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A few days ago, a Muslim MLA in the Maharashtra Assembly refused to chant 'Bharat Mata ki Jai'. Given that street-level bullying is a regular feature of our legislative assemblies, there was an immediate uproar over his refusal to 'perform' and he was suspended. This bears similarities to a typical scene of college ragging, a polite term for bullying--a bunch of senior students gang up against a fresher and force him to sing, dance or kiss someone's ass, a performance out of which the perpetrators would (a) get voyeuristic pleasure, (b) establish their power over the person, and (c) make the outnumbered student, the minority, a subject of ridicule.
In Aparna Sen's Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), a violent Hindu mob suddenly enters a tourist bus and starts asking people their name. A Muslim name is a death sentence. One by one the petrified passengers say their Hindu names and show their Hindu signs like the mangalsutra, sindur, janaeu (sacred thread). Somebody from among the passengers gives away the identity of an old Muslim couple who are then killed.
What's next? Forcing Muslims to eat pork and chant Har Har Mahadev to prove they are not 'anti-national'?
In Deepa Mehta's Earth (1998), a raging Muslim mob enters the house of a Parsi family and asks them to bring out all the Hindus they have been hiding. They particularly ask for Hari the gardener. Hari who is now a Muslim, Himmat Ali, comes forward. The mob asks him to prove that he is true Muslim by reciting Kalma. Unsatisfied even after he does so, they further ask him to open his pants to check if his penis is circumcised as is the practice in Muslims. They look at it and laugh.
These cinematic scenes of mob violence are not too far from reality.
Mob violence is now the greatest mark of nationalism and patriotism in our country. Gang up against the minorities, bully them, beat them to death because of something they said or didn't say, something they ate or didn't eat and you are the greatest nationalist. What's next? Forcing Muslims to eat pork and chant Har Har Mahadev to prove they are not 'anti-national'?
Now, while enough has been written about this noxious brand of nationalism in recent weeks, I want to focus here on the gender angle. Maybe then you will understand why I think every feminist should refuse to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai.
Birth of a nation
The idea of a nation is built upon notions of inclusivity and exclusivity. Who legitimately belongs to the nation and who does not? There are several criteria of belonging, such as consanguinity including common race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, language, tradition, culture, a common history of colonialism, struggle, survival etc. In India the nationalism discourse is strongly built upon the Vedic civilization and it is claimed by nationalists that India is a nation for and of Hindus. Everybody who ever lived in this land is a Hindu or had been a Hindu forcefully converted to another religion by foreign invaders.
Since nations are built upon a common identity... there is a need to control women's womb, the factory where the national identity is produced and reproduced.
Whose legitimate land this is and who is an invader is an utterly vague concept. Where do we begin? Do we begin with the dinosaurs? Or maybe the birth of human beings upon the land which is now Africa? Technically, besides African people, everybody else is a migrant in this world, a blasted foreigner and an invader. In the history of earth our species arrived 200,000 years ago, yet the nationalists claim that merely 5000 years of Hindu civilization is all that matters and that should determine the idea of India as a nation. Truth is India as a nation was born in 1947 with the end of British rule.
Women's role in the idea of a nation
Since nations are built upon a common identity the continuity of that identity is important for the nation state to remain relevant. Protection and expansion of the population belonging to that chosen identity is therefore an integral part of the nationalist discourse. And to do that, there is a need to control women's womb, the factory where the national identity is produced and reproduced. Thus we have Indian nationalists asking every Hindu woman to give birth to 10 children, preferably male (others recommend kindly that four will do).
Further, it is not enough to merely produce and reproduce the chosen identity but it is also important to protect the 'purity' of the chosen identity. This is achieved by controlling women's sexuality.
We have Indian nationalists asking every Hindu woman to give birth to 10 children, preferably male (others recommend kindly that four will do).
Thus the Hindu nationalists want to control Hindu women's right to choose their sex partners, relationships and marriage by seeding the concept of 'Love Jihad' into public consciousness. People are being warned that Hindu women must be forcefully stopped from entering into sexual relations with Muslim men to prevent an Islamic takeover of the country and to protect the Hindu progeny she is capable of bearing. Nobody is concerned with what the Hindu woman wants.
Women as the embodiment of nation
When women in Bollywood do item numbers and the camera focuses on their breasts, buttocks, waist and cleavage we call it 'objectification'. Hyper-sexualized images of women strip them of their identity and reduce them to objects of sexual gratification.
The image of 'Bharat Mata' does exactly the same for the nationalist or patriotic gratification of its citizens. Women are dehumanized and objectified by being reduced to an embodiment of the nation, merely an area of land to be acquired, controlled and protected. Every aspect of women's personal life therefore becomes subject to scrutiny and they have to constantly live up to a perceived notion of the ideal 'Bharatiya nari'. Women's worth is recognized and valued in relational terms, they are either mothers or daughters of the nation and they need protection from perceived 'others'.
Bharat Mata, the image that is supposed to represent India before which everybody is supposed to bow down, is a Hindu upper-caste, upper-class, domestic, married, northern woman, with superior moral character, akin to a Goddess (as can be deduced from the amount of gold she's usually represented as wearing, the colour of her skin, the way she ties her sari and so on). Who decided this image of our mother? Why can't Bharat Mata be a burqa-wearing woman? Why can't she be a jeans and T-shirt-wearing working mother with dark skin?
If you Google the image of Britannia, the embodiment of the nation of Great Britain, you'll come across an image not so different from Bharat Mata, complete with the lion and trident. The irony of it all.
Nationalism as performance
Nationalism is not natural, it is a social construct, a performance just like gender and sexuality are. It is an imaginary notion that is instilled in young impressionable minds using rituals and symbols. Celebrating the national flag, Independence Day, singing national songs, chanting Bharat Mata ki Jai are part of these rituals. The government's attempt to impose elements of Vedic culture like Sanskrit, Surya Namaskar, vegetarianism, cow worship are rituals of nationalism that are being used to produce the national Hindu identity.
Why can't Bharat Mata be a burqa-wearing woman? Why can't she be a jeans and T-shirt-wearing working mother with dark skin?
Nationalism feeds on fear and hatred. The idea survives on a persecution syndrome which makes an enemy out of everybody; it tries to survive by destroying every other identity. Thus, nationalists are constantly telling young Indians that Bharat Mata is under attack from Muslims. Bharat Mata here is a weak woman who needs protection while her citizens are masculine warriors who must defend the mother. Such 'protection' is 'performed' for a spectator using masculine power and violence. In March 2015, Dimapur, Assam a mob of thousands (presumably men) lynched a Muslim man to death on the suspicion that he raped a Hindu girl (the government report suggested it was consensual sex, incidentally). The act was condoned in many circles in the name of patriotism. It is nobody's concern that crime statistics would reveal that the maximum number of rapes are perpetuated by Hindu men on Hindu women.
It is nobody's concern that crime statistics would reveal that the maximum number of rapes are perpetuated by Hindu men on Hindu women.
In a time when physical boundaries are fast becoming irrelevant due to virtual connectivity, instead of imagining a future without social or geographical borders, a world where only the only religion and culture that should matter should be of love, peace and humanity, our great nationalist politicians are trying to take young Indian minds back to the age of hatred, invasion, battles. As a proud Indian woman, I refuse to let my identity be dragged in this performance of violence and hatred, and I refuse to worship a dubious image of my country.
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