VRINDAVAN, UP ~ Saffron-robed Sadhvi Rithambara is a photographer’s delight. The smile, the turn of her head, the shift of her shoulders, the posture she adopts—it is all aimed at giving the photographer her best shot. Aware of the best angle and play of light that can achieve it, the Sadhvi sits just right when there’s a camera trained on her, a picture of perfect poise.
In conversation, however, she has the attention span of a child. She is also fidgety. If her fingers aren’t moving—re-adjusting her saffron dupatta, pulling at the sleeves of her kurta, or touching a string of rudraksh beads wound tightly on her wrist—it is her eyes. They seem restless, and keep darting to her close aide Sunita, as if for reassurance. Sunita, who seems omnipresent, is an NRI from Houston; the Sadhvi says that she has given up everything to be associated with her cause.
For a woman associated with the VHP who could hold an audience—of fundamentalists, mostly, saffron clad or otherwise—captive for hours with her hard-hitting speeches, Sadhvi Rithambara is not very effusive a conversationalist. Born to a Punjabi family, she took to wearing saffron at an early age, but is reluctant to talk about her life before she turned to religion: “Woh toh mera kal thha, yeh mera aaj hai.” That was her past, she’d rather talk about the present. “I was drawn to spirituality since I was a child,” is all she volunteers, “When I was 16 years old, Swami Paramanand visited my village. I gave up everything worldly and joined him as a disciple.” She followed him to his ashram in Haridwar and toured the country along with him.
Sadhvi Rithambara became a rightwing activist after joining the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the women’s arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), as a member trainee. A vituperative manner of speech, coupled with a rigid anti-Muslim and anti-Christian stance, assured her quick upward mobility within the RSS ranks. Soon enough, she was drawn to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an arm of the Sangh that was raising its profile in the late 1980s with propaganda against Muslims, portrayed as despoilers and plunderers of a land of peaceable Hindus.
The Sadhvi set up the Durga Vahini (‘Army of Durga’), the VHP’s women’s wing—of which Malegaon blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur was a member, incidentally. As chairperson of this wing, she initiated a martial arts training module for women that included lessons in karate, judo and horse-riding, apart from rock climbing and weaponry.
By the early 1990s, the Sadhvi was scandalising secular India with her rabble-rousing along a campaign trail to replace Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid with a Ram Mandir. At first, her anti-Muslim tirades were full of expletives, exhorting Hindus to reclaim what she said was rightfully theirs. After a brush with the law, she toned herself down, but her message was roughly the same. While the entry of Parsis to India was like sugar sweetening milk, she would say, that of Muslims was like lemon curdling the country (delivered with a certain inflexion in Hindi, that verb could sound rather crude).
The Sadhvi, now 49 years old, has mellowed since. Her current calm betrays little of the woman whose words—among those of others—had whipped up a frenzy for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which took place on 6 December 1992. The saffron-clad Uma Bharati is the only other woman who has had such sway over mass sentiment in contemporary India. The late Vijayaraje Scindia played a role too, but a small one in comparison. For some years after the demolition, Sadhvi Rithambara kept up her fiery speeches, but then found that those who had propped her up had deserted her, and withdrew from the heat and dust of it all.
At her spacious ashram in Vrindavan, near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, she sits on a chair that seems too small for her. She has just finished conversing with a few ashram inmates, who were kneeling before her. A round bright red vermillion teeka and her open black hair look formidable, but not for long. “When people see me for the first time, I am sure they think how fat I have become,” she says, “I have put on a lot of weight. I am a frugal eater, yet I cannot understand how I have put on so much weight.”
In her new avatar, she is known as Didi Maa to everyone who works on or knows of Vatsalyagram, a home for destitute women and abandoned children set up in 2002 on 17 hectares of land as part of a project undertaken by the Pramashaktipeeth Trust, of which she is the chief trustee. “This is a unique project,” enthuses the Sadhvi, “I have built independent concrete houses across the ashram. Each of these is furnished with all modern amenities, and each houses children, a mother and a grandmother. I pair a younger woman with an older woman in the house, and they live like a family. There is a school within the complex and every other facility found in any village.” The idea is to let them live life to the fullest. “What is the point of giving them a roof and telling them that the sky is unattainable?”
