Betis as ‘Bombs’ – Exploding the Borders of Caste and Community

“In every house there is a live bomb that can erupt at any time. Do you know who that is? Daughters (beti) are the honour of the family and the community, and to protect that is our Hindu duty and Hindu culture…. Come, and let’s unite to save bombs… I don’t believe in love marriage. We have to marry within our own community. These girls go to college, make friends with some lafanga [loafer], roam with them on their bikes, fall in love, and then run off and get married…We bring them back and convince them that they are ruining their future. They stay with me for a while and then return to their parents.” – Babu Bajrangi, Frontline, December 16-29 2006

Bajrangi is the VHP leader who gained notoriety recently for being the unofficial censor for the film Parzania in Ahmedabad. Less known in the fact that he boasts of having ‘rescued’ (kidnapped) no less than 918 women from his Kadwa Patel community who eloped to marry men outside the community – 70% of whom were Muslim or Christian men, and the rest were from other sub-castes. More recently, the Bajrang Dal has held a bandh in Bhopal against Hindu women marrying Muslim men. It has emerged that while in one recent case their pressure tactics did not work and the couple did in fact marry, in several other cases in MP, Hindu-Muslim couples have been forced to break up, and the women forced to undergo ‘purification’ rituals. In the BJP CD issued in the UP polls, a long sequence is devoted to whipping up fear and hatred of the stereotypical Muslim man who lusts after Hindu women and tricks them into marrying Muslims, only to convert them to Islam. The dynamic of this pervasive and insidious propaganda centred on ‘protection’ of Hindu women deserves close attention.

The Gujarat genocide was marked by the rape of Muslim women and mutilation of their bodies by the Sangh Parivar. Such rapes were celebrated as acts of nationalism. Bajrangi’s acts of ‘rescue’ of Hindu women from marriages with ‘other’ men are also projected as acts of nationalism. The borders of caste and (religious) community need to be policed for infiltration from the enemy with as much vigilant surveillance as the borders of the nation. In fact, the border of each community (and family within it) represents the border of nation in microcosm. The difference is that the borders of the family and community are lined with explosive from within. They are forever vulnerable because the sexuality of their own daughters has the potential to explode those boundaries and call into question the very foundation of racial purity on which the cultural nationalism of the Hindu Rashtra rests.

There are many who hold Hindutva’s violent codes to be a kind of Talibanic aberration and appeal to Hindus to distinguish it from the essentially liberal soul of Hinduism. To take just one instance Sitaram Yechury’s piece written in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, titled Pseudo-Hinduism Exposed: The Reality of the Saffron Brigade’s Myths. This piece explicitly contrasts liberal Hinduism to the impostor – ‘pseudo-Hinduism’ or Hindutva. Typically, this piece declares that “India is a secular state precisely because the predominant majority of Hindus embraced secularism”. It therefore attributes India’s democracy to the choice in favour of secular democracy made by its Hindu majority and contrasts it with intolerant Islamic theocracies. (An aside: Does this not thereby imply that those theocracies are attributable to the choice made by an ‘intolerant’ Islamic majority? Surely the process of formation of theocracies has been much more complex; very often imperialism has played a role in crushing democracies and communist movements in these nations and theocracies have either been propped up by imperialists or have come up in reaction to puppet regimes. And of course, the phenomenon of racism, increasingly taking the form of hatred against particular religions, seems to thrive in Western ‘secular’ and ‘democratic’ regimes, as does obscurantism that tries to deny women the right to abortion and junk Darwinism in the name of religious beliefs.) As an extension of the thesis that liberal Hinduism is the basis for Indian secularism, Yechury observes, “The rabid intolerance of other religions (in Islamic theocracies) is matched by ruthlessly suppressive laws that deny elementary democratic rights especially to women.” The implication is that India in contrast assures those democratic rights to its women.

