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In The Long History Of India, We Are At Another Tipping Point: Sexual Violence

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“Yeh daagh daagh ujaalaa, yeh shab gazidaa seher

Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin

Yeh woh seher to nahin, jis ki aarzoo lekar

Chaley thay yaar ke mil jaye gi kahin na kahin…

Abhi garaani-e-shab mein kami nahin aayi

Najaat-e-deedaa-o-dil ki ghadi nahin aayi

Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahin aayi.

( “This stained light, this night-bitten dawn;

This is not that long-awaited day break;

This is not the dawn in whose longing,

We set out believing we would find, somewhere…

Night’s heaviness is unlessened;

The hour of the heart and spirit’s deliverance has not yet arrived;

Let us go on, that goal has not yet arrived.”)

—By Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 15th August 1947.

Every country has its moments of reckoning, a historical tipping point. In our sub-continent, several moments of reckoning keep knocking on our doors and historical tipping points tip over as we sit glued to our TV sets or computer or phone screens, oblivious to the calamity around us. The image where a man is holding a sign that says, “Apocalypse happened while I was on Facebook” is a no longer funny because it seems pretty much the reality of India right now. We are facing yet another moment of reckoning, and it’s about women’s safety.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim (L) and Asaram Bapu (R), both accused of rape.

In a deeply misogynistic sub-continent, where sex education is prohibited, women’s bodies are tightly regulated and controlled, even as self-proclaimed god-men roam around naked, or rape women in the guise of religion or tradition.

In South Asia, it is alarming the way majoritarian communities treat our minorities and the marginalized, especially, the wars against minorities that are waged on the bodies of children and women belonging to these disenfranchised communities.

The rampant use of rape and sexual violence during riots or wars have proved that it is a political tool, devoid of sexual desires or lust—it is solely about the desire for power. Through the sexual violence that dominant communities exercise (the power to shame a survivor and her community) by dominating over them through the warped logic that the honour of the community can be taken away by penetrating a vagina. This is the widely accepted logic of a twisted and the perverse society that places ‘honour’ on the body and sexuality of woman-identified persons.

The violent history of the sub-continent and its evolution through bloodshed and human misery has normalised these particular tools. India and neighbouring Pakistan (which also included Bangladesh till 1971), were born through an extremely gory and violent phase in 1947. According to UNHCR, the Partition remains the largest mass migration of people in human history, during which millions lost their lives. The violence, particularly, the sexual violence against children and women was horrific and widespread. What was more disturbing was that there were so many who got away with this—perhaps people we knew and loved were a part of these hate-crimes. There were so many of them that there were not enough courts to try them or prison cells to jail them in India or in Pakistan, and they got away as the chaos of 1947 erased their criminal pasts. Thereby, firmly establishing a system that normalized violence and a society that believed in the legitimacy of sexual violence.

We are the grandchildren of the bloody Partition on 1947 and have inherited the violent system and the politics of hate that seems to be raging across the sub-continent. In 2018, nothing has changed except for worsened conditions for minorities and the marginalized, targeting children and women who belong to these groups. Now hearing or reading about gang-rapes has become a matter of daily news in India, and news headlines, such as, “sexual crimes against children has increased 34% in one year”, or “India’s rape problem” are so common that it doesn’t elicit many reactions from our numbed masses. However, let’s not be mistaken about this moment in history—our tipping point in history is here once again.

Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri activist who went on a hunger strike demanding the end of AFSPA.

Between 1947 and now, many instances of mass violence and gang-rapes targeting specific minorities and marginalized communities have taken place.

In international conflict zones, such as Kashmir and the states of the North East, the Indian state has used the draconian law AFSPA and made rape a State-sanctioned tool to dominate over rebelling masses.

Kunan Poshpora, is an example of how the state and armed forces enjoy the excessive power that they can abuse with impunity.

In mainland India, 1984, there was another moment of reckoning—the year witnessed a series of violent events that led to the horrific and brutal state suppression of the Khalistan movement and its aftermath, including, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed by attacks against Sikhs to avenge her death and the majoritarian sentiments. I was just born when the 1984 events took place but as we grew up and heard about them, we couldn’t fathom how a State punishes a whole community for the crime of a few individuals. It took us a while and we learnt our lessons of the politics of hate, a politics that breeds such irrationality that doesn’t even spare children.

