South Asia Citizens Web, 16 August 2004 | www.sacw.net
INDIAN DEMOCRACY: WHICH WAY HEADED?
by Bina Srinivasan
[13 Aug 2004]
I belong to the world's largest democracy. Or so I have been told since I
was a child.
Only, I am re-thinking democracy. Especially as it endorses a politics of
hatred. Especially as it prepares for war.
India and the US. One, a superpower in South Asia. The other, the 'supreme
power' of the world itself.
Both linked to each other as never before now in their ferocious fight
against the demonic Muslim world. No matter then that Muslims were and have
always been part of both countries, that they have participated in the
economy, in the democratic polity, in public life. That in both countries
they have contributed to the culture, the architecture, the cuisine. Or so
many other things besides.
In New Age democracy none of that matters. No matter that Muslims are as
heterogeneous as any other community, that they are as scattered and divided
as any other people. Indeed, that they are as patriarchal as Hindus or
Christians when it comes to women's rights.
The beard and the burqa (the veil). That is what matters, what shapes the
here and the now.
The Muslim man and the Muslim woman. Both steam rolled into one singular
image: a prototype of evil. Both deserving brutality of the kind we have not
seen since the Holocaust or the Partition of India and Pakistan.
The powers-that-be have decided that Muslims are the enemy. India and the
US, both formidable 'democracies' in their own right are now linked in a new
way as they struggle to establish a new world that shows the Muslims the way
to exist in the New World.
How has this come about?
Ironically, it has to do with the erosion of democracy.
You think this is a far-fetched claim? You think the US and India display
stalwart qualities of democracy? That both have a strong, healthy media and
that electoral politics are very much in place in the two countries? I
would still urge you to look closely at the state of the economy, at the
plight of the polity, at the hiking of tuition fees, at the increasing
numbers of unemployed, at the discontent and plummeting of self-worth that
it implies. Look for instance, at the subversion of the ultimate democratic
mechanism, namely elections.
So many other things besides. It is too depressing to list everything.
After all something can be left to the people-that faceless, nameless public
to think through for themselves.
Undoubtedly, there are striking similarities between India and the US.
Including the slide into rightwing politics.
That is what makes India and the US join together like long lost friends
today. It is a joint agenda, and it is no coincidence that post 9/11 the
erstwhile Home Minister LK Advani bent over backwards to allow the US to use
Indian cities as bases to bomb Afghanistan. For the then Indian (rightwing)
ruling class it was the big opportunity to tell Pakistan and all its Muslim
neighbours exactly what they thought of them, with the blessings of the
United States, which by then had made it clear what it thought of Muslims
the world over.
Convenient? Do not blame me, I did not invent the word.
Convenient or otherwise, the connections wove into each other, the US-India
handshake became firmer. And we, in India, were transposed into another
world. This world is called the Hindu Rashtra, or the Hindu Nation. Those
of you who are unaware of the complexities of Indian society, Hindus are a
majority community in India and are part of a religion that has imposed the
stranglehold of a caste system that goes down nearly 300 years of Indian
history. A history bloodied with intense discrimination against anybody
considered a lower caste, a history that includes murder, torture and rape.
So, if anybody ever told you that Hinduism as an organised religion was
tolerant, be sure to confront them with the tradition, ritual and brutal
discrimination of Dalits (the so-called lower castes).
Let's go back to the 'modern' Hindu nation. Its modern day politics uses
all the technological devices available (sure we do not have drinking water
in our villages, but Indians are very techno savvy, as you would know in the
US, given that fact that a large number of your software engineers are
Indians). The votaries of the Hindu Rashtra have used technology in the
recent pogroms against Muslims in the state of Gujarat which is no newcomer
to technology, being one of the most industrialised states in the country.
