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home > News/Analysis  > Selected Analytical Articles  > The Politics of Gender in the Politics of Hate

Gujarat Carnage: The Politics of Gender in the Politics of Hate
Anuradha M. Chenoy
Source: Aman Ekta Manch Digest no 3, 4 June 2002

    The politics of gender were integral in the making of a Hindutva militia that led and carried out the carnage throughout Gujarat State against the minority community. The use, abuse and control of women were a critical aspect of the pogroms conducted in Gujarat in March-April 2002. Simultaneous with this was the resurgence of a politics of masculinity and militarism that was asserted along with identity politics at both the civil society and state level.

    "The Gujarat Carnage has shown how the Hindutva forces distort cultural definitions of gender by using gender representations at times of conflict. As such cultural notions of gender differences get heightened, women as a category get dehumanized."
    Given the increase of awareness on women's issues, women's experiences were documented by the media and human rights reports. But despite this, women were continuous targets and participants in this carnage that can be termed as ethnic cleansing. Can there be an explanation for the cruelty inflicted on women and their participation? Could the mass rape and crime be linked to the metaphoric uses of gender representation? And what meaning does this have for social experience and action? This paper attempts to analyze some aspects of this gendered pogrom.

    Women as Signifiers of the Conflict

    One way to examine the structural roots of the gender system is to move beyond women's experiences and analyze the metaphoric uses of gender representation. Studies of nationalism and nation states have often shown how nations express their goals in sexual terms. The use of the mother image as metaphor for a nation has been part of nationalist discourse, including in India. This sexual representation of a nation/community impacts on social and personal experience. For women in India, this representation continues to impact on them long after the nationalist project. At times of every conflict this cultural definition is raised and the Hindu Right (Sangh Parivar) distorts it to suit its own agenda. National anxiety gets expressed as a crisis of masculinity. The notion of gender in cultural terms gets redefined. And the impact is on women and their bodies. The movement for women's change gets deflected, as notions of women's self-service and sacrifice attempt to come back.

    The episodes in the Gujarat carnage reflect this use of the gendered metaphor. We cite just some instances to show this. Reports have shown that the tragic communal killings in Godhra on February 27th were preceded by provocation of Muslim passengers by the kar sevaks who had been travelling to and from Ayodhya in connection with their Ram temple construction. This provocation had specific characteristics. It was directed towards those who bore ethnic/religious markings and especially if these were women. So men with beards and women with veils who appeared to be Muslims were singled out for abuse and humiliation.

    The initial fracas at the Godhra station on the 27th February involved the teasing of a young Muslim girl.The mob of Muslim miscreants that gathered on the Godhra station and subsequently set the two bogies on fire, had been incensensed by the rumour that kar sevaks had abducted and molested a Muslim woman. The kar sevaks were seen to have 'dishonoured' the Muslim community.

    After the reprehensible Godhra incident, where 58 kar sevaks, of whom most were women and children were killed, the gruesome murder provoked widespread anger and grief. The regional press and papers like the Gujarati daily Sandesh, reported on 28th February in news headlines that stated: Religious fanatics kidnapped some 10-15 Hindu women by snatching them from the Railway coach. The paper said on March 1st, that two Hindu women had been abducted from the train by Muslims, gang raped, mutilated with their breasts cut off, then killed with their bodies dumped near Kalol near Godhra. The police investigated this story and found it to be baseless. But the very next day onwards Hindu mobs started attacking, burning, killing Muslims and raping and burning Muslim women. Newspapers like Gujarat Samachar printed mythical stories of Muslims raping Hindu women. On 28th March this paper stated that 3-4 Hindu girls had been kidnapped. The VHP leader Kaushik Patel stated in this paper that 10 Hindu girls were kidnapped. Rumours of Muslims raping Hindu women preceded many instances of rape and violence in minority areas like Naroda Patia. Sandesh also continuously gave out false stories of Muslims raping Hindu and even tribal women, which led to violent responses from tribal adivasis. One of the slogans through out the carnage was one of avenging the rape of 'our women'. These papers called the kar sevaks "devotees" and areas with Muslim population within the city as 'mini Pakistan'. Sandesh on 7 March alleged that Godhra had a 'Karachi connection.'

