Rape, the state, and the far right in India

Three Way Fight


The December 16, 2012 gang rape/murder of a female student on a Delhi bus helped spark a major upsurge in anti-rape activism across India. This activism has continued despite a harsh police crackdown and has targeted not only India’s epidemic of sexual violence against women but also, to a more limited extent, the entrenched patriarchal beliefs, practices, and institutions that foster it. Some critics, such as Soma Marik of the Forum Against Oppression of Women, Calcutta, have also highlighted the ways that both the state and the Hindu nationalist far right in India use rape as a weapon against specific groups of women. That’s what I want to focus on in this post.

Writing some eight months before the recent anti-rape protests, Kavita Krishnan, national secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (which is affiliated with the maoist CPI[ML]), argued that rape must be seen as “part of a larger web of violence and subjugation of women” and “we need to assert the nature of rape as a crime of power rather than a crime against innocence, chastity, or property” [i.e., women as sexual property of someone else]. She also pointed out that “safety” for women “is often tied up with the patriarchal ideology of masculine guardianship” and typically means restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, although most rapes are committed by family members, friends, and neighbors — not by strangers. Although the details vary, most of Krishnan’s basic points apply not just to India but also to the United States and other patriarchal societies.

While emphasizing that “rape and other forms of sexual violence are an assertion of patriarchal dominance and power,” Krishan also noted that “other centres of power — caste, religion, and State — also draw upon this form of patriarchal violence to assert their own dominance, and so we have rapes as part of caste and communal violence, and custodial rapes by police or army.”

The Indian state is a major perpetrator of rape. In recent decades, Indian security forces have used rape extensively as part of counterinsurgency operations in regions such as Kashmir. A 1993 report by Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, entitled “Rape in Kashmir: A Crime of War,” found that “the use of rape [by Indian army and paramilitary forces] is common and routinely goes unpunished” (p. 3). The main targets have been women civilians who are suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents. In nearly all such cases, the government has rejected the evidence and tried to discredit the accusers, for example regarding the 1991 Kunan Poshpora incident, in which soldiers reportedly gang-raped at least 53 women in the Kashmiri village of Kunan Poshpora. In 2005, according to Wikileaks, almost one-fourth of the 1,296 Kashmiri detainees interviewed by the International Committee of the Red Cross said they had been sexually abused by Indian security forces (out of a total of 681 who reported some form of torture).

Looking more broadly, the following passage from the AW/PHR Kashmir report probably describes the situation today as well as it did in 1993:

“Rape by Indian police is common throughout India; the victims are generally poor women and those from vulnerable low-caste and tribal minority groups. In some cases, women are taken into custody as suspects in petty crime or on more serious charges; in others, women are detained as hostages for relatives wanted in criminal or political cases; in still others, women are detained simply so that the police can extort a bribe to secure their release. In all of these cases, women in the custody of security forces are at risk of rape. Rape has also been widely reported during counter-insurgency operations elsewhere in India, particularly in Assam and other areas of conflict in northeastern India. In both conflict and non-conflict situations, the central element of rape by the security forces is power. Soldiers and police use rape as a weapon: to punish, intimidate, coerce, humiliate and degrade” (p. 3).

The Asian Center for Human Rights has documented 45 cases of Indian women being raped by police officers while in custody between 2002 and 2010, according to Jason Overdorf in the Global Post. Given that rape is heavily under-reported even when the police are not involved, the real figure may be much higher.

Rape is commonly perpetrated not only by soldiers and police officers, but also by members of India’s political class itself. According to the watchdog group National Election Watch (as cited by Overdorf), over the past five years 260 candidates from all the major political parties in India have faced charges for rape, sexual harassment, or other crimes against women. Two current members of the national parliament and six members of state legislatures are facing rape charges.

India’s far right Hindu nationalist movement promotes rape in ways that are closely bound up with the movement’s anti-Muslim politics and dream of a culturally pure hierarchical society. Hindu nationalists demand Hindu cultural and political dominance of India and have perpetrated some of the most horrific mass violence of recent decades, including the torture and murder of thousands of Muslims. The movement includes India’s largest opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as the country’s biggest labor union, biggest student organization, and many other groups. Most of these groups are part of a network centered on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an all-male cadre organization that aims to reshape Indian society along authoritarian corporatist lines. (See my “Hindu nationalism: an annotated bibliography of online resources.”)

