In the name of the goddess

Oct 20, 2013, 10:17 IST | Kareena N Gianani

Recently, a documentary explored the philosophy of the Hindu fundamentalist camp, the Durga Vahini, which has been steadily gathering followers after its inception during the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, in 1991. Kareena N Gianani meets its members and sifts through their ideological position on women's empowerment, recent incidents of sexual assault and views that arise from the perceived threat of all things 'un-Indian'

Rage! Rage! Where is that uncontrollable fury in your eyes?” Six pairs of eyes in the room dilate. Swati Bhosale’s grip on the lathi tightens. Pushpa Dandekar, who is at the receiving end, flexes her knee and inches her own lathi higher. Rani Dupte and Gayatri Shinde, both barely 16, gulp. But it is Gouree Vaze’s face which first tautens, then contorts besides the curled, yellowing photograph of goddess Durga on the wall. Kishori Kolekar, 50, is pleased at the surfeit of passion. “Yes, that’s it. This is the rage that befits Durga; and all you Durga Vahinis.”

Gouree Vaze and Swati Bhosale (in white) exhibit the martial arts training imparted to them at the Durga Vahini camps. Pics/Sameer Markande

Kolekar smiles at the photographer and asks him to step ahead and photograph the members of the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). A former member of the wing herself, Kolekar now trains girls between the ages of 15 and 35 at the Durga Vahini camps organised twice a year all across the country during summer and Diwali vacations. Kolekar is the Konkan head of Matrushakti, the women’s wing of the VHP for those aged over 35.

Durga Vahini camps in August 2012
Sixteen-year-olds Gayatri Shinde  and Rani Dupte (in red) attended their first Durga Vahini camps in August 2012

Kolekar’s chosen attire is a white, georgette saree. The large, hand-drawn red circle on her forehead stretches when she smiles and says, “I wish I had brought our shastra (weapons) along, the rifles and swords we use to train these girls back in camps That would have looked grand in photographs.”

The Durga Vahini was set up by Sadhvi Rithambara in 1991, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak. The wing, says Kolekar, stresses on imparting self-defence training to lakhs of young Hindu women. We sit, cross-legged, in the large office of the VHP at Naupada in Thane, flanked by a four-feet tall idol of Durga on the right. After exchanging polite smiles, Kolekar signals for Vaze to begin introductions. “Well, I am Gouree Vaze and am 29 years old…” “Advocate Gouree Vaze,” points out Kolekar. “Don’t forget the ‘Advocate.”

A typical day at the Durga Vahini camp includes a 17-hour regime which involves yoga, training in arms and lectures

Vaze beams. Sixteen years ago, when Vaze was in class eight, her father (a VHP member) suggested that she attend a Durga Vahini camp. I ask her what motivated her to join at the age of 13. “I wanted to become something and give that back to society.”
Schools, believes Vaze, do not teach one adequate lessons on community living and “how to live an ideal life”. “A woman shouldn’t be a problem to anyone around her. The camps also teach you how to live with meagre resources,” reflects Vaze.

Vaze says she went there to imbibe the three core values of the Durga Vahinis -- ‘Seva, Suraksha and Sanskar’. What she wasn’t prepared for, however, was the intensity of the eight 17-hour-long days ahead of her. “I remember thinking that it was utter madness to keep up with the morning prayer meetings, yoga, exercise, arms training, lectures and then stage dramas at the end of the day.”

But Vaze says she did keep up, and today, she knows why. “Every woman must be in alignment, and routine is important to imbibe that vision.” Vaze says she found answers to four essential questions -- What is Bharat? What is Hinduism? What is our responsibility in society? And, above all, what is the responsibility of an ideal woman.

Piqued, and just when I am about to ask Vaze what the responsibility of an ‘ideal woman’ is -- and what ‘alignment’ must she pay heed to --Kolekar chimes in. “At the end of the camp, we pick out girls who have wept at the camp with emotion. They are our future; the ones who can be trained to take Durga Vahini’s vision ahead.” Vaze, clearly, was one of them.

