Body of the Nation
Why women were mutilated in Gujarat
June 1, 2004
Jun 1, 2004
41 Min read time
Why women were mutliated in Gujarat.
I. What Happened
On February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati express train arrived in the station of Godhra, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, packed with Hindu pilgrims who were returning from Ayodhya. Ayodhya, as the alleged birthplace of the god Rama, has been a focal point of Hindu anti-Muslim feeling for several decades. In 1992, Hindu zealots destroyed the 16th-century Babri mosque there, claiming that it covered the remains of a Hindu temple. The pilgrimage, like many others in recent times, aimed at forcibly constructing a temple over the disputed site, and the mood of the returning passengers, stymied by the government and the courts, was angry. When the train stopped at the station, passengers got into arguments with Muslim vendors and passengers. At least one Muslim vendor was beaten up when he refused to say “Jai Sri Ram” (“Hail Ram”), and a young Muslim girl narrowly escaped forcible abduction. As the train left the station, stones were thrown at it, apparently by Muslims.
Fifteen minutes later, one car of the train erupted in flames. Fifty-eight men, women, and children died in the fire. Most of the dead were Hindus. Attempts to determine what really happened by reconstructing the event have shown only that a large amount of a flammable substance must have been thrown from inside the train. Because the area adjacent to the tracks was an area of Muslim dwellings, and because a Muslim mob had gathered in the vicinity to protest the incident on the train platform, blame was immediately put on Muslims. (Later, a number of public figures argued that the blaze was set by Hindu nationalists attempting to provoke a rampage.)
In the days that followed, wave upon wave of violence swept through the state. The attackers were Hindus, many of them highly politicized, shouting Hindu-right slogans, such as “Hail Ram” (a religious invocation wrenched from its original devotional and peaceful meaning) and “Hail Hanuman” (a monkey god traditionally celebrated for loyalty, but portrayed by the Hindu right as highly aggressive), along with “Kill!,” “Destroy!,” “Slaughter!” There is copious evidence that the violence was planned before the precipitating event. The victims were almost all Muslims, with an occasional Christian or Parsi thrown in. There was no connection between the identity of the victims and the identity of alleged perpetrators: attacks took place, for the most part, far from the original site. In fact, many families of the original dead implored the mobs to stop. Nonetheless, more than 2,000 Muslims were killed in a few days, many by being burned alive in or near their homes. No one was spared: young children were burned along with their families.
Particularly striking were the mass rapes and mutilations of women. The typical tactic was first to rape or gang-rape the woman, then to torture her, and then to set her on fire and kill her. Although the fact that most of the dead were incinerated makes a precise sex count of the bodies impossible, one mass grave that was discovered contained more than half female bodies. Many victims of rape and torture are also among the survivors who have testified. The historian Tanika Sarkar, who played a leading role in investigating the events and interviewing witnesses, has argued in an important article that the evident preoccupation with destroying women’s sexual organs reveals “a dark sexual obsession about allegedly ultra-virile Muslim male bodies and overfertile Muslim female ones, that inspire[s] and sustain[s] the figures of paranoia and revenge.”1 This sexual obsession is evident in the hate literature circulated during the carnage, of which the following “poem” is a typical example:
Narendra Modi [Chief Minister of Gujarat] you have fucked the mother of [Muslims]
The volcano which was inactive for years has erupted
It has burnt the arse of [Muslims] and made them dance nude
We have untied the penises which were tied till now
Without castor oil in the arse we have made them cry. . .
Wake up Hindus, there are still [Muslims] alive around you
Learn from Panvad village where their mother was fucked
She was fucked standing while she kept shouting
She enjoyed the uncircumcised penis
With a Hindu government the Hindus have the power to annihilate [Muslims]
Kick them in the arse to drive them out of not only villages and cities but also the country.
[The word rendered “Muslims” (“miyas”) is a word meaning “mister” that is standardly used to refer to Muslims.]
As Sarkar says, the incitement to violence is suffused with anxiety about male sexuality, and the treatment of women that resulted seems to enact a fantasy of sexual sadism far darker than mere revenge. In an affidavit submitted to the Commission of Enquiry in June 2002, the leading feminist legal activist Flavia Agnes testified that although sexual crime is a common part of communal violence, the “scale and extent of atrocities perpetrated upon innocent Muslim women during the recent violence, far exceeds any reported sexual crime during any previous riots in the country in the post-independence period.”2
The events in Gujarat in 2002 are of immense importance to anyone thinking about the future of democracy.3 In a companion piece to the present essay, published in Dissent,4 I have written about the breakdown of the rule of law in Gujarat, the active abetting of genocide by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at both the state and national levels, and the evidence that elements in the U.S. Indian community are funding religious violence. I have also argued that the construction of Hinduism put forward by the Hindu right is not traditional or indigenous, but is in most respects borrowed from European fascism, which the founders of the Hindu right greatly admired. My aim in this article is to follow Sarkar’s lead, focusing on Gujarat’s gruesome sexual violence and asking how it might be further illuminated with the aid of ideas drawn from feminist thought.
