Fundamentalisms of the Progressive

This is a rough transcript of a presentation made at the DAWN (Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era) panel on ‘The Many Faces of Fundamentalisms’, held at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, January 2004. Others on the panel included Gita Sen, Sonia Correa, Ros Petchesky, Marina Durano and Vanita Mukherjee. It was made in response to the work that many of us have been doing in India and elsewhere, around combating right wing fundamentalist and fascist forces. It asks us to look within ourselves and our movements, in order to critically examine what might be termed our own fundamentalisms.

What happened in Gujarat two years ago,[1] just as what happened at Ayodhya twelve years ago,[2]changed my life. Both these moments in Indian history threatened my identities, my choices, my soul. Like it did to so many others across the country, like fundamentalism and fascism do to so many of us across the world. And yet I can’t help wondering why so little changed for us, the so called ‘progressive forces’, in the effectiveness of our strategies, our mobilisations, between Ayodhya and Gujarat and beyond? Why does it feel as though we struggle without end, often without hope, rarely with clarity?

Perhaps the time has come for us to look within ourselves, critically and honestly, and examine what might well be called our own ‘fundamentalisms’, our own entrenched and embedded notions of the way we are and the work we do, and the manner in which these play out in our attitudes and our in/actions. I offer these thoughts in a spirit of hope and humility, wondering towards a different set of visions and strategies of advocacy that might help us in our quest for other worlds, more just and more humane. These thoughts are rooted in Indian experience, specifically in a few of my experiences across the last two years post-Gujarat, but may have echoes and resonate with some of you elsewhere in the world.


As we rail against fundamentalists and their constructions of ‘purity’, it seems somewhat ironic that we too have our own entrenched notions of purity – certainly not as consciously and carefully constructed as those we struggle against, but self-defeating nonetheless – purity of the body, of intellect/ideology, of history, of movement, of difference itself. Gender, sexuality, ability – why has the WSF been so difficult for the disabled? – caste, language… All those GRACES[3] we otherwise worship as ‘multiplicity’ or ‘intersectionality’ seem to be our stumbling blocks in coming together powerfully. Our most critical need today is the ‘expanding of constituencies’, of convincing people who might otherwise be confused about their political decisions that the world cannot be a better place if bias and bigotry are fostered and institutionalised. And yet we spend much of our time implying – and trying to convince – our colleagues in different social justice movements, that “my issue is more important than yours”. We do the same with ideologies, with strategies, with methods of mobilising.

Who am I, a 29 year old middle class woman, born into an “upper caste” Hindu family, with a father from the east of India and a mother from the south, in love with someone born into a Christian family, wearing jeans and learning Indian classical music, living in a cosmopolitan city, often working with women from villages, speaking languages that are not my ‘mother tongue’…? Am I impure? Confused? Fused? …We need to accept and celebrate our multiple identities, critique our privileges, and be creative and innovative in our advocacy.

In Bangalore, where I live, we have tried different strategies to reach out to young people, where we weren’t ‘preaching to the converted’. One of our campaigns was to wear a white ribbon for peace (the White Ribbon Campaign for Peace, India) – we used it both as a symbol and as a talking point, to begin conversations about violence of all kinds, including what we call ‘communalism’ in India (the rousing of hatred against particular communities). Initially, some of our friends scoffed at us, and wondered what an insignificant white ribbon could do, to change attitudes and animosities. But the interesting thing was that there were so many people – both young and not so young – who were unable to be political in the same way as they saw ‘activists’; they felt this meant standing at street corners with banners, or going on rallies, or shouting slogans against the government. They found this too ‘political’ (in their understanding of the term), and yet they were deeply disturbed at the kinds of violence being perpetrated in the name of religion.

So for these people, wearing a ribbon was the beginning of a series of conversations they had with others, which began other processes of change, at least in terms of breaking the silence around violence. And because it was something everyone could do – and have conversations at whatever level of politics and ideology each was comfortable with – it wasn’t intimidating in any way, and yet gave a sense of belonging to a community against violence, and speaking up for peace.

Another interesting initiative has been of a group of us called ‘Culture Move’, who decided to go into spaces that hadn’t been explored before, like pubs (frequented by most young people who can afford them), and put together a cultural experience, particularly using music, that would discuss different issues, beginning with the occupation of Iraq. Initially, we had support from many senior activists in Bangalore, but we also faced a lot of resistance from those who felt this was not the way to be political, to be going into a pub, a symbol of globalisation and class inequalities (and possibly Western decadence?) and discussing politics.

