Women, communal violence, and rights rhetoric
Manushi, issue 129:
Recent television footage and reports from Gujarat have shown Hindu
families, including women participating in violence and attacks on
Muslims. Communal violence has spread beyond the traditional geographical
confines of the walled city to middle-class localities, especially in
cities like Ahmedabad. 'Spontaneous' acts of rioting and arson that
involve lumpen elements have always been suspected as the cause of many
riots in India. Though targeted violence was occasionally a factor at
times in some earlier urban outbreaks, large scale mobilisation for
targeted violence came into its own as part of the Ram Janmabhoomi
While scholars like Tanika Sarkar have provided a lot of insight into the
increasing participation of women in Hindu fundamentalist bodies and
movements, specific attention to the nature, prevalence and severity of
women's participation in violence is something that requires more
attention1 . Much of the literature on this subject relates women's
violence to the mobilisation and wooing of women by Sangh Parivar
organisations2 . At the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and during
the destruction of the Babri Masjid, women participated in large numbers
in destructive and violent activity, especially in Mumbai and several
cities in Gujarat3 . But the kind of violence we are observing now, where
entire families, women and children included, participate in arson,
looting, and murder, points to a new situation - active and aggressive
participation in violence during riots has become a 'normal' social
activity, suitable for the participation of all family members. How else
can one explain or understand women in their nighties coming out on to the
terraces of their houses, egging their men on, and even throwing stones at
neighbours belonging to a different community?
Newspapers have reported seeing Hindu women with weapons going around as
part of mobs committing arson and attacking Muslims. There have also been
reports that closed circuit cameras have captured images of women
participating in the looting of shops. Activists on fact-finding missions
have also reported observing women participating in violence, and Muslim
women have complained of being "betrayed" by their (female) neighbours.
Citing the active participation of women in the violence against members
of the Muslim community, the Head of the All India Muslim Women's
Conference termed it as a division of women along religious lines. In a
society where social and family norms do not even permit women to show
their faces outside of their homes, what changes have led to women
participating in violent activities along with men? Has the legitimacy
given to violence among groups provided legitimacy to changes in women's
behaviour as well? Has the strategy of the Sangh Parivar in bringing women
into their fold also led to their greater participation in violence?
Women often bear the brunt of violence at the hands of their husbands and
other kin without protection. Have their 'collective mentalities' been
transformed by the Sangh Parivar led outbreaks of communal violence? Did
it so 'empower' them that they could have broken through the norms that
usually require them to accept without effective protest, the violence
inflicted upon themselves? Did it impel them to engage in acts of violence
and rioting when sanctioned by these same oppressors? Is it possible to
explain a significant portion of violence by a woman on members of another
community as just the pent-up emotions of victims of violence being
released? Did the fact that she wasn't likely to be harmed for expressing
it, rather applauded for doing so contribute in some way?
Some writers claim that when Hindu women assume militant roles they do so
"without violating the norms of Hindu womanhood."4 The implication in
some of these analyses is that, while women may be part of militant
outfits, provide informed consent to violence by male members of their
community, and even participate in public protests, they stop short of
actually indulging in violence, since that would go against the norms of
womanhood, Hindu or otherwise. The sight of women actively participating
in such acts as looting, arson and stone throwing leads one to question
the current applicability of these interpretations.
Two discrete but interrelated streams of discourse and action seem to be
at the heart of this social-political transformation in the last two
decades. The first is the reactionary mobilisation of upper castes to
oppose the increasing empowerment of the Dalit-Bahujans, reflected
especially in the anti-reservation movements in the second half of the
1980s and the early 1990s. The first large scale violence that took place
in Ahmedabad outside of the walled city and involved active middle class
participation was during the anti-reservation riots in 1985, which later
During the nationwide anti-reservation violence against the Mandal
Commission report, large scale violence was mostly treated benignly by the
state machinery. For the first time many middle class young people,
especially women, were involved in the violence. For many, it was the
first time that they had come out on the streets and participated in
public protests. The transformation of anti-reservation riots into attacks
on members of other communities has been observed in many areas throughout
the country5 . It is not an accident that the rise of the BJP in coastal
Andhra has occurred in those areas notorious for atrocities on Dalits6 .
The political linkages between the movement for the mandir and the
anti-Mandal agitation are well known. Scholars have also established the
ways in which the 'Manuvadi' forces have been working to incorporate some
of the cadres from the Ambedkarite movement into their own ranks as
supporters of hindutva. However we also need to understand the particular
ways in which the anti-Mandal agitation marked a watershed in Indian
politics. Especially to be noted is the rhetoric the agitation's leaders
used to justify the rights they claimed as a supposed meritocracy. This
claim dramatically shifted aspects of reservation policy away from their
previous ostensible focus on remediating bias against marginalised groups.
