“The accused in this case are Hindu men, who have a long standing interest in driving away the Gujjar-Bakherwal community, to which Asifa belonged, from the region. Yet again, sexual violence on women’s bodies, becomes the tool through which these community based interests are played out and enacted.”
The question of sexual violence, its systemic nature, its links to political power, its role in nation and community building – have all been thrown back to us with the rape and murder of 8-year old Asifa Bano in January this year. What followed the filing of the chargesheet and arrest of the accused has again made clear the Hindu nationalist interest in perpetrating violence on the bodies of women, especially women of particular communities. Immediately after arrests were made of the accused in this case, mobilizations of Hindus through the body named Hindu Ekta Manch took place, calling for the release of the accused. The Kathua Bar Association and Jammu Bar Association called for a strike against the state police crime branch against its investigation into the case, blocking the police from taking the case files into the court. The sustained fight which Asifa’s lawyer, Deepika Rajawat has put up against death threats by such forces is indeed commendable.
The accused in this case are Hindu men, who have a long standing interest in driving away the Gujjar-Bakherwal community, to which Asifa belonged, from the region. Yet again, sexual violence on women’s bodies, becomes the tool through which these community based interests are played out and enacted. The responses to this incident have been of a varied nature, from the Hindu nationalists coming to the defence of the accused, to subsuming Asifa’s identity into the nation-state, calling her ‘India’s Daughter’, thus erasing the history of both the violent occupation of Kashmir by the Indian nation-state and the marginalization of the Gujjar-Bakherwals by the Jammus and the Kashmiris – all processes which have attributed historically to the impunity with which sexual violence is carried out on the bodies of particular women.
The barbarity, and the impunity with which the violence was carried out, make Asifa’s case “more” shocking thereby explaining the popular outrage against it. However, the ugly fact often forgotten in such moments of outrage and fleeting public memory is that sexual violence is also an everyday reality, more so for women of particular communities, castes, regions. Recall, Kunan Poshpora. The barbarity is so systematic in most cases that it is almost ritualised and normalised- that it takes something necessarily ‘brutal’ to jolt the middle class into political consciousness. It’s apparent in the way the sharing of image of Asifa’s mutilated body happened. In which case the question of consent and agency does not even arise, was used to ‘jolt people out of apathy.’ This voyueristic, gory way of mobilising anger through the visual circulation and consumption of her body is shameful. Perhaps we need to ask why it is so easy to circulate images of bodies of people belonging to marginalised sections of society, in states of extreme indignity.
In the times we are living in, the impunity with which sexual violence against women of certain communities can be carried out has acquired a particularly dangerous character. However, it is also true that armed forces and law enforcement has always enjoyed impunity in areas which are heavily securitized through acts such as the AFSPA. Thus, there is continuity in terms of the long history of sexual violence on women’s bodies being perpetrated with no fear of punishment in certain regions of the country. At the same time what marks this particular incident is the popular mobilization in support of the accused, with full backing of MPs of the BJP-rendering the collusion between those perpetrating violence and those in political power apparent. Despite the normalisation of such violence and culture of impunity, the particular instance of Asifa’s rape and murder has managed to ‘shock’ us for it exposes the biases of the present government. Its tactic of stirring civil strife by appointing vigilante groups (such as the Hindu Ekta Manch) too has become apparent – a pattern seems to have emerged. The self-appointed army of people chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ before committing any act of brutality lay bare their own hypocrisy.
It is here that one must remember that there is paternalism (‘India’s Daughter’) and there is masculine violence running through these contexts. Through the adoption of the ‘culture of violence’ discourse, neoliberal education/secularism is argued to proceed in the Indian context as a ‘civilising’ enterprise, where the ‘fundamentalists and extremists’ are subsequently imagined as ‘savage others’. But they are not in fact an exception to an otherwise ‘good Hinduism.’ This crisis happens every day, it is not simply simmering under the surface and erupting on the body of a minor.