In focus
The Durga Vahini is in fresh focus after a documentary (The World Before Her) by Canada-based filmmaker, Nisha Pahuja, essays the life in the camps of this controversial women’s wing. The film tries to sketch the contrasting world Indian women inhabit, and juxtaposes life in the Durga Vahini camp with that of women competing in a beauty pageant, another bootcamp of sorts.

Kolekar and Vaze say they have not watched the documentary, and seem curious about the parallel drawn between the Durga Vahini and beauty pageants. “Are beauty pageants modern and liberating? Is that what the documentary is trying to say?”I answer in the negative, and explain that the documentary is trying to throw up a debate on what it is like to be a woman in globalised India.

“It is a challenge, of course,” muses Vaze. “Western values have become synonymous with all things ‘modern’. Capitalism ensures that you just don’t know where to stop…” We discuss about how the notion is being challenged by many in society. Vaze looks at Kolekar, who nods. “Look at the peer pressure building up in these girls,” she says, waving at Dupte and Shinde, as the latter traces shapes on the floor.

Both Dupte and Shinde attended their first camps last August, and came back impressed with different aspects of the camp. Dupte carefully puts it that learning about their bodies from medical experts was a revelation (“I could see that most girls didn’t speak about it back home.”). For Shinde, the camp was a tool to put her out of the misery of peer pressure. “I don’t feel samanya (ordinary) anymore. I now realise that most girls in my college are from convent schools and don’t have sanskaar (values). They party in a one-piece (sic) and are easily swayed.”

“Our camp teaches women to be better products, to build a cleaner environment,” interjects Kolekar. Is a ‘clean environment’ one with women who appease the Hindutva idealogy of dress and behavior, I ask. Kolekar does not reply. She continues, “You heard it yourself -- girls wear short clothes and attract the wrong eye.” So, isn’t the gaze at fault? Vaze agrees, and say she often feels that the male gaze has reached the lowest low.

Rising anxiety
The conversation steers toward the recent spate of rapes and gang rapes in the country, and the subsequent anxiety in women’s minds. I point out that they have had nothing to do with how the women were dressed at that time, like it never is.
But Kolekar has an answer to that, too. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. A girl’s body is the carrier of her character. Girls clad in western clothes are least bothered about the effect they have on men. They (the girls) first sashay around, then drive off in their swanky cars. But the men rape the salwar-kameez clad women.”

How does she get to that, I ask. “Bharat is a devbhoomi. Gods took birth here because women are worshipped on this land and are seen as mothers. An ideal Indian woman is pati-vrata and if she eyes another man, she is a kalinkini -- we cannot afford to forget that,” stresses Kolekar.

Kolekar waxes eloquent on how the training at the camps are even more relevant now. “They prepare women from what is out there.” What is out there? “The danger of being assaulted. The Durga Vahini camps allow women to access public spaces fearlessly. They must remain surakshit (safe) and nishkalank (honourable) at all times. Unke parivaron ko unki chanchalta hi toh pasand nahin aati (Their families do not like their undisciplined behavior). It makes them vulnerable to assault.”

Are assaults, then, a result of ‘undisciplined’ behaviour on the women’s part? “We empower women by teaching them self-defence -- and explain their limits to them,” says Kolekar. After a short silence which follows this statement, 24-year-old Deepika Sutar, who hasn’t spoken much till this point, shakes her head and says, “But… views have to change.”

They must, agrees Kolekar, but adds, “Women now take on unnecessary risks. They are trying to be like men.” Are women to be blamed for rapes? “Rapes are a result of the way girls present themselves, that’s all I have to say.” Vaze leans toward Kolekar, shakes her head and whispers inaudibly.
Kolekar nods. “Of course, men must think about these things, too,” she adds quickly. 

Inside the Durga Vahini camp
Last year, 16-year-old Shreya Mhatre (name changed to protect identity) attended her first Durga Vahini camp. Athletic and confident, Shreya says she is an adventure junkie and was excited to know that the Durga Vahini camps trained girls in rifle-shooting and swordfights.