First, with the aid of Sarkar’s important scholarship, I shall describe a history of connecting women’s bodies to the idea of the Indian nation. This connection, I believe, is implicit in the events of Gujarat. But Sarkar’s analysis can be taken even further if we connect her account of home-as-nation to the feminist analysis of objectification. Not even this analysis suffices, however, to explain the extreme gruesomeness of the sexual tortures in Gujarat. We can go further with the help of an account of misogynistic disgust that was originally sketched in Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse.5 The events of Gujarat will thus be seen to involve psychological dynamics that are widespread in gender relations; they took a particularly anxious and aggressive form in this concrete political context.
II. Women as Nation
During the period of colonial rule the British needed to establish secure control over national political processes and criminal and commercial law. They achieved this control in part by establishing a uniform legal code for these aspects of the law. But they left family law in the hands of the different religious communities. Christians, Parsis, Hindus, and Muslims: each group had its own laws for marriage, divorce, inheritance, and succession.6 In the case of the Hindu system, the British actively aided its codification, building a single system out of many systems of local jurisdiction. This separation of family law from other legal arenas was all the more easily accepted because it tracked a distinction between the “public realm” and the “private realm” that was traditional not only in Western political philosophy but also in Indian legal and philosophical traditions.7
In Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, a study of the construction of gender and national identity in 19th- and early 20th-century Hindu India, Sarkar argues that this separation of domains served the purposes of empire well. While establishing secure domination in the most important matters, it also quieted dissent by allowing the males of the subject population a sphere of rule: the household, where a man who had few rights in the outer world could be a king. Control over women’s bodies was thus substituted for control over other aspects of daily life. And self-respect that was injured in the daily encounter with the racial hierarchy of the outer world could be built up again by the experience of secure kingly rule in the sphere of the family.
As time went on, this control increasingly mimicked its source: the violence of colonial domination displaced itself onto the domination of women, which had never been all that benign, but which was permitted increasingly to express itself in violent ways. In the face of a complaint involving the rape and death of a 12-year-old child wife and mother, for example, British judges resisted indigenous Indian demands for the reform of laws governing marital age and consent. They argued that local traditions required deference, and that judges were not entitled to go against them.8 Such maneuvers had the effect of insulating domestic violence, even of this appalling and fatal sort, from criticism and change. At the same time, given that self-respect and manly status were increasingly defined around the control of women’s bodies, reform met with increasing internal resistance: for who would want to give up the one area of manly pride and honor? The female body simply is the nation: by controlling it, men control India, even if they don’t.
This widespread image of the female body as the nation helps to explain why, during the waves of communal violence at the time of independence, possession of women was such an important issue to the contending sides, as Muslims established Pakistan, and as Hindus and Muslims killed one another in large numbers during the mass migrations surrounding the separation of the two nations. Women were raped in huge numbers; often they were abducted as well and forced to bear the children of the Muslim or Hindu who had abducted them.9 The rationale of these rapes and abductions is easy to connect with the earlier history: if the female body symbolizes the nation, then in the struggle of two emerging nations the possession and impregnation of women is a potent weapon in consolidating power. Even when women were not abducted but were raped and then brutally murdered, this too was an act symbolizing the power of one group to damage the domain of rule of the other group, dishonoring the group in the process.
To move from the time of Sarkar’s book into the present day, the legal separation that helped to produce this situation was permitted to survive untouched in India at independence, with the result that reform in family law is extremely slow and cumbersome. Christian women in India, for example, won the right to divorce on grounds of cruelty only in 2001. All four religious systems of personal law contain significant inequalities between the sexes; the control over women’s bodies continues to be a rhetorically and politically potent issue that can block change. Each group continues to some extent to see the female body as a symbol of the nation, which its men must control in order to preserve manly honor. The struggle of the men within each group not to cede to women any sphere of rule that might weaken them in relation to the men of any other group is a major impediment to feminist reform.10
This history goes some distance toward explaining the events in Gujarat, with their insistent focus on the violation of the female body. If the Muslim female body is a part of the nation that is currently dominated by one’s adversary, then one must possess it to possess secure control over the nation. Murder, and hence destruction of the source of offspring, is one sure way of depriving the adversary of control over his “kingdom.” If in the process one dishonors the adversary, all the better.
The identification of the female body with the nation takes us some way into the grim darkness of Gujarat, but questions remain. If woman symbolizes nation, why are women brutally and sadistically tortured rather than abducted and impregnated? To be sure, many people were murdered at partition, and in the general violence many women were used simply as objects of the desire to maim and kill. On the other hand, the logic of colonial possession was also amply evident in that case, since men really did want to take these women to their country and force them to bear their children. And in large numbers, they did so. In Gujarat, we hear nothing of this sort. Women were simply tortured and killed. So we wonder how the idea of woman as symbol of nation and national rule could possibly lend itself to this particular type of violence, what the connection can possibly be between seeing a woman as a symbol of what one loves and honors and seeing her as an object that one can break up, with indifference to her pain. Shouldn’t we say that it’s only to the extent that men had lost the connection between woman and nation that they were able to treat women in this hideous way, not even permitting the survival of the body itself, but first torturing it and then, usually, burning it to cinders?
