Mother, soil, and people: The gendering of Bengali nationalism past and present

Harry Mace

Beginning this term’s Gender and Sexuality workshop, we welcomed Marie Curie Global India fellow of Dublin City University, Proma Ray Chaudhury. Her work focuses on gender and women’s political participation in contemporary India (more explicitly, political parties in West Bengal). A social scientist by training, Chaudhury’s paper began with some theoretical explanations on the gendering of Bengali nationalism. Her talk was a welcomed insight into her doctoral work, namely bringing a South Asian study of the state of Bengal into a field dominated by Western case studies. Her paper set out to examine late nineteenth and early twentieth-century nationalism and sought to explain how these were infused with discourses of gender. But the paper was just as much about contemporary Indian politics as it was of the past. Expecting the paper to focus namely on Bangladesh, the paper was instead about an Indian politician of Bengali descent. We heard how Mamata Banerjee, often referred to as the Didi (the older sister), navigated the gendered and racialised terrain of Bengali nationalism in Indian public life. Banerjee founded the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party based in West Bengal. She is now the Chief Minister of the West Bengal state. Issues of caste, gender, sexuality and indeed nationhood infused her performances of public self. Bengali women had to connect with the masses, Chaudhury explained, in a way that male counterparts did not. Banerjee dressed in plain Bengali clothes, which reflected some of the caste and class sensitivities facing politicians. Qualities expected of such a politician were non-attachment to political power: a self-sacrificing, unabashed expression of emotions, that rendered her without career ambition. Concepts of the nation state had to be ‘motherly’ and ‘natural’.

Discussing the social status of women in the Indian elite fills a gap in our knowledge of post-colonial Indian bureaucracy. Inderpal Grewal’s work has examined masculinities and the Indian civil service: exploring how men constructed themselves publicly, and how masculinity infused the nationalist elitism of patriarchal networks. Grewal’s work notes, that much like Chaudhury’s thesis on Indian women, high caste men performed gender identities that continued to shape post-colonial politics and define paternalistic governance. Women, as Chaudhury noted, had to grapple with similar issues but with different stakes. Theirs was not constructing norms within the elite, but adopting them to justifying women’s place.

Public notions of Indian femininity, however, infused discourses of the natural underpinnings of motherly and indeed delicate femininity that often required one to adopt a cult of motherhood. What purpose did this serve? The first was to be taken seriously and the second, put rather bluntly, was to be ‘read’ as legitimate. Banerjee’s autobiography offered a glimpse into this deficit between public Indian women and the private: what Chaudhury referred to as the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. We were taken through the theoretical ramifications of the project, but the most exciting part of the paper was Chaudhury’s discourse analysis of Banerjee’s autobiography Maa, Mati, Manush (Motherhood, Soil, and People). We learnt in the question and answer session that Chaudhury has conducted numerous interviews with female politicians. It would be interesting to hear how other women negotiated their femininity and political careers. Thus, as the paper moved from the rather abstract realms of theorization (in its first section) to an analysis of specific case studies (in the second), the topic’s historical importance became ever more evident. The paper offered one example from Chaudhury’s doctoral work that unearthed the subjectivities of these women in a political context where the country’s longest serving and first and only female prime minister was assassinated. Indira Gandhi was known as aggressive and domineering: cast in the shadow of her father, which deviated somewhat from the discourse Chaudhury argued was crucial to Banerjee’s political appeal. Had she learned from Gandhi’s fate? The latter was educated in Oxford, of a higher caste, whilst Banerjee played her Bengali nationalism as a political card, ever anxious that she was not proficient in English, not part of the patriarchal elite, nor able to behave like Gandhi.

Chaudhury’s story was thus not so much one about how nationalism was gendered, but how these discourses of nationhood framed women’s political subjectivities. The repertoire of feminine identities that those such as Banerjee could adopt reveal how women of different regional and caste backgrounds had to navigate the patriarchal order of Indian politics. Certain forms of femininity were thus not hegemonic – that is dominant – as the paper argued, than they were sanctioned by the ruling elites. In turn, these could be subverted, mobilised, or transcended. The state was not yet ready for women to take center stage based solely on their political accolades. Nor were women willing to transcend these norms and overturn their motherly or dominant performances of a public persona. In short, women like Baverjee performed rather traditional gendered roles – through language and dress – that were idealised in Indian political life from the mid to late twentieth century. These were, however, framed to enshroud rather radical objectives and women’s professional aspirations. We look forward to hearing more about Chaudhury’s work in the future.




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