A spate of rapes in India, with the accused in most cases being ordinary citizens, or politicians and police officials in some instances, suggests an alarming sickness of the body politic.
Public debate in India has been raging around violence against women, with efforts to craft stronger laws to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, punish rape, and provide gender justice ever since the brutal gang rape and murder in Delhi of a physiotherapy student in 2012. But with the ongoing rape of female children, especially though not exclusively those from minority and marginalised communities, this form of endemic gendered violence has entered a new phase. The virulent pathogen that now courses through the political organism of Indian democracy is not familiar patriarchy but genocidal majoritarianism.
Rape and ethnocide
At least four examples of the organised rape of minority women come to mind. The first is in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, where Bosnian, Croatian and Albanian Muslim women were raped in the thousands by Serb Christian supremacists. Those rapes were not just a routine part of civil war but a deliberate attempt at ethnocide and demographic manipulation. Women of the minority community were confined in notorious “rape camps”, subsequently investigated by an especially constituted international tribunal at The Hague. The rapes and sexual slavery occurring at these locations were designated a war crime, second only to the ethnic cleansing that eventually led to the dismemberment of the Yugoslavian nation.
Rape as a weapon of war in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971 and during Partition in 1947 are violent passages we remember well in India, regardless of how little these pasts are memorialised or examined. The rape of Rohingya women as part of the genocide of Muslims in Myanmar continues even now. In such instances, communities and groups within multiethnic cultures become terminally estranged from one another and larger political entities are dismembered into smaller, relatively homogeneous units. Complex societies can survive different kinds of political upheaval. But when war targets women and children — the biological substrate for the survival of our species and the social reproduction of any human collective — then nations cannot hold together.
Hindu nationalists scoff at the suggestion that their growing violence against Muslims, Christians, Dalits, tribals and women could add up to the destruction of India as a cohesive political unit. After all, India is not in any declared state of war with an external enemy or indeed with itself. But when majoritarian and fratricidal violence exceeds the targeting of the designated ‘other’ through hate speech and derogatory propaganda; through institutional mechanisms; through caste discrimination; through prejudice, both casual and calculated; and through persistently negative portrayals of targeted communities; when violence becomes physical and enters into the home, the family and the bodies of women and children, then there is only one outcome — the end of the social compact, the death of the polity.
On a smaller scale — laboratory conditions, so to speak — this type of civic breakdown has already occurred in Gujarat after the 2002 pogrom against Muslims. Hindu-Muslim coexistence and integration in Gujarati society, a fact of life for centuries, has collapsed irreversibly. What happened in Kathua, Jammu, where an eight-year-old Bakherwal Muslim girl was raped and murdered, does not fall into the usual pattern of violence against Kashmiris in the rubric of counterinsurgency, ongoing for close to three decades. As the senior lawyer and legal activist Vrinda Grover stated recently at a demonstration in the capital against the Kathua and Unnao rapes, rapes such as these, as well as in the Northeast, in Naxalite areas, and in Kashmir are not just sexual crimes — they are political crimes. The intent behind these rapes is to render abject the communities to which the victims belong, to frighten and marginalise them.
The bulwark of secularism
The Hindu Right has long maligned and undermined Indian secularism, but does so now with bravado because anti-secular discourse apparently enjoys popular support and pays electoral dividends since 2014. Processions of Hindu nationalists are taken out, a Bar Association has defended the accused, BJP spokespersons undertake exercises in whataboutery, and respected figures maintain a screaming silence about these rapes. At a citizens’ protest in Delhi in April demanding justice for the Kathua victim, I found myself unable to hum along with an activist who sang the perennial anthem of struggle and resistance, “We shall overcome”. I could not muster the political hope necessary to sing these lines. I could only experience the profound despair and sense of moral failure that all secular Indians feel, because we have abdicated our most precious political value and allowed bigots and fascists to run away with our historical narrative.
Indian secularism has constitutional anchors in equal citizenship, freedom of religion and the protection of minority rights. But fundamentally, Indian secularism is not just a legal relationship between state and religion. It is a complicated infrastructure of laws, conventions, practices, habits, norms and traditions, an invisible but ubiquitous scaffolding that holds up the massive layered weight of a multireligious, multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural society. Secularism is the hard currency held in reserve without which the entire transactional economy of Indian democracy would crash. In Ashis Nandy’s terms, it is our tacit and shared understanding of how to “handle” difference, how to “host the otherness of the other” within our self, how to coexist in a common political space — like with unlike, self with other, us with them — every aspect of diversity represented and protected within the mosaic that is India.
If we discriminate against weaker sections of our society; if we persecute those who are already vulnerable — “minor” in multiple senses, whether by age, by population size, by faith, or by access to economic and cultural capital — we cannot fight off the majoritarian monster riding on our back. The rape of a little girl inside a place of worship, violating everything sacrosanct to us, whether the innocence of a child or the precinct of a temple, is the logical culmination of majoritarian aggression.
That the Supreme Court has shifted the Kathua rape trial outside Jammu and Kashmir to Pathankot in Punjab and has ordered in camera proceedings indicates the extent to which it is openly acknowledging that a free, fair and fearless investigation into the crime cannot even begin to be conducted in a communally divided context. The larger message here is plain to see: without the guarantee of secularism, the rule of law, democratic rights and the promise of justice will continue to elude not just minorities but all Indians.
Ananya Vajpeyi, a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, is currently visiting Cambridge University as a Charles Wallace Fellow