Guest Post by KARTIK MAINI
Later this month, we are told, Textile Minister Smriti Irani will be celebrating the festival of Raksha Bandhan with soldiers in India’s highest, perhaps most brutal battleground: Siachen. As the armed forces begin to occupy a central motif in public discourse on patriotism and national honour; and dissent against the BJP gets overwhelmingly portrayed as national betrayal, honouring the supremely courageous men who protect their brothers and sisters on the nation-state’s fault lines is far from problematic. Indeed, in so far as the nation is performed through patriarchal violence, it is.
Employing the signifier of Raksha Bandhan as a promise of the nation’s cherished men to protect their sisters is not nearly as trivial as many consider – it captures the lived experience of nationalism, as also the phallocentric economy invariably implicit in the idea of nation.
History today projects the national movement, or the struggle for India’s independence from centuries of colonial exploitation, as a unified development, as a discourse which brought together even the most vulnerable sections of Indian society to somehow forego their experience of domination by and through the elites who claimed to represent them. The emergence of nationalism, then, was largely anti-colonial and cohesive towards the resistance of the former, even exhibiting a semblance of egalitarianism. It is only recently that historians and intellectuals have begun to ask the uncomfortable question: could the lived experience of the nation be radically different for the subaltern? If so, can they ever truly be represented without being spoken for?
Writing on the nation, its fragments, and its women, Partha Chatterjee eloquently argues:
‘The difficulty which faces historians here is that by working from the conventional archives of political history, women appear in the history of nationalism only in a ‘’contributive’’ role. All one can assert here is that women also took part in the nationalist struggle, but one cannot identify any autonomous subjectivity of women and from that standpoint question the manner in which the hegemonic claims of nationalist culture were themselves fashioned.’
Clearly, in the phraseology of Simone de Beauvoir, men constitute the ‘transcendent Subject,’ and women, the ‘immanent Other.’ Both the subject and the Other are masculine mainstays of a phallocentric economy that achieves its objective through the exclusion and marginalization of the feminine altogether.
Further, in the context of gender, nation, and the intertwined history of the two, how does one begin to grapple with the infamous Partition? While it is now known that the independence of India and Pakistan was built over the corpses and tremendous sense of loss that characterised the largest mass-migration in human history, discourse owes much to Urvashi Butalia’s magnificent attempt to ‘engender’ the Partition: The Other Side of Silence. Documented in Butalia’s rich prose is the lived experience of the Partition for women across regions and religions – the experience of abduction, murder, countless incidents of rape, and honour killings. Of particular significance to any argument on the thoroughly gendered nature of the nation is the experience of ‘recovering’ women. Instituted in India as the Central Recovery Operation, the rationale of ‘recovering’ women was to rescue abducted Hindu and Sikh women from Pakistan, and vice versa. This operation, whilst seemingly noble, called upon publicly active feminists as Anis Kidwai to aid rehabilitation.
It was much later, in fact, that the forcible nature of such recovery operations was revealed – having experienced one tumultuous upheaval, the abducted women formed new kinship ties, and it was therefore doubly agonising for them to be rescued into families that would no longer accept them. A variety of ‘solutions’ were suggested that could be employed to teach Pakistan a lesson, one among which was to withhold Pakistani women. The dialectic of nationalism, if one does listen to the zealous chorus of its performance, routinely posits the female body as a site of patriarchal violence, as a political instrument to negotiate enmity, and finally, as a destructible surface to build masculinist discourse.
It is, I believe, only in this context that one can truly begin to place Smriti Irani and the semiotics of gendered nationalism, particularly Hindu(tva) nationalism. Throughout Irani’s controversial tenure as Human Resource Minister, she faced virulent critique, much of which was overtly misogynistic. She was constantly vilified for being an ‘actress,’ shamed for her body, asked by a Congress MP to do thumkas, called Narendra Modi’s second wife, among many other such comments. Yet, it would be impossible not to note that the same culture that sires such misogyny is the social terrain of Hindutva.
The cultural idiom of Bharat Mata that is now imperative for any self-respecting nationalist to reiterate, celebrate, and force others to accept is a product of politics premised on a fundamental Otherness of women in the making of the nation. Bharat Mata is not a mere woman – she is, in Aurobindo Ghosh’s words, the cities, mountains, rivers, and jungles of Akhand Bharat. She is its physical body, a living mother to be worshipped with nine-fold bhakti. In so far as a woman partakes in the national experiment as a mother, wife, or sister, she is the ‘pure’ Hindu woman to be respected, sometimes even revered, and most importantly, to be protected.
Smriti Irani can thus be Rohith Vemula’s mother, and he can be her ‘child.’ Similarly, she can seamlessly transition from motherhood to sisterhood, as the soldiers’ sister who procures from their valour the promise of being protected in the name of the patriarchal nation. If there is anything we learn from prevalent discourse that posits the proverbial battlefield as the site where the nation manifests itself, it is that nation has always had a gender.
This is a country for men.
Kartik Maini is a student at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University