Aravindan Neelakandan
Raksha Bandhan – Festival of Patriarchy?
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

One thing we should appreciate in Marxist intellectuals is their ability to get de-nationalized in an intellectually rigorous manner. They rb0have the framework, they have the jargon and the zest. And they use it to defame and deconstruct every occasion that binds us as a nation. Kavita Krishnan is the National Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) which though declares itself apolitical is associated with CPI(ML).  In an article, written in 2012 as a reaction to the series of violent sex crimes against women, she zeroed in on an innate deficiency in Indian culture that somehow contributes to the mindset that dehumanizes women.  In this worldview, Indian society is patriarchal and its festivals are cunningly designed to look benign but beneath it contains the traps of patriarchy. And the festival she chooses is Raksha Bandhan.

Let us see her attack on Raksha Bandhan elaborately:

The ideology of masculine protectiveness of their women-folk, especially sisters, has deep cultural roots and emotive power. Take the North Indian festival of ‘raksha bandhan,’ where the sister ties a ‘rakhi’ (a band or string signifying the bond between sister and brother) to her brother, who in return for her sacred gesture of sisterly love, pledges to protect her. Brotherly protectiveness of sisters, invariably, involves avenging her sexual violation – a notion that stretches to include ‘protecting’ her from unwanted emotional and sexual entanglements.

The brother derives status, prestige and ‘honour’ from his ability to protect his sister. This ‘honour’ is both personal and also shared and reinforced by the family/community. And the sister owes her brother a duty to safeguard her own chastity, on which rests his honour. If she compromises her chastity (and his honour, which in turn is linked to the collective masculine honour of the family/community) by exercising her autonomous choice of husband, or marrying outside prescribed caste/community norms, he is socially sanctioned, even expected, to forcibly prevent or avenge this loss of honour.

The bond between brothers and sisters, or the filial duties of daughters towards fathers, are not always experienced as coercive. The ‘raksha bandhan’ ceremony is one in which many women take great pride. The brother ‘needs’ a sister to protect, as much as the sister needs his protection. This bond of benign patriarchy is strained only when the sister exercises sexual and/or economic autonomy: making self-choice marriages or marrying outside prescribed norms, or demanding her legal share in land and ancestral property.

In most Indian cultures, across castes and communities, the young adult woman is viewed as a ward, an asset (paraya dhan – wealth that belongs to another) kept in trust for a future owner, that must be handed over sexually un-violated and ‘innocent’ to her husband. Therefore the daughter/sister is loved, adored, in her natal family, but hedged about by anxiety about her chastity, innocence, and sexual purity.

This elaborate quote is a very good example of how the radical Marxist view of culture is contrived, artificial and without its roots either in the cultural or in the historical realities of this nation.  rb1Raksha Bandhan is part of an evolving cultural being of this nation. The society, which conceived this festival, was like any other pre-modern society  and had patriarchal structures and values no doubt. But its genius is in the fact that it has preserved and nurtured possibilities and spaces which have proved repeatedly able to grow beyond the narrow confines into phenomena that are universal and deeply spiritual.

For India this particular festival has been singularly important in manifesting its symbolic power at crucial junctures of history. During the nationalist opposition to Bengal partition, in 1909,  Raksha Bandhan came to symbolize Hindu-Muslim unity against the communal divide and rule policy of the British. It was Tagore who suggested that 16th October 1909 the proposed day of partition be observed as the day of Raksha Bandhan wherein communities could use the symbolism of the ceremony to thwart the divide and rule policy of the British Imperialism.

Let us come back to the question of feminism. For a starter, the  Raksha Bandhan allows a girl to choose a brother beyond her biological relatives.  While in a socially stagnant situation the Raksha Bandhan may become a ritual strictly confined within the family and the extended family of community/caste, it has the real possibility of the girl making a person outside the pale of her biological and community circles her ‘brother’.  The folk traditions do speak of how Draupadi, a Panchala princess, chose Krishna the Yadava – someone whose birth-based status was questioned in the assembly of Kashtriyas during Yudishtra’s Rajasooya ritual- as her brother.

