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Gujarat Carnage And Muslim Women

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
22 January, 2004

The Gujarat Carnage after the Godhra train burning incident in early 2002 brought disgrace to India. Such brutal communal carnage had never taken place before in the post-independent India. It attracted world- wide attention and number of countries including the European Union and United States sent its official representatives to find out what went wrong and why such carnage took place at all.

From within India also several human rights groups, women's groups and human rights activists rushed to Gujarat to express their sympathy and solidarity with the victims of Hindutva aggression against helpless minority victims. Never before so many activists had rushed to any communal violence scene in India. So many reports were prepared of the ghastly crime against humanity and still that work is going on. There are several aspects to be probed and every probe raises cries of shame.

The crimes against women were really unspeakable. The women particularly those who are working for women's rights and empowerment were greatly perturbed at what happened with them in Gujarat. Many women activists went and interviewed the victims in refugee camps. Yet so much needs to be explored. The wounds inflicted on minority women can hardly heal especially when they were subjected to such unspeakable crimes. Still they are living with sense of shame and agony.

Recently a team of women activists from different countries like France, Germany, U.K., The Netherlands, Sri Lanka and India visited Gujarat and wrote a report Threatened Existence- A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat. This report comprising 244 pages is a must for all those who want to know of festering wounds two years after the carnage. The report has been written after months of pains-taking research.

In the introduction to the report these anguished women say, " The specific targeting of women, as part of a conscious strategy to terrorise the Muslim population of Gujarat, also particularly concerned the panellists (of women). According to Rhonda (one of the panellists), sexual violence played a fundamental role and was used 'as an engine of the mobilisation of hatred and destruction.' It further says, "The scale and brutality of the sexual violence unleashed upon women was new, or felt as it was new, to the panellists who could not be prepared for the testimonies they heard even though they were aware of the centrality of this method in the violence of 2002."

Meera, who lives in Gujarat and was acutely conscious of what had happened in Gujarat in February-March 2002 described it as follows:

"Many doubts arise in your mind [about the erosion of citizenship] particularly when you come face to face with women who have undergone brutal sexual attacks and mass rape. For first time married women broke their silence on the sexual attacks they suffered. A mother spoke of her two daughters but did not say that she herself was a victim?.testimonies were often given with young children looking on, punctuated with long silences. None of us could sleep that night; a community was being held to ransom ? accept your citizenship or?.We exchanged experiences of Bosnia, Palestine, Israel but the extent, brutality and the varied methods of Gujarat were unheard of."

Thus these women panellists Sunila Abeyeskera of Sri Lanka, Rhonda Copelon of City University of New York, Anissa Helie of France, Gabriela Mischkowski of U.K., Uma Chakravarti of Delhi University and Wahida Nainar of the Netherlands, Farah Naqvi of Delhi and Meera Velaydan of India came to conclusion that sexual violence that took place in Gujarat was really unheard of and such things were not to be found even in places like Bosnia, Palestine and Israel.

On their Gujarat wide tour these women heard story after story of sexual crimes at the hands of supporters of Hindutva. Yasmin, a woman survivor from Panchmahal district told the panellists "They cut off breasts of her (neighbour's) daughter, it is difficult to forget, it still swims in my vision. I have lost my mental peace."

Another woman survivor Sabah from the same district said, What had those kids done to them? I cannot forget those girls [who were raped]. We have to try and arrest them [the rapists]. Quoting Sabah's testimony the report says, "We ran in different directions and hid in the field. But the mob found some of us and started attacking?.I recognised two people from my village Gano Baria and Sunil ? pulling away my daughter. She screamed, telling the men to get off her and leave her alone. The screams and cries of Ruqayya, Suhana, Shabana, begging for their izzat [honour] could clearly be heard. I could do nothing to help my daughter from being assaulted sexually and tortured to death."

In Tanika Sarkar's words, "The pattern of cruelty suggests three things. One, the woman's body was a site of almost inexhaustible violence, with infinitely plural and innovative forms of torture. Second, their sexual and reproductive organs were attacked with a special savagery. Third, their children, born and unborn, shared the attacks and were killed before their eyes."

And despite such sexual savagery perpetrated against Muslim women in Gujarat, the NDA Government at the Centre, not to speak of Narendra Modi Government in Gujarat not only remained silent spectator but occasionally justified it. Remember Defence Minister Mr. George Fernandese justifying this in a debate in Parliament on Gujarat said that this is nothing new, it has been happening in India for ages. Even the Prime Minister, though a poet and claiming poetic sensitivity remained silent, if not justified it a-la Fernandese.

The panellists in the report make one very pertinent point about Muslim women being sexually assaulted to such a degree as in Gujarat. The report says, "The women of the community suffer attacks in two ways. In the first case they are members of the collective, like any other, and are liable to be attacked. At the same time, they are the biological and cultural reproducers of the community and their bodies symbolize the body of the community and its boundaries. In the Hindutva project, the control of the Muslim other through gender and sexual domination is at the forefront of the political strategy in Gujarat and elsewhere."

Thus it would be seen that sexual assault is not simply fulfilment of ones lust; it is much more than that in such cases. By sexually violating the women of the 'other' you are destroying their honour and humiliating them as a community and treating body of women as body of the community. Woman's honour must be destroyed to destroy the honour of the community.

Thus supporting this view the report says that the sexual assault incidents were not just random or isolated incidents. They were widespread and pre-planned. For many cases ? Gujarat, Rawanda, the former Yugoslavia ? such wide scale violence could not have been conducted without a significant measure of complicity, if not participation, by the State. In Gujarat, it is clear that all events, including the mass use of rape and sexual assault, occurred with the knowledge of highly placed State actors, and in many instances, were carried out with full participation and support of the police.

There are many witnesses to the fact that the police often hit the stomachs of pregnant women in so called combing operations. A police officer of the rank of DCP himself entered the house and beat up small girls and women. One woman who was six month pregnant had an abortion. He said to these women "We will keep all your men and make you prostitutes." Besides this there was lot of suggestive sexual violence, hitting women on breasts, targeting private parts and targeting pregnant women.

Unfortunately RSS and VHP women themselves were participating in this violence against Muslim women. Safia, a woman from Ahmedabad testified that the daughter of a Bajrang Dal leader was pulling women by hair and throwing them in fire. Other eyewitnesses also alleged that another woman was catching Muslim women and passing them on to the VHP and Bajrang Dal men to be raped.

This writer has also visited Gujarat number of times and heard similar testimonies which, are indeed hair raising. The idea of recounting these stories is not to ignite fire of revenge but to understand what the Hindutva agenda is and what counter measures to fight this menace are required. India is a secular nation and it is duty of all of us to keep it secular and to promote peace and harmony.

The secular forces have to draw up their own strategies so that Gujarat like events do not repeat and we are able to keep violence away from our secular democracy. We will have to remember Gujarat to ward off fascism from our land. Unfortunately the communal forces are united and secular forces are divided thus giving enough opportunities to communal forces to play havoc with our secular system. It is for the secular forces to keep Gujarat violence before their eyes so that the consequences of allowing political space to communal forces remains before them.

All of us who believe in secularism and humanism should spare no efforts to unite secular forces in the country.