www.sacw.net > Communalism Repository | March 8, 2005

On Muslim Women in Gujarat

by Mukul Dube

The violence against Muslims which began in Gujarat on February 28,
2002, the day after the Godhra incident, has been called one-sided
and state-sponsored and has been likened to a pogrom. Neither gender
was spared, nor any age group. One form of violence, though, could be
directed only against women and girls. Rape often took the form of
gang rape and was followed by mutilation and finally by the
destruction of evidence through the burning of the victims. But some
victims of rape were left alive, and for an excellent reason.

While there are ways of estimating, at least roughly, how many people
were killed, the number of rapes committed cannot be estimated. Many
victims will not have spoken of their trauma, because rape is perhaps
the single crime known in which the victim is made out to be the
criminal, morally and socially. Further, the police of Gujarat either
refused outright to register complaints or else twisted them and
watered them down so that they became meaningless.

Figures of several thousand rapes must be discounted, since there is
no evidence and since wild exaggeration is common in situations of
this kind. Other methods of estimation must be used, imprecise though
they are. There were many instances of women's being raped in
groups. Survivors have described the subsequent killing of the others
of their groups. Such accounts have not been systematically recorded
and collated, but there have been enough of them to indicate that
many more women were raped than those who survived. Two thousand or
more Muslims have been widely estimated to have been killed. How many
of this number were women who had been raped is uncertain. It is
perfectly possible that even the charred remains of some, or of many,
were never seen.

The chilling reality is that just one case of assault on a woman is
being tried in the courts: that of Bilqees Yaqoob Rasool. In the
second week of February 2005, almost three years after the violence,
a news report did say, "Police in Gujarat said they were re-
investigating many of the cases that had been closed down and had
also filed charges in a majority of rape cases." There are two
obvious difficulties here. First, the Gujarat Police has a record of
evasion and of an inability to substantiate its claims, a fine
instance being its replies to the National Human Rights Commission.
Second, the facts that "many of the cases" and "majority"
can be defined any which way, and that the Gujarat Police can
scarcely be expected to bring to light its complicity in the cover-ups
or worse.

Before and after the assembly election of 2002, rapists swaggered
about and threatened their victims with the repetition of their act.
They do it to this day. The act itself is seen as one which brought
glory to them, and obscene songs are sung to keep its memory alive.
Even the police, staunch defenders of a law perverted beyond
recognition, use the threat as a means of keeping Gujarat's
Muslims cowed and silent. I said that some Muslim women who were raped
were not killed. They are the walking, breathing proof that the
threat is real.

Throughout history, while women have been the immediate victims of
rape, the act has served to subjugate the groups to which they have
belonged - caste, tribe, kingdom, nation, religion, race. Thus the
swaggering rapists threaten all of Gujarat's Muslims, not just
women. Three years later, they do it as part of their daily routine,
even as an indication of their agenda. This is murder of the spirit
of an entire community.

Of the hundreds of men who were arrested in Gujarat under POTA after
the "riots", just one was not a Muslim: and of course he was
not a Hindu. Those in prison have been tortured physically and
mentally, and their trials have not even begun. That is so far as
their individual suffering goes. That they are almost all young and
that they were nearly always the sole bread earners of their
families, are facts whose implications are staggering.

Indian women's social circles are almost always smaller than those
of men. They can turn to fewer people for support, and their ability
to earn is limited. A woman in trouble is likely to have to deal with
it by herself. But the responsibility of looking after the home, of
feeding and clothing both children and the old, is hers. She bears
this burden even when a man is around, and it becomes far heavier
when the man is locked up or dead. It is a slow, painful and sure

The government of Gujarat promised a compensation of Rs.150,000 to
the families of those who were killed: Rs.90,000 in cash and the
remainder in bonds. Whether the bonds will ever have any value is not
known. What is known is that an identical package was promised after
the riots of 1985 - and the bonds still remain promises.

On paper, then, the government of Gujarat has fulfilled its
responsibility. There end its efforts at the rehabilitation of an
entire uprooted community. Muslim groups stepped in to provide
shelter and means of livelihood; but at this time none can say what
the effect of these actions will be in the long term.

One effect, though, is only too visible: the growing power of the
Muslim religious establishment. Progressive Muslims in Gujarat look
on, helplessly, as the bulk of the adherents of their religion are
taken backwards. They speak of the ruin of a quarter century's
worth of advances. There is the inevitable policing, with a constant
watch being kept specially on women. Having suffered so much
barbarity, and while being kept deprived of material resources,
Muslims must also bow before the dictates and whims of those who
claim to be their moral guides. What is to stop the rise of suicidal

We humans need anchors which hold us in place. We need basic
security, hope, good times to look forward to. I paraphrase a
description of what happens routinely in Muslim homes in Ahmedabad.
"Twenty or more men hammer on your door at 3 a.m. They ransack
household goods and abuse and kick you. After an hour or two of this,
they take away a male 'for questioning'. You are warned not to
tell anyone about what has happened. After that you begin to wait.
Often your wait is without end, for your loved one never returns."

Report after report, based on investigation, interviews and analysis,
and prepared by journalists, activists, academics, lawyers and judges
of unimpeachable integrity, has spoken in detail of what Gujarat's
Muslims, women in particular, have suffered and are still suffering.
The most recent is "India: Justice, the Victim", released in
January by Amnesty International. Like the others, it sets out the
administrative and legal measures which must be implemented. The
victimisation must end immediately, it says, and compensation and
restitution must take a real form.

Not one cogent argument has been advanced against any of these
reports, yet their recommendations have been ignored. The reports
might just as well not have been prepared. Our leaders say, ad
nauseam, that we are a democracy in which people's voices are
heard: but those who have spoken up for the thousands who were
mercilessly crushed have been crying into the wind.

What compels the Central Government to permit Gujarat to continue to
deny to Muslims ordinary human rights and to keep them from living at
a level even of bare subsistence? Are those shattered people not
citizens of India, not human beings? Is our Constitution no more than

[The help of friends who gave information and insights, specially
Zakia Jowher, is gratefully acknowledged.]

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