In short, how can one maim, burn, and torture the venerated body of the nation?
The feminist concept of “objectification” provides essential insight here.11 Objectification is treating as a mere thing what is really not a thing. It has multiple aspects, including the denial of autonomy and subjectivity and the ideas of ownership, fungibility (one is just like the others), and violability (it’s all right to break the thing up or abuse it). Not all forms of objectification possess all these features: for example, one may treat a fine painting as an object, thus denying it autonomy and subjectivity, without holding it to be fungible with other paintings and without holding that it is all right to break it up. In the domain of human relations, however, sinister connections begin to be woven among these different aspects. At the heart of all of them, I would argue, is the idea of instrumentality: a thing, unlike a person, is an instrument or means to the ends of persons; it is not an end in itself. The objectification of women is primarily a denial that women are ends in themselves. It is because one has already made that denial, at some level of one’s awareness, that it becomes so easy to deny women autonomy, to deny that their subjective experience matters, and, even, to begin to ignore qualitative differences between one and another, as pornography so easily does.
What is relevant here is that the logic of instrumentality also leads powerfully in the direction of seeing women as violable. What you have already conceived of as a mere tool of your own ends, not an end in herself, can so easily be understood as something that you may beat, abuse, burn, even break up at will: it is yours to use, and to abuse. Even a precious painting has legal rights against such abuses only in virtue of its connection with a human maker: the “moral rights” of artworks under contemporary European law are not rights of the painting as such, but rights of the artist in the painting. So too, once women are understood as mere instruments of men’s desires (for power, for pleasure), there would seem to be no principled limit on the ways one might use them. A means is a means to an end.
To bring these points back to the case of India: treating women as the nation, while apparently honorific, is already a form of objectification, and, particularly, of instrumentalization. Under colonialism, a nation is a ground on which men may gratify their desires for control and honor. By being exalted into a symbol of nationhood, a woman is at the same time reduced—from being a person who is an end, an autonomous subject, someone whose feelings count, into being a mere ground for the expression of male desire. Thus, although much of the time the male who sees a woman that way will still want her to live and eat and bear children, there is no principled barrier to his using her brutally if that is what suits his desires. We see that connection already in the grim tales of domestic violence narrated by Sarkar.
And we see it clearly, I believe, in Gujarat. Muslim female bodies symbolize a recalcitrant part of the nation, one as yet undominated by Hindu male power. One reaction to that situation might have been to abduct the woman and to place her in one’s own household. But if women are things, instruments, objects, then their bodies may also be used in gruesome ways—ifthat is what will best satisfy one’s desires for power, honor, and security. Once the status of end-in-itself is denied, everything else follows on a whim.
In short, it is not simply because the logic of the domestic sphere became the logic of kingly rule, but because of the particular form this kingly rule took, involving the conception of women as means rather than ends, that nation-worship can so easily segue into woman-killing. Other forms of kingly rule—for example, most parents’ relations toward their very young children—do not involve instrumentalization, and do not lead to violence of the sort we see in Gujarat. But the particular way in which kingly rule over women made them into a symbol of nationhood involved instrumentalization. So the woman was reduced from a person to a mere symbol, and that symbol, however apparently honorific, was a mere tool of male ends. The road from that point to violation is short and relatively direct.
We have gone a little further toward understanding the logic of these tortures, but not far enough. For the logic of colonial objectification, as I have sketched it, might be satisfied, indeed seems best satisfied, with abduction, rape as impregnation, and other well-known devices through which men at war establish their domination over the subject nation. But as Sarkar says, there is something dark and unusual about the Gujarat tortures, something suggesting obsession with the female body and especially its genital organs. Torture and abuse, particularly the insertion of large metal objects into the vagina and other forms of genital torture, play a dramatic and unusual role in these events. The feminist analysis of objectification shows why there would be no large barrier to using women’s bodies in these ways. But why would men inflict such tortures? The account of objectification does not help us answer this question. This Muslim woman–hating involves something more than mere doing as one wants with an instrumental object, more even than the desire to colonize the enemy’s domain and thus to inflict dishonor upon it. Although Defence Minister George Fernandes treated the rapes dismissively, as if they were nothing new, most witnesses disagreed.12 As one commentator writes, “The violence in Gujarat was different from earlier incidents of communal violence, both for the scale of the assaults and for the sheer sadism and brutality with which women and girls were victimized.”13 This new something, I would argue, is connected to the operations of disgust, an emotion that plays a key role not only in misogyny but in many types of racial hatred.14
Disgust plays a powerful role in human life. Through our strong aversive reactions to substances such as feces, decaying meat, corpses, and other bodily waste, we police the boundaries of our body from contamination every day. Disgust is distinct from distaste: the very same smell arouses different disgust reactions depending on the person’s conception of the object she is smelling. It is also distinct from the sense of danger, for many things are disgusting long after all danger is removed. Disgust is an emotion heavily caught up in symbolic and magical thinking. Its objects are reminders of our animality and mortality, either because they are in fact corpses or waste products or because they come through a process of association to symbolize waste, excrement, and mortality. Disgust works by shielding human beings from too much daily contact with aspects of their own humanity that are difficult to live with. Thus if we don’t touch corpses or oozy, decaying, smelly things, we may be able to ignore our own mortality. If we neatly dispose of our bodily waste products, we more easily forget that we are made of stuffs that end up on the dungheap.
