famous quote across the internet explains the irony of our environmental negligence very aptly, it says: “Imagine if trees gave off Wi-fi signals. We would be planting so many trees and we’d probably save the planet too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.” While getting more deeply immersed in indulgent lifestyles, are we forgetting the imperative of upholding our environmental responsibilities at a basic level?

Call me an optimist, but I do believe that by spreading environmental awareness at a micro level, we can successfully overcome its domestic negligence and collectively devise ways that enable us to live more eco-smartly and efficiently. I was in junior school when the ICSE board made environmental science a compulsory subject in the teaching curriculum, and I would call that one of the few wise decisions taken by the percentage-obsessed education system of the country. Through lessons that we belittled while we ourselves were little, I now admit the tremendous impact that these teachings bear on our consciousness today. Which is to say, that while I might not remember the details of the curriculum that repeated itself in a more complex version every year, its basic values have been deeply engrained in me. The few hours spend per week studying environmental science have resulted me to think twice before acting against responsibly eco-living. That is, that while I might not be able to flawlessly explain the working of a solar panel, I understand the importance of conserving non-renewable energy. Environmental Science or EVS, as we all called it as students might have just been another academic hurdle for us as students, but it manifested into an important and non-negotiable life lesson for all of us. For all you know, it might be the prime driving factor behind this article!

So, without further due, here are a few initiatives that I would recommend for you to integrate into your lifestyle to reduce your carbon footprint and mitigate environmental damage. These recommendations are based upon the ethic of sustainable living, which acknowledges the inevitability of several environmental damages but at the same time, believes in the possibility prolonging them. More importantly, it stresses upon the ethical responsibility of one generation to preserve the environment that is soon to be passed on to the generations that succeed it. Please consider the following initiatives and encourage those around you to adopt them as well. Every small bit counts!

  1. Make environmental education a part of your life
    Take a few minutes per day to immerse yourself in some environmental-related education. It could be anything- articles, TV shows, programmes, YouTube videos, or anything. There is a plethora of content out there that teaches you environmental lessons in ways big and small. Learning more about the many facets of our environment will always cause you to gain knowledge and awareness to act responsibly. The more, the better. If you have children, ensure that their learning curriculum involves environmental education as a crucial segment (trust me, you’ll thank yourself later).
  2. Go on cleanliness drives more often
    Whether it means replacing all your bulbs with LED’s, recycling paper or glass, every bit counts. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan isn’t just meant to be on paper. It’s message can be adopted in the most basic activities. Make this a permanent habit.
  3. Create a sustainable garbage system in your house
    Categorise waste into separate disposable bins, namely:
    i) Compost waste: this includes most organic waste, especially from the kitchen: vegetable and fruit peels, egg shells, etc that can be put into a compost to create manure. All the gardening enthusiasts, you’re going to love this!
    ii) Recyclable waste: all paper-based and plastic-based waste can be disposed here, which can be sent recycled by the closest facility near you. Find the closest recycling service near you using good old Google!
    iii) Donate-worthy waste: sort out the stuff that you don’t need anymore, and instead of tossing it in the trash, pass it on to someone who might need it. Earn your karma points 🙂
    iv) Electronic waste: waste such as old electronics, batteries, chargers, mobiles, etc cause radioactive pollutants, and hence need to be disposed by companies that specifically deal with electronic waste. Please dispose these responsibly.
    v) General waste: Once you’ve sorted your waste out into the above four categories, you’ll be surprised as to how much your general waste will reduce. As a result, you’ll be producing significantly lesser amounts of domestic waste. Adopt these measures in your office environment too!
  4. Teach your children the value of giving & keep them close to nature
    Get your children to personally hand out the clothes and toys that they have outgrown to those who come from humbler backgrounds. Infact, tie up with NGO’s that support children and get your kids to interact with them on a more frequent basis. Not only will they be more grateful as individuals, but witnessing lives that are less privileged than theirs will make them think twice before fussing over something that they don’t need, or wasting food on their plates.
    Apart from that, encourage them to pursue some gardening and take them for tree-planting sessions when you can. Planting and nurturing a little sapling that will one day turn out to be a tall tree is a significant development lesson that we can all impart to our children. Good parenting goes a long way!
  5. Invest in a rainwater harvesting system
    If your house has a terrace, creating a rainwater harvesting system is very reasonable. Moreover, find ways to divert cleaner water waste to water the garden or clean the driveway. It’s just a matter of connecting a few pipe ways right!
  6. Be bathroom efficient
    You’ll be surprised as to how much water you can save by changing a few bathroom habits. An average 10-minute shower with a low-flow shower head uses 25 gallons of water, whereas a bathtub uses 35-50 gallons. Try switching to bucket-bathing, which is way more water-efficient. If you adore your shower too much, try timing your bath down to a single song.
    While brushing and shaving, turn off the tap when you don’t need it.
    In addition, get a low-flow toilet- you’ll be surprised at how much water we flush down on a daily basis, whereas the flush can operate with less than half of the water volume.
  7. Small changes in your transport go a long way in reducing your carbon footprint
    Many modes of public transport such as autos and buses run on CNG, significantly reducing emission rates in Indian metropolitans. On the other hand, many of us have the liberty of driving/ being driven around in our own cars. If you belong to the latter category, ensure that your car’s pollution assessment is done frequently. When going in to purchase a new car, go for the more energy efficient ones. Moreover, try carpooling as much as you can. Use your mobile phone to make travel co-ordination easier: hitchhike with fellow family members to go to destinations that are close by or along the same route. During milder weather, consider cycling/ walking to destinations that are close by: you’ll burn down a good amount of calories as well!
  8. Support biodegradable packaging
    Many companies have now started packing domestic groceries and goods in biodegradable material, and even recycled/ recyclable packaging. Look out for these when you shop. Appliances too have started using lesser packaging for their products, the Amazon Kindle e-book serves as a classic example. While picking up stationery, go for acid-free paper, it’s a whole lot better in terms of quality too.
  9. Make smarter electrical choices
    Our markets today offer a series of energy efficient appliances that go beyond the phenomenal CFL and LED bulbs. The new Macbook, for example has a significantly lower carbon footprint than its contemporaries. Not only is it more energy efficient but it is the first ever Apple product that does not feature Beryllium, a carcinogenic metal. This means a significant reduction in radiation emissions as well.
    In addition, go for energy-efficient motors, and use soft starters for AC induction, which will save your electrical supply charges by drawing a minimal amount of current (instead of most inductors that exceed 600% above the required current levels!) You’ll find energy efficient solutions for transformers, energy switches, air conditioning systems, and the list goes on. This is a valuable investment not just for the environment, but also for your electricity bills.
  10. Stay up-to-date with eco-lifestyle
    Read and inquire more frequently on more eco-friendly choices that are being made available in so many spheres of our lifestyles. The process of being eco-efficient is a constant one, and increasingly satisfying as you go about it. Read more, spread more on eco-friendliness and foster change!!

