India’s Militant Hindu Nationalist Women Leaders

Across the country, an army of fiercely independent yet socially conservative female activists is fast emerging

India’s Militant Hindu Nationalist Women Leaders
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

A few months ago, the Indian legislator Pragya Singh Thakur urged Hindus to keep their vegetable knives sharp, as they could come in handy to slaughter the “enemy.” She was making a not-so-subtle allusion to Muslims in India, whom she accused of carrying out “love jihad” — a conspiracy theory alleging that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage in order to convert them to Islam.

Immediately, the police registered a case against Thakur, who is also the prime suspect in a 2008 terror attack in the city of Malegaon, Maharashtra, which took place in a Muslim cemetery adjacent to a mosque and claimed the lives of six people and injured an additional 100. She was arrested that year and was granted bail for health reasons in 2017 by the Bombay High Court. According to Indian law, an individual accused of a crime can participate in elections and take office but cannot if convicted. In 2019, just before Thakur was elected as a legislator for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — making her the first person accused in a terror case to be fielded as an election candidate by a major political party — she had called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, a “patriot,” forcing her own party to condemn her comments.

However, dozens of women leaders in right-wing Hindu organizations aspire for the kind of popularity enjoyed by Thakur, who is also known as Sadhvi Pragya. (Sadhvi is a title for female ascetics in Hinduism.) In the last few years, Thakur has gone from being a pariah in Indian politics, given her alleged involvement in the 2008 terror attacks, to winning a national election as the BJP’s candidate from the city of Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, by a huge margin. She defeated Digvijay Singh, a veteran politician and two-time chief minister of the state. Thakur is still under investigation for her involvement in the case, which remains a talking point in the media and among critics of the BJP, but she continues to enjoy popular appeal nonetheless. Like all other BJP candidates, Thakur benefited from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity during the elections, and the allegations did not discourage people from voting for her.

With her pixie-cut hairstyle, her occasional appearances in the Indian Parliament on a wheelchair, which reminds her supporters of the alleged “torture” inflicted on her when she was in prison, and her penchant for playing basketball and cricket — which has surprised many, given her “health issues” — often in all-male groups, Thakur embodies a kind of masculinity seldom associated with women in right-wing politics in India.

“She calls a spade a spade. She is fearless even though she has had to suffer for her honesty,” says Chaitra Kundapura, a young activist from the coastal town of Kundapur in the southern state of Karnataka. Kundapura was referring to the alleged police torture inflicted on Thakur and the political ostracization she was subjected to for years before she made her way into the political mainstream.

Kundapura is a supporter of Hindutva, an ideology that espouses the vision of India as a Hindu nation. “As a woman who stands for Hindutva, it is very important to be fearless. … The future of Hindutva depends on women,” says the slight-framed woman, her eyes widening animatedly as she speaks. Kundapura sees herself as one of the few women who have actively devoted their lives to Hindutva. “Women can do everything that a man can for the Hindu rashtra [nation], but the opposite is not true. … So, we need more and more young girls to come forward and participate in this national movement,” she says. Like thousands of other Hindu nationalist leaders, Kundapura believes it is the divine duty of Hindu women to not only give birth to children, who will go on to serve the Hindu rashtra, but also give them the “samskar” or “social values” that will allow them to contribute to the process of nation-building.

Chaitra Kundapura at a cow shelter in a Hindu temple in Udupi, a coastal city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. (Sanya Dhingra)

Kundapura is not an exception. Across India, an army of militantly oriented, fiercely independent, yet socially conservative women leaders is fast emerging in Hindu nationalist circles. These women are ambitious, educated and often economically independent. Products of a post-liberalization India, they have had greater access to education and jobs than their counterparts in previous generations. Having experienced both social and economic freedoms, they no longer want to play a secondary role to men.

