Gender and the perils of identity politics in India

Hindu women’s activism in the service of the political goals of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and the debates around the legal rights of Muslim women illustrate the perils of identity politics in matters of gender equality
Zoya Hasan
30 November 2010

India’s democratic politics has witnessed significant shifts that can be traced to the defining period from 1989 -91 when the neo-liberal restructuring of the economy and the rapid rise of political organizations that espouse Hindutva (Hinduness) changed the contours both of its economy and politics. But apart from six years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government from 1998 to 2004, India has not been governed by a political party or a coalition of parties that make explicit appeals to religion. Nevertheless, religious and identity politics is an important force in India’s public life. Although politicised religion gained further momentum under BJP rule even secular parties such as the Congress Party, which has ruled India for more than four decades, has found the idea of scoring quick electoral gains by tampering with secular principles and institutions too tempting to resist. The electoral victory of the United Progressive Alliance led by the Indian National Congress in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections, defeating the BJP-led coalition was seen, in this context, as a respite for secular politics.

A series of events, some unintended, others calculated helped anti-secular forces to gain a foothold in the political system. The unravelling of the secular fabric began with demands for regional autonomy in Punjab and the manner in which the state chose to respond to those demands. The Congress decided to play “the Hindu card” to undercut the popularity of its regional rival, the Akali Dal in Punjab. In a landmark case delivered in 1985, the Supreme Court called for the enactment of a uniform civil code which would give all women regardless of faith equal rights – for example, the right to alimony or maintenance once divorced. This judgment granted a maintenance allowance to Shah Bano, a seventy three year old Muslim divorcee, to be paid by her husband under the Criminal Procedure Code. Acting on the advice of the clergy, the government took the decision of to nullify the court’s verdict and enact legislation declaring that Muslim women would not have access to civil law in matters of marriage and divorce. This one piece of legislation - the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986 - that allowed Muslim personal law to prevail in contravention of the Supreme Court decision inflamed Hindu sentiments. It was cited again and again by Hindu political activists to claim that Hindus, as a majority community, are discriminated against - an absurd charge, given that the discrimination in question is against Muslim women, rather than Hindu men.

The most far-reaching in this series of events, damaging and destabilizing secularism, was the mishandling of the Ayodhya dispute. From the mid-1980s, the BJP and its affiliates launched a nationwide campaign to construct a Ram temple at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh in north India. Hindu activists had been claiming that the mosque stood at the exact spot believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram. Several decisions of the Congress government in Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh, which included unlocking the disputed site, allowing the foundation stones of the proposed Ram temple to be laid near the mosque, had the effect of compromising the secular principle of separation of religion and politics and encouraging the BJP to intensify its campaign for a Ram temple.

Both the Shah Bano and Ayodhya decisions, calculated to appease communally minded Hindus and Muslims respectively, ended up giving a massive boost to the forces of the Hindu right, reflected in the BJP’s rise from a mere two seats in 1984 to eighty-nine Lok Sabha seats in 1989. The growth of Hindu nationalism was aided in large measure by political opposition, especially in northern and western India, against reservations for lower castes in education and government jobs. The party succeeded in taking advantage of the increase in caste conflicts around redistributive policies for lower and backward caste Hindus, particularly over reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. The turning point in this process came in 1989 when the central government-appointed Mandal Commission decided to implement the long-standing government report that recommended mandatory reservations of 33 per cent in government employment for the OBCs.

During the Ayodhya movement in the 1990s, the Sangh Parivar intensified the mobilization of women with the assistance of affiliated organizations and the female leadership they had fostered. For the first time the Sangh Parivar won recruits among educated middle-class families and people with professional backgrounds for the Hindutva cause. It was a major advance insofar as it succeeded in mobilizing women and bringing them into the politics of the Hindu right, albeit mainly by means of re-enacting their private, domestic roles - for example, preparing food packets for karsevaks (Hindu volunteers) during the Ayodhya campaign.

On the face of it, the Sangh Parivar appears to promote women’s activism, helping the BJP in marshalling fresh support since 1989. Many leaders projected the public participation of women as a sign of the emancipation of Hindu women. However, while the Sangh combine brought women out into the public domain, it did so in ways that do not challenge their traditional roles within a generally conservative domesticity. Whereas the women’s movement in India challenges notions of women’s subordination within the family and society, Hindutva ideology places them squarely within the private domain and propagates a patriarchal model of gender relations even though it brings women out into public spaces.