I hope these pointers have made you realise how basic eco-initiatives are if you give them a little time and thought. Making eco-friendliness a habit will contribute significantly to mitigating environmental damage. In addition, it will make you feel a whole lot more fulfilled for making more responsible and sustainable lifestyle choices.

Go Green and Save the planet. Remember what Captain Planet told us every single day on Cartoon Network: “The Power is Yours”!

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Commentaries, Feminism

The Pink Pill gains US FDA Approval

The first ever drug designed for lack of sexual desire among premenopausal women has gained approval from the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Addyi, a flibanserin drug manufactured by Sprout Pharmaceuticals has been designed for premenopausal women suffering from a condition that is formally known as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Order (HSDD). This condition is prevalent among female populace around the globe, but remains relatively undiscussed on larger public platforms due to being rooted in matters of female sexuality.

Despite working differently as compared to Pfizer Inc’s Viagra for erectile dysfunction among men, Addyi has been nicknamed the “female Viagra” is to come with a prominent boxed warning due to the potential dangers that this drug holds for people suffering from liver impairments, as well as those taking certain steroids. The drug is feared to dangerously effect blood pressure levels and cause fainting if taken with alcohol. A consumer watchdog group in the United States has linked Addyi’s side effects as a potential cause for it to be suspended from the market in the near future. However, few believe in the authenticity of their foresight. Moreover, Palatin Technologies is creating a rival drug to combat HSDD, which, unlike Addyi (which activates the brain’s sexual impulses by selectively inhibiting serotonin), will attempt to activate certain neurological pathways in the brain. Several experts believe that the US FDA’s approval of Addyi marks the start to a blockbuster manufacturing trend among rival companies. They also concur that Addyi’s clinical studies are rather promising. While several medical factions speculate the drug’s benefits versus its risks, Addyi’s entry into the market holds a very different meaning for feminist worldwide.

Termed by the National Consumers League as “the biggest breakthrough in women’s sexual health since the advent of ‘the (contraceptive) pill’… it validates (and legitimises female sexuality as an important component of health”. Clearly, issues relating to sexuality, such as sexual impulse, desire and gratification are more comfortably discussed when related to men as compared to women. Pfizer Inc’s Viagra pill for male erectile dysfunction in 1998 highlighted the issue considerably, whereby erectile dysfunction came to be accepted as a medical condition that wasn’t just associated to stigma and ridicule, but also to a meaningful solution. Similarly, the oft-neglected and seldom addressed issue of hypoactive sexual desire disorder among women seems to have a solution after all. Medical solutions for issues relating to sexuality not only provide relief to the patients suffering from dysfunctions/ disorders, but they do so while authenticating the problem’s scientific and medical roots, thus divorcing it from too much social speculation that masters the act of conjuring. This is not to say that the problem is no longer stigmatised, but finding a medical solution to the problem saves the patient’s psychosis from delivering themselves to meaningless speculations by the society, which would have otherwise caused serious damage to their personal esteem and self-worth.

Societal factors in a country like India are still coming to terms with the reality of medical conditions that hamper or impair sexual aptitude even amongst males, which is seen as one of the biggest causative factors behind character assassinations among Indian men. A man in India might find nothing more insulting and offending than being called unmanly due to his diminished sexual prowess or a lack thereof. As issues relating to sexuality are stigmatised, so is their discussion. Now, consider the same situation amongst the less-privileged gender, whose open redressal of the issue is feared to tamper with matters relating not just to individual self-images of women, but collectively to family and communal honour. In such situations, the advancement of drugs catering to female sexuality-related problems comes as a great relief to patients suffering from these conditions who, on identifying medical-backed researches that diagnose their problems, are saved from social prejudice and meaningless norm-identifications. More importantly, this approval also paves way for a larger number of the world’s female populace to find equal sexual gratification as their male counterparts, hence ridding themselves of the oft-quoted drudgery associated with the act.

When it comes to mainstream manufacturing of such drugs in India, a key consideration is that of pricing and affordability. Another is that of the rigorousness and selectiveness with which medical practitioners prescribe this drug. As optimistic as its gender dimension promises to be, it is equally important that health faculties worldwide maintain stringent rules and regulations dominating drug prescription and directions of use to its patients, with precisely laid-out guidelines around the drug’s prognosis. Leaving this responsibility to the discretion of global and national drug administrations, the symbolism of the US FDA’s approval of Addyi is significantly empowering in matters of female sexuality and desire.

Power to Pink! 🙂

News courtesy: Clarke, T. and Pierson, R. (2015). For Lack of Sexual Desire: US FDA approves ‘female Viagra’, but with strong warning. Indian Express (August 20th)

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Commentaries, Feminism

“The Unceremonious Wedlock” of Right Wing Hindu Fundamentalism and Gender in Contemporary India

Disclaimer: This essay is a combination of several pieces written by feminist scholars in the reader by Mary E. John, the Economic and Political weekly, as well as other web archives, along with some of my own writing and analysis. The topic of Gender and Religion was a part of my academic module and I prepared this piece for my final examinations at Delhi University. I have compiled this piece and posted it on my blog so that others get a chance to familiarize themselves with this genre of analysis and to promote their further reading of the pieces individually written by the scholars that I have addressed at the end of this article.

