CW: This article discusses abduction, sexual violence and murder.
In January 2018, eight Hindu men—including four police officers and one minor—abducted, raped and murdered Asifa Bano, an eight-year old Muslim girl from the Kathua district of Kashmir, India. They drugged her and locked her in a Hindu shrine, repeatedly gang-raped her for several days and then left her dead body in the forest after bludgeoning her to death with a stone and strangling her with her own scarf. Belonging to a nomadic Muslim community in a state—and indeed a country—that is predominantly Hindu, Asifa was unlucky enough to be a religious minority during a time when Hindu nationalism is sharply on the rise in India. After all, the men who raped and murdered her did so in an effort to drive her family out of the region, defiant of the fact that this Muslim family would take their sheep and goat out to graze on Hindu-dominated land (Los Angeles Times, “Why India’s rape crisis is getting worse un-
In February 2018, the case caused locals to take to the streets of Kathua in outrage…that is, outrage over the arrest of men from their own community. These demonstrations, organized in support of the accused by a right-wing “Hindu Solidarity” group, saw two state officials from the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)—the current political party in power—in attendance (Al Jazeera, “Rape as a political tool in India,” 04.19.2018).
Let me repeat: Two higher-ups from India’s current national administration rallied to show their support for the men accused of gang-raping and murdering an eight-year-old Muslim girl because the accused are Hindu, thus backing the Hindu right to (violently) drive Muslims off of land that they perceive as theirs. As in, they felt more strongly about protesting the indictment of men from their own community than they did about even acknowledging the brutal sexual violence committed against a young girl who they have deemed the “other.” They felt so strongly about it that they took to the streets, protesting legal action with which they didn’t agree.
My initial intention in writing this piece was to look at how protests and demonstrations become powerful forms of political expression, allowing the wider public to make themselves heard. I wanted to look at how words cut deep and have a resounding impact when the masses reclaim their voices, refusing to allow legal and state authority to speak for them when it doesn’t represent what they hope for. I wanted to look at protests as political art. But what does one do when the voice of a nation’s majority echoes supremacist sentiments, forcing their way into the limelight to make their endorsement of gender violence, in the name of religion, known? What does that say about national identity?
The irreconcilable horror of knowing that this is what India is beginning to stand for sparked nationwide protests demanding justice for the victim in April 2018, as the case, in all its atrocious glory, came to light. People marched across cities all over India, condemning the dreadfully pervasive sexual violence in the country as well as how Prime Minister Narendra Modi still hadn’t issued a statement despite the fact that this was the largest string of protests to erupt across the nation since 2012, when the gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus, dubbed by the media as “Nirbhaya,” took place (PRI, “Modi silent as rapes spark fury, protests in India,” 04.13.2018).
As people started to become increasingly convinced that Modi’s government was not doing enough to protect its women, word finally emerged from the country’s leader only when the case started making international headlines. While Modi condemned the rapes and expressed sorrow, he also made it known that he did not believe the case should be politicized (Los Angeles Times, “Why India’s rape crisis is getting worse under Narendra Modi,” 04.21.2018).
This nation’s leader, a Hindu man whose stance has always been quietly anti-Muslim, conveniently denies that the attempt by several Hindu nationalists to drive a Muslim family out of a region by kidnapping and raping their daughter is not highly political; is not a reflection of how the country’s misogynic culture is actually so ingrained in mindsets that it is now becoming easily translatable into a viable form of violence that can then be used to act out the extremist sentiments of a religious majority against minority groups.
I cannot emphasize enough how much this rape case exemplifies the ways in which gender violence—in a country that has an extremely serious rape problem—is deeply political, with women and children’s bodies being used as tools in a campaign of religious extremism. We are being faced with hate crime, and women are being seen as simply a means to an end.
The nation’s collective mobilization in the past few weeks against the government’s lack of action regarding women’s safety has absolutely been more impactful than the mobilization of a few conservative Hindus who decided that they were going to march for the release of accused rapists. The slogans, “#JusticeForAsifa,” “#NotInMyName,” and “I am Hindustan. I am ashamed” have rapidly spread and become national symbols of solidarity. They are the manifestations of the political art I was talking about—art that makes sense to us, that restores our faith in the positive and transformative power of national voice.
However, even as the country tries to alter the way the masses are being heard—even as people from all over India unite over a collective disappointment and outrage regarding sexual violence—it does not change the fact that there is enough of a Hindu nationalist sentiment running through the country, and enough of a culture of rape and gender violence, that the first reaction to this child’s rape was not the political “art” we might like to see protests as, but the political defense of one’s right to commit hate crime. People mobilize around issues that they think have crossed a line; in this case, the horrified reaction didn’t sprout from the rape of a woman, or even the rape of a child—that’s a daily occurrence in India, taking place every two hours. It was sparked by the realization that rape has become so much of a default that people are actually protesting in support of the accused because it doesn’t matter if he raped someone, it matters that he’s Hindu. If that’s not political, I don’t know what is.