Kalpana Sharma gets to the heart of violence against women in India in her new book The Silence and The Storm. The Mumbai author and journalist is a noted commentator on gender issues through “The Other Half” column, which ran from 1985 to 2016 in the Indian Express and then The Hindu.
“From conversations with women across different classes, castes, regions and religions, I have learned that theory goes only so far in helping us understand what happens in their lives; ultimately, we have to listen and understand their stories,” she said.
Even allowing for the need to listen, she added: “I have been acutely aware that there are some stories that have never been told; I made a conscious choice to excavate such stories because I wanted to write about what was hidden from view.”
Sharma “wanted to ask: Who benefits? Who loses? Who carries the burden? Who pays the price? Who makes the decisions? These questions are especially important when looking at government policies that are apparently aimed at ‘empowering’ women, a term that has been bleached of all meaning over the years.”
Below is the first chapter of The Silence and The Storm, which is published by Aleph Book Company:
From Mathura to Kathua
Violence against women has remained a central concern of women’s groups and feminist campaigns in India from the late 1970s. Then, women’s groups across India came together to demand changes in the laws governing rape. In 2018, men and women, young boys and girls, took to the streets demanding stricter laws to deal with crimes against young children. The trigger for the former was the custodial rape by two policemen of Mathura, a sixteen-year-old Adivasi girl. The latter was the rape and brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu province, who had been abducted, drugged, raped multiple times and then killed.
Between these two incidents, in 2012, the heinous gang rape leading to death of a twenty-three-year-old woman in Delhi also galvanized nationwide protests demanding stronger laws. But the conclusion to each of these campaigns was identical: the government made some changes in the law, yet the system that implements the law, the justice delivery system, remained the same.
Between 1985 and 2018, the time span that I am looking at in this book, a great deal has changed in India. There have been dramatic changes in its economy, in its politics and in people’s access to new technologies that have reduced the distance between the periphery and the centre, and between India and the rest of the world. The narratives around violence against women have also changed over this period, with a growing focus on the personal and the particular.
In 1985, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had only recently been shot dead by her own Sikh bodyguards. The riots in Delhi following her assassination, when 3,000 Sikhs were massacred, had shaken everyone as this exposed how the State can be complicit in engineering and encouraging mob violence when it suits its political objectives. It was the year when Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi’s heir apparent, rode to power on a massive sympathy wave, bringing back the Congress Party to days of glory it had not seen since its defeat in the 1977 elections.
The decade of the 1980s saw the emergence of many social movements in India that questioned policies, challenged the government, interrogated Indian society’s entrenched attitudes towards the marginalized, including women. Environmental concerns, that had remained confined until then within the idea of conserving the natural environment, moved to questioning the trajectory of a developmental policy that paid no heed to minimizing environmental damage.
The infatuation with gigantism, a legacy of the post-Independence period, continued unchallenged as India wanted to build bigger dams to harness electricity and for irrigation, super thermal power stations to generate electricity from coal, and allow industries using hazardous substances to work virtually unmonitored in rural and urban areas in the name of accelerating economic growth.
For the first time, though, the assumption that bigger was better, or rather the best, was seriously questioned on the basis of the social and environmental costs of such a policy. The Narmada Bachao Andolan [a social movement led by native tribals, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists to protect the river Narmada, which flows through Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra] was at the forefront, questioning the construction of large dams without considering the price that people and the natural environment had to pay.
The tragedy in Bhopal on the night of 2 December 1984, when poisonous methyl isocyanate spewed out of a tank in the Union Carbide factory, killing in its wake 3,000 people on that one night and killing and maiming many more for life subsequently, brought home the terrible costs of allowing hazardous industries to operate without oversight.
The 1980s saw women’s groups coming together as broad coalitions demanding specific changes in laws dealing with crimes against women. These groups represented a range – from middle class, urban-based groups to those involved with workers’ rights and human rights issues. The two big issues of that time were rape and dowry deaths – the unexplained and growing phenomenon of young women dying in mysterious “accidents” in the kitchen within a few months or years of marriage.
