Gender violence, Narendra Modi and the Indian elections

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a good chance of winning the forthcoming general election in India. Amrit Wilson reports on discussions about what life has been like for women in the states where the BJP has been in power, and what may lie ahead

Amrit Wilson
13 March 2014

Reflections on gender violence, neoliberalism and the Hindu Right was a panel discussion with Tanika Sarkar and Kavita Krishnan held at the SOAS South Asia Institute on 12 February 2015 chaired by Navtej Purewal and Kalpana Wilson | Wikimedia commons: SOAS University of London.

India stands at the brink of a dangerous cross roads, a general election is only a few weeks away and Narendra Modi the Prime Ministerial candidate of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) implicated in the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, has a good chance of winning.

If this is not bad enough, more disturbing still is the fact that  Modi and the BJP do not stand alone, they belong to the Sangh Parivar, the  so-called family of organisations which includes storm troopers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh RSS (of which Modi was a cadre ) and a plethora of paramilitary killer groups  like the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena.

What will the rise to power of this sinister 'family' mean for women? What has it meant in the states where the BJP has been in power? A meeting on 3rd March at the London School of Economics organised by the Freedom Without Fear Platform in collaboration with the LSE Gender Institute and South Asia Solidarity Group examined these questions.

The picture which emerged was a deeply disturbing one, revealing a fascistic project which targets minority women for appalling violence while intensifying surveillance and control over all women; targets students and other young people for ‘moral policing’ while at the same time invoking the "protection" of Hindu women to justify  violence against religious minorities and Dalits; and urges Hindu men to demonstrate their masculinity by raping the women of these communities.

Chairing the event and setting the context, Kalpana Wilson noted that the attacks on minority women are not a side effect but central to the project of the Hindu Right which in BJP-ruled states is also a project of the State. In Gujarat, she pointed out, human rights organisations clearly established that the massacres of Muslims in 2002 in which some 2000 people were killed, countless women raped and 200,000 displaced, were state-sponsored.  In fact, a leaked report by the British High Commission in India had noted at the time that the violence had 'all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing'  and that 'far from being spontaneous' it was  'planned, possibly months in advance, carried out by an extremist Hindu organisation with the support of the state government.'... and also 'that reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims is impossible while the chief minister [Narendra Modi] remains in power’.

Nishrin Jafri Hussain whose  father, the MP Ahsan Jafri,  was tortured and killed in the Gujarat violence, and whose  mother Zakia has filed a petition against Narendra Modi accusing him of complicity in the riots, spoke about that period and about the unimaginable brutality  perpetrated on the bodies of Muslim women. Showing a series of photographs of those who had been murdered, with many gaps for those of whom no photos exist, she told the meeting about these women and their lives - those who had hoped to become doctors, those full of zest for life, young girls and older women, daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers who had been raped, mutilated and murdered - their bodies dumped in village wells and then taken in lorry loads  for mass cremations. She spoke of women whose children had been killed before their eyes. The numbers of rapes, she said, were far more than those reported, not only because so many women were killed but because, for the survivors, these experiences were not only deeply traumatising and humiliating but it was a taboo speaking about them.

She said that in the Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad where she grew up, every Muslim house had been burnt down in the 2002 massacres  and every family had lost loved ones - deep scars of these losses remain. Nothing has been done for those whose lives were destroyed. She spoke about her father, an enormously popular MP, an intellectual and trade unionist, who had been against the ghettoisation of Muslims and was committed to living in a mixed Hindu and Muslim area even after earlier experiences of communal violence. When his house where people of the surrounding area were sheltering was attacked, and was surrounded by armed Hindu mobs, he had made calls for help to both the central government and Modi himself. Modi had replied, 'You are on your own Jafri, save yourself'.

'I still have hope that we will get justice. My mother is fighting for justice… she is not going to give up', Nishrin said.   

Anthropologist and human rights specialist Angana Chatterji, spoke about her work in Odisha in the context of massacres of Christians by the Sangh Parivar and more generally about attacks on women during communal violence in India as a whole. She said, 'sexualised violence has been deployed on the women of "the Other" as vindication, and marked subaltern women's bodies in wars of direct and indirect conquest' and told the meeting that the most intensely conservative patriarchal ideologies are invoked in the context of this violence.

Her comments brought to mind Kumkum Sangari's memorable phrase 'patriarchies provide potentially hospitable space where racism, casteism, communalism can meet'.  At an earlier Freedom Without Fear meeting Kavita Krishnan had noted this too. In Muzaffarnagar, in UP, during Modi's election campaign in December, the notion of so-called ‘love jihad’, the totally unfounded myth that Muslim men rape or seek relationships with Hindu women in order to convert them and increase the Muslim population  was deployed to whip up violence against  Muslims. Women were raped and mutilated, families driven from their homes - thousands are still in relief camps short of drinking water and other basic facilities.

Once created, tropes like that of love jihad can be endlessly recycled and applied to other communities across India. Meena Kandasamy, a feminist Tamil novelist and poet, told the meeting that in Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is making inroads,  fanatical Hindu upper caste groups are now using the same notions to justify violence against couples where the man is a Dalit and the woman a higher caste Hindu.

With the growing influence of the BJP in Tamil Nadu has come the rise of 'moral policing' too, she said. At the Vellore Institute of Technology, for example, students have been told that 'any physical contact except handshakes' will be punishable because it is 'against our Indian culture and value system'.

She also highlighted attempts to stigmatise feminist demands as ‘western’. In fact, when the anti-rape movement had brought its slogan of ‘freedom’ for women centre stage, there was an immediate response from the leader of the RSS,  who claimed that ‘rapes happen in India, they don’t happen in Bharat [the Hindu name for India used by the Sangh Parivar]’ meaning essentially that  they happen to westernised women or 'other' women, they don’t happen to Indian or traditional women.

How does all this affect the South Asians of India origin living in the UK? As Kalpana Wilson noted the notion of 'love jihad' has been used here too. As far back as 2007, she said, the Hindu Forum of Britain made completely unfounded allegations that young Hindu women students British universities were being targeted for ‘forcible conversions’ by Muslim extremists. Perhaps because this fitted in with the Islamophobia of the British State it was immediately seized upon by the police with the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Ian Blair, committing his force to action, despite the absence of any evidence for such ‘conversions’. Blair’s remarks were duly reported widely in the media. Yet a few months later, the police were reportedly unable to cite a single such case.

Modi is now being projected by his lobbyists in Britain as a man of progress and development who has done wonders for Gujarat. In reality, as the meeting heard Gujarat has recently been categorised as one of the ‘less developed’ states in India far behind Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa, malnutrition among children is higher and school enrolment of girls is lower than the national average  and according to the 2011 census there are only 918 women per 1,000 men in Gujarat — a ratio, below the already scandalous national average of 940, hinting at the magnitude of female infanticide.

What is the British government's approach to Modi? While in the wake of the 2002 genocide and the clear evidence and documentation of Modi’s role in coordinating and sponsoring it, the UK, EU and US were compelled to distance themselves from Modi, however over the last two years the British government has been rehabilitating him. At a meeting with Modi in October 2012, the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, commented that this was in 'the UK's national interests', meaning the interests of British business ( including arms dealers) in the vast Indian market.

So while Prime Minister, David Cameron, continues to grandstand about human rights and the crucial importance of women's rights, and Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development, expresses her concern about gender violence worldwide, Modi is being welcomed back to the UK with open arms. The campaign to expose him and bring him to justice will, however, continue, and a series of further events is planned in the coming weeks

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