In recent years, India has witnessed a disturbingly high volume of sex crimes – so much so that when the rape and murder of Asifa, an eight-year-old girl from a Muslim nomadic community in Kathua, in the restive Jammu and Kashmir province, came to light three months ago, it was not a major news story right away.
Asifa’s family was too poor to matter. The perpetrators belonged to the dominant Hindu community and had political and bureaucratic backing. Her being a Muslim in a region marked by ascendancy of Hindu nationalism meant justice would be a struggle, especially as the legal system is infamous for its sloth. But in recent days, the Justice for Asifa campaign has transformed into a countrywide movement. Painful details of the violence inflicted on the child have come to light and Indians have reacted with shock to efforts by the local Hindu community to shield the accused.
While sexual violence is not uncommon in India, what triggered outrage this time were the protests organised in support of the crime. It’s not every day that one sees people waving the national flag and chanting nationalist slogans trivialising the pain of the family of a rape victim and glorifying the perpetrators. Hindu politicians from different parties, including the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), joined in, openly threatening violence if the perpetrators were punished.
Hindus in this region see themselves as an Indian nationalist bulwark against what they consider Pakistan-backed Muslim separatists. Asifa was kept hidden in a temple and repeatedly gang-raped there, and the key perpetrators spoke of themselves as custodians of the Hindu community. This pathology of imagining the dominant self as weak under threat from minorities, and hence engaging in violence against minorities is part and parcel of Hindu majoritarian chauvinist thinking. During my fieldwork for my book on Hindu nationalism, I often came across Hindu extremists who saw Muslims as posing an existential threat to the security of Hindu women, Hindu society and the Hindu nation. All kinds of conspiracies were ascribed to Muslims, with Hindu supremacist nationalism shown as the only way to secure Hindus. Hindu nationalism is thus presented as a legitimate reaction to aggressive Islam.
The imagination of the Muslim as the dangerous Other to the Hindu Self has a conspicuous, sexualised dimension. Muslim men are seen as seductive lovers or possible rapists of Hindu women and the response that this politics of imagination puts forward is for Hindu men to emulate and (re)masculinise themselves. Rape of Muslim women and murder of Muslim men are legitimised as “revenge” and securing the Hindu Self. Asifa’s rape and murder was not an opportunist crime, but a result of this politics of hatred that dehumanises Muslims.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained silence about the Asifa saga for a long time. To expect him to be disturbed by the Hindu nationalist backing for rape in the name of community solidarity would be to forget the history of his own rise to power. Modi burst into national politics in 2002 when there was a large-scale pogrom and violence, including rape, targeting Muslims in his state under his watch. He rode to power in Delhi as a section of upwardly mobile caste Hindus saw in him a strong man who would stand up to minorities and secularists weakening the nation. He has won all his elections since. In India, Islamophobia pays.
Hindu nationalists will trivialise the rape of a Muslim by ignoring it or by representing it as a conspiracy to malign the Hindu community and nation. But that the lawyer for Asifa’s family as well as the main police official in charge of the investigation are themselves Hindus illustrates that this is not a Hindu versus Muslim struggle but one between Hindu supremacists and those who believe in the possibility of an India where human lives matter regardless of faith. ■
Dibyesh Anand is a professor at the University of Westminster and author of ‘Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of Fear’