IN BAD FAITH? BRITISH CHARITY & HINDU EXTREMISM
Awaaz — South Asia Watch Ltd, 2004
APPENDIX 5: WOMEN, DALITS, ADIVASIS & THE RSS
THE RSS AND WOMEN
While the RSS has always remained a male organization, the first ever affiliate of the RSS was the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, a women’s organization modelled on the RSS shakha structure and hierarchy. Its ideology, and that of the RSS, is based on a deeply patriarchal and conservative view of the role of Hindu women. This is the idea of matruvat paradareshu – all women, except one’s wife, are to be treated as one’s mother. Women are present only as wife or mother. The Samiti’s daily shakha prayer also states the four stages of the life of a woman as ‘daughter, sister, wife and mother’. It is also the home where a woman’s character is to be moulded. Home is where the woman becomes happy, not in her own happiness, which the Samiti considers ‘selfish’, but by getting ‘trained to seek happiness in the happiness of others.’ The Samiti’s ideas focus heavily on the need for Hindu women to make personal sacrifices and tend to the needs of others in the home. The reason for the formation of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti is described by it in the following way:
Due to western impact women were struggling for equal rights and economic freedom. This was leading to individual progress only, inviting self-centredness. There was every risk of women being non-committed to love, sacrifice, service and other inborn qualities glorifying Hindu women…Many women were attracted to the new easy going and showy way of western life. Forgetting their own self, they were fascinated by the idea of equal rights and economic freedom. This unnatural change in the attitude of women might have led to disintegration of family, the primary and most important unit for imparting good Sanskaras [Hindutva ideas].
This is a stark dismissal of equal rights and economic independence for women as an unnatural and ‘western’ idea. The RSS (and the sangh parivar more generally) has been strongly opposed to women’s emancipation movements and feminism, instead wanting to promote different ideas of Hindu womanhood. Some of these ideas, because they use Hindu goddesses such as Durga who are traditionally seen as symbolising strength and power, have been taken by a few people to mean that the RSS or BJP is supportive of women’s liberation. Similarly, the promotion of a small number of particularly hate-driven Hindutva politicians, such as Uma Bharati, Sadhvi Rithambara and Sushma Swaraj, has been seen as strengthening women’s roles. This is seriously misleading. The sangh parivar uses various goddesses as role models for women: the obedient, subservient and endlessly sacrificing Sita; the powerful, and yet motherly and always sacrificing Bharatmata, and the idea of Durga as instilling religious duty rather than any kind of independence for women. As in Nazi and Fascist ideas, the overriding idea for the RSS is that a woman’s duty is to her immediate family, the family of the RSS and the greater family – that of the Hindu nation.
The sangh parivar makes a strong distinction between Hindu women, who are to be glorified as mothers, wives and sisters, and Muslim women, who are seen as adding to an unwanted and ‘polluting’ minority population. A key part of Hindutva ideology is that Muslim women’s allegedly high fertility and Muslim men’s allegedly high potency will result in Hindus becoming a minority in their own ‘holyland and fatherland’ – hence a very dangerous Hindutva obsession with minority fertility and reproduction. The systematic use of mass rape, sexual torture and mutilation by Hindutva mobs against Muslim women and young girls during the Gujarat carnage in 2002, a key characteristic of the violence, illustrates the brutal way these ideas were deployed. Similarly, violence against Christians has included the raping and abuse of Christian women.
This distinction between Hindu women and others can mean that a militant Hindutva womanhood is also encouraged through bringing Hindu women into activism. However, there are important limits to this in the RSS and VHP’s patriarchal ideology: Hindu women are allowed to become militant if their targets are non-Hindu men, but rarely do Hindutva women activists openly criticise Hindu men. Hindutva ideology claims that in ancient, 'Aryan-Vedic' India women were somehow equal to men and deeply honoured. Similarly, a few historical or mythological Hindu women personalities are idealised. Hindutva ideologues then claim that the current downgraded status and degradation of women only occurred after the medieval period and directly as a result of the so-called ‘Muslim invasion of India’. In this way, an unreal idealisation of Hindu male perfection towards women is claimed, while every injustice towards women in India, from female infanticide, seclusion, sub-caste discrimination, violence and women’s lowly status, can be blamed on Muslims. This absolves Hindu men of any responsibility whatsoever for the continuing injustices faced by women and girls.
DALITS, ADIVASIS AND THE RSS
During the 1920s, the rise of dalit movements was seen as a major threat by upper-caste groups, and the RSS was explicitly created to oppose non-brahmin movements that were demanding equality and social justice. Any kind of independent movement or force is seen within Hindutva as a threat to the integrity, order and ‘harmony’ of the ‘Hindu nation’ (though it is Hindutva movements themselves that have created so much violent conflict and severe disorder in India in recent decades, despite their claims about social harmony.) A second factor was the very strongly held view among Hindu nationalists that Hindus were ‘a dying race’ because of the supposed increase of the Christian population during the colonial period. Therefore dalits and adivasis, who constitute a significantly large Indian population, had to be brought under ‘Hinduism’ in order to increase ‘Hindu’ numbers and oppose any Christian and Islamic influences among them. The Hindutva belief is that dalits and adivasis belong by right to ‘Hinduism’, are degenerate and errant wanderers from an original 'Aryan-Hindu' civilisation, and have to be ‘brought back’ into and under the caste system. Hindutva groups do not like the traditional term ‘adivasi’, which means the original inhabitants of India prior to the arrival of ‘Aryans-Hindus’, but instead ‘vanavasi’, meaning the ‘forest dwellers’.