Nonetheless, many women participants felt empowered by the experience of public activism on behalf of Hindutva. Less noticed, however, was the fact that the women who participated in the Ayodhya movement also quickly returned to traditional roles, working within the confines of their family and community and routinely spreading the ideology of Hindutva and the BJP. Advocacy of their rights was not what drew women to activism; the principal attraction was Hindutva’s emotional charge. Thus, Hindu women’s activism works in the service of Hindutva and not in support of women’s gender interests as such.

Even though women’s empowerment is not central to the Hindutva project, it appears keen to promote Muslim women’s rights. On the one hand, BJP derides and decries the principle of minority rights, a key feature of Indian secularism, as an unwarranted privilege, thus decoupling secularism and minority rights. On the other hand, it supports Muslim women’s rights only to draw attention to the unreformed character of Muslim personal law and to seek its abolition. This helps them to compensate for their attack on minority rights by appearing to defend Muslim women’s rights. This defence was staged in order to establish the party’s liberal credentials even though they do little to advance Hindu women’s rights.

Over the years the debate on religion in the women’s movement in India has shifted from a position that virtually ignored religion to an attempt to work for religious reform from within. This shift occurred at a time when the communalization of politics and the politicization of religion led to the retreat of secularism and to attacks on minority rights. As the issue of minorities was catapulted to centre stage Muslim women’s rights became a subject of considerable debate, typically with reference to the status of Muslim personal law and the conflicting claims around the demand for a uniform civil code.

The BJP is the strongest advocate of a uniform civil code, while Muslim conservatives are among its strongest opponents. The party had raised the issue principally to embarrass the Congress party which was reluctant to change the status quo in the face of Muslim opposition to it. The BJP has argued that leaving Muslim law untouched implies unequal and asymmetrical treatment. This asymmetry has formed the basis for the charge that secularism, especially secular practice, implies pandering to Muslims for electoral gains. The Muslim leadership, on the other hand, fears that such laws would inevitably lead to uniform cultural practices and alien customs being foisted upon them.

From the outset, the problem with the uniform civil code debate was its gratuitous emphasis on uniformity which found its reflection in terming it a “uniform” civil code. It became a debate about uniformity versus minority rights, secularism versus religious laws, and modernization versus tradition. A decisive shift occurred in the wake of the Ayodhya conflict and the dramatic growth of the BJP, and with it grew Muslim fears of the imposition of a ‘Hindu’ code. The change was most explicit in the case of the left leaning All India Democratic Women’s Association which, not very long ago, promoted a uniform civil code, but now favours a gradual change in personal laws, acknowledging the difficulty of pushing change through state initiative. It supports a two-pronged strategy to achieve reconciliation between gender-just laws as well as reforms from within.

In the context of these controversies, an important development has been the emergence of Muslim women’s activism seeking to promote women’s rights rather than focusing all energies on changing personal laws. Muslim women in India face considerable challenges as citizens and as members of the largest minority. They suffer from multiple disadvantages in areas such as education, employment, and access to welfare programmes.

The emergence in recent years of forums and associations of Muslim women is an important step in facilitating a new public debate on women's rights. The alliance of Muslim women’s groups with the broader women's movement, together with movements for secularism, democracy, and human rights, has also been crucial in broad-basing the struggle for women’s rights. Two Mumbai-based groups -- Women’s Research and Action Group and Aawaz-e-Niswan are important initiatives which have gone beyond personal laws to promote gender equality. They aim to provide aid and support to poor, illiterate, and marginalized women, whilst raising their consciousness about the gender inequities and the need to overcome them. Their engagement with legal reform is an outgrowth of these broad-based activities. Although these efforts have not to date inspired the development of a major reform movement among Muslims, they represent vital steps in seeking to build a rights-based movement. There is, for the first time, the beginnings of serious debate on social and legal reform.

Over the past twenty years or so the politicization of religion has made considerable headway in India but it has not overwhelmed secular politics.. Nonetheless, the Hindu right has demonstrated an enormous capacity to mobilize women. Hindu women’s activism provides a compelling example of the instrumentalization of female constituencies in the service of the political goals of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The most important issue is not the growth of religious politics per se, but the inordinate play of identity politics in public life which has resulted in paradoxes such as the protection of conservatism among Muslims. This is the effect of a secularism that envisages state intervention in the affairs of the majority religion, but endorses strict non-intervention in minority religions, thus paradoxically empowering religious conservatives in the name of secularism.




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