State of the nation

Print edition : January 25, 2013

A protest in Kolkata against the recent rape cases in West Bengal. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

A hartal in Shopian, Kashmir, on May 30, 2010, on the first anniversary of the rape and murder of two women. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Irom Sharmila, who has been on an indefinite hunger strike in Imphal demanding the repeal of the AFSP Act. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

THE GANG RAPE IN DELHI EVOKED MASS PROTESTS BY women, men and civil society across India. Mass protests in the capital prompted an increasingly fearful Central government to resort to the extraordinary step of closing metro stations, imposing Section 144 in parts of central Delhi, and restricting the freedom of movement as a means to thwart the protests which were threatening to assume distinctly anti-government overtones. Clearly, the young student’s tragedy struck a chord across India and ignited latent social outrage against an entrenched and pervasive culture of sexual violence against women. Much of the public debate around this issue—including in the electronic and print media—centres on possible institutional remedies such as ensuring public security for women through better policing, crafting better legislation, plugging legal loopholes in rape laws, demanding sensitivity and response from politicians and Parliament, and using the death penalty as a deterrent to rape.

Important and path-breaking as they are, the Delhi protests do not question the socio-cultural roots of women’s sexual subordination anchored in a social order employing humiliation— defined here as the denial of an individual’s dignity and freedom—as a tool of power, dominance and control. The denial of equality and dignity to women in an inegalitarian, caste-ridden and patriarchal society, imbued with culturally dominant ideas of violent masculinity, together with a wider culture of impunity regarding sexual violence against women in general, cannot but translate into violations of women’s bodily and sexual integrity. The rape in Delhi implicates and indicts Indian society or, as The Hindu (December 30, 2012) put it, “its rotten core”.

The demand for prompt institutional response to rape is just and legitimate. However, if rape and other forms of sexual violence against women are to be overcome and defeated, it is necessary to address the wider culture of humiliation rape represents. Blaming the formal trappings of “the system”, namely, politicians, police, security agencies, or the law—all of which are of course complicit to varying degree—is perhaps easier than critical reflection on a dominant social order where the practice of humiliation is persistent, pervasive and routine, and in the case of women, sexualised. Caste, class and gender are integral to this order: hence the frequent and largely unquestioned rape and parading naked of Dalit women; hence also Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar holding women responsible for rape and Member of Parliament Abhijeet Mukherjee dismissing female protesters as “dented and painted women”. All three are part of a wider discursive social order that needs to be challenged and transformed.

While the Delhi protests symbolise mounting public concern and anger at the practice of sexual humiliation of women, they fall short of questioning its persistent and relentless use by state forces in conflict zones such as Kashmir and Manipur or, for that matter, against Muslim women in Gujarat. Government statistics indicate that sexual humiliation of women in Indian society is routine. It is, therefore, not surprising to have it replicated as institutional practice at the local level—manned as these institutions are by members drawn from society. It is precisely this state-society overlap that constitutes an overarching continuum of sexual violence of women across the nation-state—be it women in Gujarat, Kashmir or Manipur. Notwithstanding important differences between Gujarat, on the one hand, and Kashmir and Manipur, on the other, linking all three are constructs of nation and nationalism in modern India where rape functions as an ethnic marker; as a weapon of war to inflict collective indignity and defeat on ethnic “other” men through the sexual humiliation of their women.

Sexual violence against Muslim women in Gujarat exemplifies the latter. The demise and discrediting of secularism and the concomitant convergence between Hindu, and Indian identity resurrected and reinforced the old Aryan hegemony of India as territorially and ethnically Hindu symbolised by the construct of Bharat Mata. In the Bharat Mata cosmology, evoked in unison as Narendra Modi mounted the podium to deliver his victory speech and endorsed resoundingly by the people of Gujarat, there is no place or hope for Indian Muslims; they remain beyond the pale of the nation: at best second-class citizens, if not contaminating (in keeping with caste rules of purity and pollution) and treacherous traitors (for the original sin of fragmenting Bharat Mata by allegedly creating Pakistan) in the Hindu nation for which the perceived legitimate punishment is death. In terms of scale, extent, duration and ferocity, Gujarat 2002 eclipsed the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany. Raping Muslim women is both defence and marker of the ethnic boundary and purity of a majoritarian ethnic imaginary that received a third successive mandate from the people of Gujarat. Raheel Dhattiwala, a Gujarati Muslim, underscored its societal moorings and implications for Gujarat’s Muslims:

The credibility that Mr. Modi has acquired among large sections of Gujarati Hindu voters over the years is for what his government oversaw in 2002 and later in extra-judicial killings of Muslims…“Modi had the audacity to take on the might of the…Muslims and to preserve our ‘asmita’ (pride). He is a real lion!”

