INDIA’S AGONY

Hindutva’s War on Women: The gendered face of ‘saffron fascism’

By Amrita 2 November 2020

Indian activists from various organisations during a silent protest campaign against the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, in Kolkata, Eastern India. (Photo: EPA-EFE/PIYAL ADHIKARY)

In South Africa, the pain and horror of femicide is raw and incessant. It is our everyday reality, not a wartime exception. In India today, femicide is actively legitimised by the state and Hindu nationalism. Within the project of right-wing Hindu nationalism, toxic masculinity, misogyny and targeting of women and religious minorities are not reserved for assassins, elections or wartimes. They are routine and everyday tactics that are fundamental to the Hindu right’s divisive politics and the Hindutva project in India.

Last week Hindu nationalists in India were irked by a rather unlikely candidate – Tanishq, a corporate giant selling diamond jewellery and their commercial selling Ekatvam(religious harmony).  A Twitter campaign, #BoycottTanishq, was swiftly launched, calling for a boycott of the brand that “dared” to show a Hindu daughter-in-law being celebrated by her Muslim mother-in-law, in a secular democracy that is home for over 200-million Muslims. Online trolls, including leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slammed the commercial for normalising Love Jihad. 

Love Jihad, an inciteful phrase coined by Hindu nationalists that raises the specter of a religious warfare by which Muslim men in India are, allegedly, luring Hindu women in the pretext of love and marriage away from their religion. Employees of Tanishq received death threats, spurring the corporate giant to issue a quick apology and withdraw this advertisement. 

As often happens in this world of rising rightwing populism – social media and manufactured hatred had the last word. 

Why start this piece with this rather innocuous incident instead of the many, and far more heinous, state-sponsored gender-based crimes being committed against minorities in India today? 

I could start by recalling the 2020 Hathras gang rape and brutal murder of a young Dalit woman (belonging to so-called untouchable caste) by “upper caste” men – where the police, in a shameless display of collusion with the rapists, hastily and secretly cremated the body of the victim, without informing the family. The state government, led by the controversial “yogi” Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, known for his support for vigilant militant activities, hired a public relations team to convince the media that the girl was not raped, and that this was an “international conspiracy” to destabilise the government. 

I could also start with the 2017 murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead outside her house for daring to speak up against the BJP. As believers in India’s democracy and freedom of speech mourned the death of this fearless (some might say, reckless) critic of the government, her death was celebrated by members of some Hindutva groups that were linked with Lankesh’s murder and that of three other activists. 

Or I could recall the 2002 genocide in Gujarat, where Sangh leaders, clad in the signature saffron scarves and khaki shorts, carrying trishula (tridents), gas cylinders and other explosives, conducted a systematic massacre of Muslims in some neighbourhoods. Human Rights Watch and other organisations have since revealed that the attackers were guided by computer printouts listing the addresses of Muslim families –  information that they had obtained from the municipal corporation. 

In the Gujarat genocide, the deliberate femicide of a particular religious group became a clear and brutal gendered metaphor of power used by the state and the Sangh. Muslim women were gang-raped, often in the presence of members of their families, and then burnt alive, or bludgeoned to death. Even pregnant women were not spared. In some cases, their bellies were cut open and the fetus was pulled out before the women were killed. 

Independent reports by People’s Union of Civil Liberty and a fact-finding report “The Survivors Speak” has over 30 pages of testimony from women rape survivors. Bodies of women, systematically brutalised, was Sangh’s way of leaving a message loud and clear for the enemy. 

For us in South Africa, the pain and horror of femicide is raw and incessant. It is our everyday reality, not a wartime exception. In India today, femicide is actively legitimised by the state and Hindu nationalism. Within the project of right-wing Hindu nationalism, toxic masculinity, misogyny and targeting of women and religious minorities are not reserved for assassins, elections or wartimes. They are routine and everyday tactics that are fundamental to the Hindu Right’s divisive politics and the Hindutva project in India. Central to this project is the construction and nurturing of the image of the “Other” (so-called lower caste, Muslim, women), as well as manufacturing consent about the place of this “Other”. The ludicrous and banal example of the Tanishq boycott seems to demonstrate that this project has triumphed. 

Key philosophies of Hindutva

Let us start with some of the key philosophies of the Hindutva ideology and the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindunationalist organisations, which consists of more than 44 affiliate organisations, with the core group, apart from the BJP, being the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), both of which are classified as paramilitary religious organisations. 

A lot has been written about the prime points of conflict between Hindutva icon V.D Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi – the source of violence in India’s struggle for independence from the British and the fate of Muslims. For Savarkar, who many believe was also involved in the plotting of Gandhi’s assassination, the slogan was to “Hinduise all politics and militarise all Hindudom”. This ideology was, to a large part, a response to Gandhi’s idea of Ahimsa (what Savarkar labelled excessive non-violence) and policy of appeasing Muslims. 