    Critical aspects of the methodology of the pogrom that was to follow became clear: Evoking the symbols of women being abused at the hands of the enemy could rouse mass sentiments leading to violence. Rape of women was synonymous to dishonouring the community. It had to be avenged in kind. The Sangh Parivar and the communal press constructed a myth of rape and Hindu hurt by a community linked to an external enemy. This threat perception has been part of a long and sustained campaign of the Hindu right as we shall examine subsequently. But at this conjuncture, it sharpened the religious divide and made the citizen into a warrior and a mob into a militia. This enabled a response of revenge and genocide, that was then justified by theories ranging from action-reaction, to Godhra being an ISI (Pakistani) plot.

    Keeping alive these theories, Union Home Minister L.K.Advani described the Godhra incident as a "pre-meditated" attack. The Gujarat minister of state for home, Gordhan Zadaphiya stated it was a pre-planned incident and even sponsored by the ISI.

    At the local level, Pravin Togadia, international general secretary of the VHP called for the kind of action that was to follow: " Hindu Society will avenge the Godhra killings. Muslims should accept the fact that Hindus are not wearing bangles. We will respond vigorously to all such incidents." These statements reflect the basic tenets of Sangh philosophy. Veer Savarkar, revered as the progenitor of the RSS had twin ideas of Hindutava. One which talked of Hindutava and said that only those who regard India as both their pitribhu (fatherland) and punyabhu (holy land) can be Hindus. All others were thus excluded from citizenship. The other part of this theory can be explained in his words: "Our real national regeneration should start with the moulding of man, instilling in him the strength to overcome human frailties and stand him up as a real symbol of Hindu manhood." This combination has provided a basis for the Sangh to combine a homogeneous Hindu nationalism mixed with patriarchal politics of aggression. The RSS continues with this theory to emphasize that Muslims who remained in India after the Partition of the country were "internal enemies". Christians were also part of his list of adversaries. Others remain outsiders. Given the systematic spread of Sangh ideology in Gujarat, the enemy had been identified, the threat perception made clear, the response aroused. The terms of the carnage had been set.

    Women then, became easy victims of the conflict. In fact, as women activists showed through their reports, there was widespread the most extreme form of sexual and gendered violence against women and even young girls. The use of the myth and reality of rape is an old wartime tactic. It is the oldest method of dehumanizing the object. The 'enemy other' would be best hurt if 'their women' were dishonoured through bodily abuse. As Susan Brownmiller noted about the Bosnian rapes: "In one act of aggressiveness, the collective spirit of women and the nation (in this case the community) is broken, leaving a reminder long after the troops depart." All these were steps for a militarized Hindutava agenda.

    Along with punishing the Muslims, men, women and children, those women who were found guilty of saving, or protecting Muslims were equally punished. The most famous case was that of Geetaben, married to a Muslim. Hindutva forces stripped her before stabbing her, since she had committed the crime of marrying and protecting a Muslim. This practice of stripping and shaming 'erring' women has been followed quite often by fundamentalists as a lesson to women who have violated the set norms of the community. This shaming of one woman creates a fear amongst many others women who are warned of these consequences and serves the purpose of maintaining gender hierarchy while it controls the autonomy of women. In this instance, Geetaben became victim but also martyr. Others who opposed this genocide celebrated her as heroine, as symbol of communal amity and resistance: "In these troubled times when heroes are scarce and villains abound, Geetaben deserves to be worshipped. She is Gujarat's Jhansi-ki-Rani, its La Passionaria. I salute you Geetaben, from the bottom of my heart for your one brief moment of defiance."

    Also punished were those women who protested this violence. Newspapers reported that a man killed his wife since she tried to stop his joining a mob that was on a burning and rampaging mission. Extolling women as 'honoured' and elevating them as symbols of the community burdens them as carriers of culture and also imposes controls on them. Controlling the autonomy of women lies at the heart of the Hindu fundamentalist agenda (as in other fundamentalist ideologies.) Women were given the message that they should conform to the strict confines of womanhood within their religious codes. This was a condition for constructing the fundamentalist vision of a Hindutava society.