Yet the ideology they espouse and the Hindu nation they envision are deeply conservative and patriarchal. Take, for instance, the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti — the women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of dozens of Hindu nationalist organizations across India, including the BJP. Its own literature states that the Samiti was formed in 1936 in opposition to the Indian left and the liberal women’s movements of the 1930s. The gender studies scholar Paola Bacchetta, who has researched women in the Hindu nationalist movement, states that according to the RSS’s own literature, it was “the potential of Hindu femininity to go astray into feminism” that rendered the Samiti necessary, as a way perhaps to rein in any such impulse.

As Hindu nationalism crystallized in the 20th century as an ideology that purportedly sought to preserve Indian traditions in the face of colonialism and Western values and norms, a collective anxiety about the role of women in Hindu society emerged. While Western values were associated with greater individualism and freedom, Hindu nationalists sought to organize women who would value traditional ideas of womanhood and domesticity over Western feminist ideas.

“The onus was on the woman to be the flag bearer of morality, purity and chastity. Only then could an ideal family — and by extension an ideal nation — be formed,” writes the journalist and author Akshaya Mukul in “Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India.” Works put out by the world’s largest publisher of Hindu texts, the Gita Press, which has been publishing extensively on the ideal Hindu dharma (religion), culture and nationalism since 1923, suggested that a woman’s non-adherence to these set rules could affect broader Hindu society.

A century later, this conservative worldview of the Hindutva organizations, coupled with the burgeoning ambitions of the women themselves, is leading to a strange and sometimes contradictory kind of women’s politics. Often louder and more militant than their male counterparts, these women are setting the Hindu nationalist agenda in their locales, even as they fight off patriarchies to rise up the political ladder. Between these conflicting impulses of negotiating their rise in a patriarchal organization and a morphed sense of feminism, a new form of women-led Hindu nationalism is emerging in India.

Kundapura hails from a lower-middle-class family and belongs to a community known as the Other Backward Castes, an official term used to describe communities that are socially disadvantaged in India’s rigid caste system. While her father sells milk to make a living, Kundapura had a successful career as a news anchor at a local TV channel in Karnataka. However, when it came to stories about Hindu nationalist leaders and activists, Kundapura alleges, she was not allowed to report “accurately” given the “leftist bias” of the media organization she worked for.

It was then that Kundapura began thinking about women’s freedoms in modern workplaces. Modernity’s promises of individual freedom began to ring hollow to her, which made her think that individuals were as shackled in the modern workplace as they were said to be in traditional social settings. Slowly, in a manner not too different from tensions observed in other traditions around the world where the younger generation must grapple between the old and the new, traditional ideas of society and womanhood began to seem more appealing to the once-ambitious news anchor. “In these corporate jobs, women are said to be very independent, but they all earn less than their husbands. … What will they teach us about equality?” she says, as if mocking all that is perceived to be modern, feminist and Western.

Popular culture from the West, for instance, portrays women as meek damsels in distress or sex symbols meant for the consumption of men, she explained. “It is popular culture, especially from the West, that has made us believe that women cannot protect themselves,” she says. On the other hand, Hindu nationalist literature, which Kundapura claims to have read extensively, glorifies Hindu goddesses and women of ancient times as being both virtuous and strong — before they were allegedly “corrupted” by invasions, first by Muslim rulers and then by British colonialism. This appealed to her more.

“A lot of these women who wear Western clothes and call themselves feminist are often catering to the male gaze, and simply want to look desirable for men,” she says. “My dharma teaches me to have a trishul [trident] and fight for myself,” she adds, invoking images of the divine symbol commonly used in Hinduism and of Hindu goddesses like Kali and Durga, who are believed to assume wrathful avatars when confronted with injustice.

As such, she believes that the Hindu dharma, from which modern women have alienated themselves, is more empowering for women than Western modernity. Hindu dharma can be broadly translated as Hindu religion, but its connotations extend beyond institutionalized religion to being a way of life.

Hindu nationalist literature further portrayed the Indian women’s movement as “Western” and therefore ill-suited for Hindu women, who must find their voice within the Hindu dharma. Feminism, in their scheme of things, could destabilize the family unit by instilling individualism in women, making them bad wives and mothers. But Kundapura’s critique goes further. For her, not only is feminism antithetical to Indian values, but its purported benefits for women are exaggerated.

