Book review: The Dashing Ladies Of Shiv Sena
Tarini Bedi's book shows how this male-dominated party became dependent on its women workers
The Shiv Sena, through the first decades of its foundation, was always a purushi party. This men’s club then gradually evolved into a purush pradhan (male-dominated) party by the mid- to late-1980s. Several factors went into that evolution—the Sena was essentially a Mumbai-based party until the mid-1980s. In the early years of that decade, there was a tectonic shift in the city’s political economy. Since before independence, Mumbai had been known as a manufacturing hub and, more importantly, a textile city. Then almost simultaneously, one on the heels of the other, two things happened—the textile mills shut down overnight owing to a massive workers’ strike called by trade unionist Datta Samant and, a few years later, then chief minister Sharad Pawar decided to turn Mumbai into a financial and information technology hub.
Now, the Shiv Sena’s very raison d’etre was the textile workers who had migrated from small towns across Maharashtra and settled in the state capital even before independence. It was to get them better jobs (as clerks rather than mill workers) and housing (flats/apartments rather than chawls) that the Sena had been founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966, and as these workers started returning to their farmlands, the Sena found the ground beneath its feet slipping.
But what Thackeray had not noticed was that the Sena membership of many of these men had been actively encouraged by their wives. So when these women stayed back in the city for their children’s sakes, they brought about the second coming of the Shiv Sena. Many of them sought domestic work or populated the sweatshops of Mumbai to supplement their incomes. The rampant exploitation—both labour and sexual—in these unorganized sectors propelled them towards the Sena. Thackeray was a terror in the city in those decades and the Sena tag offered these women protection.
It then stands to reason that many of these women who eventually joined the party’s Mahila Aghadi (Women’s Front) were from the lower rungs of the social strata, which set them apart from those they described as “air-conditioned" women living in high-rise apartments. This difference in status today distinguishes many of the Sena women—whom Thackeray referred to as his ranraginis (women warriors)—from the women politicians of other political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, whom they look down upon for their prim and proper ways which seem to accomplish nothing. The Sena women, on the other hand, as some of the incidents of street justice quoted in Tarini Bedi’s book, The Dashing Ladies Of Shiv Sena, illustrate, adopt tactics that are more earthy and primitive—like breaking up a fight between two taxi drivers and causing a massive traffic jam by simply boxing their ears; naming and shaming a a doctor sexually exploiting his nursing staff; beating up a drunken husband in full public view. They end up as the female dadas of their localities, offering what Bedi describes as “matronage" to their local constituents.
Women who achieved such results became even more essential to the Shiv Sena in the 1990s, when the Central government introduced 33% reservation for women in local self-government bodies. Shiv Sena’s women also played another important role during the 1992-93 riots that defined the Sena’s shift from regional politics to that of Hindutva—the protection of their men. Whenever the police closed in on the rioters, they would form a protective ring around the men. At the time, the Mumbai police didn’t have enough policewomen; if today the Mumbai police has more women than any other police force in the country, it is largely because of the Shiv Sena.
But while the women continue to be protective shields for their male colleagues, they have still not been able to break the glass ceiling. While male shakha (branch) heads in the Shiv Sena are designated pramukhs (chiefs), women heads are simply shakha sangathaks (organizers).
Bedi’s book is the end result of painstaking research for a doctorate in the US—she moved with these women in villages, slums and red-light areas, riding with them on motorcycles. Women in saris riding bikes seems to be a Shiv Sena speciality—as one of them told Bedi, that is akin, in these modern times, to Shivaji astride his horse. The sari, the mangalsutra and other feminine trappings are important to them as they undertake tasks even some men might baulk at—feminism, so far a left-wing intellectual domain, has thus been redefined and given a new orientation.
That, plus their street-smart tactics, ensures these women see themselves as “dashing". The dictionary meaning of the term could be simply debonair or even raffish. But the Shiv Sena women are much more than that—walking the edge of the law, breaking many of the rules and norms of society in the pursuit of an identity that only the Shiv Sena offers them, even if the party relegates them to secondary positions vis-à-vis the men.
The book is a great sociological study of how a male-dominated party has now become almost wholly dependent on its women for their organizational skills and political campaigns. The anecdotes, though interesting, are disappointingly few in the book, which, given that it is a doctoral thesis, is heavy on data and needs plodding through the evaluation and analysis.Then, again, while Bedi disguises the names of the women who have shared their stories, she refers to them all the time as “informants", which jars each time because of its negative and criminal connotations. Bedi’s intention was to protect them from the consequences of their free speech, though there is nothing in the book that denotes any disrespect towards their leaders or any incident that might not be flattering to the party, which has built its reputation on non-conformism and street justice.
However, despite some flaws of translation from the Marathi and the occasional repetition, it is worth a read, for it is one of the few books that documents right-wing feminism in a male-dominated society/party.
Sujata Anandan is the author of Samrat: How the Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever.