Gender, Nationalism, and the 'Swachh Bharat' (Clean India) Movement

Raka Shome (Singapore/United States)

This talk will focus on the rhetorical logics of contemporary India nationalism, that is being forged under the current right wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his BJP party. One of the highlights of this nationalism is that it is rewriting India as a modern Hindu nation (in exclusion of Muslims and other lower caste populations such as Dalits [‘untouchable’ caste]). In an effort to modernize India and further open it up to global finance, the current PM has launched numerous initiatives under the banner of development.

One such initiative is the “Clean India” movement, which is being touted as a “people’s movement.” The movement is involved in the production of a national pedagogy around cleanliness.  Through ads, public speeches, school curriculum, and NGOs, and celebrities, people are encouraged to clean their neighborhoods, cultivate clean habits, not drop garbage on the roadside and, especially, in rural India, build latrines at home, as opposed to going to open fields for relieving oneself.

Through a focus on this movement, this talk will particularly address how issues of women’s empowerment are being articulated into the SBA (Swachh Bharat) movement, and how the female body often comes to stand in for the clean national body that must be honored and protected. Examining the rhetorics  of the SBA movement, I will discuss how such articulation of the female body into the SBA movement implicitly and often explicitly draws on Hindu notions of domesticity and womanhood.  Further, I will examine how the need to build toilets in rural/village India is often being connected to a logic of female empowerment and yet, this framing of empowerment is not only heternormative in its articulation but it also suggests that somehow women are “safe” at home as opposed to “outside” and how using toilets inside the home make them more “modern” when in fact research shows that there may be multiple useful reasons for using designated rural fields for the task of relieving oneself.

Overall, this talk will demonstrate the link between nationalism, gender, and a Hindu modernity that is being forged in contemporary India.