Anant Maringanti, Viren Lobo, Rajesh Ramakrishnan, Pradeep Narayanan, Vanita Suneja, Cynthia Stephen, Vinod K. Jose & Soma K. Parthasarathy
As horrific tales of sexual violence against women and girls in Nandigram allegedly by CPI(M) cadres and the West Bengal police emerged in the media, we have been asking ourselves the simple question, “Why?” This is not the first time that this question is being asked: why has violence against women in most unspeakable forms become part and parcel of political conflicts? The violence in Nandigram was after all a political contest, essentially between the CPI(M) and local people, many of them former supporters of the CPI(M) itself, who were apprehensive of their lands being taken over by the Government to set up SEZs.
In fact this question arises again and again in the recent history of political violence in India. The Committee against Violence on Women (CAVOW) reported the rape of 8 women from Kandkipura village of Bastar by uniformed police personnel. The provocation for this was the people protesting against forcible land acquisition for industry. The CAVOW fact-finding report highlights many atrocities perpetrated on women by Salwa Judum goons and the state security forces. In Kalinganagar, in the wake of police firing against an unarmed crowd protesting against the forcible take-over of their land for industry, corpses of women with breasts cut off were handed over to their relatives. While mainstream media rarely takes notice of the violence against civilians indulged in by the Indian Army in the North East, the recent outpouring of extreme resentment at the military forces shook both the media and the state as forty Manipuri women –twelve of them naked– stormed the Army headquarters in Imphal, holding signs that read “Indian Army, Rape Us!” Thanglam Manorama’s brutal murder by Army personnel was the source of anger for the protesters. Manorama’s murder is far from being an exceptional case in Manipur where rape, abuse and murder are everyday realities. In their brave protest, Manipuri women shamed the Indian army by parading the very female body that brought humiliation and death to their sisters. With their raw anger and amazing mobilization, these women refused to get knocked down by the ‘rape culture’ that enables the ‘victor’ to demoralize their victim. And about the violence against women in Gujarat in 2002, it was reported, “…The pattern of cruelty suggests three things. One, the woman’s body was a site of almost inexhaustible violence, with infinitely plural and innovative forms of torture. Second, their sexual and reproductive organs were attacked with a special savagery. Third, their children, born and unborn, shared the attacks and were killed before their eyes…”.
The question “Why?” can be asked and answered in varieties of ways using many different frameworks of analysis. What is clear is that these instances of violence against women are occurring in the context of an aggressive expansive thrust of Indian capitalism, seeking hegemonic status in the global arena. Nandigram is clearly tied to the aspirations of investors like the Salim group of Indonesia and the CPI(M)’s vision of industrialisation through national and trans-national capital. Kalinganagar and Dantewada (Bastar) are similarly the product of a political clash between the same vision of industrialisation and resistance to it. The violence in Gujarat happened at a time when the State Government was aggressively marketing it as an attractive destination for global investments. The North-East has been afire due to the conflicts between the oppressed sub-nationalities of that region and the dominant nationalities of peninsular India, who now see it as a hub for investment and trade.
While these are the most egregious examples of violence against women in political conflicts, there are also other forms of violence against women, which are widespread and invisible. Familial violence or domestic violence includes, for example, the violence of traditional practices and foeticide, infanticide, forced/early marriage, forced sex-work, wife battering, and violence against widows. Violence at the community level includes caste-based violence, body mutilation, honour-killings, abduction, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual harassment and workplace violence, and trafficking. The beating, rape and mutilation of sexual organs of women of a dalit family at Khairlanji in full view of the public is a recent example. All forms of gender-based violence against women and also children (girls and boys) violate their human rights and are political, involving power and patriarchal domination. The common thread in these diverse forms of violence is social and gender-based domination which makes violence against women acceptable in familial and community contexts.
After economic liberalisation, the focus on women is increasingly as a cheap labour force. Despite apparently positive indicators of progress, particularly in education and paid employment, little has changed in the position of women. Studies suggest that while there is an increase in low-wage employment and self-employment, gender discrimination is being reinforced. While micro-credit is a necessary but altogether insufficient condition to address poverty, evidence suggests that the burden of its access, utilisation, and repayment fall entirely on the shoulders of women. Notions of `family honour’ are being re-worked such that women must bear the brunt of family survival strategies through credit and increased workload, while financial players reap the benefits of reduced transaction costs. Even more worrying are the increasingly reported instances of sexual harassment and assault at workplaces where women are essentially unorganised. In this context, the liberating and empowering effect of the workplace has only partially materialised.
Without losing sight of its intrinsic links with all forms of gender-based violence, we would like to focus attention on the violence against women indulged in by State agencies and political actors. All politics, regardless of ideology, is ostensibly about making a better world. Political activity draws upon the thoughts and aspirations of the people for a better life. Violence against women can never be countenanced by the political imagination as a means to a noble end. Yet such violence persists because of the patriarchal view of women as chattel, as `territory’ to be conquered, as `honour’ to be saved or violated. This is closely tied to the practice of male control of women’s sexuality and reproduction. In general, the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity reify women’s roles in reproducing community and nation, and men’s roles in their defence.
What seems to emerge clearly from the examples we have cited is that whether it is politics of the Right or of the Left, of the hegemonic or of oppressed groups, of neoliberalism or of the resistance, certain essentialist notions of masculine and feminine with their roots in patriarchy seem to regularly result in sexual violence against women as a `legitimate’ form of conflict. As neoliberal economies take root, whether in the form of industrialisation in Bengal or irrigation projects in Andhra Pradesh or in the form of urban renewal missions, we fear that gross physical violence against women will only increase and escape the conventional institutional solutions available to us. As persons who believe in and participate in progressive politics, this is a matter of grave concern to us. We believe that this clandestine indulgence towards violence against women is intolerable. We therefore call upon fellow citizens to declare that there is no place in politics for this assault on the bodies and minds of women. This is a precondition for achieving any vision for a better world.
Anant Maringanti, Research Scholar, University of Minnesota
Viren Lobo, Development Professional, Udaipur
Rajesh Ramakrishnan, Researcher and Consultant, New Delhi
Pradeep Narayanan, Development Researcher, New Delhi
Vanita Suneja, Development Professional, Faridabad
Cynthia Stephen, Independent Researcher, Bangalore
Vinod K. Jose, Foreign Correspondent-India, Radio Pacifica Network
Soma K. Parthasarathy, Researcher and Consultant, New Delhi