7.4 per cent of the population in Gujarat is Dalit, 14.9 per cent are
adivasis or indigenous peoples and 9 per cent are Muslims (ref. to be
added.). The Hindu Rashtra machinery, (henceforth the Sangh Parivar) has
active in India since the 1920s, but has recently gained more currency than
ever before in its history. The Sangh
Parivar has determined that this 9 per cent Muslim population will have to
be 'controlled' by all available means because they propagate at a much
higher level and will therefore outnumber the nearly 70 per cent Hindu
Sounds impossible? Try convincing the Sangh Parivar. For years they have
spearheaded a highly successful anti-Muslim campaign proclaiming that Muslim
men can marry four wives and hence they reproduce four times more than Hindu
men can or will.
Do I even need to say it? Statistics prove polygamy is more common amongst
Hindus, adivasis and Dalits.
Reality however has never mattered to the Sangh Parivar. So the slogan,
'hum panch, hamare pachhis', has come to stay in India. In popular Hindu
imagination therefore, Muslim men with their four wives are producing
twenty-five children and will soon take over the entire country. The
message is: Muslims are out to destroy India (read Hindus) because their
loyalties lie with Pakistan.
India-Pakistan. Two countries: forever cemented, forever divided. Forever
hyphenated. In love, in hate. In tragedy, in comedy.
The two nations that have spawned many joint cultures in South Asia, that
have mapped numerous journeys of large communities of people who had to
leave what they considered their homelands under duress (to put it mildly).
Unfortunately, they have also engendered endless hostility. The political
powers in India and Pakistan have created an easy solution: an enemy in the
backyard. It is an enemy both love to hate, because they can foist it on
each other as justification of every local or international mischance or
misadventure. Or even non-chance or non-adventure, for that matter.
Today in the Hindu Nation that India aspires to be, (with full US approval),
every Indian Muslim is a Pakistani. Does that sound funny? Well, it is
not. It is the unfolding of a grim reality. One that allowed Gujarat to
India however, still occupies centre-stage in South Asia. Hence its
importance. Specially with two Muslim neighbours on either side: Bangladesh
and Pakistan in ascending order of importance. India is therefore besieged,
and the US understands how it feels to be so besieged. Which is why Colin
Powell visited both India and Pakistan when Afghanistan was being bombed
This was months before the Gujarat pogroms. On Feb 27th 2002 events in
Gujarat overturned history in India. The details are extremely complex:
what I sketch here before you is just a bare skeleton. A train carrying
Hindu rightwing activists was set on fire, allegedly by Muslims in a little
town called Godhra in Gujarat. The retaliatory violence that followed made
the entire country stop in its tracks. For the next 10 months. Not to
speak of the continuing violence against Muslims which does not make news
There are many reports that speak of the horror of Gujarat so I can be
spared of delineating the details. One thing we can be sure of, it was a
clear repositioning of Hitler's policies in modern day, democratic India.
Arundhati Roy calls it 'fascism's firm footsteps in India'.
Only, the shadow had long preceded the footprints. We failed to see it in
our credulous belief in the great Indian democracy.
Let me make one thing clear before I go into some description of what
happened in Gujarat. I was born in a Hindu, Tamil Brahmin family. I have
inherited much of all that is celebratory and repressive of that culture.
But let nobody ever accuse me of being a religious Hindu. I distance myself
from all organised religion. In any case, this was never the Hinduism I was
born into, or have lived through.
I am also a non-Hindu (by self-defination) Indian, born and brought up in
Gujarat. I am therefore, a Gujarati by all accounts.
I love the chaotic, maddening and endearing diversity of India. I cannot
survive an India without that diversity. Like so many others I know. I
know so many who have spoken out valiantly against the anti-Muslim pogroms
in Gujarat at great risk to their own personal security. I salute their
courage, because without their solidarity and honesty this article would not
have been possible, just as my work in Gujarat would have been twice as
I have worked in Gujarat, with women in shanty towns: socially and
economically marginalised women, for more than 15 years now. Which is why
it shocks me to hear the same women spout anti-Muslim propaganda today. The
same women who have talked to me in excruciating detail about their
experiences of domestic abuse, women who have detailed the experience of
marital rape, and rape by upper caste Hindus. They justify all that was done
to Muslim women in Gujarat. It shakes me up, because I had thought that I
was bonded with these Dalit women through an understanding that went beyond
caste, that it transgressed all boundaries laid down by rigidities of
religion, caste, class.