    Militarization was an integral part of this agenda. With action like these, the woman, and the man whose property she supposedly is, and the community she signifies was all humiliated. Moreover, this 'event' was used to maintain and strengthen difference between communities. Just as in wars, the politics of revenge, victory, honour, humiliation was signified on and with women. In fact as women caught in this conflict told activists; "Yaha to Yudh ho gaya" (Here, there has been a war.) People spoke of "borders" in localities separating the two communities. Fences between the houses and streets were put up to signify these 'borders'. In some areas the 'other' side was called Pakistan. Godhra itself was referred to as "mini Pakistan". This imagery and language it self became militarized and values like violent force as power and arbitrator, masculine hierarchy, gender difference permeated society.

    Femininity as the 'other' was also used as a signifier to contrast with masculinity. Newspaper and other reports told of how bangles and saris were distributed to villages that were peaceful and to men who did not participate in the carnage. This was central to the construction of masculinity linked to the warrior image. The focus was on women as weak, powerless, disarmed and men who did not take to arms as feminized. The message was also to degrade peace and women as a combine and emphasize in contrast the Hindu identity as warriors and enforcers of power as singular force.

    The binary 'other' of this feminine signifier, i.e. of masculinity as power and lust is an underlying theme of Sangh Parivar leaders and was sharpened during the conflict. In an interview Prof. Keshavram Kashiram Shastri, Chairman of the Gujarat unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who justified the violence as necessary said: "Lust and Anger are blind." The natural connection between masculinity, power and lust were also drawn by him when he stated that this was after all done by "our" Hindu boys. And that: "Our boys were charged because in Godhra women and children were burnt alive." He further stated: "But we can't condemn it because they are our boys." Thus 'boys will be boys' and boys as warriors were part of the justification. This stressed the fundamentalist belief in the natural order of society where power and identity was asserted and defined through acts of carnage.

    Related Material

    Attacks on Women
    from :
    "We Have No Orders To Save You" State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat

    Human Rights Watch Report, April 30, 2002

    How Has the Gujarat Massacre Affected Minority Women ?
    The Survivors Speak
    Fact-finding by a Women's Panel, April 16, 2002


    Women's Agency

    Women's role as supporter and looters has been a well reported aspect of the Gujarat carnage. RSS leaders cited this to show the spontaneity and 'mass character' of the movement. Women leaders of the BJP feigned ignorance of the atrocities of the carnage.

    The women's fact finding panel showed, that Maya Kodnani, BJP MLA from Naroda Patia who has been named in the First Information Report as an accused who participated and incited violence in the worst hit areas of Naroda Patia, justified the incidents as 'natural' anger against Muslims. She said housewives helped the mobs by giving them gas cylinders from their homes, which could be used to burn Muslim homes. In an interview with the team, the inter-relationship between rape and identity becomes clear. It is part of the same psyche that condones 'our boys' with their 'anger and lust'. It implies Muslim women are less worthy victims of rape. After all they are mothers of the enemy 'others'. The fact finding team was appalled by her casual attitude towards sexual crimes against women.

    A report in the Hindustan Times 6th May describes how young boys guided by a 'leader' set fire to a man after stripping him and burnt down houses of the minority community. "Almost in synchronization a huge crowd of women poured onto the streets and prevented the BSF jawans from getting any further ahead. They abused them in the filthiest language, shouting at them for not having the guts to open fire at the other community." This tactic distracted the para-military forces while the boys ran away home.

    The question is: Did the BJP women MLA along with the rest of the Parivar comprehend mass rape in terms of everyday violence that is considered legitimate? Was women's participation seen as increasing their empowerment? Or was it more than that? We would submit that the Sangh and their Bajrang Dal and VHP partners saw this as a war and part of the need to make a militia. For them, there are no rules in war of how to treat the enemy. The Muslims were not even considered citizens, and so not worthy of human rights. Women of the Hindu right were partners in this war. Participation would 'empower' them, give them agency in domestic affairs and raise their 'womanhood' in the eyes of the Hindu militia. This represented for them an aspiration for power. Through participation in violence, conflict and war women of the Hindu right showed evidence of their equality with men. They proved their 'sameness' and worth to their men. Whereas in reality they were only re-enforcing patriarchal and gender patterns based on hierarchical power structures that have been used to keep women and others down through history.