As successive “democratic” endorsements for Hindu asmita mask, blunt, and blur the history and memory of Muslim humiliation through the sexual subjugation of Muslim women in Gujarat, to expect institutional accountability or justice from a state, or respect or compassion from a society that, to quote Dhattiwala again, deems “Muslim hatred as completely acceptable” seems to be a pipe dream. The absence of mass public outrage in Delhi against the humiliation of Muslim women in Gujarat indicates that Muslim women (and men) are, sadly, yet to be part of the nation in the way Hindu women (and men) have, by default, always been. Mass public protests in Delhi condemning the rape in Gujarat or calling for accountability for the same would be as much a powerful national affirmation of justice for women in Gujarat as it would be an emphatic endorsement of India’s founding ideal of secularism.

Gendered edge

In Kashmir and Manipur, on the other hand, rape and other forms of sexual abuse of women are imbued with additional dimensions. Sexual violence against women in conflict zones is an outcome of India’s disastrous nation-state-making enterprise premised on the idea of a unitary state and a single, homogeneous national community, sexual violence against women being its gendered edge. The appropriation of socio-cultural notions of female “honour” by state security forces in conflict zones translates into sexual violence against ethnic minority women, a means to inflict defeat on the “ethnic other” (insurgent/militant men) through the sexual appropriation of women. In Manipur (2004), Thangjam Manorama Devi was picked up by soldiers of the 17 Assam Rifles from her residence and allegedly tortured and raped before being shot dead. In the same year, at Handwara in Kashmir, Shabnam Rashid and her mother Aisha Begum were raped by a major of 30 Rashtriya Rifles. In 2009, Asiya and Neelofar were allegedly raped and murdered in close proximity to a high-security zone in Shopian, Kashmir. In each case, the perpetrators were never brought to justice, nor did local protests by women and civil society find much resonance or support in New Delhi. Irom Sharmila’s extraordinary fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur is yet to evoke a national response on the lines of the Delhi incident. This duality has been challenged by citizens in conflict zones who question what they perceive as different public attitudes to the issue of sexual violence against women by state forces in conflict zones.

Without discounting or understating the significance and the transformatory potential of the Delhi protests, the silence surrounding sexual crimes against women in conflict zones must certainly be questioned. This silence is rooted in the unwillingness of citizens in mainland India to acknowledge that an institution namely the military—meant to embody national pride—is guilty of gross and grave violations against citizens within the nation-state that in legal parlance would be termed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Acknowledging this reality, the democratic state’s wilful misuse of its monopoly over the use of violence, rather than the crime itself (rape and sexual abuse) is harder, more difficult. It is hard because it poses fundamental questions regarding the legitimacy and moral authority of the Indian state and it is difficult because it demolishes the basic idea of government as the guarantor of human rights and its military as a professional, neutral, ethical force. The silence in Delhi and elsewhere has allowed this state of affairs to continue. In doing so, it has allowed sexual abuse of women in conflict zones to pass off as individual aberrations rather than as a persistent and relentless pattern of the use of sexual difference for political ends by the state. The focus is always on the individual soldier, not on the national cosmology that shifted entire brigades into Kashmir and the north-east for decades on end and the history of sexual violence and abuse in its trail.