Advantage, the Hindu rightwing.
Let me get to the point. Why we need to keep Gujarat alive. Because we
witnessed the worst anti-Muslim pogroms ever, despite a long history of
ethnic violence. Gujarat represents a turning point in the history of
Indian democracy. Precisely because it represents the consolidation of
Hindutva, or Hindu rightwing politics in a manner unprecedented.
It holds up a mirror of what can happen in any part of the country.
Hindutva (Hindu-ness, as defined by the rightwing), as is well known,
emphasises and works on difference. Women are central to the Hindutva
project. Also, the polarisation of communities takes place decidedly along
the axis of gender. The focus on women is twofold: Hindutva locates the
Hindu and Muslim woman in firm, arid little niches. Woe betide anybody who
chooses to ignore it. The emphasis is on purity, on ideal and de-sexualized
womanhood, and that can only be based on a set of upper caste, Brahmincal
Therefore, subscribing to these instructions ensure Hindu women a share of
the pie, namely, space in the public arena (albeit a highly gendered arena,
who cares?). Some more goodies follow if women tow the line: it ensures
women a new 'respectability' within the domestic sphere. What is
instrumental in keeping women in place, however, is the set of punishments
that will follow if they transgress. Fear is operative for the Hindutva
project to succeed, it is the second axis on which the Hindu Nation will be
The Muslim woman by contrast is a subject of pity, because she is
unfortunate enough to have been born Muslim, and therefore needs to be
rescued. Only the mode of rescue, as we saw in Gujarat, is enough to knock
the breath out of entire generations of Muslim women. The Muslim woman is
also a threatening figure. She is the medium through which the Muslim
community consolidates itself, and she is responsible for the reproduction
of the community, and the means through which the enemy increases its
Interestingly the Muslim woman is also oversexed, because she belongs to a
community of meat-eaters, and regularly services sexually aggressive Muslim
men (remember, they have four wives, so they must indulge in sexual
excesses. Unlike the deprived, undersexed Hindu man, who shuns meat and is
effeminate to boot). In short, the Muslim woman has to be stopped from
reproducing more children, she must be taught a lesson for having borne
It goes without saying that the Muslim woman deserves to be raped.
As they were in Gujarat. By the hundreds. And murdered. And mutiliated.
And dismembered. Two women that I know of, also had their wombs ripped open
and unborn foetuses tossed into fire.
There. That should be enough to teach all Muslim women a lesson for
generations to come.
Yet it seems that they did not learn well enough. Because after being
brutally displaced, after they fled, terrorised and frightened from burnt
down homes into overcrowded camps in cities and towns all over Central
Gujarat, the Muslim community had the gumption to organise mass marriages.
Hundreds of young girls were married off in the process. This aroused the
anxieties of Hindu right to a feverish pitch. On several occasions the
Sangh Parivar has objected to these mass marriages. Why, they said, are they
organising marriages if they have lost everything? Does it not point out to
a reality that the Sangh Parivar has always warned of, namely, that Muslims
think only about sex, even when they are down and out? The Chief Minister
of Gujarat, Narendra Modi once pronounced that the camps were 'baby making
machines' and needed to be closed down.
Note that these were camps where thousands sat in huddled misery for months
on end, where a glaring question mark hung over the future, like a dark
shadow that could never be erased.
Now, I am not an advocate of mass marriages. Or of young girls being
married of in such haste, in such extenuating circumstances.