What is sky-high in the area, notably, is the price of real estate. With Vrindavan now a pensioners’ paradise, new
housing complexes have sprung up all around and demand for land has spiralled upwards. Vatsalyagram’s 17 hectares are worth an estimated Rs 20 crore now, but were allotted for a song by UP’s BJP government in 2002. The original allotment was made in the early 1990s, but she gained possession only later, because the land was held back by Mulayam Singh Yadav. She finally got possession—for a nominal annual fee of Re 1 for 99 years—when the BJP returned to power.
Worldly possessions, the Sadhvi would have us believe, are not so important to her. Over a two-hour interaction, the Sadhvi speaks of the infinite love she possesses and her need to share the same. She speaks of knowledge as wealth, referring to Hindu scriptures, and how it motivates her to alleviate the sufferings of women and children. “Why is it that only women and children suffer in the world and men get away?” she asks, rhetorically, “How can a child be illegitimate? A relationship may be, but a child cannot be. Wherever I go, I tell people not to abandon children in dustbins. I tell them, ‘Bring them to me and I will look after them.’ I have started a campaign to create awareness against abandoning children and also against female foeticide.”
Those who have known her attribute this shift in focus to the time she spent in a women’s prison in Indore in 1995, after she was arrested for inciting communal passions that led to mob violence. It was a harrowing stay, say sources, and she is determined never to go to jail again. Others say she has funding from overseas, and that gives her the freedom to do as she pleases.
An ardent worshipper of Maa Durga, the Sadhvi remains a saleable face among NRIs. “There is rising Hindu consciousness abroad,” she acknowledges, “I receive a lot of invitations and travel a lot abroad. The Indians settled there are great listeners of Ram Katha and other Hindu scriptures. They want their children to grow up knowing all this.” Her ashram has 32 outposts in Russia alone. Europe, the US and UK have several too.
Her Vrindavan ashram exudes a certain consciousness as well, particularly of the importance of her portrayal as a spiritual seer. It is wallpapered with memorabilia of the Sadhvi, from outsized posters and photographs of her to calendars with her image and sayings. Her semi-open palm has been moulded into pen stands, mobile phones and cup holders. “We get inspiration from Didi Maa’s life. These half closed palms remind us of her everpresent blessings,” says Dr AK Rai, who has been associated with her for the last 28 years, claims to have found peace in her spiritual aura, and oversees the Vatsalyagram project.
Though Sadhvi Rithambara claims no knowledge of English, the few words that she does use off and on suggest a fluency she seems keen to conceal. This is presumably because it works against her image as an opponent of all that’s not of Hindu origin.
She was once the chief campaigner for the saffron cause, after all, a position usurped by Narendra Modi in the past decade or so. But a return to political activism is not on her agenda. She lives in the present, she says: “People’s problems are now and the solutions have to be of this time. I cannot talk about what happened 5,000 years ago and ask people to follow it.”
But doesn’t that contradict the Mandir movement? “The political class never tells the truth,” she replies, “They always say what is beneficial to them. The Ramjanmabhoomi battle was fought by the VHP and RSS, but the BJP reaped the benefits. I have been persecuted for speaking up for Hindus, for speaking the truth.”
As she sees it, the truth is not always abstract. At one point, she refers to Aamir Khan’s TV serial Satyamev Jayate as “a wonderful programme”, admitting though that she hasn’t seen a single episode. It’s the thought that counts, perhaps.
As for maryada, Lord Ram remains dearer to her than ever. “From the beginning of life to the end of it, every ritual accords a respectful place to Lord Ram, and now we are using politics to take this Ram out of people’s lives,” she says, “The very foundation of Indian life is based on Ram.”
What motivates her, she would clearly like known, is love. “The Ramjanmabhoomi issue was my bhoomika (performance) and Vatsalyagram is my swabhaav (natural character). I gave a voice to the issues of Hindus.”
It starts raining. Asking for a break, the Sadhvi hurries outside, calling out for everyone in the ashram to come and play in the rain. A small crowd of children responds, joining her as she starts dancing under the pitter-patter of the monsoon shower. “I love getting wet in the rain,” she says, excitedly, “There is nothing like nature. Everyone should get wet in the rain at least once during the monsoon.”
Sunita frowns at the Sadhvi’s rain dance and rushes after her with an umbrella. The Sadhvi returns to dry land in a short while. “I am a happy person,” she says, “I have achieved what I want, but my dream to build a temple for Durgaji is incomplete. Some years ago, I gave up eating pulses and cereals. I eat only vegetables and fruits, and will do so until the temple comes up.”