‘Rape is rape, don’t politicise it. How can we say this many rapes happened in your government while so many rapes took place in the following government.’ This statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in London was in response to a number of recent rapes across India. In fact, Modi’s statement has already been contradicted by an advertisement taken out by the BJP on the front page of the Deccan Herald.
The rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomadic girl in Jammu and another rape that was allegedly carried out by a legislator from his party, the BJP, in Uttar Pradesh have outraged people from across the political spectrum. Earlier, Modi had also given a statement saying that rape is a ‘social evil.’
At the base of all rapes is unadulterated misogyny and Modi’s statement is of course true – all rape is indeed a social evil. However, even this benign platitude is also political for it seeks to see the crime of rape as an isolated incident rather than something that is the result of a much wider and indeed older political project. Most people understand ‘the politicisation of rape’ or indeed any such horrific tragedy as the scoring of points by opposition parties over the incumbent government.
Perhaps the least discussed and most important aspect is also the ideological justification of rape as a political weapon by some of the ideological progenitors of the Hindu right. Before delving into the weaponisation of rape, it is important to lay out the barebones details of what exactly happened.
According to police investigations, the young girl was sedated and raped on the premises of a temple for days on end and then murdered. The rapists apparently included a retired government official, his relatives, a policeman and a man who had travelled almost 500 kilometers to participate in the slow rape and murder of the little girl who was tending her flock of ponies. The 18-page police charge sheet alleges that the intent behind the rape was a desire to tell the nomadic Muslim community that they were no longer welcome in the area. When the charge sheet was filed months after the rape, local lawyers, activists and others affiliated to the ruling BJP tried to stop the police from registering a case. The local high court Bar Council called for a strike. Indeed, supporters of the rapists took out a procession with the national flag, which may be the first time that the Indian tricolour has been used in this way.
It is in this context that the ideological project of the Hindu Right becomes important. The Hindu Mahasabha was formed in 1915. Among its most prominent members was V.D. Savarkar. A protegé of Savarkar’s, K. B. Hedgewar, left the Mahasabha to found the RSS in 1925 with a view to establishing a grassroots socio-cultural organisation. Although both organisations had different methods, their goal was common: restoring past ‘Hindu glory’.
Savarkar was crucial in giving ideological direction to the Mahasabha and today he is also venerated by the RSS and BJP. As with all political projects that seek to forge a sense of nationalism out of victimhood, his writings aimed at instilling in Hindus a sense of being history’s perennial victims. At the end of his life Savarkar wrote a book in Marathi, Six Glorious Epochs of Hindu History. Full of historically inaccurate generalisations that essentialise whole communities, the book reserves particular venom for Muslim ‘demons’ as the catalysts for the downfall of Hindu glory. He saw religion as actually playing a very small part of his wider political project and therefore it is important to separate Hinduism from Hindutva: the project of creating a Hindu Nation.
‘Our molestation shall be avenged on Muslim women’
Throughout his book he also castigates ‘suicidal’ Hindus for having believed that ‘religious tolerance is a virtue.’ As Ajaz Ashraf argues Savarkar ‘reconfigured the idea of Hindu virtue’ to suit political expediency. He blamed Hindu rulers in particular for being complicit in the ‘victory’ of the Muslims. He argued that man ‘at the core is essentially an animal’ and gave examples of how African and Naga tribes would do their best to capture enemy women alive but if they couldn’t then they would make sure they would kill them. For them, the death of one woman was equal to the death of five men. Like most religious chauvinists including those of the ISIS and the Taliban, he uses the figure of the woman to bear the weight of their own insecurities.
Savarkar argued that Muslim women were to be treated as enemies for they ‘too played their devilish part in the harassment and molestation of Hindu women.’ Throughout the text, Savarkar wonders what would have happened if Hindu rulers had not been ‘chivalrous’ towards Muslim women. He then writes on behalf of dead Hindu women, ‘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.’ Elsewhere in the text, Savarkar chides Hindus for their misplaced sense of right and wrong for, as he argues in one section of his book, ‘the devil can only be fought by the arch-devil.’
This is the same Savarkar whose portrait was placed in parliament under the stewardship of the BJP and whom Modi referred to as ‘a true patriot.’ Savarkar’s call for rape as a political weapon still finds open resonance among communal fanatics. Yogi Adityanath, now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, once made a speech threatening to “convert a hundred Muslim girls for every 1 Hindu girl that ‘they’ take.” Members of Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini have openly called for the exhumation and rape of dead Muslim women. In Gujarat in 2002, Delhi 1984 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013, rape was used as a weapon against minority women.
The rape in Jammu and the manner in which it was carried out in a temple of all places illustrates how Savarkar’s ideas have borne fruit through their propagation by the whole constellation of organisations that seek to create a Hindu rashtra. Yet today, people expect there to be change in our country when Prime Minister Modi is able to both bow in front of Savarkar’s statue in parliament and then speak of rape as a ‘social evil.’
Modi spoke of rape as a social evil on the birth anniversary of one of the principle framers of the Indian constitution, B. R. Ambedkar. Following its rise to power in 2014, the BJP has appropriated figures from India’s independence movement in order give itself mass legitimacy. This appropriation is natural, for in the absence of any intellectual link to the current constitution, which the RSS had anyway condemned, the BJP simply had to co-opt Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and others. However, these appropriations sit uncomfortably with their own intellectual tradition. Ambedkar, while writing about M. A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and Savarkar wrote:
“Strange as it may appear, Mr. Savarkar and Mr. Jinnah instead of being opposed to each other on the one nation versus two nations issue are in complete agreement about it. Both agree, not only agree but insist that there are two nations in India—one the Muslim nation and the other Hindu nation.”
Like most intellectuals Ambedkar went through phases in his life during which he modified his views. These are cherry-picked by people from across the political spectrum but there is no doubt that Ambedkar was wholely averse to the Mahasabha and RSS’s ideological project of creating a Hindu state. This is why, towards the latter part of his life, he and thousands of his followers embraced Buddhsim en masse. One of Ambedkar’s main arguments in his book, The Annihilation of Caste, is that Dalits, India’s ‘lowest-caste,’ and tribals have historically been targeted because of descent, much like what is happening with Muslims today.
The tragedy is that most Indians are either unaware or wilfully ignore the reality of the RSS’s ideological project. The RSS is no different from other ethnic or religious nationalists. When fanatics in Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East or Africa deploy rape as a political weapon, their religious justification is assumed as given. Answers are sought by deconstructing the fatwas of people like the famous 13th century Damascene jusrist ibn Taimiyya. This is necessary because ideas travel across history and ultimately undergird and justify the actions of their adherents. Then why the double standard for those acting in the name of another form of religious nationalism? In exploring the roots of ‘Islamic radicalism,’ centuries old texts are deconstructed, yet we ignore Savarkar’s works who was only writing a century ago and whose portrait adorns the Indian parliament.
For four days a little girl who probably didn’t even know what it meant to be Muslim was raped by different men and then murdered. If her rape does not awaken this country to the reality of the ruling dispensation’s ideological roots then all one can do is wait. Wait for the next rape to happen so that we can take out candlelight vigils, register outrage on social media and trot out generalisations about ‘social evils.’
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is an assistant professor of political science and history at Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.