Afew months ago, the Indian legislator Pragya Singh Thakur urged Hindus to keep their vegetable knives sharp, as they could come in handy to slaughter the “enemy.” She was making a not-so-subtle allusion to Muslims in India, whom she accused of carrying out “love jihad” — a conspiracy theory alleging that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage in order to convert them to Islam.
Immediately, the police registered a case against Thakur, who is also the prime suspect in a 2008 terror attack in the city of Malegaon, Maharashtra, which took place in a Muslim cemetery adjacent to a mosque and claimed the lives of six people and injured an additional 100. She was arrested that year and was granted bail for health reasons in 2017 by the Bombay High Court. According to Indian law, an individual accused of a crime can participate in elections and take office but cannot if convicted. In 2019, just before Thakur was elected as a legislator for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — making her the first person accused in a terror case to be fielded as an election candidate by a major political party — she had called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, a “patriot,” forcing her own party to condemn her comments.
However, dozens of women leaders in right-wing Hindu organizations aspire for the kind of popularity enjoyed by Thakur, who is also known as Sadhvi Pragya. (Sadhvi is a title for female ascetics in Hinduism.) In the last few years, Thakur has gone from being a pariah in Indian politics, given her alleged involvement in the 2008 terror attacks, to winning a national election as the BJP’s candidate from the city of Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, by a huge margin. She defeated Digvijay Singh, a veteran politician and two-time chief minister of the state. Thakur is still under investigation for her involvement in the case, which remains a talking point in the media and among critics of the BJP, but she continues to enjoy popular appeal nonetheless. Like all other BJP candidates, Thakur benefited from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity during the elections, and the allegations did not discourage people from voting for her.
With her pixie-cut hairstyle, her occasional appearances in the Indian Parliament on a wheelchair, which reminds her supporters of the alleged “torture” inflicted on her when she was in prison, and her penchant for playing basketball and cricket — which has surprised many, given her “health issues” — often in all-male groups, Thakur embodies a kind of masculinity seldom associated with women in right-wing politics in India.
“She calls a spade a spade. She is fearless even though she has had to suffer for her honesty,” says Chaitra Kundapura, a young activist from the coastal town of Kundapur in the southern state of Karnataka. Kundapura was referring to the alleged police torture inflicted on Thakur and the political ostracization she was subjected to for years before she made her way into the political mainstream.
Kundapura is a supporter of Hindutva, an ideology that espouses the vision of India as a Hindu nation. “As a woman who stands for Hindutva, it is very important to be fearless. … The future of Hindutva depends on women,” says the slight-framed woman, her eyes widening animatedly as she speaks. Kundapura sees herself as one of the few women who have actively devoted their lives to Hindutva. “Women can do everything that a man can for the Hindu rashtra [nation], but the opposite is not true. … So, we need more and more young girls to come forward and participate in this national movement,” she says. Like thousands of other Hindu nationalist leaders, Kundapura believes it is the divine duty of Hindu women to not only give birth to children, who will go on to serve the Hindu rashtra, but also give them the “samskar” or “social values” that will allow them to contribute to the process of nation-building…