It is not enough for human beings to protect themselves from contamination by the primary objects of disgust, such as feces and corpses. Humans also typically need a group of humans to bound themselves against, who come to symbolize the disgusting and who, therefore, insulate the community even further from its own animality. Thus, every society ascribes disgust properties—bad smell, stickiness, sliminess, foulness, decay—to some group of persons, who are therefore found disgusting and shunned, and who in this way further insulate the dominant group from what they fear facing in themselves. In many European societies Jews have played that role: they have been characterized as disgusting in those physical ways, and they have been represented symbolically as vermin who had those same properties. In the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, dalits, formerly called “untouchables,” played a related role: through their contact with waste products they were regarded as themselves contaminated, thus not to be touched by the pure person; their very existence in the community shielded the pure from the decay and stench of their own animality. (But not from danger: Gandhi points out in his autobiography that during a cholera epidemic the lower castes, who defecated in the fields far from their dwellings, were less at risk of disease than the upper castes, who used the gutters outside their windows to dispose of waste.)
Projecting disgust onto another group subordinates the group. The group to whom disgust properties are ascribed exemplifies animality and thereby (in the eyes of the dominant group) lowness in contrast to the allegedly pure dominant ones. But because the subordination is inspired at root by anxiety and denial, it is not a peaceable subordination. Disgust minorities are not treated like nice household pets. Instead, the rage that people feel against their own mortality and animality is often enacted toward them, whether by humiliation or, in addition, by physical violence. At its extreme point the anxiety issues in projects of ethnic cleansing: if only we could completely rid ourselves of this group, the thinking goes, we would be free of our own death.
In virtually all cultures, women are among the groups to whom disgust properties are imputed. Portrayed as hyperanimal beings, receptacles of male bodily emissions as well as the fluids associated with menstruation and birth, women are portrayed as sticky, smelly, dirty, repellent. Taboos associated with menstruation and birth are but one sign of this ubiquitous construction. But there is a subtle difference between disgust toward Jews, say, and disgust toward women, for women are, to dominant males, sexually alluring as well as disgusting, and one of the alluring things about them is the fact that they exemplify the forbidden terrain of the hyperphysical, which is the disgusting.15 Men are revolted by the idea of their semen inside a woman’s vagina, and yet they can’t keep from wanting to put it there.16
In a brilliant analysis of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata,17 Andrea Dworkin argues that this fact about disgust toward women—that men can’t keep from wanting them and then feeling sullied and disgusted by them—undergirds objectification: as Tolstoy’s narrator says, he can’t see his wife as a person and an end as long as he sees her as this alluring disgusting thing that he needs to use for his pleasure. But this objectification takes a particularly violent turn. For the very understanding of dominant masculinity that makes all reminders of animality disgusting is deeply threatened by sexual desire for women. The man sees, in his desire, that he is not who he pretends to be: he is an animal wanting to exercise animal functions. This deep wound to his ego can only be salved by destroying the cause of his desire. Thus Tolstoy’s narrator has murdered his wife. Only after she is dead, he tells us, can he see her as a human being—because then he no longer desires her. Similarly, according to Dworkin, Tolstoy himself records in his diary violent repulsion and antagonism toward the young wife who tempts him out of his purity. Dworkin suggests that male desire is often, if not always, mingled in this way with the desire to violate and destroy.
Dworkin’s analysis of disgust misogyny would have been even stronger had she grounded it in a more general analysis of human disgust, but at any rate it is clear that she has identified a feature of misogynistic disgust that makes it (even) more violent than many other instances of disgust. My more general analysis suggests that disgust toward women of minorities already marked as animal is likely to be even more intense: thus Jewish women, in Nazi-era literature, were represented as hyperanimal and hypersexual beings, who exercised a fascinating allure but who must all the more resolutely be resisted by the pure German male, as he attempted to establish his purity and domination.
V. Purity and Violation
Now we begin to be in a position to approach Gujarat again, offering a richer analysis of what we find there. All human beings experience disgust, and all use disgust to construct boundaries between themselves and their own animality. And yet some societies, and some groups within societies, learn to make disgust more central to their lives than other groups do.