During the recent public outcry about rape, the BJP called for the death penalty in many rape cases while some of its leaders trivialized rape or engaged in victim-blaming. A more sophisticated response came from Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party in Maharashtra state, which handed out knives to thousands of women in Mumbai for self-defense, to show that “women are empowered and they can take care of themselves.” Like the fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece offering self-defense classes for women, Shiv Sena’s “symbolic gesture” (as they called it) appropriated an element of feminist politics in the service of a violent ethnic-chauvinist program.

But Shiv Sena’s progressive-sounding response was unusual among Hindu nationalists, and it’s probably no coincidence that Shiv Sena is the only major Hindu nationalist organization in India not affiliated with the RSS. By contrast, RSS head Mohan Bhagwat, who is arguably the most influential Hindu nationalist in the world, blamed rape on the decline of traditional patriarchal relations, as quoted by Devika Narayan:

“A husband and wife are involved in a contract under which the husband has said that you should take care of my house and I will take care of all your needs. I will keep you safe. So, the husband follows the contract terms. Till the time, the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her, if the wife violates the contract, he can disown her. Crimes against women happening in urban India are shameful. But such crimes won’t happen in Bharat [roughly: idealized traditional Hindu society] or the rural areas of the country. You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes. Besides new legislation, Indian ethos and attitude towards women should be revisited in the context of ancient Indian values. Where Bharat becomes ‘India’ with the influence of western culture, these types of incidents happen.”

Many critics, such as Narayan, have pointed out the utter fallacy of Bhagwat’s claim that rape does not happen in traditional Indian villages, and have argued that sexual violence against women is in fact integral to the kind of patriarchal traditionalism that Bhagwat and his followers glorify. Yet Bhagwat’s view was echoed by Ashok Singhal, of the Vishad Hindu Parishad (VHP), an RSS-affiliated cultural organization. Singhal claimed that the rise of sexual assault on women reflected the growth of a western lifestyle in Indian cities. “This western model is alarming. What is happening is we have imbibed the US. We have lost all the values we had in cities,” notably virginity.

The Hindu nationalist movement doesn’t just rationalize or hide rape — it has actively promoted it on a large scale. Rape and other violence against women and girls have been central to a number of the anti-Muslim pogroms that Hindu nationalist groups have fomented or organized over the past twenty-plus years. The largest and most horrific example was the month-long Gujarat pogrom of 2002, when Hindu nationalist mobs killed at least 790 and probably more than 2,000 Muslims. Many women were raped, tortured, and then hacked to death or burned alive.

In an important analysis entitled “The Semiotics of Terror: Muslim Children and Women in Hindu Rashtra,” historian Tanika Sarkar highlights three aspects of the Gujarat pogrom: “One, the woman’s body was a site of almost inexhaustible violence, with infinitely plural and innovative forms of torture. Second, their sexual and reproductive organs were attacked with a special savagery. Third, their children, born and unborn, shared the attacks and were killed before their eyes.” The focus of this violence, Sarkar argues, reflected Hindu nationalists’ fears of the supposedly super-fertile Muslim woman as well as “a more virile Muslim male body that lures away Hindu girls.”

Sarkar also emphasizes that the pogrom followed “months of systematic planning,” such as compiling lists of Muslim addresses, and pointed to Hindu nationalists’ extensive “penetration of state and grass roots institutions — from police to hospitals” in Gujarat. The Gujarat state government was controlled by the BJP, and state organs protected and sometimes actively participated in the pogrom. Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister and a leader within both the BJP and RSS, rode the pogrom’s success to victory in the state elections a few months later, and is still in power today.

Both the Indian state and the Hindu nationalist movement have used rape to terrorize and control specific groups of women. But Hindu nationalism has gone much further — both in its level of cruelty and in its use of rape to mobilize and build up supporters. As the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat declared in its interim report about the 2002 pogrom, “We find chillingly unique the incitement to sexual violence as a means of proving the masculinity of the ‘Hindu’ man, as reflected in the political propaganda of the forces of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] prior to, during and after the violence in February/March 2002…” (See also the Initiative’s full 197-page report, “Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat.”)

Yet the same report also noted, “The use of systematic rape and sexual violence as a strategy for terrorizing and brutalizing women in conflict situations echoes experiences of women in Bangladesh in 1971, and in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Algeria. In Gujarat, as in all these other countries, women have been targeted as members of the ‘other’ community, as symbols of the community’s honor and as the ones who sustain the community and reproduce the next generation. This has become an all too common aspect of larger political projects of genocide, crimes against humanity and subjugation.”

All of these political projects feed on and feed back into the larger, global system of male power and violence against women — violence that is often less visible and less “newsworthy” than what happened on that Delhi bus.

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