Sunita Singh Gaur of Ramkola, Uttar Pradesh, India secured for herself a place in history when she soared to international infamy after an explicit social media summons for “Hindu brothers” to gangrape Muslim “mothers and sisters”.
The jaw-dropping demand might have attracted little attention if it were not for Gaur’s role as head of the Ramkola chapter of the Mahila Morcha of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even then, it likely would have been dismissed as an aberration – the freakish ramblings of some bigoted crackpot who managed to slip unvetted into a party leadership role – if it were not remarkably consistent with the actions of some of the most notorious members of her party and the Hindutva ideology upon which it was founded.
“It was a religious duty of every Muslim to kidnap, and force into their own religion, non-Muslim women,” alleged V.D. Savarkar in the 1960s. Decades after he articulated Hindutva as a religious nationalist political ideology – one which undergirds the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP – Savarkar penned a history of the Indian subcontinent which was posthumously published in English as Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History.
The voluminous work of questionable historical accuracy claims that Muslims (both as invaders and as rulers) systematically raped “millions” of Hindu women as part of a deliberate plan for “increasing the Muslim population with special regard to the unavoidable laws of nature”. Mixing his telling of history with scathing criticism of the Hindu leaders of past ages, he accuses them of embracing “perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women” which restrained them from paying “the Muslim fair sex in the same coin”.
It was, as journalist Ajaz Ashraf noted, a call to employ rape as a political weapon.
Survivors of rape who speak about their experiences invariably talk about how they wish that no one else ever has to go through such suffering. Savarkar, however, put his own words into the mouths of imagined victims.
Envisioning the “plaintive screams and pitiful lamentations of the millions of molested Hindu women which reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the country,” he speculated that their souls might say: “Let those Sultans and their peers take a fright that in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women. Once they are haunted with this dreadful apprehension, that the Muslim women, too, stand in the same predicament in case the Hindus win, the future Muslim conquerors will never dare to think of such molestation of Hindu women.”
While employing distinctly unvarnished rhetoric in contrast to Savarkar’s flowery language, Sunita Singh Gaur proposed an identical policy. “To protect India,” she said in her Facebook post (which came to light in late June 2019), “Hindu brothers must barge into every Muslim home by making a group of 10 to 20, and gang-rape their women.” The defilement, she insisted, must be done “openly on the streets,” after which the victims should be hung “in the middle of [the] bazaar for others to see.”
Gaur’s post prompted swift and extensive outrage as it was first shared across social media platforms and then widely reported by mainstream media. On June 29, Mahila Morcha national president Vijaya Rahatkar posted on Twitter: “The lady in question has been expelled.” Rahatkar offered words of assurance. “BJP Mahila Morcha will not tolerate any hateful comments whatsoever.”
Be assured, BJP Mahila Morcha will not tolerate any hateful comments whatsoever from any karyakarta. The lady in question has been expelled even before you tweeted. pic.twitter.com/r4xIx6AHGG
— Vijaya Rahatkar (@VijayaRahatkar) June 29, 2019
Yet, while the expulsion was necessary action, other recent statements – and actions – by higher-profile BJP leaders suggest that Gaur’s dismissal merely means that the party is washing its hands off a low-ranking member who became a liability.
Yogi Adityanath remains one of the most prominent and egregious examples of the BJP not only turning a blind eye to poisonous rhetoric but actually promoting those who employ it. Few are more notorious – or prolific – when it comes to producing hate speech. When he was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Amnesty International India took the exceptional step of issuing a statement directly denouncing a single politician. He must, said Amnesty, “publicly withdraw his previous inflammatory statements against Muslims and other religious minorities.”
A former MP, the volatile Adityanath founded the Hindu Yuva Vahini in 2002 to, ostensibly, “promote the harmonious development of society.” Allegations against the HYV’s include conversions, targeted killings, incitement of riots and burning of trains.
“If I ask for blood, they will give me blood,” said Adityanath in 2009. “When I ask them to rise and protect our Hindu culture, they obey.”
Adityanath’s idea of how to “protect Hindu culture” closely resembles Sunita Singh Gaur’s idea of how to “protect India.” At one rally in the mid-2000s, he argued that a religious war is imminent because Muslim and Hindu cultures cannot co-exist – then sat and listened as another speaker called on the audience to dig up Muslim women from their graves and rape them. At another rally, Adityanath dwelled on the supposed problem of Hindu girls eloping with Muslim men. In a call and response with the crowd of 1,000 or more, he declared, “If they take take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls. If they kill one Hindu, there will be 100 that we kill.”
Nevertheless, Adityanath was sworn-in as chief minister at a grand ceremony in 2017, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Elsewhere in India, the use of rape as a political weapon has seen instances of BJP support for the rapists. In January 2018, the abominable gang-rape of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua, it emerged, was a conspiracy to terrorise the Muslims into fleeing the region. The conspiracy backfired as several people were arrested, including a local Hindu priest and multiple police officers – one of whom was accused of master-minding, others of destroying evidence.
Rather than disavowing the accused, sections of the BJP leapt to their defence. The party’s state secretary, Vijay Sharma, founded the Hindu Ekta Manch for their support. When the HEM organised a February rally of more than 5,000 people, at least three BJP state legislators joined: ministers Choudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga as well as MLA Rajiv Jasrotia. “We went there on the party’s instruction,” Ganga said. In April, when the Kathua rape – and these BJP leaders’ support for the rapists – made international headlines, Ganga and Singh resigned.
Meanwhile, as the Indian diaspora organised protests to support the child victim, Modi spoke out during a mid-April visit to London. Rather than censuring the ministers, he merely noted that “rape is rape,” and instructed to not “politicise rape incidents”.
Two weeks later, Jasrotia was sworn-in as a state cabinet minister and assigned the same portfolio vacated by Singh. Explaining that the party did not want Singh and Ganga to step down, BJP spokesperson Ram Madhav stated, “They resigned because the media created an impression that they were supporting the rape accused.”
In June, Madhav described their attendance at the rally as an “indiscretion,” using the opportunity to lash out at Congress for “trying to politicise the issue.”
If attending a rally to support a gang who raped a child is an “indiscretion,” what does one call participation in a full-scale massacre of a minority community?
During the 2002 Gujarat riots too, attackers implemented what was essentially Sunita Singh Gaur’s recommendation. “Women and girls were gang-raped in public view before being hacked and burned to death,” reported Human Rights Watch. Gaur’s explicit post advised rapists to “cut them and impale their vagina” – and, as HRW reported, countless eyewitnesses reported women in 2002 were “raped and cut” while one victim even arrived at a refugee camp “unconscious and with an iron rod stuck inside her vagina.”
“I made bombs, rocket launchers, swords, and distributed them across Gujarat,” boasted Haresh Bhatt in a video secretly filmed by Tehelka. Then coordinator of Bajrang Dal, Bhatt continued, “Firearms and swords were smuggled in from other states as well.”
Speaking about Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, he said, “What he did, no chief minister has ever done…. He had given us three days…. After three days, he asked us to stop and everything came to a halt.” Speaking to The New York Times at the conclusion of those three days, Bhatt dubbed himself “the first enemy of Muslims.”
“We didn’t spare any of them,” local Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi told Tehelka. “They shouldn’t be allowed to breed. Whoever they are, even if they’re women or children, there’s nothing to be done with them; cut them down. Thrash them, slash them, burn the bastards.”
He bragged about his role in the attack on the Muslim majority Naroda Patiya neighbourhood. In one of the worst massacres of the three-day pogrom, over 70 of the Naroda dead (according to official figures) were women and children. “Everyone was on a killing spree,” said Bajrangi. “There were bodies everywhere.” They “dumped the corpses in a well” – except for those they set on fire.
“Hacked, burnt, set on fire, many things were done,” he said. “We believe in setting them on fire because these bastards say they don’t want to be cremated.” Praising Modi for doing what “nobody can do,” he declared, “It was his hand all the way.”
At the end of the day, he said, “I came back after I killed them them, called up the home minister, and went to sleep.” The home minister then was Gordhan Zadafia. In charge of state security forces then, he is a long-time VHP activist turned BJP politician.
“I spoke to Gordhan Zadafia,” said Bajrangi. “He told me to leave Gujarat and go into hiding.”
One of the participants who didn’t go into hiding was BJP MLA Maya Kodnani, despite partnering with Bajrangi as a key leader of the Naroda Patiya massacre. Eyewitnesses repeatedly identified both of them, testifying that they distributed weapons and urged on the attackers. “Mayaben was moving around all day in an open jeep,” Suresh Richard, one of those attackers, told Tehelka. “She was saying, ‘Jai Shri Ram. Jai Shri Ram.’ … She kept raising slogans. She said, carry on with your work.”
What was Richard’s work? “When thousands of hungry men go in, they will eat some fruit or the other,” he said. “Many Muslim girls were being killed and burnt to death anyway, some people must have helped themselves to the fruit. The fruit was there so it had to be eaten. I also ate…. That scrap-dealer’s girl, Naseemo…. I got on top…. Then I pulped her.” Afterwards, he said, he “had to go killing again.”
