Nandini Deo, an assistant professor in the department of Political Science at Lehigh University recently released her book Religion and Gender in India: The Role of Activism. Nandini is known in academic circles for her work in politics and advocacy in India and co-authored The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India with Duncan McDuie Ra. She spent the last 10 years of her career studying social movements in India and has openly expressed her interest in women’s activism, “it would have been the next career choice,” she laughs.

Nandini Deo. Image Courtesy: Lehigh UniversityNandini Deo. Image Courtesy: Lehigh University

Nandini Deo. Image Courtesy: Lehigh University

On a visit to India, Deo spoke to Firstpost about her latest research findings. Her thoroughly-researched book takes the form of a historical analysis of the rise and fall of Hindutva and the role of feminist politics in India.

Deo speaks of “critical junctures” that have been reached in terms of social movements in India — she analyses the 2014 General Elections in India and protests that emerged in women’s groups about sexual violence. Deo elaborates upon how effective feminism is as social movement.

The book highlights the core dynamics of both movements and shows how strategies such as grassroots education, electoral mobilisation, media management and donor cultivation lead to a movement’s growth and not just ideology.

Women’s movement vs Hindu nationalist movement

Her endeavour to understand how activists influence policy — essentially stems from the idea that “activists are not particularly successful” in influencing policy. Through a comparative approach she chose to describe what were the things, activities and strategies that the women’s movement could employ in their bid to become more successful in creating social change. Deo paints a vivid picture (backed by qualititative data) of both, the Hindu nationalist movement and the women’s movement, and charts their successes, stagnation and failures; Deo’s main concern has been to understand the various ‘strategies’ at play.

The women’s movement, Deo observes lacks a specific lobbying voice — which leaves the movement scattered and frayed around the edges; the Hindu nationalists, however employ organised functions that help them create more influence and lead to more “successes”.

“Women’s groups come together only when there is an issue at hand, they unite. However, during other times, they go back to the fringes, they recede and go back to working on their specific and specialised issues,” she says.

She demonstrates this through her own experience in the field, when Deo, a women’s movement sympathiser, found it odd that almost none of the women’s organisations/groups she interacted with tried to pull her in; “there was only once when I was asked to join a cause,” she says.

However, during the time she spent with Hindu nationalists, she encountered assistance and help at each step. “The women’s movement, in my opinion is not particularly savvy about recruiting new people to their cause,” she laments.

The women’s movement is too comfortable being “closed in” and is not inclined to finding new ways of pushing for their goals.

Ideology is not the only motivator

Deo’s core argument is that “ideologies and grievances that inform the events are less important than the long term strategies of the activists who embody these movements.”

Academics and political commentators have believed so far that ideology forms a big part of why an individual supports a movement, but Deo has found in her research that “ideological blinders” are part of the picture, but only in a limited way. “Ideas matter, but only in some ways,” she adds.

Should the women’s movement be more in sync with the government in order to be more successful? Deo says that it is necessary to be cohesive in function — “its members need to latch on to opportunities and mobilise consistently,” she says.

Using the national state of Emergency in the 1970s (declared by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi) as an example, Deo says that many women’s organisations collectively decided not to work with a “corrupt” state — in this ideological disillusionment, they sought support from foundations and international agencies — “perhaps they would have done better by staying ‘in sync’ with the government,” posits Deo.

The Hindu national movement did very well by staying in the mainstream and strategising to gain control of the state — they focussed their energies on education, while the women’s movement veered away from such an emphasis and that is perhaps where the women’s movement should strive to make a comeback, says Deo.

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Engaging with academia: Political scientist Nandini Deo says strategies mobilise people, not religious ideologies