In an age where there was no social media, the only way civil society groups could get the attention of the government, and the media, was by mobilizing and coming out in substantial numbers on the streets. Marches and dharnas [demonstrations comparable to sit-ins or hunger strikes in the West] were the order of the day. In turn, the media too was compelled to pay heed to these public expressions of discontent.
This was also a time when feminist economists and academics began articulating a gender perspective on economic and developmental policy. They questioned the definition of “work” in official statistics, for instance, and the way women’s work in the home and in the field was never counted. They argued that if developmental policies addressed the needs of women, everyone would benefit.
They exposed the way women’s health had been reduced to controlling their fertility in the name of population control. Because of this, women, especially poor women, became mere statistics in the rush to meet targets that the government had set to get women to use contraceptives and – worse still – to be sterilized.
Also in 1985, we saw how religion and politics play out using women’s rights when the Supreme Court gave its judgment in the Shah Bano case. Shah Bano, a Muslim divorcee, was fighting for maintenance. The court’s ruling granting her the right to maintenance resulted in conservative Muslim clergy objecting to what they saw as interference by the court in Muslim Personal Law.
A Congress government led by an inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi buckled under pressure and passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. The law exempted Muslim women from claiming maintenance under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), a right that was guaranteed to all women. In the hectic debates that followed the judgment and the passing of the law, Shah Bano was virtually forgotten. She became a pawn, primarily for men, to settle scores.
It was not just Muslim women who were caught between religion and politics. In 1987, eighteen-year-old Roop Kanwar of Deorala village in Rajasthan allegedly committed sati on her husband’s funeral pyre. Was she coerced? Did she sit on her husband’s pyre voluntarily? Was this really a revival of the tradition of sati that had been banned with the law initiated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1829?
These were some of the questions that arose after her death. Even as the incident was being investigated, and a sensation-seeking media reported uncritically the macabre custom of chunari mahotsav that marks thirteen days after a woman is supposed to have become a sati, groups claiming that this was part of Rajput tradition sprang up and began criticizing those opposing the custom. These tradition-bound groups were led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
As a result, the Congress Party government at the Centre felt compelled to bring in another law, the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, specifically banning not just sati but its celebration. What is significant is not just the way a regressive custom was being championed by a Hindu right-wing group, but the political climate of that time.
This was precisely the period when the BJP and its associated groups had begun the campaign to build a temple in Ayodhya to mark the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. It was premised on the belief that he was born on the very spot where a mosque had been constructed in the sixteenth century, the Babri Masjid.
In 1990, senior BJP politician L. K. Advani led a Rath Yatra [a public procession by chariot] through India, building up support for the Ram temple that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. The demolition of the mosque on that day, by men fired up by the BJP’s campaign, will remain an important marker in India’s contemporary history.
It was the start of a process that deepened divisions between Hindus and Muslims, a legacy of the bitter partition of India in 1947; triggered widespread communal violence in the weeks and months that followed; and left behind bitterness, and deep mistrust that has not diminished in the succeeding decades. If anything, these divisions have deepened in the years since 2014, when the BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, came to power in Delhi. The violence that women have experienced is part of the larger story of the rise of religious fundamentalism in India.
The rise of religious fundamentalism was not limited to trying to protect regressive and outdated traditions like sati. It also extended to moral policing: what women can and cannot do, what they can wear, where they can go and how they must behave. This began even as India was experiencing the beginning of economic liberalization and the growth of a consumer economy. The change was visible in what people wore, what they ate, and how they spent money.
It was particularly noticeable in the attire of women, who felt confident to move from more traditional wear to comfortable so-called western clothes. Even young women living in urban poor localities were switching to wearing clothes their mothers would never have dreamed of wearing in public.
The opening up of the economy also created a different category of jobs in the service industry, one where young women, even with basic education, found employment. These included jobs in shopping malls, beauty parlours, hotels, private airlines, call centres and business process outsourcing (BPO) centres.