The 5 am-10 pm routine was tiresome, she says, but the discourses on social ills were illuminating. Shreya, is accompanied by her father, Dilip (name changed to protect identity), when we meet up at a suburban cafe. “I barely knew anything about female foeticide, for instance,” she says.

The day after, however, the topic under discussion was ‘love jihad’. Shreya heard a speech about how Muslim men woo Hindu girls only to convert them to Islam. Their aim, the speaker emphasised, is to “use and throw” Hindu girls to establish religious supremacy. “These talks were being given on the streets, all out in the open.”

Shreya was flabbergasted. “I have several male friends who are Muslims -- does that automatically make them devious and conniving? I found the idea noxious and, needless to add, divisive.” What shocked Shreya more was that a friend, who often expressed her wish to have friends as supportive as Shreya’s, had chosen to speak on the topic. “She just can’t say it aloud at home, because she isn’t allowed to have Muslim or Catholic friends.” Ironically, the girls were also told that Hindu men marrying Muslim women are “simply freeing them from the confines of the hijab.”

“I spoke out the moment we reached our rooms and told the other girls that these ideas were misplaced.” Her friends simply told Shreya not get them all into trouble. “It went on. When they spoke of unity, they spoke of how Hindus must unite against non-Hindus. I wondered -- would it really be so bad if we all united, irrespective of what our caste is?”

Shreya says she quite enjoyed the part where they “teach women to be like women” -- which essentially translated into teaching them how to make rangolis and fashion their hair innovatively. “It was fun. And for the Rs 100 they collected for eight days, the food was unimaginably delicious.” What didn’t go down well with her was a comment from a trainer at the camp, who disapproved of the fact that she wore track pants instead of salwar kameezes. “She told me I was not a good Hindu and my family was not a true Hindu family.”

Shreya remembers seething. “I came home and told my parents about it. Thankfully, my father dismissed the fundamentalist ideas and assured me about my beliefs, which, naturally, come from him. Here, Dilip smiles and tells me about what he was told at the end of the camp. “They told me Shreya needs psychiatric treatment for having Muslim friends.” Would he still consider sending Shreya to the next Durga vahini camp?

The anxiety of the other
Dr Tarini Bedi, associate director, South Asia Language and Area Center and the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, University of Chicago. Dr Bedi has worked on an ethnography of the women’s wing of the Shiv Sena party in urban Maharashtra How do you explain the phenomenon of women’s attraction to politico-religious movements such as the Durga Vahini? What kind of anxiety in society finds reflection in the camps? There is a looming anxiety about the ‘other’, which is rather common across many cultures worldwide, including here in the US --the anti-jewish, anti-black sentiment, for instance. These often get cast through a sexualised metaphor. 

A similar anxiety is one of ‘protecting’ the woman’s body, and it is also linked to the anxieties of masculinity in India. The idea of controlling the body, however, is not new to nationalist politics. It traces back to Gandhian philosophy, where people went to ashrams to resist themselves. The difference is that then, violence against oneself was acceptable, but not toward others. That idea has been turned on its head today. Hindu nationalist politics calls on training the body, which is linked with the idea of protecting their genealogy in the country. Women, especially from lower economic classes, have had to access public spaces either submissively or violently. Today, of course, feminists are fighting for women to access public space pleasurably, but that will take time.

Could you discuss the ironic function and training at the Durga Vahini camps -- the wing trains adolescent girls in self defence, but also keeps them in check by training them to “behave like girls”, not dress “inappropriately” or risk being a “kalankini”. There is a definite dissonance in the ideology, and one cannot miss the double standards. Over the years, Hindu nationalist movements have had to accept that women lead complex lives, and have had to move out of home for financial reasons, among others. The right wing cannot completely change its stance, so it expands the movement by accommodating different narratives of empowerment to an extent. The structures are patriarchal because politics is a patriarchal game across the world. 