Kundapora is still in her 20s, and her eyes beam with sincerity as she talks. “I am actually more of a feminist than the left activists,” she says. “I don’t have to wear jeans to show my feminism; I will wear a saree and fight.” For Kundapura, a pair of jeans is not just a garment but a symbol of Western hegemony over Indian culture. A woman wearing denim gives the impression that she is more modern and by extension freer and more independent. But for Kundapura, her fierceness comes from her dharma, not Western modernity, which she repeatedly conflates with feminism.

In 2021, Kundapura stirred a controversy when she warned Muslim men against “love jihad” in a video that went viral on social media. “If that community does not stop doing love jihad, Bajrang Dal activists will convert all Muslims in two days and will bring Muslim women out of their houses, make them remove their burqas and apply kumkum [vermilion] on their heads,” Kundapura said, brandishing her finger threateningly from the dais as she addressed a large rally of hundreds of cheering men and women. Vermilion is a religious symbol widely associated with married Hindu women, while the Bajrang Dal is a far-right militant Hindu nationalist group whose members are often involved in local cases of violence against Muslims and Christians on such pretexts as love jihad and cow slaughter. “Jihadis,” who harass Hindus, must be prepared to have their limbs broken, the saffron-clad activist warned.

Kundapura herself has had 13 legal cases filed against her for incendiary and communal speeches, including one on love jihad. A few are still pending. She enjoys a minor celebrity status among Hindutva supporters in the highly communalized coastal belt of Karnataka. Locals in the region acknowledge that, for a young woman like Kundapura, who hails from a socially disadvantaged caste with no political pedigree, hate speech serves a tactical purpose of winning attention in a male-dominated political culture.

Indeed, the very invocation of the deeply patriarchal idea of love jihad, which presumes that young Hindu women have no agency when choosing a life partner, is central to the politics of Hindu nationalist women. In addition to opposition to liberal feminism, the trope of sexual exploitation of Hindu women and Hindu men’s ostensible inability to protect them is one of the most significant reasons behind the formation of the Samiti. Given the dominance of men in Hindu nationalist politics, these ideas about Muslim men scheming en masse to seduce or forcibly marry Hindu women happen to be the only spheres where a woman’s role is acknowledged and valued in Hindu right-wing circles.

The Samiti, especially among its younger members, has tried to raise issues that have been quintessential in several women’s movements, such as income generation, domestic violence, male domination, discrimination and early marriage. However, the Indian historian Tanika Sarkar, who writes on the predicament and contradictions of women who are part of the Hindu nationalist project, points out that even highlighting them has not been straightforward. The patriarchal framework of the RSS has always ensured that there is a limit on women’s activism even within the Samiti. By and large, whenever the Samiti has spoken about issues of women’s freedoms, these have been circumscribed within what Sarkar calls a “generally conservative domesticity.”

Speaking on the role of women within Hindu nationalist organizations, Sharan Pumpwell, a senior leader in the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) organization in Mangalore, a major port city in Karnataka, says, “We can take care of the Muslim men who are forcing our girls into love jihad, but it is the women who can speak candidly to our girls who are victims. … There are so many things that women cannot speak to men about. We need women to talk other women out of these things.”

This gender-based division of labor within Hindutva cadres is widely accepted and even exploited by women with political aspirations. Pooja Shakun Pandey, a leader of the far-right All India Hindu Mahasabha party from Aligarh in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), is a case in point. From large-scale riots to smaller, low-intensity incidents, which keep the communal tensions simmering, UP is widely recognized as the hotbed of communal politics in India. The city of Aligarh, where Pandey is an activist, is also politically significant. Since the late 19th century, it has been the hub of Muslim education and intellectual activity in India, with the country’s oldest Muslim university, the Aligarh Muslim University, situated in the heart of the city. As a result, it is home to several Hindu nationalist activists like Pandey, making it a laboratory for religious polarization.

