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Women's bodies were central battlegrounds in the worst bout of
Hindu-Muslim bloodletting to grip India in over ten years, in the
western Indian state of Gujarat beginning on February 27. After an
enraged Muslim mob allegedly set a train packed with Hindus on fire
in Godhra, killing fifty-eight, a wave of retaliatory violence was
unleashed on the minority Muslim population in the region, leaving up
to 2,000 dead and 100,000 homeless. Under the indulgent gaze of the
state government, and against a backdrop of ransacked houses and
desecrated temples, at least 250 women and girls were brutally
gang-raped and burned alive.
Shabnam Hashmi, founder of SAHMAT (a coalition of artists and
intellectuals who work to strengthen secularism within Indian
society), believes that although the pogrom was triggered by Godhra,
the attacks were premeditated: "These mobs were trained in rape. Why
else would the same pattern of brutality be repeated everywhere?
Groups of women were stripped naked and then made to run for miles,
before being gang-raped and burned alive. In some cases religious
symbols were carved onto their bodies." In the documentary Evil
Stalks the Land, produced by Hashmi's husband, Gauhar Raza, a young
boy stares, unblinking, into the camera. "About 100 to 150 children
my age were burned in a house," he recalls. "The tea stall in which
we were hiding was set on fire using gas cylinders. My grandmother's
limbs were chopped off and my aunt was brutally raped."
Among all the horrifying testimonies of sexual violence to emerge
from Gujarat, one story has come to symbolize the collective
suffering of the Muslim community. It is told and retold on news
stories, in NGO reports, in eyewitness accounts: "I was running [and]
I saw a pregnant woman's belly being cut open," states a young boy on
Indian television. "The fetus was pulled out and thrown up in the
air. As it came down it was collected on the tip of the sword."
"[Kausar Bano] was nine months'pregnant," recalls Saira Banu at the
Shah Alam camp for refugees. "They cut open her belly, took her fetus
with a sword and threw it into a blazing fire. Then they burned her
as well." "We were to hear this story many times," wrote the
Citizen's Initiative fact-finding team of women, who saw photographic
evidence of the burned body of a mother with a charred fetus lying on
her stomach. Their April 16 report, The Survivors Speak, reflects
upon the significance of this crime: "Kausar's story has come to
embody the numerous experiences of evil that were felt by the
Muslims.Sˇ In all instances where extreme violence is experienced
collectively, meta-narratives are constructed. Each victim is part of
the narrative; their experience subsumed by the collective
experience. Kausar is that collective experience-a meta-narrative of
bestiality; a meta-narrative of helpless victimhood." The image of
Kausar and her unborn child has assumed a dual meaning, for both
Hindu aggressors and Muslim victims: The humiliation of the enemy
through violation of the female body, and the assault on the future
of the Muslim community through the destruction of the next
Why is gender violence such a consistent feature of the communal
riots that spasmodically grip India? In an impassioned May 11
editorial in The Hindu, India's national daily, Raka Roy, an
associate professor of sociology at the University of California,
Berkeley, offered one explanation. Roy asked: "Where does the
creation of the inferior other in India begin?" It begins, she
argues, with the divisive caste system, which has allowed the
principle of inequality to become embedded in Hindu culture. It
continues in the belief that "women are not only inferior, but also
woman's sexuality has to be patrolled so that it is legitimately
accessible to some men and inaccessible to others." If a woman's body
belongs not to herself but to her community, then the violation of
that body signifies an attack upon the honor (izzat) of the whole
community. Hindu nationalists raped and burned minority women to
destroy not only their bodies but also the integrity and identity of
Muslim society, the inferior Other. Roy also suggests that the
terrible legacy of the partition-with "protected and protectable
women on one side and unprotected and rapable women on the other
side"-still lingers in both the Hindu and Muslim subconscious.
It was the complicity of the state, however, that made it possible
for mass rape to occur in Gujarat. A Human Rights Watch report
concluded that the Sangh Parivar-the family of Hindu nationalist
organizations including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads
the Gujarat state government-was directly responsible [see Arundhati
Roy's essay in this issue of The Nation]. According to the report,
police told terrified groups of fleeing Muslims: "We have no orders
to save you."
The thousands of displaced now live in temporary refugee camps, run
almost exclusively by Muslim organizations. Harsh Mander writes: "It
is as though the monumental pain, loss, betrayal and injustice
suffered by the Muslim people is the concern only of other Muslim
people, and the rest of us have no share in the responsibility to
assuage, to heal and rebuild." The Citizen's Initiative report argues
that the state's colossal failure to implement "international Human
Rights norms and instructions and instruments as they relate to
violence per se, especially violence against women," may amount to a
crime under international law. The report recommends that a special
task force, comprising people from outside Gujarat, be set up
immediately to investigate the cases of sexual violence, and that
counseling and rehabilitation programs be established to help the
traumatized survivors. Although the government has proposed "Peace
Committees," it remains unclear what form these would take. All this
provides little consolation for the Muslim women and their families
who must decide where to go when the squalid camps close, which is
scheduled to occur before the Assembly elections following the
resignation of Narendra Modi, the BJP's Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Those who could afford to leave Gujarat have already done so. The
rest will return to their villages, to live as second-class citizens
in the ruins of their homes among the men who raped their sisters,
burned their children and killed their friends.