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Hindu zealots find an avenging angel: An Amazon who loves Barbie dolls is spurring women to communal violence. Tim McGirk reports from New Delhi

SHE WANTS to be a Hindu Joan of Arc, yet she plays with Barbie dolls. She speaks of divine punishment for Hinduism's enemies - the Muslims - and after her fiery speeches at rallies, thousands of her devotees press forward to touch her feet. She is regarded as a sanyasini, a wandering ascetic. But now her foes deride her as the 'sexy sanyasini', after allegations of a love affair with an older man.

Her name is Uma Bharati. She is 32, a member of the Indian Parliament, and she belongs to a band of three charismatic, militant women who are spearheading the Hindu revivalist movement sweeping India. The others are: Sadhvi Rithambara, another sanyasini in her mid-twenties, whose incendiary, anti-Muslim orations have fanned communal hatred across the country; and the Rajmata, or Queen Mother, of Gwalior, whose devotion to the Hindu cause is tainted by a deep hatred of her son, Madhavrao Scindia, one of India's wealthiest men and a leader of the rival Congress (I) party. The Rajmata never forgave her son for joining Indira Gandhi's Congress after the prime minister jailed the dowager during the mid-Seventies.

The appeal of these religious Amazons is powerful and deep-rooted in Hindu culture in the form of the Earth Mother Devi and Kali, goddess of destruction. They led zealots in tearing down the disputed Ayodhya mosque last December, and they bore the first impact of the water cannon and police baton charges in a huge anti-government rally in New Delhi last Thursday.

Wearing saffron robes and sitting beside a bedroom armoire housing her collection of Barbie dolls, Uma Bharati explained why women pushed to the front line of Hindu militancy. 'Hindu women rarely speak. So when they emerge from behind the curtain in their homes, it gives rise to very strong emotions. Women are more patient, but uncompromising.' The message takes on extra potency because she is a sanyasini who has left her spiritual wanderings for the political fray.

More ominously, she said: 'If Kali were to manifest herself today, she would offer forgiveness to some - but others need punishment. We must take the sword in our hands.' Female members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an extremist Hindu organisation, are exhorted to meditate on the spears and swords used by Durga, the manifestation of Kali as the demon-slayer. The demons, as identified by Uma Bharati and other preachers of Hindu revivalism, are the Muslim fundamentalist mullahs and politicians of the ruling Congress party who, by 'appeasing' Muslim voters, have crushed the pride of India's 650 million Hindus.

Though far outnumbered by male militants, thousands of women joined in tearing down the Ayodhya mosque, that some Hindus believe was built by Muslim invaders on the sacred birthplace of Lord Ram. Many women also took part in the recent riots in Bombay and in western India, directing Hindu mobs to Muslim shops and homes.

Tanika Sarkar, a history professor who has studied this new breed of militant Hindu women, said: 'What is sad is that these women are supporting a movement which, during the communal violence, has done incredibly brutal things: the rape and murder of Muslim women.'

The rise and tribulations of Uma Bharati illuminate several contradictions in the Hindu revivalist movement. While most of the male leaders of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political face of Hindu communalism, are well-educated Brahmins, Uma Bharati was born to poor farmers in the dust-bowl of central India.

'At four, I could recite passages from the Ramayana and the Bhagavadgita,' she said. 'Everyone thought I was a reincarnation of a god, but I just happened to have a good memory.' At five, she was giving learned discourses on these sacred texts. Her fame reached the Rajmata, who prostrated herself at Uma's feet.

The little girl did not need much persuasion to stay with her at Gwalior palace, with its gleaming crystal staircase and chandeliers the size of elephants. She was given a car, an aide-de-camp, a huge allowance and a princely education, and the Rajmata began grooming her for the BJP.

Her firecracker temper and her rapid ascendancy within the BJP riled many. Her enemies began leaking rumours to the press of an alleged liaison between the sanyasini and Govindacharya, a spartan intellectual, assigned by the BJP as her ideological coach. The gossip was never proven, but last May, Govindacharya was banished from the Delhi headquarters, and Uma Bharati was hospitalised after a bout of severe depression. Her parliamentary place was empty for more than six months, until the BJP led its march on the Ayodhya mosque.

Uma Bharati buys her Barbie dolls in Los Angeles. 'Every so often, a sanyasini is expected to retreat to the jungles, where there are wild beasts, and meditate. Los Angeles is like a concrete jungle, so I go there,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)