Bal Thackeray is dead, long live Bal Thackeray! This is not meant as a provocation, but as an exploration of what allows a Hitler loving demagogue to die in peace without facing any consequences for his actions (For an account of his career and impact go here)
A recent Hindu op-ed rightly notes that, “Thackeray’s genius was giving shape to an authentically Indian Fascism.” And its roots are in the decline of the working class in Bombay. It considers the Shiv Sena’s fascism a “politics of the young,” specifically young men.
But how about the seldom discussed perspective of women? Not the young women who have been arrested for their update on Facebook and ‘liking’ said update. But the women who make the politics of violence possible. This is a good time to revisit Atreyee Sen’s excellent ethnography, Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum.
Sen argues that women in Mumbai slums who engage in violence within the rubric of the Shiv Sena Aghari groups, do so for completely rational reasons. Their capacity for violence gives them a space to maneuver in a patriarchal society. Not only are they able to carve out some power for themselves in their communities, it allows them to engage in collective action to address the issues facing their members, like abusive husbands, and access to local resources like water. Outside of their community, it gives them a sense of power while dealing with the highly unequal equation that exists in their place of work, whether between the memsahib who employs them as domestic help, or the sweat shop owner for whom they labor. Highly circumscribed as this power is, it is has an inarguable materiality.
Sen concludes on the depressing note that for the slum women in the Shiv Sena, it is imperative to maintain a low level of permanent conflict with their neighbors, usually Muslims or migrants from other parts of India. It is through the threat of violence that they can wrest resources and status from their environment. A return to normalcy would increase the pressures of patriarchy on them and alienate them from what little they have. What is even more depressing is that this violence, in order to stay relevant, has to be transmitted through their children and menfolk. In a situation like this, how is a non-violent civil society possible? As usual the answer lies with women.