“See I am a little dashing. There is no one else here who would go to help us fight the election against Narayan Rane. There were so many other women who were afraid and scared. I said, ‘Who is afraid? I will go.’ They were all saying ‘ladies will be scared, ladies will be scared.’ That is why I went to show that I was not afraid.”

— Kalpana, Shiv Sena Corporator in Mumbai

If dashing has very particular linguistic contours and draws from various imaginaries of the party and region, it is also individually performed, experienced, understood, and embodied in the public lives of Shiv Sena women. Dashing operates and is constituted performatively at various sites: through an aggressive and informal politics of the “street,” through and in the spaces of “formal” legislative politics, and through both con- temporary and ethnohistorical sources that invoke women’s bravery.

Therefore, the invocation by Sena women of the term dashing ladies illuminates some of the ways in which this signifies a particular political engagement with public space, personal transformations from private to public figures within the party, the actionist expression of needs on behalf of constituents, and the rhetorical invocation of power through mutually acceptable language through which to speak about women’s politics and political effectiveness in the party.

Persona and personality

The collective ways in which unconventional behaviour was coded by Shiv Sena women in narratives of dashing and daring pointed to the way in which women have historically been incorporated into Shiv Sena. This differentiates Shiv Sena’s Mahila Aghadi from the women’s wings of other Hindutva-allied organisations in India with which they are often compared.

This flexibility also helps to interrogate the more fluid structural relationships between men and women in Shiv Sena, where party functions are largely shared and there is little institutionalised demarcation of what women can and cannot do in the party. As Meera Rangnekar, a Shiv Sena leader in Pune and a remarkably incisive observer of her own party described it: “Whatever men are doing, women are doing; if men are breaking glasses, women are also breaking glasses; if men come forward and shout, women are also shouting.”

But Rangnekar is also clear that Shiv Sena women are very distinct from any other female political figures – not just that that behave like the men in the party but because the women’s wing cannot be seen as separate from the larger party. She said: Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi has emerged as a reaction to something. It has not evolved on its own. It evolved as part and parcel of Shiv Sena so there was anyway no special identity, or special personality other than Shiv Sena. So when I look to feudal politics of Maharashtra in our villages and districts where women’s expectations are very different, having Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi has really changed the definition of women’s politics in Maharashtra.

I asked Rangnekar why and what it is that makes Shiv Sena women so different from women other political parties. She responded without missing a beat that it has to do with personality.

Because I see women in other parties who will talk very softly, they cannot move about and somebody will make all arrangements for them. Here we are women who are shouting, who are going here and there, putting black mud to some police officer’s face and sending them running away into the districts. So look at us. We were a cultural shock to people in Western Maharashtra where everyone could see that women are also taking up many political issues. That is our personality.

By and large most Shiv Sena women shared Rangnekar’s view that their politics are transformative; but for most, it was not enough that they have transformed the political style in Maharashtra. It was also that this politics has been personally transformative – there is a before and after the engagement with dashing – which changes the subject forever.

Tarini Bedi. Image credit: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo

In October of 2005, on the day before the Hindu festival of Dasshera, I was invited for a Devi Pooja (prayer ceremony for the Hindu Goddess Durga) at the home of Srilata Kane, the female Shiv Sena ward leader in the suburban area of Mumbai where I was conducting my research. The prayer ceremony dedicated to Durga is celebrated differently in different parts of India. In Maharashtra, the idols of the goddess are worshipped and garlanded for nine days that culminate in the festival of Dasshera. Young girls who have not attained puberty are particularly invited to these celebrations where they are offered food and sweets in celebration of what I was told to be the “feminine power of devi (shakti).”

The ritual I was invited to was an all-female affair with women from Shiv Sena accompanied by their young daughters or in many cases, granddaughters. “Bring your daughter, and dress her up since she and the other young girls are the avatar (human form) of the devi,” were my explicit instructions.

This event, which was for all logistical purposes a private affair held at Kane’s home, was exclusively attended by women of Shiv Sena.

As I was introduced to all the women present, Kane kept telling me, “Yes, all these ladies are ours, they are all mine, all the dashing ladies in this ward they are Shiv Sena’s, and they are mine.” Arguably, this discursively merges the boundaries between the personal and political community and between an individual and collective “dashing” agent. As Bateson points out, that a theorisation of “agency” need not be confined to the agency of the individual alone but can become the property of groups. The dialogical narrative of dashing suggests that it is the root of both individual and collective agency and circulates both as collective and personal self-definition.