The changing environment generated a false sense of ‘modernity’ where the young felt free to express themselves as they had not been able to earlier. Such changes, of course, were restricted to the bigger cities and had not yet touched small-town India or the villages.
For the believers of the ideology of Hindutva, which wants to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life, such “free” behaviour, particularly by young women, was unacceptable. They held that this was contrary to “Indian” culture, conflating Indian with their version of Hindu.
As a result, from the beginning of the new millennium, young women daring to behave and dress as they pleased were not just criticized but also sometimes physically attacked. For instance, in 2009, a group that called itself the Sri Ram Sene roughed up young women at a pub in Mangaluru, Karnataka. Again in 2012, there was another such attack in that city at a private party where young women and men had gathered.
Similar stories were heard from other cities; the aggressors were rarely caught or punished. In Uttar Pradesh, moral police, or anti-Romeo squads as they were called, went around public parks picking on couples trying to get some private time together in a culture where there is no concept of privacy. And from 2009 onwards, there were accusations that Muslims were carrying on a “Love Jihad” by entrapping Hindu girls and forcing them to convert to Islam.
What began in Kerala moved on to Uttar Pradesh where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who took office in 2017, was particularly vociferous in his belief that this so-called Love Jihad was part of an international conspiracy. He stated on national television that Muslims “can’t do what they want by force in India, so they are using the love jihad method here.” Muslim-Hindu couples were being forcibly separated under this charge.
The year 1985 marked the beginning of a change in India’s political map. The decades-long political dominance of the Congress party began to give way and the right-wing majoritarianism of the BJP emerged. It also heralded substantive changes in the direction of the economy. These changes continue to have repercussions today on the lives of women in India.
From 1985 onwards we saw the beginning of the end of the era of print-media dominance. This change has had a direct, and sometimes deleterious, impact on the understanding of women’s concerns, especially in relation to the growing incidence of sexual assault and violence. Satellite and cable television entered India in the early 1990s, ushering in a dramatic surge in television viewing which grew as digital and direct-to-home broadcasting gained popularity.
According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC), in 2017, there were 522 television channels in India including entertainment, sports and current affairs channels, and 183 million households had access to television. While much of television viewership is centered on entertainment, it is the change in the way in which news is broadcast today as compared to the 1980s that has made a difference to people’s understanding of politics and social issues.
In the 1980s, the only source of television news was the government-controlled Doordarshan. Its calm and almost placid news readers, who intoned the developments of the day, are a relic of a past that has been drowned out by the hectoring and shouting that is the hallmark of India’s privately-owned news channels today.
By 2017, there were 163 news channels including ninety-three regional channels, making India a country with probably the largest and most diverse television-viewing audiences. As a result, there is a fierce contest for viewership and the sensational always trumps the mundane.
The millennium has ushered India into the age of digital news via the internet. Information is now decentralized, making it much more accessible. As of March 2019, India had 560 million internet users, a number that has grown due to the increase in smartphones that allow internet access. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the number of mobile phone accounts (active and inactive) stood at over one billion in 2018.
The spread of the internet through mobile phones has also affected the nature of news. It has shrunk the television news byte, once the quickest source of news, into a news alert via Twitter or WhatsApp or other social media platforms. News can now be tailor-made for its audience – local, national, niche. The geographical location of the individual accessing that news does not matter any more.
To catch the audience, the news needs to be not just sensational, but be stated succinctly. “Click bait” is the form, where you tailor news by using words that guarantee that people click on the link, and are then led to the digital platform containing that news. It is a headline in another form, but a much more technologically savvy version of the old, clever headline that so many sub-editors sweated over in the print media.
In this age of information overload, problems, crises, conflicts, make their way to the individual within seconds. There is no time for second thoughts. Even half-baked information becomes the truth because some media has transmitted it. By the time the full story emerges, with all the layering and details, it is already too late. One angle of the story has gained prominence over all else, to be reified as the truth. And predictably, the silent, and often more insidious, processes of oppression never find a space, and are not even noticed.