Pooja Shakun Pandey at her home in Aligarh. (Sanya Dhingra)

“They [Muslim men] drive our girls mad sexually; they make them sex addicts. … She [the Hindu girl] cannot think of anything else apart from sex,” says Pandey, repeating a common trope. “I counsel several of such girls. … They have to be saved through counseling or force, but they have to be saved,” adds Pandey, who admits to having beaten up a young girl to “counsel” her.

Across the country, Hindu nationalist organizations run sophisticated networks of informers ranging from security guards to bus conductors and drivers, lawyers and travel agents, who alert their members of any cases of interfaith marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men. Once they get any leads, these vigilantes often forcefully separate the couple and send the young girls back to their families. They also frequently resort to violence against the Muslim men. These incidents have become so common that, in small towns and cities, there is widespread fear of being forcibly separated by vigilantes. Pandey, too, claims to have a wide network of such informers.

While she has no qualms about taming other young women into submission, in her own life, Pandey has always called the shots. Her story shows how politically ambitious women in the Hindu nationalist environment must resort to conservative notions about womanhood to gain success, even if the choices they make in their own lives are far from conservative. A former professor of mathematics and a mother of two, Pandey, much like Kundapura, quit her well-paying job in 2012 and took the path of Hindu nationalist activism, which she found more satisfying and in sync with her “true calling.”

After working for some time on issues like love jihad, Pandey decided to become an ascetic and live a celibate life. She went on to divorce her husband, who has since shadowed her around as her “manager” and calls her “mata ji” (mother). While they continue to live in the same house, they claim to never sleep in the same room. Pandey, in fact, lives in a separate quarter, which consists of her office, a room where she sleeps, a spacious hall where she receives visitors and a small cow shelter. Her ex-husband and two children, meanwhile, live in the main building of their bungalow. Like all sadhvis who are supposed to give up the remnants of their past lives, she has even changed her name and now calls herself Sadhvi Annapoorna.

The popular understanding of women who take to Hindu nationalist activism or politics is that they are conservative, compliant and obsequious to their families. However, several women leaders we met had actually gone against the wishes of their families by choosing public life — which entails controversies, potential police cases and regular engagement with men — over conventional careers and family lives. Several of them, including Kundapura and Pandey, described themselves as “tomboys” growing up, “different from the other girls,” betraying their deep childhood ambivalences toward mainstream notions of femininity and womanhood.

The 2012 Emmy-nominated documentary, “The World Before Her,” traced the life of another young female militant activist, Prachi Trivedi. In the documentary, the brawny Trivedi admits to having a terrible temperament and an overwhelming urge to beat up other young girls, whom she trains at a Durga Vahini camp. The “Durga Vahini” (army of [the Hindu goddess] Durga) is the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus), where young girls are trained in shooting and dagger-wielding. The bushy-browed Durga Vahini activist had deep anxieties about her gender and sexuality that possibly stemmed from having a physically abusive father, to whom she was nevertheless grateful because he had allowed her to live. “Knowing that I’m a girl child, he let me live. … That’s the best part. In a traditional family, people don’t let a girl child live. They kill the child,” she says, referring to the prevalence of female infanticide in India.

Psychologists have argued that, in societies where girls are treated as inferior to their brothers, especially in a country like India where they can even be killed before birth, they can develop complicated relationships with their gender identities. They often try to impress their parents by being as masculine as their brothers. The Hindu nationalist activists we met show the extreme political form these gender anxieties can assume.

While Pandey’s ex-husband has been supportive of her choices, they have a highly unconventional relationship, with her being in a clearly dominant position. New Lines met her in her huge, saffron-painted bungalow in the sweltering heat of August last year. The walls of the otherwise bare room she called her office were adorned with swords, daggers and a photograph of her “role model,” Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi. Pandey shot to popularity in 2019 when she staged an “assassination” of Gandhi’s effigy on the anniversary of his death. Gandhi, who had played such an essential role in India’s independence movement, has been a favorite punching bag of Hindu nationalists, who criticize him for being too soft on Muslims and find his philosophy of nonviolence too effeminate.

