The Rashtra Sevika Samiti, female counterpart of the RSS, has been mobilising Hindu women to reconstruct the nation for more than seven decades. A report from the Samiti’s headquarters in Nagpur.
The sound of Vasudha Khati’s whistle pierces through the pall of silence that hangs in the room on a sultry evening in Nagpur. The women in the room, members of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the Hindu nationalist organisation, take their cue: their pallus tucked into their saris at the waists,mangalsutras in place, they assemble themselves in neat rows, backs straight and chins up, looking their leader in the eye, waiting for her next command.
In the next few seconds, one of the 10 Sevikas — a term used for Samiti members — steps forward, and fixes a bright, saffron flag on top of an iron rod. Together, the group salutes their dhwaj (flag), before they sit down for their weekly shakha (local chapter) meeting.
“Saavdhan (be alert). That’s what the whistle tells us,” Vasudha, a homeopathic doctor, explains to her middle-aged audience, now sitting cross-legged on the floor. Women need to be careful all the time, she tells them.
Who else tells you to be careful? she asks the group. The signboard on the roadside, someone from the group says. The Hindu priest who chants shubhmangal saavdhaan at weddings, says another. So, perhaps Modiji was sufficiently warned, one of the sevikas points out, and the group shares a laugh.
“Indeed. Probably he realised he had a bigger role to play in the service of the nation,” Vasudha smiles, and asks the group to switch the discussion.
Lessons in virtue
At the Devi Ahilya mandir, a threestoreyed building in a residential colony in Nagpur, young girls and women stream in and out through the day. Few among them are the sevikas who eat, pray and live here — they are the full-time volunteers. Others are young girls from the north-east who live in the Samiti’s hostel in the building. The girls study at local schools and colleges, and follow the Samiti’s daily rituals at the shakhas. Still others such as Vasudha are part-time volunteers, who organise the weekly shakhas and the annual shivirs (camps), and participate in various activities.
Around noon, four elderly women sit across a wooden table on the first floor of the building, their vegetarian meal laid out neatly on steel plates. They fold their hands and say a quick prayer. “What we eat must not only fulfill our bodies, but must also be useful for the motherland,” explains Pramila Tai Medhe, as she begins her lunch, and invites me to join her. Pramila Tai is an old hand: a member since she was little, and now in her 80s, she served as the Samiti’s pramukh sanchalika (all-India chief) for six years until 2012.
The story, she tells me, began in the 1930s when “Mausiji” (Lakshmibai Kelkar) suggested to Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that women also be involved in his vision of a “Hindu nation”. Hedgewar agreed, and in 1936, the Samiti was started as a “parallel organization” of the RSS, sharing its vision and ideology, but independent in its functions. Like the RSS, the Samiti also holds shakhas and shivirs, and aims to inculcate the same values vis-à-vis the nation, family, and women’s position in society. Women are equal agents in the “reconstruction” of the Hindu nation, both insist. They also believe that Hindu women were confined to the household after “the Mughals invaded us” and “committed atrocities” on the Hindu women.
But the women need to be empowered now, according to the Samiti. At the shakhas, young girls are “empowered” by being trained in martial arts, lectured on the nation’s “glorious” history and the need to defend the motherland against invaders. The attempt is to discipline them into virtuous Hindu women, who can fend off attacks from men, and from desire: steer clear of pre-marital sex and sex outside of marriage; oppose live-in relationships, surrogate motherhood and sex work, and also social evils such as female foeticide and dowry, they are told. Besides being the cultural ambassadors of Hindutva, members must also be ready to fight, just as they did during the Ayodhya movement, says a senior member of the Samiti.
But Pramila Tai is skeptical of these conversations. “Our work has often been misunderstood,” she says. Hinduism is not divisive, but tolerant and assimilative; being Hindu doesn’t mean following rituals; and the only allegiance of a people must be to the nation, not to religious norms, she insists. “A Hindu is one who is born here; who calls it (motherland). It includes people from all religions”. Except, of course, if you are “dishonest to the nation”, she cautions. Pramila Tai directs me to Radha Gokhale, a post-graduate in Physics and a long-time volunteer, to understand the motivations of their members. Radha, in her 40s, says her brothers have been members of the Sangh, and she has been with the Samiti since she was a child. “This is like family. I am like their daughter; my husband is the son-in-law,” she smiles, when I ask her why she would volunteer for several hours in a day in return for no remuneration. We discuss the Samiti’s sewa projects that many women such as Radha foreground in their conversations about volunteering. What about the demolition of the Babri masjid and the Gujarat riots, I ask Radha and her husband, Mohan Gokhale. “Did anyone at the Samiti ask you what is your religion, or your caste?” Mohan, who teaches textile chemistry in a college in Nagpur, asks me. He then begins to talk at length about issues in the country that need to be addressed. “People always fear two things: god, and police. Today, the problem with our country is, people fear neither.”
Sitting in a room full of several Hindutva icons, Shantakka, now in her 60s, is contending with the dwindling attendance at the shakhas. Old timers at the Samiti speak of the hundreds who came to attend these shakhas; today, there are times when the attendance is in single digits. “Girls are now career-oriented; they have to attend tuitions and activity classes. Where is the time to do anything else?” she says. So, the Samiti is responding with more dynamism. “We don’t make young college girls do physical training. Instead, to get them interested, we discuss topical issues with them,” she says. The Samiti is also unconcerned with the dress code — from saris to churidars to pants; anything that is “decent” is allowed in the shakhas.
The Samiti must also reach out to the vulnerable: hostels for girls from the northeast, to “save Hindus from being converted to Christianity” over there ; help for the families of farmers who have committed suicide because they were unable to repay debts in Vidarbha; and volunteering for disaster relief in Uttarakhand.
The good sevika
But the production of ideal Hindu women has brought with it its own set of compromises and contradictions. This evening, for instance, Vasudha is contemplating allowing one of her members, who recently got involved in an extra-marital affair, to get back to the shakha. “She is working on her marriage now, and I have asked her to come back in a few months. Everyone will forget by then,” she says.
Poornima, a 25-year-old law graduate, who lives in the Samiti’s hostel for northeastern girls at the mandir, is dealing with her own dilemma. Back home in Assam, it is important to “save Hindu culture”, she says. She even recalls the sister who fell in love with a Christian and was “forced” by him to convert. But Poornima is unsure what she would do in a similar situation. “I think I wouldn’t care; as long as he is a good human being,” she says, after some thought.
By now, another shakha is in progress at the mandir. The young girls march back and forth with precision and sing songs about the “brave, fierce daughter” of Hindustan. They talk about respecting elders, being honest, countering the “love jehad unleashed” by young Muslim men on “innocent Hindu women” and resisting the ills of “western culture”.
After the shakha, however, Rinky (name changed), a Class 11 student in Nagpur, asks me if I could help become a “ramp model”. “See, I have been preparing: I attend Western dance classes, take care of my diet, skin and hair also. Tell me, can you give me some contacts?” she pesters. So, why does she attend the shakha? “Oh, that’s only because I want to spend time with friends.”