The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena
Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016, 318 pp.
Reviewed by Whitney Russell
In The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena, Tarini Bedi offers a timely view into India’s Shiv Sena political party. Shiv Sena, a coalition partner with Narendra Modi’s current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, is typically viewed as right-wing, nationalist, extremist, violent, and as holding a chauvinistic or misogynistic attitude towards women. Yet, at the same time, the party attracts and retains a significant number of dedicated women, resonating with them in a way that, as Bedi notes, feminism never has. Furthermore, and in contrast to what some social science literature on right-wing women might suggest, these women are not passive recipients of ideology but active animators of political life in their communities. This is precisely the point of entry for Bedi’s analysis as she asks how these women constitute themselves politically, how their networks are produced and function, and what makes them effective political actors.
In nine chapters, Bedi explores the political lives of Shiv Sena women in Mumbai and Pune. She uses the lenses of “dashing” (1-3), visibility and invisibility (5-6) adjustment (8), and expands them in two sites where these concepts are constituted by particular urban spaces (7 and 9). She spends her first few chapters defining what her informants call “dashing”—a personal disposition that is animated, bold, and brave. According to informants, Shiv Sena women who are “dashing” are “always doing” (40) and doing “without fear” (38). They cultivate this image for themselves in emotional public performances at political events and in everyday interactions (such as a sharply scolding of an unsatisfactory auto driver). Bedi draws a picture of a bold and brash woman whose public behavior contradicts the timid, religious, and family-oriented wife stereotypically associated with right-wing Hindu ideology, and she does this to highlight the importance of dashing—not only is this an appropriate way for a Shiv Sena woman to behave, but the most dashing women are explicitly rewarded with opportunities for higher political positions. They receive these promotions because the threats made by dashing women are bolstered by the party’s reputation for violence, and the party maintains this reputation through the daily dashing of female party members.
In the fifth and sixth chapters, Bedi delves into how Shiv Sena women manipulate the public and private aspects of their political lives. In public, women use protests and demonstrations as opportunities to showcase their dashing; they stand at the front lines of marches and brag of their brushes with the police. We also see that these events serve as recruiting tools, especially so when women look to the local Shiv Sena leadership to resolve cases of sexual harassment and abuse. When Shiv Sena women dash and recruit, they also gain access into the intimate and invisible lives of female party members who would not otherwise be reached by the male party leadership. Bedi suggests that, in return, Shiv Sena women are granted another space of freedom—the party occasionally grants them funds to organize picnics and outings for women only, where the most dashing women dare to dress differently (in pants, jeans, or even shorts) and relax in a rare space away from the male gaze.
Chapters seven and nine take the reader to two places where Shiv Sena women derive particular power from the spaces around them. First, Seeta and Geeta live in Filmcity 32, a slum area just outside Bollywood’s main production studio. As can be expected of “dashing ladies of Shiv Sena,” both women are heavily involved in the everyday problems of their constituents, which often center around suspicious brokers looking to build apartments and homes out of the slum. When Seeta and Geeta are drawn into these negotiations, Bedi shows their roles in constant flux between patron, broker, and recipient of resources. In chapter 9, Bedi introduces Durva—a woman living and working in the redlight area of nearby Pune. If Seeta and Geeta are living on the spatial margins of the state, Durva is also living in the “moral margins.” Everyone from government officials to Bedi’s own auto driver are reluctant to enter Durva’s neighborhood, leaving a void and opportunity for Durva to develop as a political actor. She, like Seeta and Geeta, is deeply involved in the everyday lives (and problems) of her neighbors, creating a network of people who “know” her. It is Durva’s network (and not, as she says, “the paperwork”) that make her politically powerful in Pune.
In the strongest chapter, chapter 8, Bedi illuminates what she calls “adjustment”—the “renegotiations of conjugal and domestic life” (175) that make political work possible for Shiv Sena women. She begins by suggesting, as other feminist anthropologists have, that religion and domesticity are not necessarily the central oppressive structures in a woman’s life. Instead, the Hindu life cycle offers an appropriate period for Shiv Sena men to be politically active away from the home (before marriage) and another phase for women (after her children have reached adulthood). Traditional domesticity also does not necessarily present an obstacle, as larger extended families simply offer more people to fulfill the domestic duties left behind by an active Shiv Sena woman. To this, Bedi adds that a public and private distinction between domestic and party life does not adequately describe her informants’ lives; they meet constituents inside their own homes and feel a “fictive kinship” with other members of the party. In other words, families may not perceive the Shiv Sena woman as working outside the home if she is working within the family of Shiv Sena. Bedi argues that all these factors combine to facilitate “adjustment” as the family works to accommodate a politically active member. When they do, the family benefits from the political power her work offers them, and the party is sustained through her dashing.
The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena is an introduction to the lives of these women, but some questions remain. Specifically, Bedi seems conflicted about the existence (and importance) of Shiv Sena’s official ideology. While she describes the party as “violent,” the reader never receives a clear outline of the party’s platform or what “violence,” exactly, leads people to classify them as extremists. Through much of the book (particularly chapter 4), Bedi seems to suggest that the official party line is barely relevant to her informants, if not irrelevant entirely. For example, women and men appointed to the same political post are officially given different titles but, in practice, the women use whatever title they wish. Second, at a protest, Bedi observes that the purpose of the event doesn’t matter nearly as much as the opportunity for visibility. One of her main informants is not even Hindu, leading the reader to wonder how important Hindu nationalism is to these women. Instead, they seem primarily interested in the opportunity to move around their communities without fear and to stand up to men (not Muslim men or men from outside India, but men in a general sense).
The image cracks, however, when Durva speaks plainly of a 2003 protest (132). “We burned the flag of Pakistan,” she says, “and took out a preth-yatra (death procession). We took the flag of Pakistan on a funeral procession, just like it was dead.” This deeply insulting action is the first sign of Shiv Sena’s official ideology and extremist reputation. Surprisingly, Bedi brushes it aside by describing Shiv Sena as “remarkably ideologically inconsistent” (179), without any enumeration of what the core ideology is reputed to be, consistent or not. In other words, these “dashing ladies” may be engaged in a fascinating and subversive manipulation of their party’s platform, they may not be deviating from the party line at all, or the party line may be entirely too inconsistent to judge. While Bedi settles on the latter, the evidence and analysis offered suggests the women may be the active agents of the former.
The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena is an important contribution to scholars of South Asia looking to theorize India’s current political moment. It will be most useful to readers who already have some knowledge of Shiv Sena and India’s recent political history, and will be particularly interesting to researchers working on right wing movements, women’s and critical gender studies, and South Asian politics.
Whitney Russell is a PhD student at the University of California San Diego where she researches gender, development, affect, and the state in North India.