During the chivalrous romantic Rajput period, we also find women choosing and asserting their choices beyond the confines of the traditional circles of caste and community. Thus Durgawathi the Rajput princess chose the prince of Gond tribes and to this day venerated for her fierce independence. While it is true that birth based restrictions weighed high in Indian communities and concept of chastity were reinforced strongly, as in any pre-modern patriarchal society, this is one society which kept alive the flame of human spirit through its festivals and symbols, even during the periods of social stagnation and siege, and the Indic spirit has the power to grow and expand the humanity beyond the narrow confines of the restricting social milieu. We call it Hindutva.

rb2 rb3Yet the reading is done in the reverse by the Marxist activists and academicians. But if we are to read their own symbolism the same way how well would they stand the test? Why is that in all the posters and crude statues carrying the sickle and hammer, the woman invariably carries the sickle – the symbol of agricultural labor and the male carries the hammer symbolizing the industrial proletariat?

It is not a coincidence that the woman is stereotyped as agricultural laborer in Marxist iconography and  that Marxist states invariably had unleashed the most cruel oppression on agriculturalists and had killed millions of them whether  in Stalinist Soviet Union or Maoist China. Apart from this generations of humanity had paid their price for the blunder of Marxist theoreticians to understand the family and human relations through the prism of Marxist theory where Marxist dictators held power.

Stalin thus swung between extremes when he implemented disastrously policies based on the Marxist theology that family is a bourgeois institution aimed at exploiting women. Laws aimed at thwarting the institution of family completely in 1920s to banning abortions and making divorces as difficult as possible in 1930s, the human relations became experimental guinea pigs for Marxist theoreticians destroying human lives in millions.  

Even the much flaunted projection of Soviet woman warrior against the Nazi aggressor was more from the traditions of Mother Russia than from the theoretical emancipation of father Marx. In China also Mao’s reductionist yet totalitarian approach to women issues produced a system where the exploitation of women could be carried out ruthlessly even while paying lip service to women equality and denouncing the traditional Chinese culture as patriarchal.

Mao did not hesitate in institutionally subjecting the women to torture and humiliation in the suppression of the Futian rebellion.  Women’s rights activist Ding Ling found Mao luxuriating with women at Yanan even as China faced famine deaths. In other words Marxist states have the same oppression of women that one sees in feudal societies with an add-on of  closed ideology. While the patriarchal pre-modern social values dehumanize women as a valued and cherished property and modern capitalist societies dehumanize women as commodities, the Marxist states have systematically dehumanized the women as both property and commodity to be dealt and disposed off by the State as it pleases even while decrying the evils of patriarchy and consumerism.

rb5The alternative would be to consciously cultivate in every human relation the innate honour and the worth of a woman as an individual with all the rights and dignity of a complete self.  Thus in Raksha Bandhan the woman chooses her brother. She is neither his property nor she his commodity. She is a dignified free human being who dictates the kind of relation she shall engage with an individual of another gender. Not just gender the Raksha Bandhan empowers the woman to even reverse the relationship of protection. In a renewed reading she can assert the relation, the emotional bond to protect what she cherishes. And that can have consequences not just for the society but for the over all biosphere.

In  Bhigun village  of Tehri Garhwal  one of the largest districts in the hill state of rb6Uttarakhand the Mahila Mangal Dal (MMD) a women empowerment movement has been organizing since 1996 Raksha Bandhan where the village women adapt ceremoniously the trees as their brothers. Today across the country use of Raksha Bandhan by women to create emotional ecological bonds to save green resources has spread like a wild fire.

This is simply the proverbial tip of the ice berg of how Raksha Bandhan has creative and vital possibilities to provide the cultural and sacred space for gender assertion by not only women but also the gender-variants to claim their freedom and dignity as individuals in a society restricted by patriarchal values and consumerist tendencies and also claim their relations to the natural resources.

Patriarchy and consumerism are changing social phenomena but the assertion of the sacredness of the individual as self is an eternal value which can be manifested through the festival of Raksha Bandhan – ‘the eternal value for the changing society’ as a great modern Hindu seer stated- another name for that eternal value is Sanathana Dharma!