There is no doubt in my mind that our government is nudging this country towards becoming a Hindu-nation in spirit. Even if we ignore the crass, high-decibel noise emanating from the fringe players, there are enough concrete moves by the government itself that make this intention clear; be it the appointments to national research, educational and cultural bodies, the mega celebration of Yoga as a national symbol or the absurd creation of a post of Joint Secretary of Sanskrit in the Ministry of External Affairs. One can argue that Yoga and Sanskrit are composite cultural markers and not religious ideations; something all will accept. But we must be blind to not recognise that the discourse, enforcement and jingoism that is being generated around these ‘ancient symbols of Indian-ness’ are definitely about Hindu India, not India.
From the sound of it, it seems that the next casualty of co-option will be Raksha Bandhan. The Prime Minister has already made an opening move with the call to provide ‘our sisters’ social security benefits before Raksha Bandhan on August 29. I can hear voices proclaiming that Raksha Bandhan is a non-religious event reminding one that the Rajput queens had offered rakhis to Mughal Emperors and that Raksha Bandhan is secular and embraced by all. I am not going to argue the secular credentials of this festival, though I know that it is being used to celebrate Hindu secularism as a counter to the Christian Valentine’s Day! Ironically some mullahs may even join hands with their Hindu counterparts in this assertion. But let me move on.
For many, the rakhi is a symbol of love that brings men and women together, bridging religious/caste fault lines. It is in fact seen as a socially sanctioned non-sexual framework for men and women to bond. But we have to recognise that there are serious sexist issues involved in its construction or, shall we say, stringing. A rakhi denotes a woman asking for protection from a man. Symbolically, the ‘sister’ concedes that she cannot survive in this male-dominated jungle unless she has a ‘brother’ on her side. She celebrates the might and power of the man in society, asking him to take her under his wing and ensure that no harm comes to her. Built into the rakhi is a trap. All right, if ‘trap’ is too strong, let me say ‘catch’ — that the woman is seen only in relation to a man and the notion that she is dependent and subservient to him. The subliminal message is that she is the ‘weaker sex’; that her empowerment comes with the man’s support and approval.
A Rajput queen sending a rakhi to the Mughal badshah was a symbol of surrender, accepting the ‘Big Brother’ and imploring him to protect and not destroy her state. Raksha Bandhan is a festival of bonding but most certainly not the bonding of equals. This may sound harsh but isn’t the ‘love’ that is said to be the bedrock of this celebration wholly unequal?
This, of course, is a very Indian thing! We tend to refer to women only as ‘mothers’, ‘sisters’, ‘daughters’ or ‘wives’. On the face of it, it may sound respectful but we have to realise that these identities allow us to control women. Socially and publicly, sexuality is seen as something to be ashamed of. Therefore, the woman has to be stripped of her sexual-ness if we are to respect her. Therefore she has to be a sister, mother, daughter or wife. The man provides security — often another word for confining — as a brother, son or husband. The independent woman — who is not a sister, mother or wife — is consequently portrayed as untrustworthy, arrogant and promiscuous. The word often employed is ‘loose’. Men will even argue that the lecher in them appears only because women break the mother/sister/wife formulation. The man, of course, operates differently; his manliness is a symbol of power, strength and respect. He has to be strong; after all, he is the protector!
We have to place Raksha Bandhan in this larger context to realise that it is not just a simple function of tying a love band, applying a tilak on your brother’s forehead, offering him sweets and accepting his gifts. The rakhi is not a band of love; it is a knot of subordination.
Many reading this piece may find my assessment of Raksha Bandhan harsh; some may call it perverted and accuse me of disfiguring a beautiful event into a feminist diatribe. But I urge ‘you’ — and when I say ‘you’ I mean men and women — to keep aside your personal experiences and nostalgia when revisiting this tyohar.