It is no surprise, then, that for several women Hindu nationalist activists, Godse is a role model. Godse had an unusual story of gender mis-identity of his own. He was raised as a girl because his parents had already lost three sons in their infancy, and they thought they could protect their fourth son from the evil eye by raising him as a girl. Understandably, Godse went on to have deep complexes about his gender identity, which resulted in him developing a hard-edged masculinity and a disdain for womanliness in his youth. In court during his trial for Gandhi’s murder, Godse said that he felt compelled to kill Gandhi for his womanly politics, which were emasculating the Hindu nation.

In December 2021, Pandey was the only woman among a group of religious leaders who infamously called for a genocide against Muslims at a large Hindu religious congregation in the holy town of Haridwar, in the hilly state of Uttarakhand. The event, at which hundreds of Hindu activists and religious leaders took an oath to turn India into a Hindu nation, through violence if required, generated international opprobrium. Speaking loudly to the congregation, Pandey said a woman does not need weapons to fight as she has “matrashakti” (“a mother’s power”). “A woman’s hands are like a tigress’s claws. So don’t worry if I cannot afford expensive weapons, my claws can tear [them] open,” she had said to a cheering audience.

“I see no contradiction between the ideas I stand for and women’s empowerment,” she later told New Lines. “Violence is a woman’s friend. Women are not supposed to be docile; that is not what Hindu dharma teaches us. … But this does not mean that they do not fulfill their natural duty, which is to have children — it is also a national duty for Hindu women to have children.” If Hindu women do not have children, the Hindu population will be taken over by Muslims, she warns, echoing the common Hindu nationalist trope of Muslims taking over the country through what they call “population jihad.” She herself took to celibacy because she had already produced two sons in the service of the nation, she adds.

The idea that motherhood is a political and national duty for women has been central to Hindu nationalist thought since its inception. Hindu nationalism, in fact, imagines the Hindu nation in the image of “Bharat Mata,” which loosely translates to “Mother India,” whose honor needs to be protected from enemies.

In the 1990s, at the time of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — which aimed to establish a Rama temple at the site where the 16th-century Babri mosque stood, because several Hindus believed it to be the exact spot of Lord Rama’s birth — there was a huge surge of women’s participation in Hindu nationalist politics and activism. They came out to protect “Ram Lalla” (“baby Ram”), mobilizing in their capacities as “mothers.” The movement culminated with the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya town in UP in 1992, followed by large-scale riots across the country.

One woman leader, Sadhvi Ritambhara, a celibate and ascetic, became the face of this movement. She recorded her fervent calls to violence against those who blocked the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, which were played in temple after temple across the country. At a time when hate speech was not yet the norm in Indian politics, the fiery Ritambhara warned the “enemies of dying a dog’s death.”

Sadhvi Ritambhara at a Hindu temple in New York City, where she addressed a religious gathering. (Sanya Dhingra)

It was Ritambhara who had founded the Durga Vahini in 1991, where young Hindu women are trained to be “good” wives and mothers in 15-day training camps organized across various Indian towns and cities in the summer. In addition to attending lectures and group discussions, women and girls are trained to fight and learn techniques to protect their “honor.” It is usually through word of mouth that they join these camps, and they soon find a sense of solidarity in the group and an identity outside their often-strict domesticated roles as daughters, wives and mothers. Thakur, the controversial legislator, was also a member of the Durga Vahini.

Three decades later, Ritambhara, referred to as “Didi-Ma” (“sister-mother”) by her devotees, is past her political prime. As she sits in a lavish apartment in New York City, owned by one of her many wealthy expatriate followers, she tells New Lines, “Back in the day, you saw my angry avatar because India was in danger.” Huddled around her on a spacious balcony overlooking the Hudson River and a giant American flag, a group of middle-aged and senior Non Resident Indian (NRI) men and women sang patriotic and nationalist songs in unison.