All this has a specific and direct relevance to the way issues concerning women are understood. In the new media age, there is space for glamour on one side, and graphic, gripping violence, on the other. Between these two extremes lie the daily struggles of millions of Indian women as well as the violence they experience within the supposed safety of their own homes. These hardly ever feature.
As a result, our understanding of the priorities that need to be addressed to make women’s lives not just safer, but easier, is partial and deeply flawed. The spectacle of public violence, and that, too, restricted to a certain class or caste, is emphasized, while the larger reality of the daily demons that women have to confront is obscured.
A changing economy, and greater efforts to improve female literacy, have now opened up many more avenues for women to become economically independent. But that too has come at a price because none of this guarantees choice or independence.
The hold of family, community, caste, religion has, if anything, become stronger. In the clash between the aspirations of these young women and the reality of a deeply conservative society, it is the women who pay the price. The communal and caste divide has seeped into every aspect of life.
For a Muslim woman in this new majoritarian India, where Muslims in particular have been targeted and demonized (the violent lynching of Muslim men accused of cow slaughter since 2015 is just one instance of this), the fear of violence extends beyond just being a woman. She knows she could also be a target because she is a Muslim.
Dalit women, too, have more to fear today, although they always lived with the condescension and hatred of the dominant castes against them as Dalits and as Dalit women. But in the face of the political trends in India, where vigilante violence is justified in the name of religion and caste, no woman is safe, especially if she can be linked to a caste or a religion that is the target of hatred.
Although all women are confronted with the specter of violence, at home or in the public space, it is evident that women in India are not a homogenous group. They are stratified by the same differences of caste, class, religion and region as the rest of India’s diverse population. Women’s movements of the 1980s and 1990s had to acknowledge this reality. During times of conflict, women tend to identify with others of their own community or caste or creed rather than being sympathetic towards all women.
I saw this first hand in 1985 during the communal and caste riots in Ahmedabad. I went there with three other women journalists to specifically look at the impact of the riots on women. This was an angle all of us felt had not been adequately addressed by the coverage in mainstream media.
One of the more disturbing aspects that emerged was the way upper-caste women fuelled the hatred towards women of the lower castes, and Hindu women cared little about what was happening to their Muslim sisters when the riots turned communal.
In the 1992–93 communal riots in Mumbai, triggered by the demolition of the Babri Masjid, one saw a similar phenomenon. Even poor Hindu women living in slums, or in chawls [tenements], spurred on their menfolk to attack localities where Muslims lived. Here religious identity surpassed that of gender.
Even within groups of marginalized women, Dalit women carry more than a double burden of discrimination. Caste, in fact, is a unique signifier of exploitation in India, one that is not found in the same form in any other part of the world. Even equating it with racism does not suffice in understanding its pernicious hold on Indian society.
As far as caste and gender are concerned, this is an area of growing scholarship. Women’s groups were prompted to address this issue in the mid-1980s when Dalit feminists asserted how they experienced discrimination first as members of a caste, and then, in addition, as women; that the violence they experienced was designed to humiliate them because they were Dalits, and also women; and that women who were not born into a marginalized community like theirs would not be able to comprehend this until they acknowledged and recognized the dehumanizing nature of the caste system.
Uma Chakravarti, in her seminal book, Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, points out: “We can see that the women’s movement has raised very pertinent questions on the inequality that exists between men and women in our society and has also taken up many crucial issues that impinge on women’s lives – access to productive resources, to the right to control their bodies, and to a host of other issues, but, above all, to the violence women experience virtually from conception to death.”
But she avers that the women’s movement “has not linked up sufficiently the violence inherent in the caste system to the violence in patriarchy.” She also argues that because endogamous marriages in India continue to be the norm, the caste structure remains as entrenched as it was and the dream of B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, which outlawed untouchability and guaranteed equality to all castes, was nowhere on the horizon.
