Why I am not a Hindu Woman is Wandana Sonalkar’s autobiographical reflections on Hinduism as a religion, as an upper-caste Marxist feminist, and in the context of India’s socio-political journey in the last seventy three years, particularly in the shadow of Hindutva majoritarian politics. Sonalkar uses her life and experiences as an entry point to the wider social and political climate of the time, moving fluidly from normative texts composed c. 300 CE to India’s early years as an independent republic, while also bringing into the narrative recent public movements from Bhima-Koregaon to the pan-India anti-CAA/NRC protests. Across this vast time span, Sonalkar makes a compelling case for rupturing the private and political divide, by tracing the roots of the political philosophy of Hindutva in the Hindu normative ideals of family and household.
Historiographically, Sonalkar locates herself amid a series of books written mostly by men on their own relationship. Notably, these include Kancha Ilaiah’s path-breaking Dalit Bahujan Critique of Hinduism (1996), Shashi Tharoor’s attempt at reclaiming a more pluralistic, tolerant Hinduism (2018), the Marathi film director Atul Pethe’s similar attempts at showing how his Hinduism is not violent (September 2018), Bertrand Russell’s (1927) and Ibn Farraq’s (1995) monumental pieces on their disassociation with Christianity and Islam respectively. The exception in Sonalkar’s outline of her field is Ruth Vanita’s critique of the Left in India (2002), which, by disassociating from Hinduism, also failed to mount a critique of casteism, both in idea and practice (p.18). Against these, Wandana Sonalkar sets herself apart by writing from the point of experience as a woman in a Hindu family. Why I am not a Hindu Woman is thus a feminist critique of the inequalities inherent in ‘“every day, lived Hinduism’ (p. 24).
Sonalkar lays out this feminist critique by tying together practices in her upper-caste household, her initial education in Singapore and Cambridge, the strong anti-caste Ambedkarite discourse in Maharashtra, and the Hindutva politics in India. Through five chapters, Sonalkar makes two broad arguments: first, that what she identifies as Brahmanical Hinduism has an inherent penchant for violence, particularly against women and Dalits; and second that Hindutva is sustained on two simultaneous processes of otherization of the ‘internal inferiors’ (Dalits and women) and the ‘external enemies’ (Muslims). Unlike Tharoor or Pethe’s attempts at ‘rescuing’ Hinduism from Hindutva, Sonalkar argues that there are inherent inequalities in Hinduism along caste and gender lines, which in turn form the foundation of and fuel the violence of Hindutva, and herein lies her rejection of her identity as a Hindu woman.