Sections of the media, intellectuals, and politicians aided Manuvadi
leaders colluded in distorting the logic behind reservations by focussing
on nothing but income differences, rather than on the strong effects of
social inequality and discrimination. Their proposed substitute for the
previous reservation policy, which was justified as a means of achieving
substantive equality, developed via a new rhetoric, a version of equality
that highlighted 'merit' and 'equality of opportunities' as superior to
reservations which are a recompense for historically based bias and
More importantly, the movement actively encouraged direct violent action
against other vulnerable groups. At the same time, they attacked the weak
attempts by law enforcement agencies to prevent their attacks and to
provide protection to their victims. They consistently regarded members
of these vulnerable groups as legitimate scapegoats, eligible targets for
their attacks. Through their political and social influence among those
supposed to enforce the law, they confidently anticipated they would never
be held to account in any way for their acts of oppressive violence.
This immunity from reproach by the law or retaliation by the victimised
vulnerable groups, emboldened a new form of middleclass violence. The
debased logic used to justify the attacks was assertively propagated by
some middle class intellectuals who deliberately overlooked the vulgar
nature of the justifications for the anti-reservation movement, and
ignored its mindless violence, as well as the defiance of the law and
breach of moral norms prevalent among the middleclasses. These
intellectuals betrayed their vocation in support of direct, illegal,
violence for what they believed were their group interests. They helped
provide shape and legitimation to an ideology based on a singular and
unexamined concept of 'merit.' They considerably shifted the national
discourse away from the goal of reducing societal inequality. They made a
major contribution to changing the terms of discourse as far as policies
regarding equality, social mobility, and the rights of marginalised groups
The savarna men and women who came out into the streets as part of the
anti-reservation movement had little knowledge about the social structure
of India, the history of its struggles
to mitigate discrimination by constitutional methods, and its many other
attempts to reduce social and political repression. In such a situation,
Manuvadi propaganda focused on a crude and obfuscating notion of 'merit',
created and sanc-tified by some liberal intellectuals who addressed
meetings and wrote popular articles in newspapers and magazines.
This resulted in an ideological atmosphere in which traditional caste and
other group based notions of hierarchy and superiority got reinforced,
well reflected in the extremely derogatory statements made against
Dalit-Bahujans. For example, demonstrators often taunted them by
associating them with occupations Manuvadis considered shameful. They
displayed their hatred and contempt of those who have been the victims of
discrimination by displaying vulgar caricatures of members of these groups
engaged in some traditional urban occupations such as polishing shoes and
sweeping the roads.
Most young men and women who demonstrated at that time were extremely
proud of their participation in their displays of hatred and contempt, and
their riskless violence against weaker groups. One often heard their
boastful accounts of brutal acts recounted with glee and pride. It is
interesting that this was the first time that many of them had
participated in any form of public protests. Interestingly, many had
received parental sanction for them to participate. Many fathers were not
only tolerant of their children staying out late to take part in
'strategy' meetings, but also approved of their throwing stones at
unprotected vulnerable people and burning up buses and other public
It is this sanctioning of brutality that may help explain women's violence
during such demonstrations. Perhaps women are only willing to take part
when and if their family legitimates their participation in violence.
These women will gain approval from members of their family for
expressing/redirecting previously forbidden impulses to violence they were
not allowed to express toward those who brutalised them. This is one time
when they find that male heads of the family cannot or will not impose
restrictions against their expressing violence or participating in what
are described as reprisals. Just as fear of further and more severe
violence against them as well as other forms of reprisal within the family
keeps many women in check and ensures their conformity to dominant norms
and ensures that they do not reply in kind, the very absence of such fears
during riots gives them the sanction to do things which they otherwise
would not do. Perhaps, when women engage in such violence, it is just a
form of catharsis or release for these women. Perhaps it also provides
them with some feeling of empowerment. What is also important is that they
get a sense of being included in a major public act of family and
community members, an arena where they rarely participate.
This possible partial explanation for women's participation points to a
need to pay more scholarly attention to the new ways of belonging and
inclusion developed for individuals by the hindutva movements7 . As Arvind
Rajagopal has pointed out, more emphasis has been given to the disruptive
effects of participation rather than to the possible role they play in
generating a greater sense of inclusion. The puzzle of increased
participation in the hindutva movements of groups such as Dalits, OBCs,
and women who have all had to bear the brunt of Brahminical, patriarchal
violence may in part be explained by this kind of analysis.