Despite the absence of professional footnotes as a consequence of my poor knowledge on the same as an undergraduate student with poor research capabilities that are yet to develop, I would like to make it clear that no plagiarism has been intended and this work has been published on my blog simply to celebrate the works of these brilliant scholars, as well as spirit of feminist writing in contemporary India.

*In short, this blog has purely harmless intentions and no copyright infringement is intended*

 

“Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”

Mahatma Gandhi

 

I. Background

At the stoke of the midnight hour, when India was granted its independence, there was much that the Indian leadership had to live up to. The country had risen from the shackles of the British Empire, whose sun had finally set in this part of the world, and was to seek and fulfill its own destiny. In all the glory and nostalgia that accompanied the 15th of August in 1947, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in this era popularly known as that of the Nehruvian consensus, led a range of choices that he and his counterparts made on India’s behalf, believing it to be the best and most viable at that period, or maybe, as a matter of no other choice.

Whatever the reason, what followed after that, were without doubt, India’s most volatile decades that it would expect as a newly independent country.

The elite that existed in the confines of the Nehruvian consensus, was rather embarrassed, among other things, with caste and religion, and hoped for them to disappear in the advent of industrialization and modernity. Leaders such as Ambedkar and Phule, who urged to redress the balance that was breached by the various social inequalities that haunted a post-independent India, were cast-aside as ‘not modern’ and ‘castist’. What was so striking about this period of Nehruvian consensus was that there existed a fractured modernity, as some would call it. This ‘modernity’, which consisted of claims and ambitions of the leaders of young India towards India becoming a modern, industrialized, socialist country, enjoyed these brilliant claims merely in the public sphere, that too in a limited fashion. The same voices that rallied so vociferously for India’s development in the public sphere were as oppressive and restrictive in their private spheres as we can, or cannot imagine. Development was invoked where it looked impressive and was convenient, and was withdrawn where it wasn’t.

But the ‘ugly faces’ and manifestations of caste inequality and religious disharmony could not be swept under the carpet for too long.

II. Lopsidedness

Before long, they re-emerged, with the infamous assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist, and an ex-member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh- Nathuram Vinayak Godse. And this event, was only to be followed, by decades and decades of instability and re definition, for the better or for the worse, India is yet to tell.

In the following decades, India witnessed the breakdown of the erstwhile Nehruvian consensus, and was torn apart in the midst of an economic crisis- a disastrous failure of Nehru’s socialist model, which lead to unequal distribution of wealth and uneven income distribution. The middle class was the worst hit. Moreover, uneven development in various regions led to secessionist movements in various parts of India. To add to this, the mid sixties were characterized by violence that accompanied class, caste and communal animosities. Having come this far, sexual violence was almost synonymous with the other manifestations of barbarity. As a result of all of this, the Indian identity suffered serious crisis. Further worse, there was no binding, legitimizing force to bind the Indian state together, for the legitimacy claimed by the Indian state was crippling, and could not be claimed on past glories. Following the impasse from 1975 to 1977 and the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, Indian politics were entering the decade of the three big M’s, and ostensibly, one of the most volatile decades that were to be in the history that defines India today.

III. The Three M’s

First, the Mandalization of Indian politics, which took place in the late 80’s after V.P. Singh implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission which suggested that a fixed quota of all jobs in the public sector be reserved for members of the historically disadvantaged so-called Other Backward Classes.

Second, the liberalization of the Indian economy by Narasimha Rao and opening up the Indian Market to the global economy in 1991.

Third, the Babri Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi Mandir issue that created room for Hindu fundamentalism and right wing Hindu politics in the national arena after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.

The phenomenon that resulted from the combined affect of the three M’s in Indian politics was multifaceted to say the least. Despite the static rhetoric existing in nauseating volumes in most commentaries and reports around us to date, the analysis done through a feminist lens is yet unheard of in many places and avenues of pedagogy, media and debate.

From here on, begins the feminist analysis.

 

IV. A Feminist Lens

a) Dialing ‘M’ for…

The three M’s created more social cleavages than those that existed in India in the earlier decades. The cleavages created by a liberalized market further entrenched the rift between the various classes in the Indian society, putting the middle class into further crisis. Not just by simply adopting an economic model that thrives on capital accumulation and class rifts where one class gets richer and one gets poorer, but because in such a system, the middle class is the system’s favourite target as potential consumers, investments and investors and as the capital in itself as a subsidizing force.

Capitalist development in agriculture and industry leads to landlessness of many, and of bursting unorganized sectors of workers.

Let’s complicate things further by considering globalization in this scenario. A country like India has an immense amount of labour capital, which is one of its fundamental assets. In the case of globalization and footloose capital, there is an increasing rate of migration of Indian workers abroad.

These factors lead to increased dependence on women’s work and a change in power structures such that many households are women-headed due to their male counterparts who have migrated internationally, or to national urban areas in search of work.

With increased consumerism and expenses, dowry demands go up in the Indian society, which further create situations for women to ear their own dowries.
In order to take up all these responsibilities and duties that would earlier almost go unthought-of, women begin entering male spaces, be it within households or in seasonal jobs and unorganized sectors.

With this changing nature of women’s work there arises a growing awareness among them and hence, an increase in women’s movements in India.

Women’s movements that took place at this time were of two kinds- one, that exposed the most extreme manifestations of women subordination, and agitating around them, and two, connecting more extreme forms of violence to structural problems. The latter trend was more subservient as compared to the former.

With women entering the public sphere and the entrance of new kinds of symbolism into Indian culture such as the beauty queen symbolism with choice becoming the new mantra, the Indian state faced a peculiar fear of their women becoming ‘un Indian’.

Hence, a state that is crippled in its legitimacy with the break down of Nehruvian consensus is threatened in terms of its patriarchy due to the changes that capitalism and liberalization of its economy have brought forward.

b) State Sponsored Religious Fundamentalism

This anxiety and insecurity that engulfed the Indian state gave birth to what is known as state-sponsored religious fundamentalism, where the ruling party creates ideological unity by sponsoring religious fundamentalism. This process leads to the state entering a reciprocal relationship with religious fundamentalism where the former helps legitimize and re assert the latter, and the latter provides ideological justifications to re assert traditional controls and provides ideological unity, which is conducive for the state to recover its legitimacy. This relationship results in creating a pan-Indian identity, which is based entirely on communalism.