Well, perhaps, the Indian State does legally ban sati and so on. But it would be a mistake to imagine that this aspect of Hindutva – Bajrangi’s brand of violent policing of women, or the Bajrang Dal’s threat that Hindu women who married Muslims would have their noses cut off, or its periodic threats against women wearing jeans or couples celebrating Valentine’s Day – marks a rupture with a gentler and more benign Hinduism. Communal fascism of the Hindutva variety draws sustenance from the widely prevailing anxiety of Hindu caste communities about breaching of patriarchal codes, caste and community boundaries – and the resultant threat to property relations and status. And mainstream Indian national movements and secular political formations have never even tried to resist these anxieties, but have rather pandered to them.

These anxieties are not the unique preserve of ‘backward’ rural communities; Prem Chowdhry shows us how modern phenomena like granting of legal inheritance rights to women and the social consequences of urbanisation in Haryana intensify these anxieties and the resultant violence against those who disobey marriage codes. (‘Enforcing Cultural Codes: Gender and Violence in Northern India’, A Question of Silence: The Sexual Economies of Modern India, ed. Mary John and Janaki Nair, 1998)

Uma Chakravarti has remarked how brahminical patriarchy has for long regarded women of upper castes as ‘gateways’ or points of breach into the caste system – requiring careful surveillance to preserve upper caste purity – and this “obsessive concern with policing female sexuality” has become a stubborn feature across caste groups (Uma Chakravarti, Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, 2003, pp 35-36). She notes that there is “widespread ‘consent’, in the sense that Gramsci outlines it, within civil society to regard choice, particularly when articulated by a woman as disruptive of the whole social order…and ‘with free choice of partners involving women, the whole social fabric seems to suffer a terrible tear’.” (Chakravarti, pp152-53) It is the existence of such consent for obsessive control of women’s sexual choice, such widespread fear of a ‘terrible’ tear inflicted by women’s free choice, that sustains and ‘naturalises’ Bajrangi’s mass abduction spree or the Bajrang Dal’s virulent campaign as patriotic acts. Bajrangi’s mass abductions are able to masquerade as a grotesque version of a more common ideology and practice of ‘guardianship’ (brother as guardian of sister’s honour) celebrated by popular cinema and serials and normalised by the festival of Raksha Bandhan. Adult women are legally beyond the scope and control of ‘guardianship’. Yet the ideology of guardianship (closely tied up with control of female sexuality, reproduction and labour) and its twin, the ideology that makes women the repositories of izzat or honour of the community/nation is perpetuated. The ‘honour’ killings decreed by caste panchayats for lovers who transgress codes of caste and community and Bajrangi’s abductions thus breathe the same ideological oxygen.

This leads us to ask: can Left movements and women’s movements challenge communal fascist violence against women without also challenging the ideology of guardianship and problematising the notion of izzat? In the case of agrarian labour communities, usually dalit or extremely backward, there is tremendous resistance to the sexual exploitation of women by upper caste men, and Chakravarti notes that the “issue of izzat is central to peasant movements in Bihar under various Marxist-Leninist formations and in dalit movements” (Chakravarti, p 169). While resistance to sexual violence and caste-based assaults on dignity will continue to be a powerful mobilisational issue, these movements need to be alert to the dangers of the connotations and implications of izzat. These movements must guard against bearing the baggage of resentment against the upper caste taunts that lower caste women have no izzat to begin with or that lower caste men are ‘unable’ to ‘protect’ ‘their’ women. In other words, such radical political mobilisation must assert the autonomy, freedom and dignity of women who are dalit agrarian labourers – while guarding against framing the struggle in terms of asserting the ‘ability’ of lower caste men to ‘protect’ the ‘izzat’ of women and of their community. This means asserting the social, sexual and reproductive freedom of women within the community as much as against the oppressor without.

We need to recognise the links between Babu Bajrangi’s assaults on women’s freedom, and those structures and practices that we tend to take as normative, natural and acceptable – such as the practice of arranging marriages within one’s caste and community, disapproving of independent relationships forged by one’s sisters or daughters, holding oneself to be the ‘guardian’ of one’s adult sisters or daughters, discouraging inter-caste relationships, and so on. Often, as long as overt coercion or violence is not involved, we tend to view anxiety about controlling sexual behaviour of daughters, as quite natural. Women’s movements and Left movements must confront and challenge the ideology of guardianship and izzat even where overt coercion is not flaunted – as part of their struggle against the structures of class and caste, and against communal fascism.

Top