Panic reaction. That was what these marriages were all about. It was a
community's way of trying to 'protect' their young girls, some of whom had
been raped and sexually assualted in the most brutal fashion, some of whom
may have conceived or were on the verge of it anyway.
Protection, as we know is a double-edged sword, steeped in patriarchal lore.
Highly sexualised imagery has been successfully employed in Gujarat: it is
the Hindu male versus the Muslim male. The Sangh Parivar has waged a long
drawn out propaganda which has created and recreated this polarised sexual
imagery through large scale distribution of inflammatory pamphlets. Many of
these pamphlets also portray Hindu women as being vulnerable and under
threat of sexual attacks by Muslim men. Thus, as victims, perpetrators and
ideological focal points women were and are central to the shameful events
Thus, it is on the bodies of Muslim women that the Hindu Rashtra can become
In this context sexual policing of Hindu women becomes very important.
Inter-religious marriages where Hindu women get married to Muslim men have
in particular aroused Hindutva wrath. In Gujarat we have had several
instances of attacks on such couples. In fact, at one point, a cell was set
up to keep a check on inter-religious marriages.
It however, does not matter if a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman.
Naturally. It is part of the rescue mission. Besides it also means an
increase in the numbers of the Hindu fold at the expense of the Muslim male.
The violence in Gujarat has also flung right into our faces another bitter
truth. That women are as violent, as brutal as the men they sometimes live
The participation of Hindu women in the essentially public violence against
Muslim women has been shocking. They stripped young and old Muslim women
(getting them ready for the kill), delivered the quaking, terrified (I
imagine) women to baying mobs (I imagine again), they doused little children
with petrol, they came in cars and scourged Muslim shops for household items
or shoes before they were set alight.
Then they went back to their homes. Some to the very men who had raped,
killed and mutilated young and old Muslim women.
What might their dreams be filled of?
Women who have been completely enveloped inside the patriarchal umbrella;
they connived in the violence. By their silence. Or loud applause. Or by
goading their men on. Or by direct action (what went through their minds as
they stripped terrified young girls? I know older women were also raped,
but my heart breaks when I think of the innocence of the youth forever
For one monstrous moment these women forgot that they too could be
vulnerable. That is what Hindutva gave them. The power to forget, the
power to participate.
Hindutva gives Hindu women (upper caste, lower caste) the beef, the required
masculinity to overcome their own limited status. It gives them an edge
over the 'other'.
For a brief moment, it gave them the power to act.
Other benefits were to follow. And will continue to follow. Through their
participation they got a legitimate share of the public space, in more ways
than one. First, through their men and the support they extended to them,
they gained social mobility for their families. Second, they led religious
processions (during religious festivals and non-religious festivals!)
through the main streets of towns like Vadodara and Ahmedabad.
Third, and most importantly, they gained a foothold in the 'real' politic
space: through representations to bodies like the National Human Rights
Commission, the National Women's Commission, the Election Commission, the
Parliamentary Commission for Empowerment of Women. It was at the meeting
called by the Parliamentary Commission for Empowerment of Women that the
issue of mass marriages came up strongly. And, that claims of mass rapes
were exaggerated, that pseudo secularists need to be dealt with very
seriously because they are the ones who are giving Gujarat a bad name. So
on and so forth.
(I was present at the meeting and have to say that I was chilled at the
sight of a string of Hindutva women, dressed in silks and whatnot, dispersed
along the room, spouting a politics of hatred with such conviction. I began
to visualize them leading Hindu mobs, much to my own discomfort given the
sleepless nights I had after that).
However, there is a flip side to this coin.
All women are affected by Hindutva, because all women are affected by the
norms they uphold. Therefore all women can transgress boundaries laid down
by Hindutva. I firmly believe that they would at some point or the other,
cross over into the forbidden field. Because it is impossible to adhere to
such rigid notions of womanhood in everyday life, as you struggle to make do
with shrinking incomes, with increasing scarcity of resources, with
unemployment. Or with the loss of a social support system that ironically
included the Muslims in the neighbourhood.