What is so distinctive about communalism? Communalism is the political use of religion in conflicts over access to economic resources and political power. It is neither inherent nor primordial. There exists no single basis for a community. It is constructed and assumes a homogenous identity, hence ignoring other divisions altogether.
Communalism picks out a particular version of religion, which best suits and justifies its agenda and presents it as the sole, legitimate version, thereby dismissing all other and alternate versions and illegitimate and false. It assumes that since a group of people share the same religion, they will, by default, have the same interests. This forced identity becomes the basis of socio-political demands. Communalism emerges as a dominant ideology hence backed by the state.

Unlike pre-independence India, the middle class in post independent India battles upon issues, which are not even remotely secular. The situation is that of a volatile middle class, a genuine crisis of identities and a state, whose legitimacy is at stake. Communalism uses this situation as a perfect chance to resurrect the lost status of patriarchy by playing through the state. This is significant in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad taking the idea of Hindutva and giving it a pan Indian resonance.

Now the interesting question really is, that how can communalism succeed in breeding violence amongst groups that have lived so peacefully in the past? In order to do so, it has to be situated historically in relation to specific socio economic and political factors.

Communal consciousness rises in situations of insecurity and fear of loss of socio-economic status and the honor of women. Sexualities of women and the dominant national discourse constitute one another. Women become symbols, repositories and barometers of communal and national identities and their identities are constructed through multiple discourses of nationalism, sexuality, gender, community and above all, in the quintessential guise of patriarchy.

The fundamental question of control comes into the picture here. Asserting manliness and controlling your women is synonymous. Why? Because the control that a man has over his woman or his women is the only sort of control that he himself can regulate. Even if he loses his socio economic status, he will always retain the power to control his own women, and this is where his dignity essentially resides. This male egoism cannot be stripped off from him to the extent that threatening his women would amount to threatening his manliness.

At a time of immense economic competition, the middle class becomes the best target of animosities, which are actually entirely external to economic cleavages. The fear of the honour of the Hindu honour vis- a- vis his Muslim counterpart takes over. The Muslim man is portrayed as ever licentious and the Muslim woman- ever fertile. This is the birthplace of the much-perceived fear of Muslim demographics taking over Hindu demographics in India.  This is the core rhetoric of the saffron agenda as led by right wing Hindu fundamentalist groups over decades of Indian politics. The sheer anxiety that stirs similar Hindu consciousness is evident in the Hindu preoccupation with destroying the sexual organs of Muslim women in the Gujarat riots.

Hence, with women typifying tradition and culture, and being identity markers, it becomes imperative for men to control and protect their women from the potentially dangerous ‘other’.

Religious fundamentalism is a crucial component of communalism, it is lethal as it seeks to prop up and resurrect patriarchal controls over women such that the key essence in nationhood lies in women subordination and this has been evident in the erstwhile state complicity during events of communal violence and state sponsorship in the same at other times.

c) The Legitimizing Discourse

Communalism becomes a way of challenging multiple, diverse identities with the purpose of fitting them in accordance with itself and ways that it finds convenient. It pioneers a Hindutva-dominated understanding of the world and legitimizes socio political power on terms defined by it. With the question of legitimacy coming in, how does this understanding get legitimized in the first place? Through the legal discourse, which is official, autonomous, and has the reputation of being a universal tool, which is perfectly objective in its intent and is equally applicable to all. Communalism and religious fundamentalism seek to challenge the dominant meanings of legal discourse and re- define it for their own purposes. They seek to do this by displacing dominant meanings of legal concepts to re define these concepts in accordance with their own version. Significant attempts of this sort have been made time and again ever since the inception of the debate around the Uniform Civil Code and more so, after the Shah Bano Controversy.

Hindutva politics welcomes the version of secularism, which calls for religious difference, and tolerance of the same because it helps in favouring majoritarianism, a word that Hindutva thrives on. Any differential treatment would go against Hindutva agendas and hence, is tagged as violating secularism.  Differential treatment in the form of special rights is dismissed by the Hindutva discourse, whose justifications are more absurd than naïve. They include the understanding that Hinduism is a tolerant religion, and only a country that is based on Hinduism will be truly secular. As one sense even they were blindfolded, secularism is made to collapse into its anti thesis.

Further, Hindutva discourse is of the key assertion that although men and women are equal, they are not the same, as they have natural differences- natural roles that are different and they should stick to this. In this regard, political roles go way beyond women’s natural roles. Empowerment of women is welcomed, only if done in the best interests of the family. Anything that does not fit into this understanding or assertion would not be entertained; rather, it would be seriously condemned. Hence, employment of women can only take place in those areas, which do not threaten traditional roles. It is not hard to decipher that the Hindutva discourse advocates sameness. Not egalitarianism but uniformity, thereby seriously repudiating and injuring difference and diversity. To top it all, if one does not peacefully accept all of this, they are un-secular and threatening, and should be done away with.

d) Women in Hindu Organizations

The much discussed threats perceived by right wing Hindu fundamentalism to Hinduism led to many Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Manch and Hindu Ekta Manch (but to name a few) backing social upheavals. The state had begun sponsoring these organizations, which were highly authoritarian, male dominated, and paramilitary. The state’s changing stance as a result of their altered electoral strategy and other deeper factors began to stifle secular opinion.

Hence the state, religious fundamentalism and capitalism all began to co exist in India in a relationship that was rather harmonious. One provided subsidized labour for the other and the other re asserted domestic roles on women by relegating them to the unorganized sectors. Women became increasingly confined to patriarchy despite their working and getting educated. How? Because their progressiveness was celebrated as the progressiveness of their community. As a dutiful wife, a self- sacrificing mother who was a competent worker and well educated, it was welcomed as being beneficial for the family and the community. The new right emerged in India that was liberal in its philosophy but conservative in its underpinnings. It desired a neo liberal economy due to being pulled by the market’s seductive appeal while clenching on to patriarchy. It aspired economic modernity while restricting socio-cultural modernity and attempting to keep it far, far away in its effort to protect its duly threatened patriarchy.