Dalit and adivasi groups have a very wide variety of indigenous religious beliefs, practices, traditions and world views. These are not part of caste Hinduism and dalit and adivasi deities cannot be seen simply as Hindu gods and goddesses (nor as an ‘animism’ that is essentially ‘Hindu’.) The attempt to merge dalits and adivasis into caste Hinduism was also strongly opposed by upper caste groups and by the Hindu religious hierarchy. This is because in caste Hinduism, dalits and adivasis, who are not 'born as Hindus', are considered ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’. However, because of their large population, dalits and adivasis were useful for the Hindutva project. They could be converted to ‘Hinduism’, ‘integrated’ into the caste system, and prevented from following other religions and worldviews, such as Christianity, Islam or traditional dalit or adivasi beliefs.
This is how the RSS describes its work among dalits:
The neglected brethren of our society have been made the special targets for proselytization by the Christians and Muslims and for inciting caste wars by all the three anti-Hindu elements – the Muslim, Christian and the Communists…Our dharmacharyas [priests] had been refusing to take the Hindus converted to Islam and Christianity back to the Hindu fold…But now under the leadership of the [VHP, they] are making suitable amends. They have declared that our Dharma [religion] does sanction such a taking back and are even taking a prominent role in many such reconversion ceremonies. They have thus given birth to the new Smriti – Na Hinduh patito bhavet – No Hindu is fallen for ever.
So much for the RSS view of dalits as ‘fallen’. Similarly, for adivasis:
[In the colonial period the] Vanavasi regions were sealed off as ‘Protected Areas’ to all except the Christian missionaries to carry on their nefarious designs of conversion and subversion of their cultural and national loyalties.
Sewa Bharati Madhya Pradesh highlighted in 2000 the strategic importance of converting adivasis to Hindutva:
This adventure of Sewa Bharati for tribal girls’ hostel and their education will pave way for increasing ladies education amongst tribals and further spread amongst ladies in general. This is the first adventure of Sewa Bharati ensuring far-reaching impact during the years to come. I hope you will kindly agree that, even one girl taken over today by us and brought up in environment prevailing in our institutions will not only bring herself above, but also surcharge the atmosphere in her tribe besides her own family. It may appear unbelievable, but it is even numerically true that one single such girl, will grow in to 500 or more such males and/or females, having the precious ancient culture of this divine land i.e. BHARAT, endeared at their hearts. Moral values such as character honesty, sacrifice, nationalism will in this process, be imbibed in each every one amongst such 500 to make them real asset of this great country.
‘Conversion’ of adivasis and dalits to Hinduism used to be done through a ceremony called shuddhi – tellingly, purification. Today, the VHP and other groups also use ceremonies called paravartan and ghar vapasi. These mean ‘reclamation’ into Hinduism, ‘homecoming’ and ‘turning back’ from being led astray in which those converted are told to reject ‘wrong beliefs’, ‘come back into the Hindu fold’, and the ‘Hindu nation’. There is a caste and ‘race’ superiority here. Hindutva groups have never told brahmins that they must reject their beliefs and adopt the religions of dalits or adivasis.
The work of Sewa Bharati, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Vidya Bharati, Ekal Vidyalaya, Samajik Samarastha Manch and numerous other RSS projects among dalit, adivasi and other poor groups is related to this one key aim – to convert these groups to the Hindutva world view, to inculcate them in Hindutva ideology, to ‘integrate’ them into a caste-based and hierarchical order, and to prevent them from aligning with other religions, regional movements or movements for social justice and caste emancipation.
Central to this process is to emphasise particular Hindu gods who are not traditional to or worshipped by most adivasi groups, to integrate particular mythological figures into upper-caste Hindu world-views (such as Shabrimata, a poor woman with whom Ram shared food in some versions of the Rama mythology), and emphasise powerful fighting deities (such as Hanuman, who is made to represent the strength and courage of forest dwelling groups). The RSS’s Seva Disha 1997 report lists 2062 ‘general service’ units, but 5317 units working among adivasis, 3603 working in rural areas, and 3782 working in slums, indicating the priority placed on adivasi, dalit and rural work. These are not projects aimed at creating tolerant values of Indian citizenship but are a rejection of the latter in favour of moulding volunteers for the Hindu nation. The result of these concerted efforts by Sewa Bharati, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and various other organizations has been that sections of both rural adivasi groups and urban dalit groups have been involved in some Hindutva atrocities against Christian and Muslim communities, whereas previously no such conflicts of this nature existed.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Spearheading National Renaissance, Prakashan Vibhag, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bangalore, 1985, pp. 46-47.
 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Spearheading National Renaissance, Prakashan Vibhag, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bangalore, 1985, p.48.
 Vishnu Kumar, ‘Sewa Bharati Madhya Pradesh’, 25 July 2000, http://www.hvk.org/articles/0700/68.html
 K. Suryanarayana Rao (All-India RSS Service Head), Seva Disha – Building an Integrated and Self-Reliant Society, Chennai, 1997, http://www.hssworld.org/seva/sevadisha