For example, disgust at sexual fluids, bodily waste, and so forth is probably more intense and more ubiquitous among males than among females; at least it does a better job of explaining the structure of sexual relations on the male than on the female side. Men, moreover, differ greatly in the degree to which their relations with women are colored by disgust. Similarly, disgust plays a powerful role in explaining homophobic hatred and violence in the United States, but we also know that many people utterly lack such motivations. Moreover, some societies strongly inhibit the projection of disgust onto vulnerable people and groups, while some actively encourage such projections. (Indeed the most serious flaw in Dworkin’s analysis is her failure to consider these societal and individual variations and her consequent representation of disgust misogyny as ubiquitous and inevitable.) Walt Whitman imagined that a democracy might exist without disgust and therefore (he believed) without racism, misogyny, or homophobia. He movingly imagined such a society, bits and pieces of which are real. In contrast, some societies seem in general more structured around disgust and contamination than other societies. One might see post–World War I Germany, for example, as such a society: Klaus Theweleit’s remarkableM#228;nnerfantasien has shown the extent to which disgust at the female body is a motif underlying a great deal of the political life of that era, with its impossible fantasies of men made out of metal, uncontaminated by any fluids or blood or stickiness or stench.
In my earlier essay on Gujarat, I argued that much of the rhetoric and political culture of today’s Hindu right is appropriated from National Socialism in Germany, and plays no role in traditional Hindu understandings of identity and nationhood. The founders of the Hindu right in the 1930s had studied Nazi culture closely and openly expressed their sympathy with German ideals of racial purity, and even German antisemitism. Although admiration for Hitler went underground after World War II, textbooks written today by the Hindu right still portray his achievement in admiring terms.
Whatever the origin of such ideas, a very similar, and similarly paranoid, idea of male purity has taken deep root in the culture of the Hindu right, in a way that is unconnected to authentic Hindu religious and cultural traditions. To be sure, there are sources in the Hindu tradition on which one could draw for the portrayal of the Hindu male as pure, lacking in lust, and uncontaminated by femaleness, and (especially in the Laws of Manu) for the portrayal of the female as dirty and potentially contaminating. But virtually any human tradition includes such sources. And the current Hindu-right construction of the Hindu male is terribly far removed from much that is central to the Hindu tradition historically, with its delight in sexuality, its playfulness, its sensuous enjoyment of the body. Indeed one might think of few traditions in which disgust at sexuality was as notably absent, and the body as joyously present, as the tradition one of whose holy books is the Kama Sutra. Traditionally the Hindu norm of masculinity (rather like its Talmudic Jewish counterpart, as wonderfully reconstructed by Daniel Boyarin in his Unheroic Conduct) is not aggressively phallic, but instead sensuous, playful, artful, and even soft (by contrast to the boring and unsensuous macho stereotypes that abound elsewhere). This is one of the great attractions of that rich religious tradition.
One element of the current Hindu-right understanding of masculinity is a sharp rhetorical opposition between the pure, chaste Hindu male, who respects women and does not have lustful desires toward them, and the lustful Muslim male, who sees women as objects for use and domination.18 The famous television production of the Ramayana in 1987–88—watched by some 90 percent of Indian households with television sets and instrumental in constructing current Hindu-right ideas of the tradition—shows the gods as more or less devoid of sexuality, and babies as sweet little things arriving more or less out of heaven. Even Shiva, a god profoundly connected with sexuality and the phallus, is desexualized in a most bizarre way. The narrator repeatedly insists that the Hindu tradition, unlike other religious traditions, stresses peace and purity—in combination, of course, with militant aggression against the “other,” the enemy.