With the increasing number of feminist movements on the one hand and capitalism often causing restructuring of authority figures on the other, religious fundamentalism encourages its women to be ambassadors of right wing politics, for in this way, she does not challenge the pedestal that Hinduism and patriarchy stand on. Rather, she contributes to the further codification of the two. Right wing Hindu fundamentalists channelized women’s energies towards causes that did not challenge existing power structures but those, that resurrected them.

Post emergency, the RSS gained legitimacy. It opened a sister organization which was to be run on women-participation. It was called the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti. The nomenclature of this sub-organization is purely intentional and bears serious connotations. Rashtriya ‘Sevika’ Samiti and not ‘Swayam Sevika’ Samiti because ‘swayam’ means self-help and independence, and women could not be granted that on any grounds. They were maidens of the nation- karsevikas. More interestingly, the RSS worked through the family, which was a patient, long-term strategy. The Shiv Sena opened to women in similar regard and involved them to perform highly ritualized roles, in accordance with what their male counterparts required out of them.

The Durga Vahini, which was the Bajrang Dal’s sister organization had a journal named Jagriti, which was devoid any rhetoric. It had inspiring, electrifying content and unlike the pacified, RSS woman, the Durga Vahini woman was militant, aggressive and was characterized by the famous slogan “hum bharat ki naari hain, phool nahin chingari hain”. The militant propaganda that has been replicated in the hate speeches of Sadhvi Rithambra Devi (which included conscious audio and video modifications to make many parts sound almost like war cries) come with no co incidence. The exalted positions given to Vijayarajye Scindia, Rani Jhansi and Satyavati further illustrate the rhetoric of virtues that is expected out of the performance of Hindu women.

As Manisha Sethi puts it, the ‘longue duree’ role performed by women across time and space in India is done so in a peculiar fashion. They are ‘avenging angels’ during moments of crisis where they exhibit due militancy, and then ebb away, returning to becoming ‘nurturing mothers’ in times where their militancy is not demanded.

During the Ramjanmabhoomi issue, the monolithic representation of an innocent Ram lalla and later on a militant Ram was of no co incidence. Ram symbolizes deprivation and this puts him very close to the erstwhile discussed emasculated, vegetarian, passive Hindu male who faces much threat from his ultra virile Muslim counterpart. Monolithic representation ensures that everyone can relate to versatile imagery and hence be moved by the propaganda for causes that Hindu fundamentalism has planned so consciously and deliberately.

The larger point to be made is that while all alternate discourses are vociferously dismissed, Hindutva is placed on a pedestal with no flaws of its own. Hindu fundamentalists have, through time, remained dormant on issues of human rights pertaining to Hinduism but have campaigned uninhibitedly against social issues existing within other religious communities such as polygamy and triple talaaq.

e) Conclusion

Finally, the question among feminists remains. Should women’s right wing movements be celebrated or not?

Perspectives towards the relationship between gender and religion vary in India. The typically Marxist perspective consists of the view that gendering communalism is a theme of distributing and justifying unequal power in the society, and rectifying this inequality only lies in doing away with it.

The second perspective, as shared by many feminists is that religion has to be rescued by patriarchy, and this can be done by re interpreting religion through a feminist lens, hence breaking the static rhetoric that religion has clenched on to for so long.

A third perspective, which could be said to be held by many apologists is that religion has proved to be a haven for many women in a society, which is otherwise so oppressive and restrictive. For example, for those women who wish to escape the never- ending circle of domesticity and their housewife-roles, religion offers a perfectly legitimate career option that the society would readily accept- that of a sadhvi or nun.  Hence, women’s participation in right wing movements might not be such a bad thing after all. It could provide to be a bonding-space outside the monotonous confines of the household.

However, these perspectives are by no means static or in water- tight compartments. They are shared in their entirety, or in mixed combinations across the length and breadth of India, through the depths of India’s social strata.

The whole question of a gendered identity is not primordial; it is invented, created, resisted and subverted at the fulcrum of multiple identities. Identities don’t exist in a compartmentalized fashion. They are worked to trump or to be subverted.

Women are united under patriarchy so much because they are seriously divided on other lines. Religious affiliation is politically inclined and it divides women under multiple patriarchies. Patriarchy is a wider social formation and hence, attacking it is not just a women-centric issue but one that is central to any agenda of social change.

A Compilation of the works that belong to:-

 

1)   Uma Chakravarti

2)   Manisha Sethi

3)   Amrita Chhachhi

4)   Kumkum Sangari

5)   Mary E. John

6)   Lata Mani

7)   Brenda Cossman

8)   Ratna Kapur

9)   Martha Nussbaum

10)                   Tarini Bedi

11)                   Rohini Hensman

12)                   Nivedita Menon

13)                   Tanika Sarkar

* Reminders of any authors that I might have missed are welcome, and will be added.

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Commentaries, Feminism, Opinion

Post 16/12 (a sequel to Tinted Windows & Exhaust Fumes)