The fiery leader, who was arrested in 1995 for inciting communal hatred leading to mob violence, seems to have mellowed now, occupying herself with “social work,” though her past does come back to haunt her every now and again. On a fundraising “spiritual tour” to address religious gatherings in different cities, one event due to take place at a church in New Jersey was canceled because of a backlash by some activists in the state.

“The Ram Janmabhoomi issue was my ‘bhoomika’ [‘performance’], but Vatsalya Gram is my ‘swabhav’ [‘natural character’],” she said. Vatsalya Gram, headquartered in the temple town of Vrindavan in UP, is a nonprofit set up by Ritambhara in 2002 to habilitate destitute women and children who have no family or have been socially ostracized. Between her “performance” and “natural character,” Ritambhara covers the spectrum of Hindutva’s women leaders on the scene.

While all politicians use political and ideological rhetoric to their advantage, men can enter the political sphere with unabashed ambitions. However, for people like Ritambhara in the Hindutva project, women have to rally around the “threats” to their honor, their children or the nation, in order to justify their presence in this male-dominated space. They also have to be louder, more militant and more ardent to be noticed and heard. “Women joining local organizations are typically more militant because you need a degree of street power to fight local patriarchy. They tend to struggle more, and have to keep justifying their place, ambition and even moral purity to everyone,” says Rashmi Singh, a political ethnographer who focuses on women in Indian politics.

Kundapura is a case in point. Locals from Karnataka say that, given her massive following among youth and on social media, which she attracted early on, she won enemies from within her organization, who have not only attacked her physically in the past but also continue to stymie her political ambitions. When asked about the alleged attack, however, Kundapura refused to speak about it due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

However, despite their ambition, independence and struggles with patriarchy, the politics of Hindu nationalist women have been disconcerting for feminists in India. “What they stand for cannot be seen as feminism,” argues the feminist activist Kavita Krishnan. “Merely organizing and mobilizing women does not qualify as feminism — the goal towards which they are organizing is equally important,” she says. “They mobilize for what are obviously regressive, Islamophobic goals. … At most, one can concede that the right wing appeals to certain feminist impulses (like the quest for political participation) that young women may have, but then channelizes them for exclusionary, Islamophobic goals, including against Muslim women.”

Articulating the difficulty for feminists to reconcile themselves with this unanticipated alliance of women’s empowerment and bigotry, the historian Tanika Sarkar wrote, “As feminists, we had always celebrated the release of women from pure domesticity, their politicization had always been assumed to be an emancipatory possibility, and the relationship between communal violence and women had been seen as one of male-inflicted violence and female victimhood. A communalized female subjecthood seemed a new and unsettling phenomenon.”

Yet, over the last few years, there has been a concerted effort by Hindu nationalist organizations, led by the BJP and the RSS, to push more women into the political sphere. Modi’s BJP, for instance, has identified women as a crucial base for the party. In the last national election held in 2019, the BJP became the party with the highest number of votes from women. In that election, the party fielded more women candidates than any other. After being elected, the government appointed more women as ministers than any other previous government.

Increasingly, several senior leaders from the RSS are speaking of the need to boost women’s participation in the organization’s activities, especially as it prepares for its centennial celebrations in 2025. In 2022, for the first time in its nearly 100-year history, the RSS invited a woman — the mountaineer Santosh Yadav — to be the chief guest at its annual Dussehra program, where the organization’s strategy to fulfill its vision for the country is unveiled. Dussehra is an important Hindu festival that marks the defeat of Ravana at the hands of Lord Rama, as narrated by the epic Ramayana.

While women have faced a glass ceiling in the Hindu nationalist movement, there are signs that the status quo might change, at least in the RSS, which could open its membership to women. Speaking on the issue, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said, “We will have to find a way to accommodate them [women]. We must think about it. During the days of Dr. Sahib [the organization’s first chief, K.B. Hedgewar, is informally called ‘Doctor sahib’ or ‘Doctor ji’ because he was a physician] the situation was not conducive enough to think about it, but today we can think about it.”

In the case of this eventuality, the feminist predicament of what Sarkar referred to as the “communalized female subjecthood” may well become worse.

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