And yet, while we need the sense of solidarity and community we feel protesting together on street corners and at rallies, we do not, at all, reach out to those with power and influence, and we certainly do not change the way most young people in schools and colleges think. Music and television, for instance, can reach out in such dramatic, powerful ways to people – and if we have to do whatever it takes to reach out, we should be prepared to make music videos, we should be prepared to go on pub crawls!

Dissent vs. Consensus

Dissent is one of the most important organising principles of progressive groups, and it is often the real difference between ‘us and them’. When I talk to young people, in schools and colleges, I often use this to ask them to question everything and anything – including what I tell them – because they need to examine the grotesque versions of history in their textbooks, the notions of unqualified ‘truths’, of stories they are told; they need to ask themselves who the storyteller is and why such a story is told? And ultimately, with the freedom of informed choice, they can dissent, debate, dialogue.

But what is the fine balance between dissent and consensus? This is both conceptual and strategically critical – we cannot move forward without this. What are the ways in which we can accept and embrace dissent while acting powerfully (which always requires some degree of consensus, some degree of joint action)?


What is the feminist understanding of faith and spirituality? We need to create, in particular, the feminist understanding of religion and its implications for the ways in which we live and work.

However we might reject organised religion ourselves, often coming from leftist socialist upbringings, we have to be honest about the ways in which many of us are creating a personal sense of spirituality for ourselves. And even if not, we have to be even more honest and accountable to the women we work with – do we have the right to reject organised religion without thought, when so many of the women we claim to represent or whose voices we amplify, have strong faith bases, and cannot reject them in the same way we can, and do?

For instance, in a rally of women against communalism in Bangalore, a few young men were extremely strident and getting violent in their reactions to a particular banner, which rejected ‘Hindutva’; at that moment, in order to ease the situation, I spoke up to explain to these young men that ‘although I was Hindu, I did not believe in Hindutva as a political agenda based upon fear and violence’. Now this was also a moment of uncomfortable truth for me: I would never before have claimed to be ‘Hindu’ in a public space. Yet it also brought home to me the fact that for so many Indians, it is difficult to understand or analyse the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva, and right-wing forces of course cash in on this confusion, while we do little to dispel it.

Being reactive vs. a positive vision

We are often branded, within India, as ‘pseudo-secularists’ – as many of you know, ‘secularism’ in India is taken to mean a profusion and celebration of multiple religions, rather than a rejection of all religions. While this term is meant to be a crude insult by the right-wingers, there must be some truth in it for the name to stick, for it to resonate with many of those who might not otherwise consider themselves to be politically right wing. Is it that we are too often reactive, that we are constantly fighting against positions, vocabularies, actions created by the right, rather than creating a positive vision ourselves? It is important to react in certain contexts, we cannot afford not to, but it is equally important that we are able to reach out with messages of hope, of joy, of celebration.

So how are we going wrong in the how, where, what and whom of advocacy? We know that the majority of Hindus are not necessarily right-wing: then what is our vision of pluralism for them? How can we explain this cogently, honestly, powerfully?

While making the distinction between Hindu fascism in India and fundamentalism,[4] we cannot ignore Islamic or Christian fundamentalism in the country. For instance, while we were protesting the Iraq war, there was the killing of innocent people in Kashmir that not many of us protested against: was this responsible of us? Is there some truth in the accusation that we are ourselves somehow biased in the issues we raise and the people we raise them for? And most important, why are we not making the global to local connections that are intuitively so clear, but that we do not express publicly enough? It is true that our issues are many, our locations multiple, and our energies fragmented. Yet these too are critical reasons to be more powerful in our ways of strategising together, and building support for what we do.

Perhaps our new understanding of ‘belonging’ can begin with the notion of ‘citizenship’. Yet we must analyse this in the context of fractured nation states (particularly within the global context of fundamentalisms and fascisms,[5] as well as the resistance to these that is equally and inspiringly global). Perhaps we need to move from the notion of ‘citizenship’ as being bounded by geography (even if imagined as such) to being about the integrity of personhood in all possible ways. How do we do this? How can we combine using international mechanisms like the International Criminal Court with struggling against local assaults upon citizenship?