None of which is being addressed by the Sangh Parivar. They only deal with
Every act of violence in Gujarat has been valorised by the Hindu rightwing.
Every act has been justified, even congratulated by the powers that be. Yet
every report that speaks of the horrific violence, the mindless nature of
the brutality unleashed on an innocent people has been vilified as an act of
vicious propaganda against the Gujarati identity, or 'asmita'. (What is
Gujarati asmita? You can ask that question endlessly. The Hindu rightwing
has all the answers. You still keep asking those questions).
However, sexual assault has been consistently and vehemently denied. Chief
Minister Modi has gone on record to say that 'they' will not tolerate those
who accuse 5 crore Gujaratis of being rapists. The former Defence Minister
George Fernandes (an erstwhile socialist and fiery trade unionist!) has
proclaimed in the Indian Parliament that rape is a common enough occurrence,
why complain about it now?
And you wonder why we hang our heads in shame today? You wonder why we
think the largest democracy in the world has got something fundamentally
wrong with it?
To get back to the issue of Gujarati asmita and denial of rape, it is not as
contradictory as it seems. The Hindu rightwing never had any problems
balancing two completely diverse viewpoints at one go.
Doublespeak, so said George Orwell a long time back in a book called 1984.
Doublespeak it is.
So on the one hand the public nature of the rapes of Muslim women
(Fatehpura, Chamanpura, Naroda Patia, to name a few places) was an extremely
important facet of the sexual assault to begin with. It was one of the most
significant statements that the Hindu right was making to the Indian public
To quote a Marxist historian, Tanika Sarkar:
" What, then, is radically new in Gujarat? More important than the
statistics of loss, is the nature of terror, for violence now consists of
public acts of sadism that have been missing from earlier histories of
carnage in our country. Looked at dispassionately, we have exceeded the
achievements of Nazi terror, Bosnian atrocities, our own partition
violence - if not in scale of numbers, then in the intensity of torture, the
sheer opulence and exuberance in forms of cruelty. It is as if the most
gruesome elements from all the annals of mass destruction have been pulled
together to form a whole that is Gujarat today. However, I would like to
argue that what is new about Gujarat can best be exemplified in what
happened to Muslim women and children on the days of the long knives. Not
just their killings, not just the sadism that effected their killings, but
the large symbolic purpose behind the deaths sums up the nature of ethnic
cleansing, the shape of Hindu Rashtra." (Economic and Political Weekly.
Vol. 37. No. 28. July 13, 2002).
The night of the long knives.
To quote yet another report by a feminist lawyer, Flavia Agnes:
" I am compelled here to narrate an incident, which occurred towards the fag
end of our project, to bring before you the horror of it all. It was the
last week of June. Around 9 a.m. Veena called from Ahmedabad. An unusual
call as Veena was not an early riser. By the tone of her voice, I knew
something was wrong. 'What's wrong Veena', I asked. Her voice was shaking.
She said, 'Today they released six more bodies, disfigured beyond
recognition, brutally dismembered. All from Naroda Patiya. All women.
Durieng the ritual bathing before burial, the hand of the woman who was
preparing the bodies for their burial, got cut and started bleeding. A part
of the sword inserted was jutting out. The woman started screaming..."
The bodies of the women were released by the government hospital. The sword
was in her vagina.
The night of the long knives. Indeed.
Long knives that reach out to throttle any voice that dares to speak out
against the sexual violence Muslim women met with those fateful days. Yet,
our one time Defence Minister says that rape is so common it does not merit
mentioning. And yet the Gujarat Chief Minister dares anybody to even
mention the word rape.
