In the Name of Honour

By Laxmi Murthy
CorpWatch India
April 23, 2002

On 27th of February this year, an unidentified mob in Godhra, Gujarat set on fire a railway coach occupied mainly with Kar Sevaks (Hindu volunteers) returning from Ayodhya, the site of the movement to build a temple in the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. This heinous act left 57 dead - many of them women and children - and several others grievously injured. While this ghastly crime is still being investigated, to determine whether it was a pre-meditated assault by a group of Muslims or, as is a being alleged by some, a spontaneous reaction to the molestation of a Muslim girl by Kar Sevaks, the anti-Muslim carnage that followed has numbed the nation. Laxmi Murthy reports.

"............and they were all honourable men." To avenge the insult to the dignity of 'their' women, from February 27th onwards, some 'bravehearts' belonging to the Bajranj Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other militant Hindu outfits went on a rampage, raping and mutilating women from the Muslim community.

No matter that the rumours of Hindu women being kidnapped from the Sabarmati Express, raped and their breasts cut off, were completely fabricated by Sandesh, an incendiary local newspaper. No matter that the incident was corroborated by neither the administration nor the police. No matter that the same newspaper later issued a retraction of that particular news item. And no matter that the Godhra incident was condemned in no uncertain terms by all right-thinking persons. Yet women's bodies became the site for a violent expression of a distorted 'patriotism' -- a ghastly arena for playing out a 'love for the motherland' where Muslims represent the detested 'other'.

The extent of sexual violence and brutality witnessed during the carnage in Gujarat since the 28th of February is likened by many to the horrors of the post-Partition riots in 1947. With an estimated 2,000 dead, more than 100,000 rendered homeless and property worth millions of rupees destroyed, the toll is still mounting. Not since the 1984 Sikh massacres has the country witnessed the systematic elimination of members of a particular community. Yet, what distinguishes the current pogrom is the extent of pre-meditation and infiltration of the civil administration and police by fascist organizations like the RSS, Bajrang Dal and VHP as well as the targeting of women and children for particularly savage acts.

The extent of sexual violence and brutality witnessed during the carnage in Gujarat...is likened by many to the horrors of the post-Partition riots in 1947.

"Do not spare the women!" was the order given to the cadres by leaders of the right wing Hindutva organizations. And the women were not spared. Nor were the children. Teenagers Ruksana, Kheroon, Noorjahan and Farzana of Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad were gang raped and then burnt to death. Shabana of Eral village in Kalol taluka -- described by her mother Medina as a 'flower yet to bloom' -- was raped and had her breasts hacked. Bilkees -- five months pregnant -- was gang raped and left for dead among the bodies of her baby girl and other family members. The list is endless, the orgy of violence numbing. And hope for justice in the present system is dim -- with women being too terrorised to even file FIRs at police stations staffed by openly anti-Muslim police, or get medical examinations while on the run.

A doctor in rural Vadodara said that the wounded who started pouring in from the 28th of February had injuries of a kind he had never witnessed before even in earlier situations of communal violence. In a grave challenge to the Hippocratic oath, doctors have been threatened for treating Muslim patients, and pressurised to use the blood donated by RSS volunteers only to treat Hindu patients. Sword injuries, mutilated breasts and burns of varying intensity characterised the early days of the massacre. Doctors conducted post-mortems on a number of women who had been gang raped, many of whom had been burnt subsequently. A woman from Kheda district who was gangraped had her head shaved and 'Om' cut into her head with a knife by the rapists. She died after a few days in the hospital. There were other instances of 'Om' engraved with a knife on women's backs and buttocks.

The mobs were composed of so-called 'ordinary' people from various walks of life. People like you. People like me.