In our country, we desperately need a new vision of ‘being Indian’ – a Muslim woman in Gujarat for instance, is unlikely to feel a sense of belonging, of truly being ‘Indian’ – through legal systems, perhaps we can gain her some justice of citizenship – but how do we recreate a sense of emotional belonging that she may never really have had, and has even less of, now?
Political participation is equally important – we know that in Gujarat, some panchayats who did not allow the mobs to enter their villages, were able to save the Muslim inhabitants from destruction and possible death. And yet others allowed them in, and we all know what happened next. What is the real meaning of political participation then? And what does it imply for those women who are part of these panchayats, who are filling positions of local government, being in public, political spaces, in numbers that have never before been contemplated?

Finally, we know that histories and stories are being rewritten, reconstructed, reinvented… Can we use myth and metaphor in even more powerful ways to state our case, to make our stories heard?

The Politics of Intimacy

Fundamentalism ultimately tries to govern/manipulate our most intimate relationships… whether it is lover, mother, maid, gardener, friend, neighbour, chai walla, isthri walla… finally creating a sense of community, which is both inclusive and naturally excluding. I would like to call these processes the ‘politics of intimacy’, a politics that we all play out but rarely reflect upon; we now need to look at these processes from the perspective of both honesty and strategy.

Our most radical understanding needs to come from these intimate relationships and how they can be manipulated. Why is it that the most concrete base of the RSS shakha[6] is the games that young boys play together, the creating of a sense of belonging and togetherness that can later be channelised into a sense of bigotry and xenophobia? How do we create a sense of community that is positive and powerful?

From this we also need to understand how the personal is made into propoganda. For instance, in conversations among housewives, “Shiva is a bad tailor, find another tailor; Mohammed is a bad tailor, all Muslims are bad tailors” – this grotesque leap of imagination is often the way in which rumours are created, stereotypes are constructed and images are cast, sometimes permanently. It is these leaps of imagination that masquerade as truths that we are constantly battling against. So if these personal conversations telescope out, our strategies must also telescope back in to the people and communities we work with – both in terms of the issues we discuss as well as the ways in which we discuss them.

From personal to collective action, our only way to change attitudes is to understand levels of intimacy and to create those levels of trust and intimacy in our mission and our messages. As a friend recently told me, there were people associated with filming the public hearings on the massacres in Gujarat who were initially not just hostile to the process, but who turned out to consider themselves right-wing Hindus. Yet with hearing the terrible and unbelievable experiences that so many Muslims went through, day after day, these same people were moved enough to reject their right-wing politics. Were ‘we’ responsible for such a change? Not at all, it was a spontaneous expression of emotion created by an atmosphere of honest and powerful intimacy and pain, of each family, each individual telling his/her/their stories of what happened. How can we create such an atmosphere in the work we do, for the people we reach out to, without losing an inherent honesty and integrity? And how can we combine our understanding of the pain involved in these struggles, with a vision that is healing and celebratory of pluralism?

I have grown up with the feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’, but in strategising and mobilising against fundamentalisms, I increasingly feel that the political needs to be personal.


1. For some descriptions and analyses of the violence in Gujarat (2002), refer to;;
2. For some descriptions and writings around the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (1992), refer to;
3. G(ender), R(ace, religion, region), A(bility, age), C(aste, class, community), E(thnicity, expression), S(exuality) – a nomenclature given by Kumi Naidoo and expanded by others at the Gender at Work founding meeting in mid-2001.
4. Since some of us recognise that much of the rise of Hindu right-wing ideology and activity in this country is either state-engineered or supported; specifically in Gujarat, for instance, and clearly in other institutional ways across the country.
5. Within which I would include the ‘market fundamentalisms’ of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as many international corporations, and the activities of the present government of the United States of America.
6. The local branch office of the right wing organisation, the Rashtriya Seva Sangh.

O My People

When the blood settles, with tired sighs
upon the flagellated earth
when cries and gurgles stretch the sky
breathless –
When little human beings
after an obesity of self-indulgence
gaze fearfully at creatures of pain
unrestrained –

Who are they, then, these strangers?
come to celebrate my inadequacies –
I watch my people and do nothing.
I can do nothing?

I have travelled these days
clutching anger like a shroud
watching a platitude-stricken multitude
with… patience.

Who are these strangers at my door?
Which deformed dispensation
do they worship like a god?

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Anasuya Sengupta
(New Delhi, 1993; written after the demolition of Babri Masjid)