In 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished, it happened again. The centrist party running the country stood watching like a passive bystander, revelling in the majoritarian sentiments of “Mandir wahi banayenge (We shall build the temple there)”. Even as a child, I was horrified watching the scenes of the Kar Sevaks (right-wing militants/terrorists) climbing up the Babar-era mosque and breaking it down, many of them using their fists. But my country refused to wake up from its slumber and once again, the state had normalized and sanctioned majoritarian violence.

Gujarat Riots

The aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolitions has been long drawn—it is the slowly simmering embers of communal rage. As history is testimony, the communal rage only works for dominant groups and/or groups that are larger in number. India is no exception, and the majoritarian driven Hindutva groups have grown stronger. They not only threaten and destroy the minority and marginalized communities with their simmering communal rage, but they are also bringing havoc upon the country. Several full-fledged outbursts of this communal rage take place every day across the country but the major ones that shook us were the Bombay riots and then later in 2002, the Gujarat riots. The Bombay riots were extremely frightening as they demonstrated how violence lurks within ordinary people and circumstances, waiting for that one trigger moment to jump out and unleash death and destruction.  However, Gujarat riots of 2002 under the Bharatiya Janta Party then led by the current Prime Minister took the level of violence even further. The number of Muslims killed and the sexual violence unleashed on Muslim women and children, where even pregnant women were not spared, was unprecedented. The unchecked violence unleashed in the Gujarat riots normalized violence to yet another terrifying level. In 2013, Muzzafarnagar was another example when the state turns a blind eye (like it does during every riot) and lets Hindutva mobs use sexual violence to terrify, humiliate, and dominate a community.

India is dotted with instances of mass sexual violence mostly perpetrated by Hindu majoritarian terrorist mobs, supported by a culture of apathy, religious fanaticism, extreme patriarchy, and casual misogyny. Since the news of the Kathua case reached us, people shared right-wing propaganda and fake news of other rape cases perpetrated on Hindu women by Muslim men, keeping in line with the right-wing strategy of ‘whataboutery’. This act of sharing fake news is not only grave as it can lead to fueling communal tensions and rioting, it is actually sick. In some perverted sense of logic, it tries to justify a real incident of brutal rape and murder of a child to scare away her disenfranchised nomadic Muslim community, by sharing about another brutal rape and murder of a woman that never happened. Therefore, by the track record of systemic and normalized violence by state and private actors in India, what happened in Kathua or in all the other places was not an aberration at all. They were waiting to happen and fitted in perfectly with the larger scheme of things—the narrative of a Hindu nation propagated by the ruling party and supported by a large number of the population.

The only problem with this widespread acceptance and unleashing of violence, particularly, against children and women, is that it will not spare any one. The experience of some form of violence is universal to all irrespective of caste, class, religion, region. Any feeling of comfort and safety is just that, a feeling that is entirely false and can be violated at any moment.

India vs Hindutva?

The first time I faced sexual harassment I was in Class VI and on my way back from my tutor or perhaps the year before when I went to pick up my sister from Sealdah station. In any case, I was merely a child and wore salwar kameez in both instances; should that provoke lust in anyone? The next time that I remember prominently was when I was returning to Kolkata in a Rajdhani train, and a man tried to molest me at night when I was trying to fall asleep. I will never forget the trouble I took to report the case to the railway police; most importantly I will never forget their response, “Ache ghar ki ladkiya aise report nahi likhwate hai (Girls from good families do not report such cases).” I still travel alone but avoid the side bunks of trains because that is how debilitating the experience is to a person.

Another prominent memory of harassment was when I moved back to Delhi and was staying in Malviya Nagar. I was followed by a car on my way to watch a night show at one of the movie halls in Saket. On reporting the crime, the police repeated the cliché, “Why were you out that late?” Needless to say, no action was taken ever.

Connect these experiences with our everyday lives, where wife and women jokes are the norm, and violence is something that women in the sub-continent learn to live with. Young girls are taught at an early age to walk with their hands over their chest to protect their often non-existent breasts. This misogyny combined with the Hindutva majoritarian hate-politics is a breeding ground for sexual violence waiting to happen. Therefore, in the light of our historical evolution, the systems that normalize violence and the social structures that sanction it, even the most frightening occurrences are not unexpected at all. Even if a little girl is abducted, gang-raped, sedated, and murdered, to send a message to her marginalized nomadic community.