    The militarization of society is a gendered process. De-sensitization to violence and a dehumanization of the potential opponent are core processes in this project. For male recruits, it includes a process of overt masculinization where the feminine is rejected as unworthy or the other. Militarization for men also involves providing this proof of manhood, which can be shown through various ways, ranging from aggression; unmitigated violence, initiation through rape, etc. The main place for women in a militarized institution is defined within the confines of gender and women are fitted into service and support roles.

    The Making of a Militia?

    The gendered carnage was in step with long years of planning and propagation of Sangh ideology. The Sangh outfits have long used Gujarat as a test case for a Hindutava agenda and concentrated in the region. In 1998 the same forces had attacked Christian missionaries and nuns. Before and during the conflict the VHP openly distributed venomous leaflets that called economic and social boycott of Muslims. Gender tension was an underlying theme in almost all pamphlets whether they addressed commerce, building the Ram temple or security. These pamphlets continuously referred to 'thousands' of rapes by Muslim youth of Hindu women and Hindu women being deceived by Muslim men. They called upon Hindu men to unite and pay back the Muslims wrongs on the Hindu (from the Lodhis to the Mughals). Hindu men were told "to keep a watch on your girls." And 'save them' with the help of Hindu organizations. The most consistent theme underlying most of these pamphlets, whether it was on economic boycott, the construction of Ram temple was the sanctity of Hindu women and the threat posed to them by Muslim men. These lessons on commerce and sex do more than encourage discrimination and false sense of fear based on an imagined threat perception. The enemy in civil society can only be fought by rules of war within civil society. The next logical step is militarize civil society and create a male militia in every home. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal have worked at this for years. They have distributed trishuls (swords symbolic of a holy war) in the thousands, with the clear message that these were to be used for protection of religion. They have organized training camps in martial arts. Camps for women and children organized by women of the Hindu right for women and children have been openly advertised in newspapers. In fact after one such camp, women trained in these skills stated that they now "felt empowered". The meaning of empowerment was transformed from securing equal rights to being armed.

    This kind of propagation of a security threat creates a false consciousness. People in a conservative and segregated society are occupied and aroused with false issues instead of the real issues of development, equality and plurality. In 'protecting their women' from the enemy Hindu men are being asked not only to safeguard their own women as property but also to kill/humiliate/rape the 'other'. 'The man as warrior' in them was constantly being roused. Also, the construction of the Hindutva identity was expressing its political goals in sexual terms, giving meaning to manliness primarily in physical terms. The crisis of identity here has been expressed as a crisis of masculinity. In this kind of militarization and in the current context when a militia gets formed, the tendency is to dehumanize women who become primarily sexual objects. Women/nation/religion all get welded together and are seen in terms of sexuality. These are basic ingredients for the making of a militia. Rape is like an initiation rite for the vigilante who becomes part of the militia. This is not a new phenomenon; it's a case of history repeating itself.

    Cynthia Enloe has examined the case of Bosnian Serb men in the militia and how they were simultaneously masculinized, militarized and ethnically politicized. In this case, Serb men learnt from their elders of how Muslims (their neighbours) had oppressed his ancestors. The militia also taught how the Muslims from the Ottoman past to the present Islamic believers were the ones to blame for current problems and lack of success. It was men like these who decided to form armed militia rather than trust civilian parties or the weak state. The warrior element was also central to the construction of the Serbian ideal of masculinity. Femininity was constructed to bolster masculinity. The Serbs had collectively managed to convince individual men that their manhood would be validated only if they perform as soldiers, either in the state army or in autonomous forces. This process undoubtedly assisted in militarizing ethnic nationalism and in the creation of the Serb militia that carried out the ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rape.

