Riot follows riot with sickening regularity but there is only a deathly silence on a draft bill to fix accountability for communal violence and guarantee justice and compensation to victims
In communal politics, facts matter less than fiction. The spin and narrative are what make “riots” unique — violence sought to be justified, even warranted, then forgotten. “Riots” are always about the blame-game that follows; the action-reaction theory; the rationalisation for what is indefensible — the taking of human life, the rendering homeless of innocents, and the inevitable polarisation benefiting political parties. With social media, mobile apps, and image morphing software a flick of a button away, the ammunition of spin is handy. But though technology is new, the narrative is frighteningly familiar. Women as commodities (of a piece with land and cattle), and women’s bodies as repositories of patriarchal honour are once again at the epicentre of this narrative.
On the ground
This belt of western Uttar Pradesh is the home turf of the “dis-honor” killings, where the sex ratio is among India’s lowest (Muzaffarnagar has a child sex ratio of 863 in the 2011 census); where the narrative of “women’s honour” can be stirred so easily into the communal cauldron. Even the recent national outrage over increasing violence against women has been appropriated and deployed. One headline in a prominent internet news site screamed “Stalker’s death triggered Muzaffarnagar conflagration,” implicitly justifying the murder of someone the reporter decided to call a “stalker,” though there was no evidence or charge of stalking (a serious crime after the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013) in the incident of August 27. The story opened with, Two brothers kill a man stalking their sister [….] The actions by “the brothers” were in this and many other variations normalised, even tacitly valorised. For that is what “real men” do when family honour is on the line. It is precisely the mindset that applauds the death penalty for rape, knowing it will solve nothing systemic. But who cares, for it satisfies the blood lust.
The mahapanchayat on September 7, in violation of prohibitory orders, is variously reported as Beti Bachao Bahu Bachao mahapanchayat or Beti Bahu Izzat Bachao mahapanchayat. “Izzat (honour”) and “Bachao (protect”) are scary words in the macho lexicon of western U.P. Here, women’s sexuality is a tool to be deployed only in service to community and patriarchy. Sexual autonomy is a threat to the entire edifice, and opposing intercommunity relationships (signalling choice and sexual autonomy) has long been a favourite pastime for the khaps that rule the roost. Many such intercommunity relationships, ending in murder, have been inter-caste. Now with inter-religious romance labelled “love jihad” under the Vishwa Hindu Parishad scanner, we need to be worried and watchful, as this game of izzat plays itself out. The “love jihad” construct of the Hindu right in one stroke raises the spectre of the “violent, enemy other, seducing by force” (Muslim jihadist) and condemns personal choice (i.e. “love”). And when protection and control over “our” women’s bodies are placed at the centre of any blood feud, one must fear the ground that communalists of all hues are preparing in the fertile soil of western U.P.
Gujarat and U.P.
The comparisons between the “narratives” of Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar are telling. In Muzaffarnagar, an alleged attack by the “other community” on the izzat of two brothers (by harassing their sister) turns out to be fake (NDTV, September 14). But it still leads to a mahapanchayat called to protect “the honour of women.” This then spurs the violence (with inflammatory speeches, incendiary video, death and displacement, police inaction, omnibus FIRs, and truckloads of scared people fleeing their homes).
We saw a similar narrative structure in Gujarat 2002, and it was written about in two reports by women’s rights activists — Survivors Speak and Threatened Existence. In addition to the train burning at Godhra, there was a false news report on February 28 in Sandesh (a leading Gujarati daily), saying that Hindu women were dragged from a railway compartment by a fanatic mob. A fake follow-up on March 1, said some women’s bodies were found with breasts cut off. A retraction, published much later by Sandesh, lay buried in a corner of the paper, while the fake news spread like wildfire, and became the justificatory rallying cry for what followed (Survivors Speak, pp 10-11). All of this — from Gujarat to Muzaffarnagar — is of a piece with the existing stock repertoire of the Hindu right — stories and myths about Muslim marauders, raping and defiling Hindu women, and by conflation, attacking the “izzat” of Mother India herself, provide eternal justification for “honorable” retaliation by Hindu men and the Hindu nation (Threatened Existence, p.39).
Thus far, Muzaffarnagar has taken lives, devastated livelihoods and displaced at last count over 55,000 people. Thus far, women’s bodies are at the centre of the narrative, not the centre of the violence that has been reported. But, at the time of writing, unconfirmed stories are coming in, and fact-finding teams are still digging up “the truth.” So let us not be lulled. It is alarming when the Home Minister says that only 410 communal incidents occurred in the country last year, but this year, already 451 incidents have taken place. What world do we live in where 410 incidents big and small are an “only”? An acceptable number? And yet, amid the pro forma condemnations, calls for peace and the Prime Minister’s announcement of Rs.2 lakh for the next of kin of those killed, there is a deathly silence on the one piece of legislation promised in the United Progressive Alliance’s manifesto — the Communal Violence Bill. A draft Bill, crafted from the experience of victims and survivors of many communal carnages, sits on the back-burner, while we watch one communal incident after another. We hear pleas from survivors. We rail helplessly at loopholes in our statutory frameworks that allow state inaction and dereliction at the cost of lives; that make displaced and violated citizens plead and grovel for justice and compensation from state authorities. So much would have been citizens’ rights by law if such a bill were in place today.
Or, is the intent to simply allow things to go on as they are? One incident to the next, with no learning, with no dent in impunity; no movement towards an architecture of rights for innocents routinely hurt by this violence, and by the threats that women face? Can we afford to persist with this state of denial — imagining that communal violence is a thing of the past; that an aspirational India has moved beyond identity fault-lines? Let us remind ourselves of fearful people running from their homes and confront the reality that they may languish in camps of one kind or another in perpetuity, like scores of victims of communal carnages before them, with no justiciable framework of rights, no justice.
While there is silence on a law to challenge impunity, new slogans of communalism are being crafted everyday, embellishing the core of the “honour” narrative. The latest from Muzaffarnagar according to one news report (HT, Lucknow, September 13), throws cow slaughter and, perhaps predictably, Modi into the fray — “desh, bahu aur gai ko bachana hai toh Narendra Modi ko lana hai.”
(Farah Naqvi, a writer and activist, is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)