While the site of the temple is being held up in order to furnish reason enough for this belated outrage, its significance is not “some Hindu fundamentalists” that good/indifferent Hindus should now be expected to condemn. ‘We’ the good Hindustanis, the good family men, the liberal educated folks will unite to merely classify individuals- demonic- without bringing into question the very institutional violence that is perpetuated by the very structure of the temple- that was not merely corrupted by the rapist by committing an act of sexual violence on a ‘devi’ in a ‘devi-stan.’ The temple in fact has historically been responsible for excluding the most marginalised communities, Dalits, and also ‘impure’ women- lest it be ‘corrupted.’ It is not as though the act of rape within the temple compound corrupted the temple, but that the temple’s sanctity is built on violence and exclusions. Temples have always been the sites of violence. Similarly, this state and its actions in Kashmir have always had the taint and intent of systematic violence and destruction and dehumanisation of those at odds with its project, the feudal home has always thrived on the continued exploitation of vulnerable bodies and individuals to whom it claims to owe a duty of paternal care.
It is then important that we question this instrumentalization of women as ‘mata’ ‘devi’ or ‘beti.’ Unfortunately, the reaction against Asifa’s rape and murder has also taken to the same category – ‘India’s daughter’. It is shocking that instead of questioning the very logic of these empty exaltations of women as ‘Mata’ or ‘Beti,’ we are returning to these categories by demanding for a ‘real Beti Bachao.’ We fail to recognise the patriarchal institutions of marriage, family, that are assumed to be ‘pure’, are responsible for ensuring the silencing of women’s narratives and socialising them into defining their high thresholds of tolerance to violence. If outrage against the particular barbarity of what Asifa experienced is to take the form of a sustained struggle against sexual violence, it cannot be on terms defined by the very patriarchal system she was a victim of!
Popular outrage against a crime such as this falls easily into the trap of homogenising women’s experiences of sexual violence, across communities, castes, regions, all of which are axes along which this violence always takes distinct forms. Asifa’s identity as belonging to the Gujjar-Bakherwal community in Jammu means that the violence against her was of a particular character which distinguishes it from sexual violence against any woman/girl. That any attempt to contextually, socially, economically and historically locate people is not ‘politicisation’ of an otherwise ‘de-politicised’ body, needs recognition. Asifa’s rape and murder has as much to do with the dehumanisation and sexualisation of young girls’ and women’s bodies as such, which gets produced by rape culture which in turn constitutes the social context for these incidents of rape to get reproduced, as it has to do with the question of her own social location on the matrix of marginality. Neither can the particularity of her identity be erased, nor can her personhood be subsumed by her identity.
By placing Asifa’s rape and murder on the same continuum as that of communal lynchings by Hindutva forces, we erase the specificity of violence against women and their sexual subjugation. Her assimilation into either one of these registers not only erases the particularity of the violence she underwent, also makes difficult the task of building a concerted struggle against sexual violence. There is no denying that there is a concerted action to saffronise the nation, and that must be resisted but it is also equally true that the nation was even at its ‘secular best,’ marked by the oppression of few by many as something inherent in the logic of nation building. It is sad that the body of Asifa becomes the one carrying the burden and evidence of ‘exposing’ the BJP and the Indian State- when the message, all along, was written on the walls. Therefore a movement against sexual violence should claim accountability against cultures of impunity, while also fighting the political climate which is increasingly getting polarised with state backing but not by falling into the trap of demanding further securitisation at the hands of a fascist nation-state whose modus operandi has been violence through the structures of “welfare” and “protection”, not in spite of them.
We must be careful about demanding different political outcomes for the case – capital punishment for the “religionless demons” who perpetrated the violence, accountability from the “bad Hindu” right-wing state, laws for the protection of minors that “make an example” out of perpetrators. It is not as though the people are ungrateful to those offering ‘solidarity’ on conditional terms – that they only agree to a point that something bad has happened and they are not interested in why and under what conditions that might have been made possible to happen. It is absolutely important that a popular resistance does not end up in tokenistic fast track measures that end up strengthening the patriarchal-militarized regime of power of the State against its citizens- necessarily differentially, leaving some more vulnerable to violence than others.
Treating the accused in this particular case as monstrous exceptions or anomalies to the norm only erases the fact of that everydayness of sexual violence. It also evades the question of waging a struggle against the patriarchal structures and processes which create the conditions for such violence. The evil is not exterior to society but is contained within it- not due to the agents that are bad but by means of institutionalisation, socialisation, familiarisation of violence as essential to state building, family building, community building. Thus, any struggle against this violence cannot be one which denies personhood to women, and instrumentalizes them as daughters or mothers of a community or a nation. –
PINJRA TOD (Break the Cage) is a feminist collective and movement of women students in India.
News Updated at : Sunday, May 6, 2018