    Striking similarities between the VHP/Bajrang Dal groups can be found not just with the Bosnian militia but also with a checklist of militia organizations of the 1930's in fascist Italy, like the Italian Balilla and Avanguardisti. These groups organized youth on para- military lines and were based on an ideology of cultural superiority that excluded other religious and ethnic minorities from the concept of the nation. They used symbols of past greatness and blamed minorities for historical wrongs seeking revenge for the past in the present. They placed women lower in their hierarchic organizations with the specific role as supporters and reproducers for the nation. The forces of the VHP, Bajrang Dal, RSS are parallels of such militarized politics. These organizations have a large cadre in Gujarat and follow a similar trajectory with their own specific variations. The construction of the masculine as warrior is a constant theme with them, from the highest to the local levels.

    The VHP and other Sangh outfits have taken long term systematic steps to militarize religion, society and women. The importance of arms and privileging the image of an armed Lord Ram with bow and arrow have been related to the systematic distribution of trishuls as weapons of a religious war. The threat perception and linking the Muslims within the country with the enemy Pakistan outside, is part of a long grass root campaign, which has been sharpened in Gujarat. Just like religion has been used by militants as a mobilizing ideology to enforce identity politics or anti-imperialism or ultra- nationalism, so also fundamentalist forces mix religion and militancy to mobilize within civil society. This has been characteristic of the Jihadi and Hindutva ideology.

    Women have very specific roles in this campaign whether it was the Ram Janam Bhoomi campaign and now Gujarati women are fixed as supporters to men in a variety of ways. For instance the Gujarat Samachar newspaper of 15th March 2002 exhibited a photograph of a woman karsevak, sword in hand while travelling from Jharkhand to Ayodhya as symbolic of the militarized Hindu woman.

    Under the cover of religiosity, the Hindutava fundamentalists have justified discrimination and injustice on the basis of religion and other differences. They have used temples and religious congregations, (amongst other things) to increase their political power by organizing young men and women in the guise of reforming society into a Hindutva 'Ram Rajya' which is in constant opposition to Islam. In Gujarat, since the BJP is in power they have been able to use state resources for this agenda. The existence of Islamic fundamentalist forces and militancy have helped the Hindutva forces, who have used examples of this militancy to create mass scale threat perceptions of their religion/nation/ women in threat. There is thus an unwritten partnership in this enterprise. The threat of multiple fundamentalisms has torn apart countries like Lebanon where fundamentalists forces fought each other. If the forces of Hindutva are allowed to continue, to flourish, we are likely to follow a similar fate.


    The press, citizens groups, women's groups, political parties opposed to the politics of the BJP and Sangh Parivar, all expressed horror and anguish on the events in Gujarat. NGO's worked in the 103 makeshift camps which housed over a hundred and fifty thousand primarily Muslim displaced persons. Citizens groups carried out fact finding missions and set up a citizen's tribunal. All this was necessary because of the lack of an adequate government response and because the state attempted to cover up the genocide and even protect the guilty. Women's fact finding missions found that the crimes against women had been grossly under-reported and sexual violence had been made largely invisible by the media. Besides that, the police, the state and others have not reported or attempted to file FIRs or take any action against the perpetrators.

    The Gujarat Carnage has shown how the Hindutva forces distort cultural definitions of gender by using gender representations at times of conflict. As such cultural notions of gender differences get heightened, women as a category get dehumanized. The attempts and struggles of the women's movements that are engaged in making real changes for women get a set back as this retrogressive ideology which prevents real change in the name of 'honouring' women as nation/goddess.

    Before the Gujarat carnage and during it there has been a continuous subtext that points to the control of women'' sexuality and the simultaneous assertion of masculinity. The metaphor of mother/woman as nation/religious/ethnic symbol was closely linked to this distinction. The need to arouse masculinity to protect/control this identity was the basis of the making of the militia.

    Civil society in Gujarat as indeed civil society in all of India have become polarized and sharply contested. On the one side, is a pseudo-Hinduism under the guise of a Hindutva that threatens to devour not only the everything the Indian nation and constitution stand for, but also civil society and then Hinduism itself. On the other side are the secular, multi-ethnic urges and forces of Indian society. The Indian progressive women's movement is a critical part of the later. They have to take a lead in this contestation, not only for the sake of the women in the country and their movement but also for the very future of their existence.