This same understanding of the Hindu male explains the furor in the Hindu right over scholarly publications that stress aspects of sexual desire in the tradition. One terrifying example is the recent attack on Paul Courtright’s scholarly book on Ganesha,19the god with an elephant head whose birth is closely connected to the sexual desire of the gods.20 The attackers, mostly in online publications and public letters, show no sign of having studied the book but focus on its Freudian reading of the relationship between Shiva and Ganesha, and Courtright’s suggestion that thinking about the sexual conflicts in the human family will help us understand the Hindu gods. They particularly dislike the idea that Ganesha’s sexuality is depicted (quite faithfully to the tradition) as playful and childlike rather than as aggressive and dominating. For writing this book 20 years ago, Courtright has recently received death threats; even the public face of the opposition is extraordinarily threatening, including prominent claims in periodicals as respectable as India Abroad that Courtright’s academic freedom should be revoked and that his university (Emory) should not allow him to teach.21
Similarly, when the wonderful scholar Wendy Doniger, whose work strongly influenced Courtright, lectured in London recently on sexual motifs in the stories of the gods told in the classical epic Ramayana, an egg was thrown at her from the audience; and the same militant columnist in India Abroad attacks her right to teach the Hindu tradition.22 Most recently, the historian James Laine of Macalester College impugned the purity of a prominent woman of the past by mentioning in his biography of the 17th-century Hindu emperor Shivaji that, because Shivaji’s father traveled for most of his life, there were jokes that the son was the product of an adulterous liaison of his mother’s.23 Laine did not even credit the allegation; he merely reported it. Nonetheless, the mere mention of a slur against the reputation of Shivaji’s mother brought an attack on Laine’s Indian collaborator, who was physically assaulted and his face painted black. Part of the institute in Pune where Laine did his research was burned; the book was banned by the state government; and its Indian edition was promptly withdrawn by a timorous Oxford University Press. Laine has been charged with a crime against public order, and Prime Minister Vajpayee himself (now ex–prime minister), on campaign in Maharashtra, has suggested that Interpol ought to go to the United States to arrest Laine. The death threats against Laine are obsessed with female purity; repeatedly they assert that Indian women are pure until death, whereas women in England are filthy and dirty.24
These examples show an obsession with treating sexuality as something other, something foreign. Ramesh Rao, attacking Courtright, refers to the sexual aspect of Ganesha’s history (an extremely important part of the traditional mythological record) as “heathen.” One way of “othering” the sexual, which Rao and Laine’s attackers pursue, is to suggest that Western scholars are foisting onto Indians their own sexual obsessions. Where the scholar in question is indisputably Indian, other tactics are chosen: the distinguished historian Romila Thapar, who has insisted on presenting a balanced view of historical Hindu–Muslim relations in the medieval and early modern periods, has been attacked as a communist and an agent of Pakistan. Another revealing strategy of “othering” is that shown in the punishment meted out to Laine’s collaborator: through blackface, he is both publicly shamed in a traditional way and turned into someone who looks “other” from the dominant Hindu self-image.
We might say, then, that for whatever reason extremists of the Hindu right currently exhibit an unusual degree of disgust anxiety,25 as manifested in a fearful, even paranoid insistence on representing the Hindu male as pure and free from lust (while being, at the same time, successfully aggressive).26 Muslims, in contrast, are the hypersexual, the other, the “black”; and Muslim women, like Jewish women in the Nazi era, are doubly sexual, beings whose fertility and beauty both attracts and repels. (One repeated scare tactic of the Hindu right is to portray Muslims as both polygamous and hyperfertile, thus as having many times more children than Hindu families, although this suggestion is not supported by demographic evidence.)
When the man who wants to be pure becomes attracted to a disgusting subordinated being, as Tolstoy and Andrea Dworkin eloquently show, the result is likely to be violent. Although Dworkin represents this violence as a cultural universal, it seems likely that it varies greatly in keeping with cultural ideologies. Sexuality and its vulnerabilities are difficult enough for any human being to deal with at any time. All cultures probably contain seeds of violence in connection with sexuality. But a person who has been taught to have a big stake in being above the sexual domain, whose political ideology insists on purity, and whose experience of cultural anxiety connects impurity with humiliation, cannot bear to be dragged into that domain. And yet, of course, the very denial and repression of the sexual create a mounting tension within. Tolstoy’s diaries describe how the tension mounts inside him until he has to use his wife, and then he despises her, despises himself, and wants to use force against her to stop the cycle from continuing.
The hate literature circulated in Gujarat portrays Muslim women as hypersexual, enjoying the penises of many men. That is not unusual; Muslim women have often been portrayed in this denigrating way. But it also introduces a new element: the desire that is imputed to them to be penetrated by an uncircumcised penis. Thus the Hindu male creates a pornographic fantasy with himself as its specific subject. In one way, these images show anxiety about virility, assuaging it by imagining the successful conquest of Muslim women. But of course, like Tolstoy’s narrator’s fantasies, these fantasies are not exclusively about intercourse. The idea of this intercourse is inseparable from ideas of mutiliation and violence. Fucking a Muslim woman just means killing her. The fantasy image of the untying of the penises that were “tied until now” is very reminiscent of the explosion of violence in Tolstoy, only the logic has been carried one small step further: instead of murder necessitated by and following sex, the murder just is the sex. Women are killed by having large metal objects inserted into their vaginas. In this way, the image is constructed of a sexuality that is so effective, so closely allied with the desire for domination and purity, that its penis is a pure metal weapon, not a sticky thing of flesh and blood. The Hindu male does not even need to dirty his penis with the contaminating fluids of the Muslim woman. He can fuck her with the clean non-porous metal weapon that kills her, while he himself remains pure. Sexuality itself carries out the project of annihilating the sexual. Nothing is left to inspire fear.
A useful comparison to this terrifying logic is the depiction of warlike masculinity in a 1922 novel of Ernst Jünger, Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (Battle as Inner Experience):
These are the figures of steel whose eagle eyes dart between whirling propellers to pierce the cloud; who dare the hellish crossing through fields of roaring craters, gripped in the chaos of tank engines . . . men relentlessly saturated with the spirit of battle, men whose urgent wanting discharges itself in a single concentrated and determined release of energy.
