In a recent article in the Organiser, decolonising gender discourse, I recalled the Indic way in which nari shakti or women power has culturally been understood and respected. I made an emphatic appeal to go to back to appreciating our Vedic worldview of looking at Indian women and power so that we realise the real impact of westernised model of feminist struggles.
Ideologically, the premise that women are an inferior sex never really held ground in the ancient Indic tradition. And historically, the legends of Rani Lakshmi Bai, Basantalata Hazarika, Tirot Sing Syiem, Rani Gaidinliu, Khuangchera, Rajkumari Gupta, Kittur Rani Chennamaa, Uda Devi, Janaky Athi Nahappan, Accamaa Cherian, Bhima Bai Holkar, Azizan Bai, Pritilata Waddedar, Rani Velu Nachiyar, Bhogeshwari Phuknani and Gulab Kaur among multiple others have proved the enthusiastic presence and mettle of women as frontier defence soldiers and commanders in the freedom struggle. However, it took more than seven decades in post-colonial India to have a woman at the helm of the all-important Defence Ministry.
Nirmala Sitharaman joins Modi's Cabinet as the first ever non-dynast woman Defence Minister after the reshuffle. This elevation is an assertion of many opinions on part of the ruling dispensation. First, that gender will not come in the way of one's merit, irrespective of the historical precedents. Let us have a quick look at the portfolios women have held in independent India thus far.
In Nehru's first cabinet, the sole woman minister Amrit Kaur handled the Health portfolio. In the second, third and fourth Nehru ministries, women were conspicuous by their absence. Similarly, Indira Gandhi – considered as the Durga of India, an epitome of women empowerment, did not allow any woman a ministerial berth in her cabinet in her entire political career. Rajiv Gandhi had one woman minister Mohsina Kidwai who held important portfolios. In Manmohan Singh's first regime, two women made it to the Cabinet. In UPA II too, two women occupied the Cabinet berth. The overall 10% representation of women in the entire ministry made Team Manmohan the most women-friendly cabinet. But in the new cabinet in 2014, women saw a 25% representation in Team Modi – the highest ever.
Second, this reshuffle asserted that women will not be relegated to traditionally considered soft roles of Health, Social Welfare, Women and Child Development, Textiles and Housing alone. With Sushma Swaraj in External Affairs, Smriti Irani in HRD, Uma Bharati in Water Resources and River Development first and Drinking Water & Sanitation now, and Nirmala Sitharaman in Commerce first and defence now, the Modi government has shattered the glass ceiling of ministerial untouchability in certain portfolios. Detractors might dub it symbolism, but this symbolism was much needed in a country obsessed with women in stereotypical roles of scrubbing dishes in popular culture in a primly tied sari with a pallu over her head.
Third, this is an ideological assertion of commitment towards women empowerment that resonates from a Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013 and early 2014 who for the first time called women home-makers and not derisively used the term house wives, in the hey days of his campaign. The carrying forward of that legacy in dealing with women and their role in his team as the Prime Minister is a historic opportunity that all feminists must lay claim to.
I have been a huge fan of Nirmala Sitharaman. I have been fortunate to interact with her at length when she visited Assam in 2015. She visited as the inaugural speaker at the Assam Nirman Dialogue Series that we at the BJP were organising as a part of a public consensus-building exercise for the state vision document.
Her graciousness to dress up in the traditional Assamese sari, her combative and tenacious spirit with which she dealt with detractors who wanted to corner her and pressurize her to accept the demands of business lobbies (she was the Commerce Minister then) and her graceful demeanour in accepting – and blushing at – profuse compliments that students offered her way, has had a huge impact on me.
As a Defence Minister, one is not just required to be hot-headed. One is required to have the maturity and grace to handle situations symbolically and otherwise. One is required to be firm without being too aggressive. And of course, one is needed to be sensitive to the fragility of bilateral ties despite tough defence equations. Nirmalaji has proved herself as a graceful warrior in the recent meeting with the Chinese delegates in trying times.
Here is wishing Nirmalaji all the best for her new innings and here is wishing all the women out there a renewed vigour in different battles we fight to claim our spaces.
(The author is with India Foundation, views are personal)