Many say that feminism in India has re awakened after 16th December 2012. That feminists pre-16th December were a dying breed in India and world wide, that it was a thing of the past- that we live in a post-feminist world. Women’s movements in India, according to Ratna Kapur were challenged by five major factors. Most, if not all of these challenges had a long and persistent history of brewing in the Indian socio-political fabric. However, they manifested themselves categorically in a full- fledged (if not pan-Indian) way after the demise of the Nehruvian consensus.
The first challenge, according to Kapur, was that posed by Mandalization- India’s adaptation of affirmative action on the basis of caste-based reservations. This re instated the already existing cleavage between the Brahminical elite and upper castes from the rest of India. As it is, identities of Indian women were steeped in multiple differences. Caste in India, didn’t simply add to the already existing divides between women in the world, it increasingly gained the primary status as a social cleavage in the Indian polity. The categorization of Indian women as a homogenous entity was more complicated by Mandalization, since women of different castes seemed to have nothing in common besides the fact that they were women. Incidentally, this was not enough to cement them into a ‘sisterhood’ like many pioneers of feminism and human rights hoped it would.
Second- was the Babri Masjid- Ramjanmabhoomi issue, back-dropped by raging Hindutva politics, which highlighted the already widely held-notion that being a Muslim citizen of India was very, very different to being a Hindu citizen. That being a Muslim woman in India was fundamentally different from being an Indian woman in India. A similar manifestation of this communalized differentiation, which had victimized Sikhs, had reached a historical- high during 1984, as many Indians belonging to generations before mine would painfully recall. However, the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims was re instated, not once, but again and again post the bloodbath that took place during partition, in a series of deadly episodes throughout post-independence history- the most recent one being the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which had, among other things, communalized rape.
Third, and not hard to guess after the first two M’s of the 1990’s, was the liberalization of India’s Market and economy, when India formally entered the league of globalization. This liberalization and the adoption of the New Economic Plan almost instantaneously gave rise to aspirations of India’s ever-growing middle- class, which was no longer content with riding a Bajaj scooter to work. It aimed to transcend its current standards of living. India in the 1990’s was brewing. Things were suddenly very different, and would grow to be even more so, in the coming few decades. This economic thrust shifted the nation’s focus exclusively upon economic growth, almost manifesting into a second wave of Nehruvian consensus, so long as it hoped for modernity to prevail over everything else that fragmented India. Hence, the women’s question was largely neglected due to the limelight that the liberalized economy hogged up while hallucinating aspirants, particularly belonging to the middle-class, with new dreams and possibilities that the pretty faces of globalization had to offer.
Fourth, was the challenge posed by people belonging to alternative sexualities, namely the LGBTQIA- the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Indeterminate, and Asexual categories. The presence and increased liberation attained by people from alternative sexualities questioned the Universalist discourse of the category of women being an unproblematic, ‘naturally’ determined one. Universalism could no longer swallow up alternative and ambiguous identities like it had been in the past. There could be no universal movement pertaining to the ‘universal woman’ especially since a universal conception of womanhood wasn’t present any longer. The intimate friction between women and specificity had triumphed over the Universalist conception of womanhood and a movement pertaining to it in all exclusivity.
Finally, Modernization Undercurrent posed the fifth challenge, and many attributed feminism to be a feature of modernity whereby threatening the nation’s culture and traditional roots, that India was so proud of.
The five challenges to the women’s movement in India as stated by Ratna Kapur, accompanied by my commentary based on a historical, socio-political understanding of the Indian state clearly suggest that the challenges had resulted in two major phenomenon- one, the burial of the universalist discourse on women by problematizing the universal identity of women and acknowledging the fundamental importance of specificity; and two, as a consequence, and cultural adaptation of one, fragmenting the idea of who essentially was an ‘Indian’ woman. Her inter textual being- the complex matrix of identities possessed by the Indian woman that interplayed at various phases in various segments and sequence, fractured the possibility for India to have a pan-Indian woman’s movement.
Despite the various forms of violence inflicted on women- physiological, psychological, social, political, ideological, religious, cultural, the focus of the Indian state tended to shift to more ‘glaring’ issues, as already mentioned, and more so since India entered the globalizing world as a promising contestant. However, it goes without saying that the various social cleavages of the Indian polity cropped up in various manifestations at different points of time, while India rode the wave of globalization and development in a ‘post-feminist’ world.
And then, came December 16th, 2012- a chronological landmark as important to feminist discourse in India as that of 9/11 for America. A shameful gang rape was committed on a young woman in the national capital. Without being dismissive of the factual reality around the frequency of rape-cases committed in India every day or shall I say, every hour, 16th December galvanized the sentiments and energies that were building within every victim or potential-victim in India since a long time. One could say in all certainty, that 16th of December, 2012 marked, what we can probably call the most recent instance of strategic sisterhood witnessed by India. Strategic sisterhood refers to the tendency of women to converge at times of corresponding interests and causes, while diverging at times of inconsistency in the same, because history has proved the impossibility for women to automatically or permanently be sisters due to their specificities.
Strategic sisterhood manifested itself all over India, primarily in New Delhi, and in exception to it, the national capital, among other venues across India witnessed men joining the cause with similar, if not equal passion and responsiveness (although I am not particularly convinced about the moral inclinations of many men in the private realm. That, though, is another matter altogether, which I would love to mull over some other time). Besides a series of protests, and other forms of public reactions that set in motion after what happened on December the 16th, the nation slowly mobilized into becoming a part of a larger gathering- that of the One Billion Rising in South Asia initiated by Eve Ensler. With its popular slogan- to ‘Strike, Dance & Rise’, the One Billion Rising campaign was celebrated by New Delhi on the 14th of February, 2013- marking 15 years of the V-Day Campaign. On this determined date, women as a part of the One Billion Rising would dance together in order to show collective strength. The world ‘billion’ refers to the popular statistic that one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, or about one billion. On 14th of February, an estimate of 190 countries participated in the One Billion Rising campaign in their various regional venues.
My short film essentially focuses on the reaction to the unfortunate event that took place on 16th December, 2012, that was indicative of the fact that it had shaken the nation and caused a national uprising, an uprising that was not exclusive to women alone. I have created a short film of about 20 minutes, which, after providing a brief glimpse of 16th December and the immediate response thereafter with the help of news clips, covers the One Billion Rising campaign that took place on Parliament Street on the 14th of February, 2013 with the help of video footage, subtitles, audio and video effects put together by me.