The lack of adequate support structures for women is frequently given as
the reason women are afraid to confront violence within the family. What
we need to understand is how the same women become active collaborators in
violence committed during riots. One explanation may be related to the way
in which the majority of people in this country - male and female - view
domestic violence. Despite the long history of legal action to protect
women's rights, and constant attempts by women's organisations to get laws
passed and courts to intervene on issues related to violence against
women, a majority of women do not perceive domestic violence as a crime
that is defined by law.
This is partly an outcome of the way in which political parties have
related to such issues. Even left of centre parties have 'ghettoised' the
women's wing of their parties, refusing to mainstream their issues,
leaving them to be taken up solely by their women's wing (AIDWA, Mahila
Dakshata Samiti, etc.). Many women's organisations affiliated to political
parties have simply not had their party's political support to launch
struggles to change public awareness as well as make the laws against
domestic violence more stringent and enforceable, though there has been no
dearth of attempts to do so.
Thus, struggles relating to women's issues have often been reduced to
ineffectual forms of 'social' struggles, in the form of failed public
awareness campaigns, as well as the sporadic, momentary and inconclusive
attention given to individual atrocities against women. It is interesting
to note that a government official in Gujarat during the recent riots
stated that rape cases must be taken up by NGOs, because the government's
duty is only to look into 'law and order' cases, implying thereby the
non-criminal nature of rape. Also, as is well known, women leaders in the
hindutva movement have themselves spoken about the 'normality' of male
domestic violence, and the consequent need for women to 'adjust' to
violent domestic life8 . Wife beating, for instance, they have said, is
caused by the wife who 'irritates' her husband. These beatings are likened
to the acts of parents admonishing their children9 .
Sarkar (1999) mentions one respondent who blames rapes of women on those
women who protest against their victimisation; they are viewed as
forfeiting their "older modes of honour and motherhood" by participating
in struggles for equality and rights. The implication is that women should
retreat from such forms of politics into passive forms of domesticity to
avoid rape. When women who struggle for such rights meet male oppression
and violence, this repression is considered justifiable. Both female and
male leaders of Hindu fundamentalist organisations argue that 'adjustment'
and obedience of girls and wives to parents and husbands will avert male
domestic violence. Domestic violence is thereby removed from the public
sphere of illegal behaviour, and at the same time justified by attributing
its occurrence to women's own 'deviant' behaviour. In their view, women
should endure male violence in order to further strengthen the norms of
the culture and keep the family together.
The combined effect of a) family and group legitimacy that enable attacks
on members of other communities; and b) the failure to label domestic
violence as criminal and illegitimate, have created a situation where
women often find it much easier to collaborate with their own oppressors
in inflicting violence upon others than to combat oppression within the
family. Social codes relating to violence, the circumstances under which
it may be legitimately inflicted on others, and the extent of enforcement
of legal and other sanctions against violence, are important factors in
understanding why some people engage in acts of violence more than others.
Again, while the knowledge that such illegitimate acts will not be
punished is a significant factor in explaining why people are violent and
in understanding socialisation practices, it is also true that levels of
exposure to violence, and political mobilisation against violent
oppression - all determined by one's location in social space - are
important in explaining why some people engage in violence against others.
Deciding to participate in violence against others for most individuals,
but especially for women, is not a simple act; it requires a coherent
explanation. This is especially true of the participation of women in
communal violence, which has become far more notable in recent years, and
is a dangerous and disturbing development.
It is precisely at this juncture that intellectuals need to be more
cautious and careful about how they explain this new development. Public
space in India is already vitiated by ideologies that justify and
legitimise violence, partly through the rhetoric of communal resentments
and presumptions of justified exercise of special rights, and partly
through recourse to some distorted versions of the traditional liberal
idea of social contract. This is evident also in the rejection of the
jurisdiction of courts in certain spheres of social life.
Another important point is the constant newspeak regarding past and
possibly future attacks on 'Hindus' by members of the minority community.
This propaganda is used to recruit men and women for training in physical
'self-defence' activities. In recent times, through rumours, propaganda
pamphlets, public agitation and other such channels, fear has been created
among Hindu women by providing mostly fictional accounts of attacks by
male members of other communities on Hindu women10 . The fear is now being
specifically focused on violation of women's own bodies. This strategy is
meant to bring about a radical change in the attitude of women toward
willingness to sanction and even engage in violence against minorities.
