“I have never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence. There are reports everywhere of [the] gang-rape of young girls and women, often in the presence of members of their families, followed by their murder by burning alive.”
-Harsh Mander, “Cry, the Beloved Country: Reflections on the Gujarat Massacre.”
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 generation.
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.