The Shiv Sena in the 1960s started essentially as a male-dominated party and its activities were such that it was no place for women. It was not until the 1990s that women in the Shiv Sena came into their own. However, the subtle shift towards a right-wing feminist agenda had begun from the mid-1980s soon after the textile strike by trade union leader Datta Samant that altered the character of Bombay forever.
For the kind of party that the Shiv Sena was, it stands to reason that the first lot of women who entered the party were from the slums and they had good reason to seek Bal Thackeray’s protection. Their husbands had lost their jobs when the mills closed down and many girls from decent families in villages were compelled to seek work to keep home and hearth together. However, for such uneducated rural women then, the only jobs available were either as domestic workers or in cottage industries – like making bindis, costume jewellery, bidi rolling, etc.
These women were massively exploited by their male employers and even by the husbands of their female employers in whose homes they worked as maids or childminders. Individual tales of such horror brought them together and as the bonding grew it was just a matter of time before they followed their husbands into the Shiv Sena and became a united and formidable force in the slums of Bombay.
Through the 1990s, I recall, these women formed shouting brigades which would name and shame the employers who ‘sexploited’ one or the other of them. The fact that they were now part of the Sena Mahila Aghadi and under the protection of Bal Thackeray helped to adequately frighten men with malafide intentions.
During the riots Sena women from the slums found common cause with those they had earlier contemptuously dismissed as ‘air-conditioned’ women — the Paithani silk sarees clad living in high-rises. Fear of violation by the enemy (read Muslim men during the conflagration) was the glue and all of them played an enormous role in the success of the Shiv Sena during the riots. They not only sat up all night in vigil as the men who had rioted all day slept, they also cooked sumptuous meals for the tired and hungry rioters. But, most importantly, they were a formidable shield against the police hunting down the rioters.
When one was chased down, the Mahila Aghadi would emerge and throw a cordon around the rioters who would soon vanish into the nooks and crannies. The police stood by helplessly as they were petrified of breaking through the ranks of these women who were not beyond charging them with inappropriate behaviour and molestation.
It is, therefore, ironical that the very same molestation and sexploitation, which was the main plank that the Mahila Aghadi fought against through its existence, should now plague the Shiv Sena. Sadder still that the perpetrators should be none other than their own MLAs and other functionaries who would, at one time, have not dared defy their supremo’s protective cloak around the Mahila Aghadi. Thackeray then could rightfully claim that whatever his Shiv Sainiks were, they could not be molesters.
I am appalled that things now have come to such a sorry pass in the party today that its MLAs have no fear of their leadership. But even more disturbing is the fact that the party leaders should take the matter so lightly as to defy all attempts at redressal of the grievances of the women corporators being sexually harassed by its MLAs.
Thackeray had once described his women force as ‘ranraginis’ (women of battle) and equated them with Durga and Kali. Indeed, once upon a time, the very mention of affiliation with the Mahila Aghadi used to stave off potential miscreants — for if subjected to their kind of justice, it could often leave men scarred for life.
Sadly, today these once red-blooded ‘ranraginis’ have been rendered as anaemic as could be. By their own men.