I confess that I am still in the process of understanding fully how my caste and class privilege impacts the nature of my work as a journalist and my understanding of Indian society. None of us chose our caste. But those of us born into privilege, by way of our caste, or our class, have internalized this advantage to such an extent that we are unable to acknowledge how this colours our perspective, or our understanding of social justice.
This difference in perspective has been brought up in the most recent feminist debate triggered off by the #MeToo exposés on sexual harassment. In India, the first discussions were set off by Raya Sarkar, a Dalit activist and academic, in 2017 when she crowdsourced a list of academics against whom anonymous complaints of sexual harassment had been made by their students.
She posted this list on social media. This led to some churning in sections of academia and a few of the men named were called out. But the majority were untouched and the campaign subsided after a few weeks of hectic debates, mostly on social media. For much of 2018, the debate around sexual harassment lay dormant – until October, when a film actress outed a well-known film star.
Once the issue hit Bollywood, and thereafter the media, including advertising and the flourishing stand-up comic industry, the issue became a subject of much wider discussion. This happened especially after several prominent journalists were named, including one who was a minister in the central government.
Yet, several questions raised by Sarkar and the others, such as the additional factor of caste disadvantage that needed to be addressed, were eclipsed. This lapse is not necessarily deliberate. Yet, it speaks to the ease with which the more privileged amongst us can define a moment, or a movement, entirely from our own perspective without recognizing the additional disadvantages that poor women, Dalit women, and women from minority communities face when they are harassed.
The ‘me’ in #MeToo is not a homogenous group and the difference is a matter of historical realities. The violence that spurs people to demand change in the law is the kind where women and girls are sexually assaulted in public spaces, usually by strangers. A hyperactive electronic media has contributed to this general belief that such incidents constitute the bulk of the attacks on women.
Yet, over the decades, crime data has clearly established that sexual assaults by strangers on women and girls are fewer. The majority of such assaults are mostly in homes, within neighborhoods, by men known to the women and girls at the receiving end of the violence.
We need to constantly reiterate this reality as without that, the demands for stronger laws and for justice continue to be fed on the misconception that it is people “outside” who are responsible for crimes against women and that “they” should be punished, even awarded the death penalty.
In their book, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade make an interesting observation about violence against women in the context of their inability to access public spaces for leisure.
They write: ‘The struggle against violence as an end in itself is fundamentally premised on exclusion and can only be maintained through violence, in that it tends to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and actually sanctions violence against ‘them’ in order to protect ‘us.’”
This kind of interpretation of the reasons for violence against women skews our understanding of its roots, ends up blaming it on “others,” often handy scapegoats if they belong to a different caste or community, while refusing to recognize the structures within that oppress women.
Also, such an understanding does nothing to tackle the challenges women face in accessing public spaces as a right and instead, on the rationale of “protecting” them and keeping them “safe,” curbs their mobility. Such a view also vitiates our understanding of the larger threat that women face, which is violence in the home, in the neighbourhood, from men they know.
The spaces within the four walls of the home, the ostensibly “safe” spaces, are often the most dangerous. Crime data has repeatedly established that more than 90 per cent of assaults on women and girls are from men known to them.
Demanding tougher laws, including the death penalty, does not address the complexity of confronting the main theatre of violence that women face. In India, efforts to deal with such violence have not been so successful because of the embedded belief, cutting across communities, that the honour of the so-called “Indian family” will be in danger if the law is brought into the home and the bedroom.
We refuse to recognize that this concept of family honour is premised on the suffering of women. Perhaps this will change. But given current trends, it is unlikely. Sexual violence against women in India is also inevitably linked with the kind of politics that dominates.
Today, sectarian politics feeds on, breeds, encourages and inflames societal divisions. As a result, in the battle between two or more warring groups, women pay the price. They are collateral, the ones who are ‘punished’ by one side or the other. This reality of communal conflict only emerges after the fighting is over, when women find the courage to speak up.