To mention it would establish the Hindu male as aggressor, as assertive of
his male identity through his body. It would foreground the male, the
violent, the virulent as embodied in the Hindu man. This would displace
sexual imagery surrounding the Muslim man, and envelop the Hindu man
instead. So, on the one hand is the covert Hindutva operation of extorting
the Hindu male to assert his manhood, to feel his manhood in the collective
brotherhood of a mob (is there a better way to enhance malehood than to
celebrate it in the ambience of a state-sponsored and socially sanctioned
carnival of violence? Is there a better way to defeat the oversexed Muslim
man than to actually emulate his imagined behaviour? Besides, it also helps
to justify the sexual violence, and to rationalise it later when faced with
the reality of the cruelty you have inflicted on women. It also has to do
with power. With construction of male sexuality, in a peculiarly
Hindu-fascist way ).
However, the only way of upholding true Hindu culture is to pretend that
rape never happened, even as you pat your Hindutva colleagues on the back
for doing a good job. (Tanika Sarkar translation one of the many pamphlets
that were circulated in Gujarat: 'the volcano which was inactive has erupted
((the Hindu penis)) , it has burnt the arse of the miyas (muslims) and made
them dance nude (castrated the Muslim man)), we have untied the penises that
were tied till now,(collective rape, reference to circumcised, and bridled,
leashed Hindu male sexuality)) , we have widened the tight vaginas of the
bibis (Muslim women) ((we have raped Muslim women)).
Silence is still the keyword.
If nobody talks about it, it never happened. That's the trick.
Now we can all go back to our safe homes, our safe streets. Ironically,
Gujarat is also a State that boasts of complete safety of women on the
streets, any time of day or night. To compensate perhaps, for the violence
in their homes going by police records of domestic violence.
So, the state machinery, the police, the criminal justice system remains
silent about sexual assault on Muslim women (with the exception of one brave
police officer that I know of).
Unfortunately, the Muslim community, besieged as it is, is also implicated
in this silence.
For the community told its women to hold their voices, their words. I was
witness to some of this: when women were threatened, cajoled and finally
persuaded to rein in their trauma. Many of these stories will never be
told. Patriarchy works both ways. Women are doomed if they do, they are
doomed if they don't.
Yet we need to remember and hence this article. It is born out of anger and
shame, out of a sense of helplessness that the situation does not improve
very radically even after the installation of what many of us would call
And because regardless of a spate of reports on the Gujarat violence we have
the latest UNDP Human Development report that exonerates the Indian state of
the violence perpetrated on thousands of Muslims who still live in terror.
Sakiko Fukuda-Parr of the UNDP says that 'the 'sectarian violence in
Gujarat.was not a cause of policies enacted in India". It further claims
that India has a remarkable record of cultural tolerance and that India has
bravely embraced cultural diversity (TOI newsreport July 15, 2004).
If you overlook the traditional and socially sanctioned violence against
Dalits. Or if you turn a blind eye to the Bhagalpur killings, or the
destruction of the Babri Masjid and so on. Ad nauseam.
The UNDP report is a travesty of all the injustice that Muslims suffered in
Gujarat and continue to do so. Gujarat was not just a flash in the pan. It
was the unfolding of a long-term design, the beginnings of which can be
traced to the 1920s and more intensively since the 1980s when the Hindu
rightwing gained political ascendancy like never before.
It has been a matter of policy. Believe it or not.
Reality exists and has a way of existing. It is not a matter of belief. Or
faith for that matter.
Even today when there has been a reversal of political fortunes with the
Congress and allies at the helm, there is no denying that the socially the
Hindu rightwing is here to stay for a long time. It exists in the
interstices of families, of communities and of the nation-state as a whole.
Let us not fool ourselves.
India is all about diversity. Move out of India and you begin to ache for
that diversity. You ache for the vastness of the country, for the sheer
colour, the chaos.
Yet there is no denying that the Indian state is strong. Super-strong. Like
We, the people, said Nani Palkhiwala. Yes, we the people have to decide the
fortune of this vast, unmanageable country. And we better decide sooner
rather than later that we would live with each other rather than kill each