But Gandhi and Savarkar disagreed on another key and interrelated issue – masculinisation as an act of nation-building. Savarkar believed that Gandhi’s nonviolent way, and appeasement of minorities, was emasculating the nation and, instead, preached military prowess and sexual potency in Hindu men. Savarkar argued that forced conversion and systematic rape are two main ways in which Muslims increase their numbers, and rebuked Hindus for their “suicidal idea of Hindu chivalry”. In effect, the rebuke was a call for Hindu men to prove their masculinity by raping Muslim women and vindicating the honour of Hindu women – legitimising rape as a weapon of war.  

Violent misogyny as a tool for revenge and control continue to underline Hindutva ideology and that of the Sangh. RSS training camps and schools are an integral part of spreading this ideology. While the first training camps of the RSS in 1927 trained young boys to be Hindu warriors in defence of their Bharat Mata (Motherland), contemporary schools and training camps for men teach combat and weapons training. Misogyny and an extreme form of Hindu nationalism are built into the curriculum and pedagogy, with a convenient conflation of Hindu myth with reality, which often manifests as crude propaganda against minorities. 

Women cadres are not left out of such indoctrination. Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the RSS’s women wing for “women who serve the nation”, teaches its cadres their cultural and social responsibilities – namely motherhood, purity and sacrifice. Women cadres, however, are allowed some transgressions from acceptable norms of femininity, and trained in martial art to defend themselves from the enemy – Muslim men. 

Savarkar’s writings and Sangh’s strategies of indoctrination spread the interlinked propaganda of the eternally lustful Muslim men as the perennial invaders of the Hindu nation, and the need for a moral policing of women. The Sangh’s everyday acts of violent surveillance of women are plenty – dictating appropriate clothing for women, attacking couples who dare to hold hands in public spaces, and even disrupting celebrations of Valentine’s Day. 

In 2018, Bajrang Dal, the youth chapter of the VHP, posted a video of some of its cadres holding posters depicting a Disney princess kissing her prince with an “X” over her face, and a message “Save Bharath (Indian) Culture: Ban Valentine Day”. 

The “moral policing” is not always this benign. 

In 2009 Sangh vigilante groups physically dragged women out of pubs, smeared black paint on faces of couples daring to engage in “western” notions of love and leisure. In fact, according to a RSS leader, Mohan Bhagwat, even rape is an urban crime shaped by western notions, and incidents of rape happen only in (urban) India, presumably only to women who wear pants, hold hands with men, and “ask for it”. 

The Sangh’s full ire is, however, reserved for inter-faith relationships. In 2018, a facebook page labeled Hindu Vrata (talk) published a list of 100 interfaith couples and incited violence against them by urging “Every Hindu lion … to track and hunt the boys from this list”. 

Such inciting propaganda, which capitalise on gendered and socially constructed ideas of community honour have been linked to another form of systemic, gender-based, and, often intimate violence, popularly labelled “honour killings”, where male, community members seek to “punish” women for their presumed sexual transgressions. According to a study commissioned by the National Commission for Women, 72% of “honour killings” in India are related to inter-faith or inter-caste marriages.

Women fight back

But let us be outraged and then look for the silver lining. This saffron fascism is being resisted, and that resistance too has a powerful gendered anchor in India. As the 2019-2020 protests against the Anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that creates a tiered citizenship with Hindus on top and the National Population Register (NPR) with its stringent documentation requirements reveal, women are not giving in without a fight. Whether it be womxn students in Jamia Millia Islamia forming a protective cordon around their male colleagues during the police attacks on peaceful protestors, or student leader Aishe Ghosh, carrying on the protests, with her head in bandages and arms in a sling, after Sangh leaders attacked student protesters late at night, or the now iconic Shaheen Bagh protest – where protesting womxn occupied the streets of a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for months on end –  the new face of protest in India is that of women. 

It is not really surprising that Indian women make such powerful protesters.  Women, across religion and caste, in India have had to fight to survive, to speak out, to roam the streets. The fights are different, according to one’s privilege, but azaadi (freedom) is never a given, for women. 

At the same time, the impacts of CAA-NPR are likely to be gendered, where women, like other monitories and the poor, will bear the brunt. The now famous protest slogan,kaagaz nahi dikhayenge”, “we will not show our papers to prove citizenship”, will resonate with many women. Which working class woman has documentation that reveals ownership of property, utility bills, birth and school certificates? In a country where daughters’ births go unnoticed, uncelebrated and often mourned, who bothers to get them a birth certificate? 

As these women on the streets, shout loud and clear: We want Aazadi – freedom – I paraphrase Arundhati Roy’s poetic lament: “India is fighting for her soul.”  

Is South Africa going to sit and watch? DM/MC

Amrita teaches at the University of Cape Town. Her identity is known to Maverick Citizen.

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  • Given that the BJP and associated organisations mentioned in the article have ‘chapters’ operating around the world, including Cape Town, was it wise or reckless to disclose that the author is at/from UCT ? Fascist tendencies have no respect for individual freedoms such as that of expression. In fact they are energised by it ! Violence and confrontation are the grist of their ideology as the article explains. AND there are enough uncritical people (even amongst the ‘educated’) who would happily defend or support it.

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