Although Vijaya Rahatkar claims it has expelled Sunita Singh Gaur because the BJP Mahila Morcha “will not tolerate any hateful comments whatsoever,” participation in the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children was not enough to convince the BJP to expel MLA Kodnani. She was later made Minister of State for Women and Child Development. Haresh Bhatt, meanwhile, was rewarded with a seat in the state legislature.
“Clearly, it was the Hindutva card that worked in our favour,” said Bhatt when he won in December 2002. “This election was fought for establishing a Hindu nation.”
Bhatt was never charged. Kodnani and Bajrangi were finally charged, however. Their trial began in 2009. In 2012, ten years after the pogrom, both were convicted and sentenced – Kodnani to 28 years and Bajrangi to life. Yet Modi – who allegedly did what “no chief minister has ever done” – never faced any legal repercussions.
In 2010, while the Supreme Court was investigating the pogrom, there was talk that Zadafia might testify against Modi. That idea died as Times of India reported that RSS executives were contacting Zadafia to “persuade him not to take this step at this juncture.” Then, in 2012, the court’s investigating team concluded that there was not enough prosecutable evidence to charge Modi. That cleared the path for him to campaign for the prime ministership. Then in April 2018, a Gujarat court acquitted Kodnani. In March 2019, the Supreme Court determined that Bajrangi was “in bad shape” and should be granted bail.
For his loyalty and silence, Zadafia was entrusted with managing the BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It was a cathartic release for a man who once was considered likely to turn state’s evidence against Modi. It was also an affirmation of his ideological commitment. Upon announcement of his appointment, Economic Times reported, “What is, however, unquestionable is the 64-year-old leader’s Hindutva credentials as his ties with RSS and VHP always remained strong.”
Zadafia’s efforts paid off. The BJP swept the parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh. “Earlier it was a Modi wave,” he told The Week. “This time, it is a Modi tsunami across India.”
On May 28, just a few days after the results of that ‘tsunami’ were announced, Modi posted a video on Twitter. Set to a melodramatic musical score, the video shows him paying obeisance to a photo of Savarkar.
We bow to Veer Savarkar on his Jayanti.
Veer Savarkar epitomises courage, patriotism and unflinching commitment to a strong India.
He inspired many people to devote themselves towards nation building. pic.twitter.com/k1rmFHz250
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 28, 2019
It was not Modi’s first time eulogising the father of Hindutva. “Savarkar ji’s personality was full of special qualities,” he said in 2014. “He was also a striking poet and a social reformer who always emphasised on goodwill and unity.”
We remember & salute Veer Savarkar’s tireless efforts towards the regeneration of our Motherland: PM @narendramodi paying tributes
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) May 28, 2014
Yet what was it that Savarkar so poetically emphasised as necessary for regeneration of the motherland? “Were a serpent (an inveterate national enemy) to come with a view to bite the motherland, he should be smashed to pieces with a surprise attack, deceit, or cunning or in any other way possible,” he wrote in Six Glorious Epochs. Accusing Muslims of “slaughtering Hindus irrespective of their age or sex and pulling down the Hindu holy places of worship,” he declared: “Because the Hindus did not emulate the Muslims in this respect, these local Muslims who were left alive and unmolested, turned traitors, like serpents fed and fostered as pets.”
“A serpent, whether male or female, if it comes to bite must be killed,” he asserted. Arguing that “the whole of the Hindu nation” was, during times of Muslim rule, “utterly infatuated with the perverted sense of virtues,” he specified one of those virtues as “the suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry to women.”
The problem, he insisted, was that “only Muslim men, and not women, were taken prisoner” and that “even when they were taken prisoner in battles, the Muslim women – royal ladies as also the commonest slaves – were invariably sent back safe and sound to their respective families.”
He was horrified that “this act was glorified by the Hindus as their chivalry towards the enemy women and the generosity of their religion.”
Such chivalry must be rejected as a vice rather than a virtue – so thought Savarkar.
Sunita Singh Gaur seems to have thought the same. Her despicable comments are inexcusable, yet she may certainly be excused for mistakenly believing that she could get away with expressing such views as a BJP leader. Many other party leaders have succeeded in actually enacting rather than merely expressing the extent of violence Gaur recommended. Perhaps the simple truth is that she lacked the social capital necessary to receive the party’s protection – even reward – for what she did.
She lacked the political power of an Adityanath, a Kodnani, or a Modi.
One thing is certain. Expelling Gaur is not a panacea for the hatred which the BJP has not only tolerated but given safe haven, fostered, and purveyed throughout the country. The very first step on a sincere journey towards eradicating “hateful comments” – and the horrifying atrocities they produce – would be the rejection of Savarkar and his poisonous ideology of Hindutva.
Pieter Friedrich is a writer and analyst based in Amsterdam who specialises is South Asian affairs.