Having said that, one cannot deny that the movement has created a space wherein women access the public sphere. Many of us may not agree with the idea -- but it is a fact that the Durga Vahinis feel empowered. Often, we look at the agency of access through a Western gaze -- a woman is either an agent or she is not. But the fact remains that most Indians don’t live as individuals in India. Agencies have to be created through collective structures. For the West, this may be an exception, but if you look at it keenly, it is the West that is an exception.   

At 16, says Dilip, Shreya is struggling with demons of her own. “I want to teach other girls how to protect themselves on the streets. There have been days when I have hated men -- I don’t ever want to feel like that again,” says Shreya. A year ago, Shreya was almost raped by a 20-year-old man. “He was a local politician’s son. He dragged me into a deserted building compound from school. I kicked him and fled,” says Shreya.

Dilip says he will never forget the helplessness he experienced after hearing Shreya’s account. Things got worse at the police station. “The first question the police asked me was what was Shreya wearing. They spoke to Shreya alone, too. When she began telling them what she knew about the boy, the cars he drove and so on, the cop sarcastically remarked that she seemed to be very fond of cars. They asked Shreya whether she gave the guy her phone number, whether he has proposed to her and she had accepted. It was humiliating, and I never want Shreya to go through that again.”

Dilip, however, does not worry that, in a bid to ebb this anxiety, Shreya might be inadvertently swayed by any fundamentalist idea. “Never. We are a secular family. I trust Shreya to be able to make up her own mind. Channels of discussion are always open at home. Yes, I do wonder whether the arms training at these camps is for self defence or to prepare Hindu women some sort of a Hindutva war. But, on the other hand, I do think that girls need to take the fear out of themselves and think on their feet if attacked. For now, I give this gender battle 50 years. Maybe 70.” 

I think organisations like Durga Vahini give girls and young women access to the public sphere and the ability to participate in it that they may not have otherwise had. They also trainwomen to occupy these very public roles and articulate their(or the organisation’s) views to wide audiences. I believe this is part of the attraction of these organisations. Many of these girls and young women come from families in which women’s roles are clearly within the family. That these groups use the metaphor of family to understand the relationships between men and women in these organisations and their roles within it, also then supports women’s participation in the public sphere.
Kalyani Devaki Menon, associate professor, Department of Religious Studies, DePaul University, US. Menon recently published a book called Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India

‘Even in women’s wings, lines are drawn by the men’
Prof Samita Sen, vice chancellor, Diamond Harbour Women’s University, Kolkata “In the ‘90s, when the Durga Vahini was formed, there was a considerable unease about these groups appropriating feminist agenda. It was not so easy disentangle the language the empowerment they use and other feminists use. That feeling has now ebbed. The main reason is that it was easier for outfits like the VHP to frame the Indian woman as being Hindu, middle and upper middle class. However, that has been challenged widely, and today, it isn’t easy to place Indian women in such non-complex categories. Today, for instance, you cannot say that a salwar kameez makes a woman ‘Indian’ -- the statement will not go unchallenged. And this is the reason why I think outfits such as the Durga Vahini attract lesser fancy. The Durga Vahini can no longer claim to be ‘the’ voice of the Indian woman.

There is anxiety in the air, especially after the Delhi gang rape in December 2012 and different outfits have fished in this troubled pond. At some point, the perceived threat to the ‘Indian’ woman were Muslim men, now it is crimes against them. This gives rise to the voices of lunatics who go on to ban school dresses, bars and so on, and, peculiarly, shout out their status as saviours who can help women protect themselves.

Strangely, these same outfits engage not with the whole range of sexual violence, but only with ‘stranger rape’, blinded to the fact that most rapes happen within families, often by men known to the rape survivors. The Durga Vahini, I feel, fits neatly into that agenda. What attracts women, I feel, to these outfits is the desperation for answers. Many Indian women lead worrying lives, and it is easier to access the familiar -- though patriarchal -- set up, because not every woman can break away and be what patriarchy calls a ‘raging feminist’. The unfortunate consequence here is that the lines are drawn by men.” 

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