Those who promote such violence can then presumably claim to have a
greater degree of legitimacy for its use against members of other
Some intellectuals in this country seem to be similarly influenced by a
distorted idea of social contract theory that results in their either
ignoring or supporting organised violence against the state and other
communities. This is justified by appealing to a special normative order
they believe exists within the confines of their own group. What they
forget is that in the context of a hierarchical, stratified society, where
even basic rights are yet to be realised for some groups, justification of
certain anti-state movements in the name of a putative group-defined
normative order may reinforce a discriminatory and unequal social order.
Violence by women as part of such a movement, and their complicity in male
violence on members of other communities, reinforces their own oppression
by patriarchal structures.
Some women may temporarily be given an exalted status for their
participation in such movements, whether it is an anti-minority pogrom, or
the movement which brought down the Babri Masjid structure. Just as
fundamentalist leaders justify participation in violence in the name of a
distorted normative order which justifies violence and delegitimises
constitutional bodies and norms, so also some neo-liberal advocates shift
the rights discourse by justifying violence either through popular groups
or through the state that acts in the name of a specific unconstitutional
Such violence usually targets the weak and the marginalised, the Dalits,
Tribals, and others among the poor, including pavement dwellers, street
hawkers, and slum dwellers. These groups are not allowed to use their
identities, their rights are abrogated whenever they clash with mainstream
'development' policies, and their very existence is deemed illegitimate.
There is very little public outcry against their forcible illegal
displacement. There is also an extreme lack of concern regarding their
rights and welfare. The overall shift in the way in which rights are
discussed, the condoning of violent actions targeted at the marginalised,
and the refusal to recognise certain forms of social and political
mobilisation among the underprivileged, all have contributed to an overall
rise in the legitimisation of violent repressive actions by the powerful -
be they men, upper castes, the state, or particular communities.
Some liberals are yet to learn that certain claims to group identities
also are valid claims to human rights. Therefore, they differentiate among
the many identities asserted by these communities for different purposes12
. Their lack of sensitivity considerably enhances the possibilities of
movements by the oppressed getting co-opted by fascist and fundamentalist
movements, as we are observing now. A colleague never tires of reminding
me of Gandhi's approach to public issues - it is not just enough to be
right, but one must be right for the right reason, for the right cause.
Manushi, issue 129, 2002.
D. Parthasarathy teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social
Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.
1 In tracing the "gender predicament of the Hindu right" for
instance, Sarkar points to women's retreat from active violence, and says
that "an equal agency (for women) in violent politics does not seem to be
on the agenda", Tanika Sarkar, "The Gender Predicament of the Hindu
Right", In K.N.Panikkar, ed., The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism,
Viking Penguin India, New Delhi, 1999, p. 148.
2 See articles in Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia eds. Women and
the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1995.
3 For Women's complicity in the riots, see also Madhu Kishwar,
Religion at the Service of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, Delhi,
4 Amrita Basu, "Feminism Inverted: The Gendered Imagery and Real
Women of Hindu Nationalism", in Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia eds.
op.cit., p.179; Such an argument is also made by Zakia Pathak and Saswati
Sengupta, in analyzing the ways in which women in the anti-Mandal movement
attempted to restrain violence by male agitators and the police.See,
"Resisting Women" pp.270-298.
5 The vast number of sociological studies on communal violence, and the
relative lack of serious studies on violence against Dalits, is worthy of
6 The infamous Chundur incident in Andhra Pradesh had a little known
aftermath wherein the upper caste - dalit conflict was transformed into an
attack by upper castes on Christians. The Reddis organized other upper
caste communities and led an attack on the Andhra Christian College in
Guntur, not just because the institution provided shelter to the refugees
from Chundur, but also because it had played a significant role in
educating and imbuing dalits in the district with a new found confidence.
7 Several of the articles in the volume edited by Sarkar and Butalia,
op.cit. deal with these issues.
8 On this see especially Sarkar, 1999, S.Anitha, Manisha, Vasudha
and Kavitha, "Interviews with Women", in Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia
eds. Women and the Hindu Right, 1995, pp.329-335.
9 See Anitha, Manisha, Vasudha, and Kavitha, op.cit., p.333.
10 In Gujarat during the recent riots, fundamentalist publications
such as Sandesh (Advice) printed and distributed fictitious stories of
Hindu women being abducted and carried away into mosques to be raped.
11 I wish to thank Rowena Robinson for pointing out the significance of
12 Typically banal liberal statements such as "if you are opposed to
mandir, you must oppose mandal", leads us nowhere.