As I watch them noiselessly slicing alleyways into barbed wire, digging steps to storm outward, synchronizing luminous watches, finding the North by the stars, the recognition flashes: this is the new man. The pioneers of storm, the elect of central Europe. A whole new race, intelligent, strong, men of will . . . supple predators straining with energy. They will be architects building on the ruined foundations of the world.
In this fascinating passage, Jünger combines images of machinery with images of animal life to express the thought that the new man must be in some sense both powerful beast and god, both predatory and invulnerable. The one thing he must never be is human. His masculinity is characterized not by need and receptivity, but by a “concentrated and determined release of energy.” He knows no fear, no sadness. Why must the new man have these properties? Because the world’s foundations have been ruined. Jünger suggests that the only choices for males living amid death and destruction are either to yield to an immense and ineluctable sadness or to throw off the humanity that inconveniently inflicts pain. Disgust for both Jews and women become for such men a way of asserting their own difference from mere mortal beings.
I believe that something like this paranoia, this refusal of compromised humanity, infects the rhetoric of the Hindu right, and, indeed, may help to explain its continuing fascination with Nazi ideas. But Jünger’s novel does not connect the “release of energy” directly to misogynistic torture and murder, although, as Theweleit shows, other documents of the period amply do so. To explain that connection we need to ask what the idea of man-as-metal is an escape from, what it is denying. As in Jünger, so too in Gujarat: what seems to be denied is human vulnerability itself, the smell, the fluids, the stench of the body. The woman functions as a symbol of the site of weakness and vulnerability inside any male, who can be drawn into his own mortality through desire. The Muslim woman functions doubly as such a symbol. In this way, a fantasy is created that her annihilation will lead to safety and invulnerability (perhaps to “India Shining,” the campaign slogan that betrays a desire for a crystalline sort of domination). The paranoid anxiety that keeps telling every man that he is not safe and invulnerable feeds the desire to extinguish her.
Only this complex logic explains, I believe, why torture and mutilation are preferred as alternatives to abduction and impregnation—or even simple homicide. Only this logic explains why the fantasy of penetrating the sexual body with a large metal object played such a prominent role in the carnage. Only this explains, as well, the repetitious destruction of the woman’s body by fire, as though the world cannot be clean until all vestiges of the female body are simply obliterated from its face.
Beginning with Sarkar’s account of woman as nation and the home as the one remaining sphere of kingly rule for the colonized male, we moved on to a more general account of the male objectification of women. I argued that we need this more general analysis to make sense of how veneration turns into brutality. But to get all the way to the grisly tortures of Gujarat, we need to think about disgust misogyny, about the impossible project of male purity and the underside of violence that accompanies it, and about the connection between exaggerated forms of this project and cultural ideologies.
Why this fantasy for these people in this particular place and time? Why here a particular heightening of the need to be metallic weapons that can kill the body even while they violate it? Why this terrible and murderous vulnerability? In Germany it was easy to connect such fantasies to the devastation of World War I, the loss of a whole generation of males, and a humiliating military defeat. In the case of the Hindu right, with Hindus in India constituting a comfortable majority of 82 percent (according to the 1991 census)27 and Muslims around 12 percent, no comparable catastrophe provides an easy explanation, unless it be the long, cumulative catastrophe of being subjugated for many centuries, first by the Muslims, then by the British, then by the rich developed nations of the world. But one thing seems sure enough: that such actions diminish power rather than augmenting it, creating not an invulnerable Hindu nation but a nation that, insofar as it allows such things to occur unpunished, is a disgrace to its own constitution and to its rich traditions of human acceptance, play, and insight.28
Postscript, May 24, 2004. The grim story has, for now, a hopeful ending. Roundly rejected by the voters for their failure to deliver basic services to the poor and for their alliance with the forces of persecution and violence, the Hindu right has yielded power to a parliamentary government that has emphasized the Gujarat massacre and the need to reinforce mutual respect and the rule of law. In his first speech as prime minister, Manmohun Singh drew attention to this issue: “I do not want to begin my career by accusing the previous government,” he said. “But divisive forces were allowed a free play, which I believe is extremely injurious to orderly development . . . We as a nation must have a firm determination that these things should never happen.
1 Tanika Sarkar, “Semiotics of Terror: Muslim Children and Women in Hindu Rashtra,” Economic and Political Weekly, July 13, 2002, 2872–2876.
2 Flavia Agnes, Affidavit, in Of Lofty Claims and Muffled Voices, ed. Flavia Agnes (Bombay: Majlis, 2002), 69.
3 In a book in progress, entitled Democracy in the Balance(under contract to Harvard University Press), I shall consider the future of democracy of India in the light of these and related events.
4 “Genocide in Gujarat: The International Community Looks Away,” Dissent, summer 2003, 15–23. The introductory section of the current article is reprinted from that essay.
5 I have developed this line of analysis further in a recent book,Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).
6 This does not mean that they had separate courts: both before and after independence, laws were separate for these communities, and religious bodies were consulted about them, but they were adopted in the usual way: today, passed by Parliament; formerly, adopted by the Raj.