The link to the short film is :-

While the One Billion Rising portrayed heart-warming solidarity and the celebration of womanhood not by just women alone, but their male counterparts too (in a much lesser volume of course), the real concern lies in what follows thereafter. Is One Billion Rising just another ‘social fad’, or is it much more than that?
Shortly after having edited the final bits of my documentary, I happened to read a book by Naomi Wolf called ‘Vagina’- A New Biography. Apart from other pieces that I have read on female sexuality, Wolf’s work was novel in more ways than one. She had a whole new take on how we understand the vagina, and women and sexuality thereafter. Her work is supported by groundbreaking scientific discoveries, revisions of older conceptions of the biological aspects of female sexuality, as well as cultural history to establish an intimate link between sexuality and creativity, which is among other reasons that sharply distinguish women’s sexuality from that of men. Unlike the common rhetoric, she does not attribute these differences to socio-cultural norms per se, but to the basic making of a woman in biological terms, which makes them so different to men. Wolf explains (in much greater scientific depth of course), that while the ‘wiring’ (neurological, biological wiring) as seen in male anatomy is more or less similar, that as seen in female anatomy variant to such a high extent that each woman is distinctively ‘wired’, which makes her sexuality, and as a consequence, her being, unique. One of her chapters is exclusively dedicated to a revisionist understanding of female sexuality where Wolf claims that whatever understanding we have of female sexuality is out of date, and she claims so with much certainty.
What makes this book all the more compelling is its core argument- Naomi Wolf doesn’t simply give a detailed conception about the vagina in a novel way and stop. While the book unfolds, it steps deeper into the understanding that while sexual empowerment leads to high levels of happiness, hopefulness and confidence, a traumatized vagina leads to suppression and subdual of the woman, where she loses self-direction and a motive to truly live. She is internally shredded. Hence, raping a woman and traumatizing her vagina is a faster and more thorough method of breaking a woman internally as compared to most other methods of violence, and Wolf states the reason for this to be the vulnerability of the vagina as a mediator of consciousness.
In my view, Wolf’s conceptualization of sexuality gives my work appropriate theoretical backing. The larger part of my short-film covers Delhi’s response to 16th December through the One Billion Rising campaign. While there were many who felt passionately about the cause, and rightfully so, it is nevertheless imperative for them, and above all, for societies like ours to revise the perceptions and understandings we hold of women’s sexuality in the first place. Without that, an understanding of the dynamics of rape are inevitably incomplete. Rape is often denied its subjectivity and is often understood in dangerously broad connotations. Speaking of which, violence itself is understood as merely physical. The more ‘subtle’ and indirect forms of violence that exist even in the most advanced societies where there have been problems with no names, serve as the causative roots to physical violence such as rape and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, such variations of violence are harder to pin down and grasp in statistics, owing to their covertness. Despite these serious challenges, the most elementary solutions often serve to be the most effective. In this case, it is a revised understanding of women’s sexuality and thereby of violence. It is by no means easy, especially since it commands constant negation of beliefs that are so firmly entrenched in our levels of consciousness, perceptions and ideologies. It commands constant interaction, reflection and revision of our understandings of sexuality and violence, and accepting and further understanding their connection with the overall being of women in their physiological, psychological, cultural, ideological, political, social, economic, racial, religious, ethnic, and most important and causative of all the rest- their biological specificities. It is only after understanding these specifies that we can accept and acknowledge the differences, variations, and details that go into making every woman in this highly populated world truly unique and if I may add with all certainty, SPECIAL.
The One Billion Rising Campaign, while acknowledging the uniqueness of every woman, also celebrated her liberation through the act of dancing, which in itself isa liberating, sexual, and in Ensler’s words- a ‘dangerous’ act, that does away with inhibitions, boundaries, and largely- does away with hierarchy. To see so many people dancing in such an uninhibited manner made me smile at every instance that I held up my camcorder to record them.
While many people present at the venue were cynical about the effectiveness of the OBR, a large number of optimists, including myself believe that women-only spaces, or spaces that are utilized to liberate women in any kind- directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, momentarily or lastingly, are essential in order to keep the feminist energy flowing and growing. Spaces like the OBR re energize feminists and enable them to step out and fight in a society that is so deeply entrenched in patriarchy, even if they have to carry out their agendas as individuals. It charges them with hope and reminds them that they are by no means alone, and every milestone along their journey is worth rejoicing, especially because their victories serve as a collective tribute to the cause of feminism.
It is spaces such as these, which, despite beginning in their establishment as gender-specific, become gender-neutral sooner or later and explain how being a feminist is not limited to women, because to be a feminist is to realize the essential worth and value in the equality of men and women. It is feminist to de-stabilize, so long as patriarchy is stable. It is feminist to de- legitimize, if legitimacy is attained at the cost of freedom. It is feminist to break- free, if holding on means bondage to an institution that dismisses women as any less worthy than men. If men are intimidated by feminism, I am almost entirely certain that they are unaware of what feminism really stands for. What they have grasped so far, have been ugly distortions that have been created in careless chinese & japanese whisper. Having said that, it was still delightful to see a small, but significant number of men joining in with the flash mob and with the campaign by and large. (I am still doubtful in what their reaction would be though, if they were complimented on being part of the strategic sisterhood? Would there be any exceptions to men feeling emasculated? Food for thought).
The extension of the OBR campaign of 14th February was on 8th March- what was recognized as the International Women’s Day. NGO’s and organizations called for a ‘take back the night campaign’ at India Gate starting at 9 p.m. This segment of the OBR was no match to the main event that my documentary covers for several reasons. One- many women must have been constrained due to the ‘late hours’ (with all due cultural specificity) of the protest. Two- it possibly signified the fizzling of the OBR effect. Three- like the OBR, this movement was poor in notifying people. There could be and are various other reasons for the poor turn out on 8th of March. The next landmark is said to be on May 1- the International Labour Day. It would be unfair to be cynical of the nature of its turnout so much in advance. However, it is my optimism that keeps me from being cynical. Needless to say, stark realities stare all of us in the eye. What matters the most is, how we respond to them in order to alter them through our collective actions and strength.
Covering the One Billion Rising Campaign on the 14th of February provided me with unique insights into the nature of the movement and the re birth of feminism itself as many call it in India. I, personally do not believe that feminism ever suffered a demise to be re born. Instead, I perceive the genesis of feminism in continuum, which extends right up till the present second. In my understanding, feminism was not extinguished by mighty currents by any means. At best, it is appropriate to say that it lay dormant in the backdrop of a turbulent, changing and emerging India. While there have been many more changes than the rudimentary ones that we often find in accounts of blatant apologists of the Indian state, what no political scientist can possibly miss is the endless flux that took place and continues to do so in all political societies, that very much include those like India.

