Street level bullying by fringe elements have now entered our legislative assemblies. In the Maharashtra Assembly a Muslim MLA was suspended because he refused to chant ‘bharat mata ki jai’. This is a typical re-enactment of a college ragging scene – A bunch of rogue senior students would gang up against a junior and force him to perform a routine of some sort, dance, sing, do somersault or kiss somebody’s ass, seeing which performance the bunch of rogue elements would a) get voyeuristic pleasure b) establish their power over the person c) make the minority a subject of ridicule.

In Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) a violent Hindu mob suddenly enters a tourist bus and start asking people their name. A Muslim name is a death sentence. One by one the petrified passengers say their Hindu names and show their Hindu signs like the mangalsutra, sindur, Brahmins show their Janaeu (sacred thread). Somebody from among the passengers gives away the identity of an old Muslim couple who are then killed.

In Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998) a raging Muslim mob enters the house of a Parsi family and ask them to bring out all the Hindus they have been hiding. They particularly ask for Hari the gardener. Hari who is now a Muslim, Himmat Ali, comes forward. The mob asks him to prove that he is true Muslim by reciting Kalma. Unsatisfied even after Himmat Ali recites Kalma, they further ask him to open his pants to check if his penis is truly circumcised as is the practice in Muslims. They look at his penis and laugh.

Such mob violence is now the greatest mark of nationalism and patriotism in our country. Gang up against the minorities, bully them, beat them to death because of something they said or didn’t say, something they ate or didn’t eat. Next rituals of nationalism would perhaps be to force Muslims eat pork, jhatka meat, make them chant Har Har Mahadev and so on. If they don’t, they are anti-national. If they do, they have been shown their place and patriotism have been restored.

Women as gendered bodies more than any other identities, and more than ever should refuse to be part of far right nationalist discourse. Ours should be the first anti-national heads to rise up because  it is on our bodies that this vile idea of nationalism contested upon.

Birth of a nation

The idea of nation is built upon notions of inclusivity and exclusivity. Who legitimately belongs to the nation and who does not? There are several criteria of belonging such as consanguinity including common race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, language, tradition, culture, a common history of colonialism, struggle, survival etc. In India the nationalism discourse is strongly built upon the Vedic civilization and it is claimed by nationalists that India is a nation for and of Hindus. Everybody who ever lived in this land is a Hindu or had been a Hindu forcefully converted to other religion by foreign invaders.

Whose legitimate land is this and who is an invader is an utterly vague concept. Where do we begin? Do we begin with the Dinosaurs? Or maybe birth of human beings upon the land which is now Africa? Technically besides African people everybody else is a migrant in this world, a blasted foreigner and an invader. In the history of earth our species the Homo sapiens arrived 200,000 years ago, yet the nationalists claim that merely 5000 years of Hindu civilization is all that matters and that should determine the idea of India as a nation. Truth is India as a nation was born in 1947 with the end of British rule.

Women’s role in idea of nation

Since nations are built upon a common identity the continuity of that identity is important for the nation state to remain relevant. Protection and expansion of the population belonging to that chosen identity is therefore an integral part of the nationalist discourse. And to do that, there is a need to control women’s womb, the factory where the national identity is produced and reproduced. Thus we have Indian nationalists asking every Hindu woman to give birth to 10 children, preferably male.

Further, it is not enough to merely produce and reproduce the chosen identity but it is also important to protect the ‘purity’ of the chosen identity. This is achieved by controlling women’s sexuality.

Thus the Hindu nationalists want to control Hindu women’s right to choose their sex partner, relationships and marriage by vehemently imposing a new issue of Love Jihad upon the public conscience. A perceived threat is being inculcated in people’s mind that India would soon become Muslim dominated country and therefore Hindu women must be forcefully stopped from entering into sexual relations with Muslim men to save Hindu progeny. It is beyond anybody’s concern what the Hindu woman wants.

Women as the embodiment of nation

When women in Bollywood do item numbers and the camera focusses on their breasts, buttocks, waist and cleavage sans their face we call it objectification of the woman. Hyper sexualized images of women strip them off their identity and reduce them to object of sexual gratification.

The image of ‘Bharat Mata’ does exactly the same for the nationalist or patriotic gratification of its citizens. Women are dehumanized and objectified by being reduced to an embodiment of the nation, merely an area of land to be acquired, controlled and protected. Every aspect of women’s personal life therefore becomes subject to scrutiny and they have to constantly live up to a perceived notion of the ideal ‘Bhartiya naari’. Women’s worth is recognized and valued in relational terms, they are either mothers or daughters of the nation and they need protection from perceived ‘others’.

Bharat Mata

Bharat Mata, the image that is supposed to represent India before which everybody is supposed to bow down, is a Hindu upper caste, upper class, domestic, married, northern woman, with superior moral character, akin to a Goddess (As can be deduced from the amount of gold she’s wearing, the color of her skin, the way she ties her saree and so on). Who decided this image of our mother? Why can’t Bharat Mata be a Burqa wearing woman? Why can’t she be a jeans and T-shirt wearing working mother of dark skin?

If you Google the image of Britannia, the embodiment of the nation of Great Britain, you’d come across an image not so different from Bharat Mata complete with the Lion and Trishul. The irony of it all.


Nationalism as a performance

Nationalism is not natural, it is a social construct, a performance just like gender and sexuality are. It is an imaginary notion that is instilled in young impressionable minds using rituals and symbols. Celebrating the national flag, Independence day, national song, chanting bharat mata ki jai are part of the rituals. The government’s attempt to impose elements of Vedic culture like Sanskrit, Surya Namaskar, vegetarianism, cow worship are rituals of nationalism that are being used to produce the national Hindu identity.

Nationalism breeds on fear and hatred. The idea survives on persecution syndrome which makes an enemy out of everybody and tries to survive by destroying every other identity. Thus the nationalists are constantly telling young Indians that Bharat Mata is under attack from Muslims. Bharat Mata here is a weak feminine woman who needs protection while her citizens are masculine warriors who must defend the mother. Such ‘protection’ is ‘performed’ for a spectator using masculine power and violence. In March 2015, Dimapur, Assam a mob of seven to eight thousand people (presumably men) lynched a Muslim man to death on the suspicion that he has raped a Hindu girl. The act was condoned in many circles in the name of patriotism. It is nobody’s concern that crime statistics would reveal that maximum number of rapes are perpetuated by Hindu men over Hindu women.

In a time when physical boundaries are fast becoming irrelevant due to virtual connectivity, instead of imagining a future without social or geographical borders, a world where the only religion and culture that should matter should be of love, peace and humanity, our great nationalist politicians are trying to take the young Indian minds back to the age of hatred, invasion, battles. As a proud Indian woman, I refuse my identity to be dragged in this performance of violence and hatred, and I refuse to worship a dubious image of my country.

Some suggested reading to further understand the theory of gendered nation, embodiment, performativity of gender, nationalism, and sexuality:

  1. Women, Nation, State by Anthias Floya and Nina Davis;
  2. Maps and Mother Goddesses in Modern India by Sumathi Ramaswamy;
  3. Family Feuds Gender, Nationalism and the Family by Anne McClintok.

Other articles touching upon this perspective:

  • I Live In A Nation That’s More Father (Land) Than Mother (Land).. So Where’s Bharat Mata? By Surabhi Singh (Link)
  • How ‘Bharat Mata’ became the code word for a theocratic Hindu state By Shoaib Daniyal (Link)