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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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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