We shouldn’t be shocked that members of the ruling party joined a rally to protect the accused under the banner of Hindu religion and India. This was waiting to happen as the embers of communal rage had reached a point of explosion even as the ruling party and powerful people fanned this hatred and are responsible for increasing hate-crimes against Muslims, Dalits, and tribal communities. We shouldn’t be shocked at the harrowing experience of a teenage girl narrating her ordeal of gang-rape and threats to keep silent from powerful men in her community. We shouldn’t be surprised that her father was beaten up in police custody and died later of the injuries while pleading for justice for his daughter. We shouldn’t be surprised either that economic policies—be it demonetization or Digital India or Make in India or Skill India or failed promises to create more jobs—have not worked and even hurt the Indian economy, yet they have a strong fan base. Especially notable is the otherwise media-savvy and travel-happy heads of the party, refusing to speak about the issues plaguing the country right now or visit those places where lynching-deaths has become a daily occurrence.

Predictably, the strategy to distract the Indian masses from these issues is the fail-proof strategy of a Hindutva rampage, and flaring up communal politics has worked. Hindutva is the ideology that legitimizes majoritarian domination and fuels hate crimes. Sexual violence is only one aspect of the universe of hate-crimes that exist, including, arson, beef-lynchings, and other forms of violence that have increased under the current regime. The ideology promotes divisiveness and doesn’t spare anyone. It identifies the ‘other’, the non-Hindus, as The Enemy, but the definition is not limited and may include non-conformists, dissenters, and rebels within the Hindu community. Therefore, if we do not accept and toe their line, we are all The Enemy.

But despite the threats we cannot and must not toe the line of Hindutva because as the young speaker at the 15th April protests said that, “Hum agar abhi in sab cheezon ko nahi rokenge to shayad democracy, freedom, pyar, dosti aur equality jaise shabd sirf copy-kitabon mein hi padne ke liye rah jayenge (If we still don’t stop these things then maybe words such as, democracy, freedom, love, friendship and equality, will remain only in the books).”

As contentious as the Thomson Reuters report is in making the statement that India is the worst country for women, it has to be read alongside other reports on rising violence in India. The rising attacks against minorities, attacks on press freedom, and, generally, the concern that Indian democracy is at stake, is happening in the current climate of growing Hindu Fundamentalism. Violence in India has come to a full-circle today. The rampant culture of misogyny where mother and sister slurs are popular across regions, in combination with the animosity towards anyone who is different from the majority is fueling the widespread violence. Be it a non-heterosexual person, a non-gender confirming person, Dalits, minorities, particularly, Muslims (because of what they did 2000 years ago, apparently), a ‘beef-eater’, an independent person/woman, and anyone who is considered to be the ‘other, who are critical of policies and ask questions, are under scrutiny and attack. The animosity fuelled by the majoritarian politics has made us apathetic to hate-crimes, including, flogging, mob-lynching and children being gang-raped and murdered. Mob-lynching has surpassed cricket as our national sport now. It is now normalized to see videos of mob-lynching being circulated where children join in to beat people who are old enough to be their grandfathers. Yet these videos of rape and murder-lynching’s go viral as if satiating the bloodlust in the rest of us who join in the mindless violence virtually. And all of this is justified in the name of religion, culture and nation.

Finally, in these dark times, we need to remind ourselves of the broader links between Kathua and Unnao and all the others hate-crimes—they connected to the larger narrative of the Nation State and a homogeneous society in making.

MUMBAI, INDIA – OCTOBER 20, 2005: Mumbai’s Women Demonstration protest against the sexual assault by Police personnel at DG Head Quarter on Thursday. (Photo by Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Remember our history and that these incidents are the by-products of a bloody and botched evolution of the sub-continent that torments us till today. Remember that these incidents have been taking place for so long that they don’t shock us anymore. But remember that now is a final wake-up call to take action in whatever ways we can to stop this hate-mongering narrative of nation and society, and start working on another one where ideas of love, freedom and equality are not confined to books, finding that promised land that our freedom fighters lived and died for.

Featured image: Pinjra Tod/Facebook.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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