Challenging this cosmology would lead us to the heart of the matter, namely, “a self-idealisation of nationalism” that as Jacqueline Rose notes, “cannot by very dint of being nationalism, be innocent because of the opposition from the indigenous peoples which it was bound to encounter”. Attempts to forge a homogeneous nation based on a singular view of state and nation are at odds with the presence of a number of sub-nationalities within the borders of the Indian nation-state. Rapes of women in Kashmir and in the north-eastern States are the gendered edge of India’s disastrous, coercive nation-state-building exercise characterised by extraordinary levels of security presence, high levels of violence, the denial of citizens’ rights and liberties, and the imposition of repressive laws such as the AFSPA providing security forces impunity from rape and sexual violence against women. Indians have little knowledge of the scale or extent of collective human misery, despair and humiliation across conflict zones. A pervasive, intrusive and humiliating military presence backed by the AFSPA and the licence to shoot to kill, torture, murder and rape with impunity symbolises a state of the nation as morally and politically untenable as the one with the above-mentioned societal and institutional flaws. Both states overlap; both are mutually reinforcing, especially in terms of gender relations.

Decent society

If there is to be dignity, security and justice for all women, the Indian state and society must change. The transformation must encompass the local/societal and national/institutional sphere. The Delhi protests offer a glimmer of hope in terms of institutional reform even as they leave entirely untouched the overarching ideological superstructure complicit in perpetuating a deeply unequal and patriarchal society, parochial and exclusive constructs of nation and nationalism, and disrespect and violence against non-Hindu minorities. All three cosmologies implicate state and society as much as they rationalise gender hierarchy and sexual violence against women.

In this context, it is useful to consider Avishai Margalit’s concept of a “decent society” premised on state and society. He defines a civilised society as one whose members do not humiliate each other, and a decent society as one whose institutions do not humiliate people. By both yardsticks—whose empirical realities I have just touched upon above—India is yet to become a civilised or decent society. How can it do so?

First, by challenging the dominant social order and its gendered architecture. The perpetrators of the rape in Delhi expressed verbal contempt for the young woman’s autonomy and freedom to choose to travel with a male friend at night. Their bestial violence was both a punishment for the transgression and a means to show the victim her ordained place in the social order. The protests in Delhi have highlighted the need for effective institutional responses to sexual violence against women while condemning the trivialisation of rape by members of the political class. Against an increasingly conservative national mood, activists and women’s groups have done well to highlight the dangers of using the death penalty as retributive punishment or a deterrent to rape. Yet, as the reality of women in conflict zones indicates, if there is to be security, dignity and justice for all women, the debate must move beyond its local state/institutional dimension to embrace the ideological/national.

Second, by summoning the courage to question reified concepts of secularism and nationalism that have, tragically, spilled so much blood across the nation. The Indian state’s ideal of secularism, namely, Sarva Dharma Samabhava (equality and toleration of all religions), is based not so much on respect for “different” religious truths and religious traditions as it is on their assimilation and deferment to an overarching “universalist” Hindu truth. Balraj Puri notes that “Hinduism meets other religions not as another religion… but as a representative of the ancient heritage of the nation that acquired the de facto right to set the requirements of nationalism”—a frame of reference unacceptable to non-Hindus. This is not to denigrate Hinduism or to accuse all Hindus of intolerance; rather, it is to underscore the limits and dangers of employing this particular religious tradition as a default template for secularism and nationalism in an empirically multi-religious society. In many ways Kashmir is a tragic testimony to this intellectual conceit and arrogance.

Decades before demands for azadi hit the streets of Kashmir and to the present day, the standard response of this fairly large and politically influential constituency to Kashmiri aspiration of a “different” cultural identity and political future rested on the counter-claim of Kashmir being territorially and spatially Indian (read Hindu). This counter-assertion is as much a dogged unwillingness on the part of a central order to avoid acknowledging difference with a Muslim people, as it is an equally dogged attempt by the same order to neutralise rebellion against it through an all-embracing national (read Hindu) frame. Politically and intellectually, this frame is obsolete and congealed, and has nothing whatsoever to offer to Kashmiri Muslims or other ethnic minorities in the north-east for that matter, except coercion and humiliation by virtue of the possession of superior force.

Third, by advancing and institutionalising the concept of the individual that, paradoxically, has little resonance in the Indian Constitution.

And last, but certainly not the least, developing new meanings of nation/national not centred on anti-Muslim prejudice or Pakistan-bashing but on respectful coexistence with “the different”, “the other”.

Seema Kazi is Fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) and author of Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarisation in Kashmir.

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