Rape as communal violence in India

Violence against women is being used as a weapon of communal hatred, suggesting India should enact the Communal Violence bill, Nilanjana Bhowmick argues

In 2013, a coalition government led by the Indian National Congress, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA), had approved a draft Communal Violence Bill. The bill made communal violence, including hate propaganda, punishable by law and also allowed for prevention and control of communal violence, speedy investigation and trials, and rehabilitation of victims. It also held public servants accountable for any acts of commission and omission while handling communal violence.

At the time, the bill was opposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who called the Bill ‘ill-conceived, poorly drafted and a recipe of disaster.’ The BJP had also criticized the bill as being loaded against the majority community. In February 2014, when the bill was introduced in the winter session of the parliament, a united opposition had twisted the government’s arm forcing it to withdraw the bill, calling it anti-federal.

Fast forward to 2017-2018

Since 2014, India has become a hotbed of communal tension with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – an extremist Hindutva organization – stoking the flames of communalism in the country. Hindutva vigilantes have been targeting religious minorities especially the Muslims over cow slaughter and eating beef ever since the BJP, led by now prime minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014. There have been onslaughts on personal freedoms and a growing Islamophobia.

According to official statistics, India witnessed more than 700 outbreaks of communal violence in 2016 that killed 86 and injured 2,321 people. The actual number, however, could be higher as many cases go unreported, a report by the Mumbai-based Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and the UK based Minority Rights Group International (MRG) had said last year.

However, things have taken a more grim turn in 2018.

An eight-year-old girl was brutally raped and murdered in Rasana village near Kathua, in the Indian state of Kashmir, leading to widespread protests in the country, akin to protests that had erupted in India and globally when Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old student, was as brutally raped and left to die on the streets in 2012 by a gang of men joyriding in a private bus.

Six years separate the two rapes and murders, but these years tell the story of an India that was and an India that is. In this brief period, India has gone from being a secular country, debating communalism to a communal country, discussing secularism. Attacks on minority communities – online and offline – have increased manifold. The government has been cracking down on students and dissidents. There have been attacks against journalists. In September 2017, the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, a staunch critic of communal politics and right wing groups who was shot dead right outside her home, had roiled the country.

The India that was and that is could not have manifested itself in more gruesome ways than in the rape and murder of a little girl over communal motivation.

The India that was and that is could not have manifested itself in more gruesome ways than in the rape and murder of a little girl over communal motivation

In the weeks following the gruesome incident, details of the rape and murder of the eight-year-old started filtering out, including details of the charge sheets, the sheer depravity of the crime rendered many speechless with shock. A child was drugged and raped for days by a bunch of Hindu men inside a temple, to teach her ‘beef-eating’ nomadic Muslim community a lesson.

The Jammu and Kashmir police in their charge sheets had said that the abduction, rape, and killing of the minor who belonged to the nomadic Bakerwal community – a migratory tribe in Jammu and Kashmir who are traditionally goatherds and shepherds and mainly Sunni Muslims – was carefully planned to send a message to her tribe to move out of the area.

The MRG report had also said that the authorities had failed to prevent such attacks against minority communities – often led by extremist right-wing groups, including vigilante groups such as cow protection or ‘anti-Romeo’ squads enforcing violent moral policing – which has created a climate of impunity that might lead to continued attacks.

Which is exactly what had happened, and happens in every conflict situation.

When a society mainstreams any kind of violence, women are the ones that bear the brunt of it. This is especially true when mob violence/vigilantism is mainstreamed in a patriarchal society like India. One can only imagine the repercussions on women. The Kathua rape and murder is the manifestation of that imagination. It is a chilling reminder that between 2012 and 2018, rape has transformed from a weapon of power to a weapon of hatred and communalism.

Jyoti Singh’s 2012 rape and murder was hailed as a turning point for gender rights in India. But the Kathua rape and murder this year should be warning for an India that has been veering dangerously toward right wing hatred and vigilantism. It should be warning that Islamophobia is being stoked and abetted by Hindutva groups. However, while there have been widespread protests and outrage over the Kathua rape and murder, there have also been unprecedented reactions to it too.

When a society mainstreams any kind of violence, women are the ones that bear the brunt of it

As the news of the Kathua rape and murder spread, it was followed by a rally in support of the accused. A first in the country. The rally was attended by two ruling party lawmakers, who later resigned. There were widespread ‘us vs. them’ accusations and counter-accusations on social media, too. The communal divide that has been surreptitiously taking over the social fabric of India, exposed itself in all its glory in the aftermath of the Kathua rape and murder.

Many believe that the little girl of Kathua was martyred to the hatred that has been perpetrated against the minorities in this country since last year with the tacit support of the ruling party and the family of Hindu nationalist organizations created by the RSS known as the Sangh Parivar.

In a recent letter to the prime minister, a group of retired bureaucrats including former diplomats and civil servants had said, ‘In Kathua in Jammu, it is the culture of majoritarian belligerence and aggression promoted by the Sangh Parivar which emboldened rabid communal elements to pursue their perverse agenda. They knew that their behaviour would be endorsed by the politically powerful and those who have made their careers by polarizing Hindus and Muslims across a sectarian divide.’

The Kathua rape could be an important moment signalling rising Islamophobia. And it will be if we recognize that justice for the little girl of Kathua is not just about gender justice. It is also about communal hatred and the vulnerability of women in any conflict situation. Justice for her would entail not just prosecution of the perpetrators but also a sustainable deterrent against communally motivated crimes.

Had the government approved the Communal Violence bill in 2013 we would have legal mechanisms in place to protect vulnerable people and communities. We should be out on the streets demanding that the bill is allowed to become a law. It is needed now like never before.

Nilanjana Bhomwick is a multi-award winning, independent journalist, a former TIME correspondent, based in New Delhi, India. She is an independent commentator on gender, development, politics and current affairs.