Threatened Existence: Report of International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat


Release of Report: Threatened Existence

DECEMBER 24, 2003

Newsletter Sep - Dec 2003

At a time when the Supreme Court of India is finally taking cognisance of the genocide in Gujarat in 2002, and yet the road to justice seems uphill, it seemed apt that the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat (IIJG) should release its final report titled, 'Threatened Existence’ in Mumbai, Baroda, New Delhi and London. IIJG is a feminist initiative that sought to investigate the violence, both physical and sexual, suffered by Muslim women in Gujarat since 27th February 2002, to analyse of the use of sexual violence in this particular conflict situation and, to correlate what happened in Gujarat with massacres of various cultural, religious, and ethnic subgroups around the world.

As has been written about earlier in a Saheli newsletter (May-Aug 2003), the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat consisted of an international panel of jurists, activists, lawyers, writers and academics who have been prominent for their work on women and conflict. The panel visited Ahmedabad, Baroda and Dahod and Panchmahals districts of Gujarat between the 149 and 179 of December 2002 and met with about 180 women and 136 men from 7 districts in Gujarat, including teachers, lawyers, activists from women’s groups and human rights’ groups and survivors of the violence.

The 9 panellists were Sunila Abeysekara, Director of Inform, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Rhonda Copelon, Professor of Law, City University of New York and Director of the International Women ’s Human Rights Law Clinic, Anissa Helie of Women Living Under Muslim Laws Algeria/France, Gabriela Mischkowski, historian and co-founder, Medica Mondiale, Germany, Nira Yuval-Davis, Professor of Gender and Ethnic Studies at the University of Greenwich, UK, Uma Chakravarti, feminist historian from the Delhi University who has documented the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984, Vahida Nainar, Researcher of International Law and a Board member of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, The Netherlands, Urgent Action Fund, USA, and Women’s Research and Action Group, India, current Development Director of the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, New York, Farah Naqvi, co-founder of Nirantar and an independent writer and consultant on issues of women, democracy and development, Delhi, and Meera Velayudan formerly with the Institute for Environmental and Social Concerns, Coimbatore.

For each of the panellists, the events of Gujarat 2002 marked a definitive moment in their own relationship with their past and present. Each panellist had her own history of resistance - a history that was at the same time both specific and universal, a history that resonated deeply with events in Gujarat and made participation in the panel imperative. These histories ranged from memories of Nazi terror; to strife torn Israel and Palestine; the consequences of a civil society in Algeria terrorised by Muslim fundamentalists; war crimes in Bosnia; ethnic chauvinism and a protracted war in Sri Lanka; the trauma of India’s partition with the loss of homes, millions of refugees and abductions of women; to the public killing and burning of Sikhs during the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984; the rise of right-wing parties in the early 90s and repeated rioting upon the emergence of the right-wing State in India that openly appeals to the religious identity of the Hindu majority. Gujarat was a moment in the individual histories of nine women in the panel and many others who provided invaluable support without which the panel could not have been assembled.

The major findings of the report 'Threatened Existence’ establish that:

- Almost two years after the massacres of February/March 2002 the violence continues ‘in different and frightening forms with long-term consequences on the lives of all members of the Muslim community particularly women. Not only were Muslims the victims of vicious politically motivated attacks in February/March 2002 but they continue to be so even today.’

- The action of the state in Gujarat during the February/March 2002 attacks as well as the ongoing persecution of the Muslim community constitutes a Crime against Humanity under International Law. The report discusses the legal implications of the pogrom from both national and international jurisprudence, and critiques the mechanisms of obtaining justice, the inadequacies of Indian laws in such situations. At the same time, the report looks at the possibilities of justice that do exist, and also draws parallels from around the world where similar pogroms have been carried out and how they were dealt with.

- Sexual violence is central to the Hindutva project in Gujarat. It is clear that all events including the use of rape and sexual assault occurred with the knowledge of highly placed State actors and in many instances were carried out with the full participation and support of the police. Moreover, these were not random, impulsive or isolated incidents. They were widespread and pre-planned. In many cases - Gujarat, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia - such large scale violence could not have taken place without complicity, if not participation, by the State. Behind the many forms of sexual violence - rapes, verbal abuses, molestation, and taunts, that continue till today - lies a crucial pattern central to the Hindutva agenda.

It is clear that Muslim women of Gujarat were attacked both, as members of the collective, and as the biological and cultural reproducers of the community whose bodies symbolize the body of the community. In the Hindutva project, 'real Hindu men' see it as their duty and function to violate the bodies of Muslim women, as a symbolic violation of the entire Muslim community. In the gendered and sexualized character of the Hindutva project, to not violate Muslim women is a sign of weakness, lack of manhood and potency. People in Ahmedabad reported that Hindu men including policemen would stand in line and expose their penises to show that they were taking part in the violence as "true men." Hindu manhood thus becomes the basis on which the "pure Hindu state" is to be created and protected from the Muslim Other.

The Hindutva project has not only prescribed gendered and sexualized norms of behavior for Hindu men, it has also constructed an ideal Hindu woman - dependant on the authority of her father/husband, subordinate, dutiful, reproducer of families and the nation. Indeed she embodies "Mother India" - a powerful image in the Hindutva imagination and in the perception/construction of nationhood. As such it is also her duty to preserve, protect and defend the nation/community against the Enemy Other. Hindu women have been recruited in the thousands to provide strategic support (cooking food, handling equipment) for their men who unleashed the violence in Gujarat.