For women in Shiv Sena, I found this merging between the political and personal community significant to women’s negotiation of party politics and to a collective sense of local political power. The event at Kane’s home was to be the first of many such celebrations of “private” religiosity and gendered community that I participated in, all of which were mediated through very “public” and “dashing” political lives.

When I first asked for directions to her home Kane told me, “Just get into the auto, come to the temple in Malad, and then tell him to go to the house of Kane the Corporator. Anyone will be able to tell you. They all know me here. Yes, yes, I am known in this area. I am the most dashing person here.” This idea of being locally “known” without any need to specify a real address even within the realities of the mega-city of Mumbai became a common theme in my research.

In this case, it was particularly interesting since Srilata Kane was not at the time of my research actually still a “corporator.” She had previously held a seat for one term in Mumbai’s civic body until 2001, after two unsuccessful electoral campaigns before that. Therefore, she had spent most of the 1990s, campaigning for, and aspiring for, an elected post of corporator that she ultimately won and held for five years. Since 2001, she had gone back to her job as the assistant headmistress of a local school where she had been teaching for over twenty-five years. She also had a very busy life as the grandmother of two toddlers who lived with her while her son and daughter-in-law settled themselves into new lives in the Gulf before coming back for their children.

The evening’s festivities wrapped up well past midnight. What was most striking was that, other than an initial bow to the idol of the goddess on entering Kane’s home, almost everyone forgot about the goddess for the rest of the evening; instead the evening became a planning meeting of sorts on what was going to be needed from women for the election campaign against party defector Narayan Rane in the coastal region of Malvan and for the upcoming Dasshera party rally in Shivaji Park.

Kane sent me and my daughter home accompanied by Aruna Satam, the Shiv Sena member of the Municipal Corporation of Great Mumbai and three other female Shiv Sainiks. All the women lived around the corner from where I was living in the northern Mumbai suburb of Goregaon.

And even though it was past midnight, Satam promised me that I was in safe hands.

We stepped outside to catch an auto-rickshaw. All five of us, plus my one-year-old daughter, began piling into the single rickshaw that had dared to make it up the infamous incline. This driver refused to take us; there were too many of us since the transport authorities had made it illegal to carry more than three passengers. Satam shouted at him loudly “I am the Corporator, I am the Corporator, your transport authority works for me.”

Before he had the time to retaliate she pushed all of us into the rickshaw and jumped onto someone’s lap herself. “Arre tapori (hey, you good-for-nothing loafer) take us to the bottom of the hill and then we will get another rickshaw,” she yelled at the driver. The driver, a much younger man, turned silent and obliged. But when he got to the bottom of the hill he stopped. “Please get off,” he said. “I will get a punctured tire, and I am not legally allowed to take so many people.”

All four of the women began to shout at him, “Don’t you know who we are? We are Shiv Sena, we will make your life hell; you will get one tight slap if you do not listen.” The man held his ground. Satam got out and hit him on the face twice with both hands while the others swung their purses at his back before they all got out of the rickshaw and walked off without paying him.

Satam then turned around, as if she had just remembered something, draped the gajra (a garland of flowers given to women to put in their hair at many Hindu religious ceremonies in Maharashtra) around the man’s neck, and walked away without looking back. In India, generally garlanding someone is a gesture of respect. In this case however, the female hair garland on the man’s neck was obviously intended as a gesture of emasculation, one of many such gestures I was later to see Satam perform.

I stood there not quite knowing what to do, until the women, who had crossed the street, called out to me, “Come on; let that madarchod (motherfucker) go. We can walk home without the madarchod’s help.” This meeting of urban and gendered assertion was something that I saw repeated in several other venues during my fieldwork, and something I found to be integral to the production and reproduction of performative power among women in Shiv Sena.

This was behaviour that in its performative sense was always described as dashing and daring behaviour. I came to learn that the linguistic and personal meanings of these terms were intimately tied to the performative and visible dimensions of space.

Excerpted with permission from The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena, Tarini Bedi, Aleph Book Company.