Similarly, in conflict zones, men take up arms on behalf of the state or an ideology but the cost is not just loss of life on both sides, but also what happens to the women caught in the middle. Both in Kashmir and the Northeast, particularly in Manipur, the stories of sexual violence must be acknowledged.
Our understanding of violence must also extend beyond sexual assault. What of the violence that developmental policy wreaks on women – on their health, workload and mobility? We rarely write about or address these aspects in the media. Yet, economic programmes set in place in the belief that they will make India prosperous have pushed millions of poor people, including women, into poverty.
They lose their lands, livelihoods and access to common resources like forests and rivers. Their daily lives, already burdened, become close to unbearable. Women without assets, without a source of income, have a reduced capacity to resist violence in the home and have a lesser say in family decisions. Although there are millions of such women, their collective voices are not heard. It is this silence that obscures a deeper and more pernicious form of violence that women must bear.
This violence can include something as basic as the absence of sanitation as I learned in the course of my work as a journalist. Women are molested and raped when they go out in search of a secluded spot to defecate. They suffer from urinary diseases. And when they reach puberty, young girls pay a particularly heavy price, even dropping out of school because of the absence of toilets. I have argued for decades that sanitation is a women’s issue and that is why it has been so neglected.
A rape case that did not have the same impact as Mathura’s, or later the Delhi gang rape in 2012, or the Kathua rape, was the sexual assault and gang rape of the saathin (village-level developmental worker) Bhanwari Devi from Bhateri village in Jaipur district, Rajasthan.
In 1992, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by men from her village as “punishment” for having challenged the practice of the banned custom of child marriage. She has still not received justice as her case drags on, while some of the men accused of raping her live in her neighbourhood.
It is her legal struggle that eventually led to the Supreme Court’s landmark Vishaka Guidelines, 1997, subsequently superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. A group of non-governmental organizations went to court demanding a law that dealt with sexual harassment based on Bhanwari Devi’s experience.
The sexual harassment law is being looked at anew in the light of a spurt in complaints of sexual harassment that have emerged since 2017. As more women speak out, go to court, lodge complaints, use the tactic of naming and shaming through crowdsourced”‘lists” on social media, it is becoming clear that many women are unwilling to tolerate any longer this form of violence.
Sexual harassment is an issue that cannot be brushed aside any more. The technology that opened up avenues for people to be closer to each other, and communicate in ways that we could never have imagined, has facilitated the outpourings on sexual harassment, beginning in 2017.
But these avenues have also increased the vulnerability of women who are now targets of another kind of violence, that of cyberstalking and trolling, which also includes rape and death threats. For many of the younger generation, who are enthusiastic proponents and users of social media, this kind of violence is becoming a major concern.
To go back to where we began – Mathura, and the young child in Kathua, two incidents that are forty-six years apart – there is a common theme. Both sixteen-year-old Mathura and the little girl in Kathua did not expect older men to rape and brutalize them. Mathura assumed that the job of the police is to protect. Who knows what the little girl thought in Kathua when she was lured into the place where she was assaulted and murdered.
In so many stories, the protector and the predator have the same face. Sexual violence is about women, but it is also about men. It is about entitlement, about impunity, about anger, about revenge and about the desire to punish. It also arises and is reinforced by the entrenched hierarchy in our families, of fathers and sons.
Succeeding generations of men in India are accultured to believe that they have the right to demand and to get what they want from women – “their” women and “other” women – and that, if their demands are not met, these women deserve punishment.
This might be an oversimplified explanation of what is meant by “patriarchy.” Yet there is no denying the fact that the Indian family and institutional structures in India remain patriarchal, in that men are considered to be, by right, those who head them, and women are expected to serve and conform.
Why then has there been so little change in Indian marriages and in the structure of the family in the last decades? Even today, the young women I have spoken to from different castes and communities admit that, eventually, it is better for them to stick to their own kind than risk the wrath of their family and community by marrying someone from “outside.”
I hold that as long as this belief in the traditional marriage survives, both the structure of caste and that of patriarchy will not change in India.
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