Many participated more directly in the violence. In Gujarat, as in Bosnia or Rwanda the attacks on minority community women were regarded as legitimate by women from the majority community. Testimonies from Gujarat spoke of Hindu women actively instigating and supporting rapists.

This is not new. History shows that sexuality is pivotal to nationalist projects in general, and in the construction of the Enemy Other, in particular. German Nazi propaganda portrayed male Jews as seducers and rapists of Aryan girls and women. Similarly, US war posters in World War II mobilized public opinion by portraying Nazi and Japanese men as notorious rapists. Before the outbreak of war in former Yugoslavia, Serbians spread fear and hatred with false propaganda that men belonging to the Muslim Albanian community were raping and seducing Christian Serbian girls. Similarly, the Gujarat language press in the state was flooded with reports of Muslim men raping Hindu girls before the Gujarat pogrom.

The effects of sexual violence conducted on such a mass scale in Gujarat continue till today. Tragically the shared patriarchal value systems and notions of honour of both communities has silenced many women survivors; their 'shame’ making them unable to talk about their pain and their violation. Their 'chosen’ silence is also directly linked to the State’s refusal to protect, to listen or to give justice, immeasurably worsening the trauma of their sexual violation.

Coming as it did, almost 2 years since the pogrom, the report hopes to operate as a reflection on the inadequacy of existing processes r both legal and otherwise r to provide justice and redress to victims, and as an allusion to new forms of activism around Gujarat that are relevant to broader struggles for democracy and equality. The Gujarat experience once more highlights the need to look at sexual violence as a significant engine of genocide.

We need to understand the genocidal nature of the Hindutva project so as to emphasize the critical responsibility of intervention that lies with both the civil society and the State.

It is not enough merely to reject the notion that violent retaliation or collective punishment could be commensurate with our understanding of justice. Given the complexity of the Gujarat massacres, even the more legitimate principles of punishing perpetrators and compensating the victims are cast into doubt. And yet, the difficulty of locating named perpetrators and establishing their guilt, in a majority of the cases, must not result in the denial of something called justice. At the most general level, then, we must assert that the State bears fundamental responsibility for its failure to prevent the massacres, and that a fundamental duty arises from this responsibility: a duty to recognize and atone for the wrong, and to compensate and rehabilitate the victims. This duty is owed not just to the particular individuals who have come forward with testimonies of their victimization, but to an entire community that was terrorized. In particular, we must be attentive to the cases of sexual violence, where not only are the perpetrators and victims are unnamed, and where forces within the community (concerned with issues of collective honour and shame) conspire with forces outside to keep the crime unnamed. Justice for women from the Muslim community has to be dealt with separately, over and above the generalized strategy that addresses the community as a whole.

The State then owes women a more complex approach that recognizes their entitlement to more specific reparations and includes the development of mechanisms to prevent the recurrence of such violation. It must institute actual rehabilitation measures in order to address women’s economic, social and emotional needs that range from promoting educational opportunities to providing confidential counselling.

At the release function of the report held in New Delhi on December 24th, 2003, organised by the Delhi groups of the initiative, feminist publisher and activist, Urvashi Butalia, spoke at length about the centrality of sexual violence on women in the Hindutva agenda. Drawing from the experience of Partition and the anti-sikh pogrom of 1984 in Delhi, she illustrated the complex relations between community identity and the role of women within it, and thus focussed on the specific impact of growing communalism on women. The gathering was also addressed by two Indian members of the international panel, Farah Naqvi and Uma Chakravarti. They recounted both, the testimonies of those affected by the violence, the nature of the continuing violence on the Muslim community, especially the women, and how the 'failure of the state’ to protect the rights of citizens translates into hopelessness and fear in the everyday lives of the Muslims of Gujarat.

In a statement issued on the occasion, Shabana Azmi, well known actor and former MP said, that in the context of increased intolerance and communalism, "In the last decade or so, we have witnessed growing intolerance and communalism in our country, and the violence in Gujarat has been a turning point. Muslim citizens were targeted as never before, and worse still, the struggle for justice has seemed an uphill task. Fortunately, with the Supreme Court now taking cognisance, hope may finally be restored. In this context, I believe that the effort of the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat comes at an opportune moment. It has brought to the fore the specific nature of violence on women in Gujarat, It compels us to acknowledge the continuing threat to the Muslim community in the state. At the same time, it draws on national and international law, and the experiences of its prominent panellists who have worked in conflict situations all over the world. It is clear that we must all work towards healing and reconciliation. But nothing can happen until justice is done. It is time to take the focus away from the Hindu-Muslim debate, and speak instead of how the rights of all citizens can be ensured, irrespective of community, caste or gender. The law must be seen to be above everything else."

The international Initiative for Justice in Gujarat was set up by:

Citizen’s initiative (Ahmedabad), People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL)-Shanti Abhiyan (Baroda), Communalism Combat, Aawaaz-e-Niswaan, Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW) and Stree Sangam (Bombay), Saheli, Jagori, Sama, and Nirantar (Delhi), Organised Lesbian Alliance for Visibility and Action (OLAVA, Pune).