For the survivors too the damage goes deep -- having watched their children and close family members brutalised, hacked to death and set on fire in front of their eyes. For children witnessing their mothers and sisters being raped, their fathers and brothers being butchered, the emotional and mental trauma cannot be put into words -- and it is anyone's guess when the wounds will heal, if ever. 'Post-traumatic stress disorder' can only be assessed once the trauma is past. The chilling reality is that the horror continues. The schisms are so deep that even the most optimistic wonder if the country can ever be the same. Relief camps in the state, mostly run by religious bodies, are overflowing with people who have nowhere to go -- with their homes and means of livelihood destroyed. Many are too insecure to go back to the hostile neighbourhoods from where they were singled out and driven away. For women, there is an overwhelming sense of loss of community, of betrayal by their neighbours and friends. Those very 'friends' who came to enjoy 'sheer korma' at Id attacked them with inhuman savagery.

For most of us in progressive movements, what is the most difficult to reconcile is that the brutal assaults were not perpetrated only by power-hungry politicians or a police force gone berserk, or even a handful of hoodlums. The mobs were composed of so-called 'ordinary' people from various walks of life. People like you. People like me.

Feminists are grappling with the disquieting reality that women too were responsible for the violence -- part of mobs that killed, raped, looted and burnt down Muslim houses, vehicles and shops. Even tribals and other oppressed classes joined in the killing spree. The poison has spread deep within the fabric of society, seeped into the mind of an uncomfortably large chunk of Hindu men, women and children. The progressive sections have had to face the fact that the silence of the majority may actually endorse the violence. The polarisation is widespread and visible -- a photograph of Hanuman on your door and a red dot on your forehead may be the difference between life and death.

Logic and facts certainly have their place, but demonising the 'other' need have no basis in rationality as we found. We met Hindu women who had a very real fear of being overrun by Muslims, and fantastic stories of large stores of weapons stacked in Muslim homes abounded. With utter disregard for the principle that a democracy is measured by the manner in which minorities are treated, these women had accepted in toto the notion that minorities were hogging more than their share of the pie. Myths about polygamy (though statistics show that more Hindu men are bigamous), family size (again, facts show that Muslim families are no larger than Hindu ones) are used to create a paranoia about being 'taken' over. These images, are aided in no small measure by Muslim fundamentalist leaders have contributed to building an image of the 'marauding, aggressive Muslim'. In the mind of the Hindu woman, images of sexual violence predominate, transmitted to their daughters magnified hundredfold. Women's very real experiences of violence are patterned along communal lines, where religious identity overshadows their experience of being women in a male-dominated world.

The line being crossed, i.e from hating Muslims to condoning their killing, encouraging it, and even taking active part in it, has been taking place with increasing ease and social sanction. Far from a moral condemnation of the violence that has been unleashed, women are reportedly sending bangles -- a sign of diminished manhood -- to RSS shakhas in places where the devastation has not been so ferocious. Eliminating Muslims and brutalising women is equated with machoism and patriotic duty.

Women of all religions are the most vulnerable to religious fundamentalism -- whether in the shape of widow-immolation in the name of 'sati', or being denied rights to inheritance, child custody and divorce through discriminatory religious laws, or the Talibanesque diktats to Muslim women to wear burqas. Yet, women are deeply religious keepers of the faith -- a conundrum that has puzzled feminists of all shades agitating for women's rights. A mild exasperation at the insistence on following vrats (religious fasts) has perforce given way to an acknowledgement of religious fundamentalism among women as well. Women have formed the backbone of all mass movements; and, however hard it is to accept, it is clear that women have been successfully mobilised by the Shiv Sena, Durga Vahini, the RSS and other Hindu fundamentalist organizations. Yet, it is equally clear that the promise of power in these male-dominated outfits is chimerical, since the leadership continues to be male, and women used only as a medium to transmit messages of malevolence. Women's ability to network, make links and communicate at intimate levels has been harnessed for the hate campaign against minorities.

Can the secular women's movement re-orient the discourse where it belongs -- to a reiteration of egalitarian civil laws over discriminatory religious precepts, access to land and other productive resources for women and other oppressed classes? The real battle is elsewhere. Unfortunately, the arena has been hijacked to fight an illusory war.

For only if women forge bonds beyond religious and ethnic affiliations, to reiterate a sisterhood borne of a collective experience of oppression, can the Ruksanas, Kheroons, Noorjahans and Farzanas hope to get justice.

The author is the editor of the India Resource Center.

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