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The silent wounds of Gujarat

About the author
Herpreet Kaur Grewal is a journalist who freelances for a broad section of publications including the Guardian.

In February 2002, Hindu mobs went on the rampage in Gujarat, a western state of India, in revenge for an attack by Muslims on a group of Hindu pilgrims travelling from the site of the Ayodhya temple.

In the violence, around 2000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed and 200,000 were left dispossessed, according to independent estimates.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party in India – which, under its hardline regional leader Narendra Modi also governs Gujarat – was accused by many of being complicit in the attacks. Despite condemnation of the riots by the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, human rights groups say that those guilty of the anti-Muslim violence have not had to face their responsibility.

The Best Bakery case – in which fourteen Muslims were burnt alive by a mob of twenty-one Hindus – is an example of how the victims of the 2002 riots are still denied justice in Gujarat.

In June 2003 the accused in this case were acquitted because almost half of the 73 witnesses retracted the statements they had given to police identifying the attackers.

The pursuit of justice and compensation for all Muslim victims is arduous, but its achievement is an even more distant dream for the women who were worst hit by the violence.

A systematic targeting of women

A new report launched in the UK, India and America by the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat reveals how the assailants used rape and torture of women as weapons in their violence against Muslims.

Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat offers vital testimonies and documentation about the brutal sexual violence against women in Gujarat during the events.

The report is compiled by nine feminist jurists, activists, lawyers, writers and academics from over the world, who travelled to Ahmedabad, Baroda and Panchmahals in December 2002. It is based on hundreds of statements and eye-witness accounts of the violence.

In the report, one Muslim woman recalls how she, seven other women and eight men were surrounded by a mob when they were trying to escape the riots. The mob threatened the men with swords and hit them on the head with iron rods until they lost consciousness. They took the women into the fields, tore at their clothes, scratched their bodies and sexually assaulted them, while shouting: “We will make you conceive Hindu children!”

Another witness remembers how she saw six of her neighbours being raped and molested, with iron rods and swords being thrust into them after which they were set alight. A pregnant woman had her breasts cut off and her womb sliced open.

A woman described how policemen desecrated the Koran and then picked up her eighteen-month old child and threw him across the room. When she protested, the police said: “Reproduce and make more terrorists.”

The report identifies the patterns of systematic rape, torture and mutilation that emerge from testimonies; the way women have been used in order to humiliate Muslim men; and the consequent silencing of women’s experiences because there is nowhere to turn in society for support after the trauma.

Mobs are described marching into homes taking off their trousers and raping women and girls in front of their families, killing pregnant women, and children.

A woman and her baby, who were separated from their family in the bloody aftermath said she was stopped and surrounded by a mob of 20-25 men.

“They grabbed my son and threw him in the bushes. I begged them to leave my child but they began beating me,” she recounts in the report.

“Some were biting me, someone was punching me on my chest, someone was tearing my clothes off and they were abusing me. They were saying, ‘We will make you bear a Hindu child’. After that three people raped me. They were saying, ‘Use her as much as you want now, we won’t get her tomorrow’. At that time we could hear screams from the road, so they left me and went towards the road.”

The report calls for the international community to declare a genocidal alert in Gujarat and acknowledges that the global branding of Muslims as terrorists after 11 September 2001 is aiding persecution of the Islamic community there.

Masculinity and political murder

Behind these harrowing violations lies a disturbing political reality: the brutal way women are being used by followers of the Hindutva project – the nationalist ideology of the Hindu right-wing in India – in conflicts taking place primarily between Hindu and Muslim men.

Chetan Bhatt, scholar of Hindu nationalism comments: “The way in which systematic rape, mutilation and burning was used against women and girls shows how the violence in Gujarat was taken to an obscene, grotesque level and this is what the report is significant in showing. Hindu nationalism was born out of the irrational fear of the Hindu male losing his potency and being outnumbered by minorities. One central theme in Hindu nationalism is emasculation, so the Hindu right’s targeting of Muslim women and girls is central to their idea of humiliating the Muslim man.”

He adds: “The RSS, which is the organisation that founded most of the Hindu right-wing’s movements and parties, stresses physical exercise, martial training and ideological brainwashing in order to ‘strengthen body, mind and intellect’. It is an aggressive, masculine ideology in which Hindu women are both controlled within a masculine framework and urged to fight and make sacrifices for the so-called Hindu nation.”

The report states that the rapes of women aimed to “replace Muslim children by Hindu children and thereby contribute in bringing about the destruction of the Muslim community.”

The Hindutva project explicitly uses sexuality in asserting its power. Nira Yuval-Davis, one of the authors of the report, points out that one way the Hindu right were able to get Hindu men involved in the violence was to aggressively question their virility.

“They sent around bangles to Hindu men saying if they don’t participate in violence they are women. We found that even the policemen in some instances were exposing their penises. There is a strong masculinity agenda and they want to show they are men and that they have power. In the name of a Hindu nation, they are even able to get lower-caste Hindu people involved in the violence.”

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a hardline cultural organisation in the Hindutva fold, distributed a leaflet signed by the state general secretary during the riots with the following poem, aimed at inciting mobs to violence:

“The volcano that was inactive has erupted/ It has burnt the arse of the Muslim men and made them dance nude/ We have untied the penises that were tied until now/ We have widened the tight vaginas of the Muslim women”.
Hindu right-wing mobs justify using rape and murder as a way of reclaiming their manhood and this reduces women’s bodies to territories on which men’s battles for power are fought.

“As a result of this kind of propaganda, Muslim men feel disempowered and emasculated. This is the Hindu right’s weapon. Women are symbolic of a family’s honour. By attacking that, they attack a man’s masculinity,” says Nira Yuval-Davis.

“However, there is a paradox. Women are idealised, there is this idea of Mother India. Women are seen as the reason to go to war and precious but if they are raped or hurt then it’s their fault and they are made to feel ashamed. What happens to them is seen as it is reflected on men rather than truly considering what happens to them personally.

As a result there is nowhere for these women to escape to deal with their trauma. There are no neutral places in civil society – especially in rural villages.”

When a woman is considered “tainted” she is married, often to unsuitable men, to contain her “dishonour” – and husbands disown their wives. If they do stay with each other it is in a state of denial of the abuse.

Although this may appear “to work” on the surface, it means the extreme break down of communications within the family unit, weakening the community bond even further.

One woman, who was raped, spoke about how she was happy because her husband accepts her yet he does not talk to her and has no physical relationship with her.

Nira Yuval-Davis says that although the delegates who put together the report were initially called in to assess the after effects of the riots, they discovered that sexual violence was continuing against women.

The politics of violence

South Asia Solidarity Group – a campaigning organisation committed to strengthening movements for secularism, justice and genuine democracy in south Asia and communities in Britain with people of south Asian origin – launched the report at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where a film documenting the movements of the Hindutva project was also premiered.

Spokeswoman of the group Amrit Wilson said: “A huge amount of money is going from Britain in the name of charity to fund the Hindutva groups. We are campaigning to put pressure on the British government to stop the flow of these funds.

A lot of Hindutva organisations pose as charities and many Asians in this country – Hindus and Muslims – send money without realising that it is going to fund the sort of atrocities on women and children described in the report.”

Amrit Wilson added: “Hindutva is not Hinduism, it is really fascism. The Muslim communities have been devastated in Gujarat but increasingly, everyone, Hindu or Muslim, who stands up for basic justice is under attack. It is a very frightening scenario.”


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