After staging the Yoga spectacle on 21st June 2015 on Rajpath, Delhi, the Modi government now plans to celebrate Rakhi, Raksha Bandhan on a grand scale in late August. This plan has full approval of its parent organization, the RSS. Now a Hindu religious festival will be given the status of a national festival. It surely is indicative of the deeper agenda of narrow nationalism this Government has in mind.
As such this festival Raksha Bandhan stands for ‘bond of protection’ and is amongst the very popular festivals, primarily celebrated by Hindus, Jains and some Sikhs. There are legends which point to the innovative use of this festival for goals which are beyond the religious identity so to say. There is a tale of Rani Karnavati of Chittor sending a Rakhi to emperor Humayun when she was faced with the attack by Bahadur Shah (1535), the Sultan of Gujarat. Touched by the gesture of the Hindu queen the emperor set off to defend her, but it was too late to defend Chittor by the time he reached there. This Rajasthani narration is doubted by many historians. Whatever be the truth this tale does reflect Hindu-Muslim amity in medieval times, it does reflect the Ganga Jumani tehzeeb (syncretic culture) which was the kernel of the sub continent.
Another legend is the invocation of Rakhi by Guru Rabindranath Tagore in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal by the British (1905) on communal lines. To register the protest against British policy and to cement the bonds between the two major religious communities, the poet laureate gave the call of celebrating Raksha bandhan as a bond of unity between Hindus and Muslims. This was also a time when the communal forces had begun articulating the sectarian mindset, trying to promote aversion for the ‘other’ community. While the communalists from both the communities went on articulating hatred against ‘other’ community, this type of incidents show the deeper bonds which prevailed amongst Hindus and Muslims during the freedom movement, these were the bonds which reflected Indian nationalism at the social levels.
There are multiple other instances where Rakhi has acted as a symbol of love and unity cutting across social groups, kingdoms and clans. While all this is in place, the fact is that primarily Rakhi is a reflection of patriarchal relations. Here the sister is tying the thread on the wrist of her brother wishing for his well being. The brother in turn is pledging to protect her all her life.
While recognizing the other lovely narrations, like ‘Rakhi brother’ (one who is not a biological brother but becomes brother after Rakhi is tied) etc. the core of the festival does remain structured around gender equations of prevalent from feudal times. Its meaning and tenor has not changed so far despite the development of industrial-democratic society and despite the concept of equality of women to coming to fore. It is unnecessary to judge the past society by the values of the present times, but it all the same calls for revision in the symbols and rituals in the direction in which we aspire to go. The overdue just demand for gender equality is what we need. Today the deeper meaning of Rakhi needs to be understood before carrying on with it in the same form.
Many Hindutva ideologues are harping on the point that this festival empowers the woman to choose her brother, who is not a biological one. Brother in present equations stands for protection along with control as well while what women want is parity, the freedom to choose their way of life and their life partner. The intriguing fact of the rise of Khap Panchayats with the rise of communal politics needs to be underlined. Such social groups are intimidating and attacking the couples who make their own choices in matters of selection of life partners. A promotion of this festival with inherent gender hierarchy means reinforcing curbs on freedom of women.
Primarily festivals of this type are social. Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas are social events of joy, celebration. Many politicians and organization celebrate it at social-community level. Social festivals are family-community events. Two major questions which the decision of the Modi Sarkar raises are, one why a Hindu festival is being presented as a national festival, and why the Government should come forward to promote social festivals? National festivals have to be restricted to the one’s which are related to freedom movement, a phenomenon, which built us as an Indian nation.
In a plural society one religion cannot be singled out to become the national religion and a secular state does not go in for organizing the celebration of religious festivals, majority or minority. Government should not come in the arena of social festivals; communities are already doing that. It seems this government wants to give a subtle message of the deeper gender related agenda; that of the subordination of women as well through this festival. All narrow nationalisms and ideologies which take recourse to the label of religion or race have this agenda inherent in them. Be it Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism or Hindu Fundamentalism, they all take recourse to some or the other pretext from the past or present to restrict the freedom, equality of women.
In a society where Khap Panchayats are becoming more visible, what is needed is the program to empower women for economic self sufficiency and the promotion of an emotional build up which looks at both the genders on par. What should be promoted is the tendency for mutual help and coordination amongst siblings where they support each other on par in building their lives around their free choices. The deeper agenda of RSS, upholding patriarchal mind set is very well reflected in the celebration of this festival. Perpetuation of patriarchal norms is inherent in the very nomenclature of RSS. The term Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is masculine (Swayam, self) in contrast to its women’s organization which is Rashtra Sevika Samiti, sans the swayam, the ‘being’. Women’s being is missing in this scheme of things and that’s what is aimed to be strengthened by such festivals being organized at national level. The apparently innocuous is certainly not so.