Sarita Sarvate

Women in India Want War

Jan 10, 2002

Pacific News Service

BY SARITA SARVATE

Americans might expect a more cautious stance from women when it comes to support for war. But, writes PNS contributor Sarita Sarvate, Hindu women in India are strongly backing their country's hard-line stance against Pakistan.

MUMBAI, INDIA--Women in India want war.

Unlike American women, who tend to express less support for military action abroad than American men, most women here support their government's hard-line stance against Pakistan. Some call for war outright.

As one middle-class mother put it, "Indians have been victims of Pakistani terrorists for a long time. In the aftermath of Afghanistan, the time is now ripe for India to wipe out Islamic militants forever."

When asked if she was willing to risk a large-scale war, perhaps a nuclear conflict in the subcontinent, she replied, "I am not some dumb housewife who worries only about her children. I am capable of higher-level thinking. I am worried about the future of my country. And I am willing to sacrifice my sons' lives for my country's freedom.

"I don't think Pakistan will go to the extent of nuclear war," she added, "but if that is the price we have to pay, so be it."

Such sentiments were echoed by Hindu women of varying economic status, caste affiliation, educational background and party loyalty, in different cities across India.

About 80 percent of India's population is Hindu; 14 percent is Muslim.

Many women say America has ignored India's struggle with terrorism.

"America only cares about the lives of Americans," a maidservant in Nagpur told me. "America has turned a blind eye towards Pakistani terrorism in Kashmir and the rest of India for decades. It only conducted a war against Afghanistan when its own lifestyle was threatened in the wake of Sept. 11.

"Even now, Bush and (Colin) Powell have failed to voice strong protests against Pakistani terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament. Their message is clear: they don't care about us Indians."

The notion that one reason America went to war against the Taliban was to liberate Muslim women from the clutches of the burkha or the veil seems laughable to most Indian women.

"When has America or Britain cared about the lot of us women of Asia and the Middle East?" asked Mangala, an activist from the zopadpatti, or inner-city slum, in Pune. "If they had cared, they would have made sure that our products were purchased in the international markets -- that we were not made victims of globalization." Mangala fears that globalization will lead to large-scale workforce reductions in Indian factories.

"We want economic independence, decent wages, access to healthcare and housing. These are not things that America cares about."

Indeed, this section of the electorate seems to have picked up political clout in recent years. Women like Mangala are involved in grass-roots political activism, organizing shibirs, or camps, for women, conducting marches against exploitation by large corporations, and demanding fair pay and property rights for women. Their empowerment has been driven by internal forces within the culture they belong to, not by American or European influence. Indeed, Indian women, whether they belong to the zopadpattis or posh flats in Mumbai, seem to be more politically active today than ever before.

Their fierce nationalism is historically rooted in the country's struggle for independence, when Swadeshi, or self-reliance, became the motto. Now, Indian women believe that only a Swedeshi brand of struggle against Pakistani terrorism will succeed. Reliance on America, on the other hand, many believe, will make India a pawn in a geopolitical game of shatranj, or chess.

It is a Swedeshi brand of feminism that has earned Indian women political and social clout in recent decades.

Many are active in public interest litigation aimed at gaining political and economic equity. The 30 percent of seats they now hold in village panchayat or government, and which they seem to be agitating for at the state and national level, attest to their political savvy.

Indian women are not strangers to Western influence, but none seem to be looking beyond their country's borders for inspiration. They easily recall that 300 years of British presence resulted only in partial change, such as the abolition of Sati, a woman's ritual suicide at the death of her husband. It was Mahatma Gandhi, they remember, who gave women access to education, political power and leadership during India's independence movement against the British.

While living within the constraints of the traditional Hindu extended family, many women hold managerial positions, drive, and attend evening meetings on political and social causes.

But while most Indian women, like Indian opinion in general, are glad that the Taliban is being driven out of Afghanistan, they remain skeptical of America's long-term motives in the region. They do not believe in American role models for Asian and Middle Eastern women. Some say imitation of an American lifestyle could lead to infidelity in marriage and loss of loyalty to children and to family.

As a social worker in Pune put it, "American influence and corruption in Iran led to the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the region. Is that what we want in Afghanistan?"

Sarvate (naladamayanti@yahoo.com) is a writer for India Currents and other publications.