RSS on Women’s Right: Then and Now – Reforming Indian Conservatives

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Not long ago, when RSS mooted the idea of replacing its knickers with trousers, I put forth a conjecture — “If you start dressing like an adult, you start thinking like one.”

Today as I watched an RSS ideologue on prime-time news* waxing eloquent on women’s rights during a discussion on triple talaq, my belief in the validity of the conjecture grew that much more.

Now why do I say that RSS has started acting like an adult (and that it earlier wasn’t)? Time for some history.

Sometime around early 1950s the liberal architects of modern India figured that it is a moral imperative that woman be not treated as second class citizens of India. The constitution of India, of course gave them the equal rights but there were still religious personal laws hiding behind which the various conservatives still propagated patriarchy. To correct this, they brought in the Hindu code bill**. It had the “provisions to allow women to choose their marriage partners, to divorce brutal husbands, and to inherit ancestral property.” (Yes, these basic rights, as they may seem today, were not guaranteed to Hindu women (or any Indian women) from time immemorial.) [Read More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_code_bills]

Now RSS, one of the foremost Hindu conservative group, was at the forefront in opposing this bill tooth and nails. Their arguments and opinions at the time, as quoted from Organiser (the official mouthpiece of RSS) were eerily similar to those of All India Muslim Personal Law Board in today’s TV debate.

So, let’s revisit them (and I directly quote Organiser via Ram Guha):

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1. “[The Hindu code bill] has nothing Bharatiya about it. The questions like those of marriage and divorce cannot be settled on the American or British model in this country. Marriage, according to Hindu culture and law is a sanskar which cannot be changed even after death and not a ‘contract’ which can be broken any time.” Pretty much the line of reasoning that those opposing triple talaq reforms take today.

2. “[The Hindu Code Bill is] a direct invasion on the faith of the Hindus [and…] its provisions empowering women to divorce is revolting to the Hindu ideology” ~ Organiser, November 2, 1949

3. “We oppose the Hindu Code Bill. We oppose it because it is a derogatory measure based on alien and immoral principles. It is not a Hindu Code Bill. It is anything but Hindu. We condemn it because it is a cruel and ignorant libel on Hindu laws, Hindu culture and Hindu dharma” ~ Organiser, December 7, 1949

4. “Rishi Ambedkar and Maharishi Nehru would atomise society and infect every family with scandal, suspicion and vice” ~ Organiser, December 7, 1949

Yes, that’s right — they thought that a woman getting an equal right in inheritance or right to choose her husband or right to divorce would “infect every family with scandal, suspicion and vice”. I think, now 60 years after the adoption of those bills, we can agree that lot of those assertions were mere exaggerations by the conservative patriarchs to protect patriarchy.

So just keep this history in mind as you see and hear various Maulanas hide behind religious customs to protect patriarchy. And remember — adjusting for the standard of women’s right in India, the only reason why Hindu women are a bit ahead of their Muslim counterparts is because the that early architects of modern India happened to be some liberal with a spine.

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So, as I watch the khaki pants argue for women’s right, I cannot but feel glad for their change of stance.

But as Guha says — “Organisations, like individuals, have a right to change their minds. But any such change of view must be accompanied by a frank and open reckoning with why and how it happened.”

So, till the time I am clear how this new-found concern for Indian women came about, my support to this government and its ideological mentors will obviously of case specific.

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Sachin is a graduate from IIT Guwahati