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Commentaries, Feminism, Opinion

Tinted Windows and Exhaust Fumes

Let’s spare the political rhetoric of liberalism and women empowerment and blah blah blah. Let’s get down to the point without beating around the bush. The National Capital. 9:00 p.m. The so called ‘posh’ south Delhi paved in the Lutyens way. Malls propping out here and there. Christmas lies a few days away, festivity is in the air. A few men take a “joyride” in a tinted bus. (How “sweet”!)

A girl, like any other of my age, is on her way home from a movie, accompanied by a friend. How does it matter as to where she’s coming from, which locality she stays in, what her background is? She’s a girl. And that’s enough to make her vulnerable? What followed is something that needn’t be discussed. The fact that the brutality of the rape reached a new level altogether and its after math is tangible enough. It has shaken up the entire nation. News channels, blogs, e-mails, petitions, messages, Twitter, Facebook.

Take a moment off to think to yourself. How many “unrecorded” rape cases exist, which might have been carried out in similar brutality and ruthlessness? While that’s another story altogether, let’s get back to what NDTV and similar channels are featuring right now. “Enough Is Enough. End This Violence”. Parliamentarians’ interviews, candle light marches. Infuriated people. The nation is brewing in yet another social issue that has constantly stares us in the eye. Violence against women. Change.org and similar petition drives celebrate rape cases being fast tracked. But is that the end of the road?

Violence against women exists at all levels, and needs to be dealt with in more ways than one. I know it’s easier said than done. But it’s the truth. Besides it’s extreme manifestation of rape, violence exists otherwise too and is not so hard to decipher. Eve-teasing, ogling, harassment at work, are just a few other manifestations of violence against women. These are things a girl is familiar with, regardless of being educated in feminism. I bet every girl who lives in Delhi NCR and many other parts of India has experienced walking past men- in groups as well as in solitude, who don’t miss the slightest chance to ogle at your rear profile. This is not violence carried out in a conscious state-of-mind. It has become a MENTALITY.

A mentality of trivialising women, and more specifically, when they seem vulnerable. A mentality which is all about the chalta hai attitude. A mentality which revolves around exerting your masculinity at the expense of someone’s dignity or even their life. A mentality which by-passes the heinousness of the crime, because- ‘how does it matter? It’s no serious crime. Its “bailable”.’ A mentality which is not too far away from driving a person into cold-bloodedness. And ofcourse, irrespective of whether you are a fruit seller or a bus driver, there is some one you know, whose someone’s someone ‘ki pahunch bahut upar tak hai’. The jugaad mentality. Above all, its a mentality which holds no fear towards the police, the legal system or the society. And mind you- its not just the “Delhi mentality” as many people call it. Those very people also state what I have so often heard- that a girl in Mumbai can be out at 3 a.m. and be assured of her safety. What is “Delhi mentality”? Not that I’m defensive of it or I hold any personal sentiments due to which I am offended by the statement or anything (Like many other inhabitants of the capital, I myself come from a “non-Delhi NCR area”). Getting back to my point- Delhi itself, like other metropolitans of India, is composed of people coming from all parts of India- north, south, east west. So what makes Delhi “Delhi”, is its cosmopolitan character! If it’s a “Delhi Mentality”, as painful as it may sound, doesn’t it bear any odds of being  reflective of a “National Mentality” or “National Mentality in-the-making”? This mentality has received scattered reactions here and there, but with this landmark event (that no Indian would be too proud of), the nation has awoken to produce a very powerful political response, which doesn’t seem to, and (I hope it doesn’t) extinguish very soon.

Like many others, I am an optimist. I believe in this political response of the people of India- men and women, the young and the old alike, is marking a start. But I don’t stop here. Its optimism bound by practicality. Being realistic as much as I enjoy the hope “to bring about a change”. It’s a question, that time will answer. In a nation rampant with gruesome rape cases and monkey-parliamentarians, with headless chickens pointing fingers at one another and running in deformed circles, the political activism of the people seems to be a silver lining. But then what? If Sheila Dikshit expects “calm” representatives to engage with her, the question is- what is there to be so “calm” about? Definitely not in confiscating bus-licenses. This is not a time when protestors can be cowed down with water cannons. They want a response. They want action. And rightfully so. It is undoubtedly a challenging extremity that the government has to encounter. But what is even more challenging is the forthcoming legal action and its implementation.

When will our run come to an end? When there is FINALLY a solution because there doesn’t seem to be one which engages with the aforementioned “mentalities”. I couldn’t agree more with the popular statement “Don’t tell your daughters not to go alone; tell your sons how to behave.” This is one of the only ways to tamper with and change mentalities. Its high time we began, and the best beginning, alongside the appropriate legal reforms, is to begin at the roots. While ofcourse this sounds utopian, it highlights our political, socio-cultural realities. Because legal structures, as unfortunate as it is, are still lack substantiality. They might deter such crimes but I’m afraid they can’t put an end to that mentality that looms as large as the smog over the capital on a winter morning. Deterrence is ofcourse a start, but by no means an end. Its just so hard to decipher what the ‘apt’ deterrent would be for such a heinous crime, which murders the victim- irrespective of whether she makes it after being assaulted or she doesn’t. While a strong deterrent like chemical castration impinges on India’s liberalism, we all know the baggage that accompanies life-long imprisonment- “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Fast-tracking rape cases is a start but by no means the end. It doesn’t and most definitively shouldn’t stop here. It is mentalities we are talking about, which cannot be put down in statistics.

In the end, we still remain who we are and what we want. I am a 20 year-old, a third-year at the Delhi University who lives in “south” Delhi and am honestly afraid to drive around in my own car (which is equipped with an automatic central-locking system) even during the earliest hours after sundown. I want a city, a nation, where no one has to be afraid to step out unescorted (or escorted in this case) at a particular hour and place. Who is it we fear? What’s worst is- it’s not tangible. Its not a person- a particular auto- rikshaw driver, a man sitting on the road, a gang of thugs, or the even most courteous salesman or boss. Its the mentality we are afraid of. And its beyond “high-time” to do away with it.

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