7 See my analysis in “Is Privacy Bad for Women? What the Indian Constitutional Tradition Can Teach Us About Sex Equality,”Boston Review, April/May 2000, 42–47.
8 Nehru argued that the British more generally supported the “obscurantist, reactionary” elements in Indian culture as the authentic ones, in order to prevent Indians from progressing: see Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, centenary edition 1989), 449.
9 On this history, see, among other important feminist works,Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, ed. Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis (London: Zed, 1993); Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998); Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000);The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, ed. Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta (Kolkata: Stree, 2003).
10 See my Women and Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), ch. 3.
11 See my Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). The article “Objectification” previously appeared inPhilosophy and Public Affairs 24 (1995), 249–91. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin did the fundamental work of introducing this concept and showing its importance.
12 In a speech on the floor of Parliament on April 30, 2002, he said, “All these sob stories being told to us, as if this is the first time this country has heard such stories—where a mother is killed and the fetus taken out of her stomach, where a daughter is raped in front of her mother, of someone being burnt. Is this the first time such things have happened?”
13 Editor’s note to “ ‘Nothing New?’ Women as Victims in Gujarat,” in Gujarat, ed. Siddharth Varadarajan (Delhi: Penguin, 2002), 215, rebutting Fernandes’s claim. See also Flavia Agnes’s introduction to Of Lofty Claims (above n. 2), 17.
14 The discussion of disgust draws on my Hiding from Humanity. The book draws on psychological research on the emotion of disgust by Paul Rozin and others.
15 The proto-fascist writer Otto Weininger famously argued, in his Sex and Character (English edition 1906) that Jews were really women: both groups share the properties of hyperphysicality and hypersexuality from which the clean German male must distance himself. His recommendation to women was to give up sex so that they might transcend this destiny.
16 See also William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); although I contest most of Miller’s normative conclusions, I admire much of his analysis.
17 In “Repulsion,” in her Intercourse (New York: The Free Press, 1983).
18 For discussion and survey evidence, see Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, in “Between Community and State: The Question of Women’s Rights and Personal Laws,” in Zoya Hasan, ed.,Forging Identities (Boulder: Westview, 1994), 108–29.
19 Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprint edition 1989); the new Indian edition has now been withdrawn because of pressure and intimidation.
20 One story of his birth, for example, is that Shiva and Parvati saw two elephants mating. This excited them, so they turned themselves into elephants to make love in that form. Thus their child Ganesha was born with an elephant head.
21 Ramesh Rao, “A Hindu God Must Indeed Be Heathen: What can the two million Indian-Americans do to counter the Goliath that is Western academe?” India Abroad, November 28, 2003, A24. See also, more recently, Rao’s “Ganesha, Shivaji and Power Play,” India Abroad, April 16, 2004, A22.
22 Ibid., in the same column by Ramesh Rao, who often plays the role of spokesperson for a part of the American Hindu-right community.
23 James Laine, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
24 Laine is a Texan, and anyone who reads the book will know it, since he repeatedly alludes to the Davy Crockett legend he absorbed in his boyhood as a parallel to the heroic legend of Shivaji. Nonetheless, the death threats assume that he is English, effectively projecting sexual foulness onto a colonizing “other” (and revealing in the process that they have not even read the chapter of the book that has occasioned controversy). It should be noted that the Laine case is rather different from the others, involved with warring currents in the caste politics of Maharashtra.
25 But we should remember that this extremism derives support and comfort from the allegedly moderate politicians of the BJP; thus, as I argue in my first article, Vajpayee was culpably evasive about responsibility for the massacre; and although Vajpayee himself expressed some unease about the attacks on Laine and the Pune institute, he later supported the attempt to arrest Laine in very strong terms.
26 Thus Ganesha, traditionally pot-bellied and with a child-sized penis, has been reconstructed with a “six-pack” and a weapon-bearing arm held aggressively in the air.
27 The religion data from the 2001 census have not yet been published.
28 Most of the information about the Gujarat riots in this article can be found in the Report of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal, which is online. See also Siddarth Varadajan, ed., Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy (New Delhi, London, and New York: Penguin Books, 2002), an excellent collection of documents and articles to which I am also indebted. On the funding issue, see “The Foreign Exchange of Hate: IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva,” also at http://www.sabrang.com. For a rejoinder by American leaders of the Hindu right, seehttp://letindiadevelop.org/thereport. The whole issue of funding evidently deserves a thorough and impartial investigation. The volume edited by Flavia Agnes (cited in note 2 above) contains a collection of testimonies from young legal activists who went to Gujarat to take down women’s testimony for future prosecutions. Another valuable report, focused on gender issues, is Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat, a report by the International Initiative for Justice, available online. For conversations that have contributed to my understanding of the issues, I am grateful to Paul Courtright, Zoya Hasan, Indira Jaising, James Laine, Ramesh Rao, Tanika Sarkar, Devendra Swarup, and Romila Thapar. Some, of course, will disagree with the analysis that I have presented here.
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
June 01, 2004
41 Min read time