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Gujarat Riots and the Role of Sexual Violence

Svati P Shah ( is with the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969 by Megha Kumar, New Delhi: Tulika Books,2017; pp xi + 255,775.


Megha Kumar’s Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969 examines sexual violence through three riots in Gujarat: 1969, 1985 and 2002, when more than 2,000 Muslims were killed, more than 1,00,000 displaced, and wherein the documented and anecdotal instances of sexual violence were widespread, horrific, and overwhelming. Kumar’s book is remarkable, not only because of the attacks from the Hindu right that she and the book have weathered, but also because of what it sets out to do, and what it succeeds in doing.

The bulk of the book’s pages are devoted to detailing the violence in each of these three riots, tracing it back systematically through the questions of caste, the economy, and electoral power, while always asking how widespread sexual violence was in each case, why it did or did not occur, and to what degree. In placing these events systematically alongside one another, and in specifically using sexual violence as the frame that renders the logic of considering these riots in relation to each other, the book also enables us to ask questions that we would not be able to ask otherwise.

In other words, given the framing of the book, with its primary lens being that of sexual violence in relation to the politics of everyday life, from housing to electoral power, the book inevitably raises a number of big questions. The biggest questions, perhaps, are: What does sexual violence mean to the life of the nation? What does it mean to how the politics of contemporary nationalism is constituted?

Communalism and Sexual Violence is focused on the 2002 Gujarat riots, and the role that sexual violence played in the execution and aftermath. Kumar chooses to focus on 2002; an instance of a smaller riot in 1985, in which sexual violence apparently did not play a part; and 1969, where it did, though it was not as widespread as in 2002. She takes Ahmedabad as the epicentre of these riots, mainly because, as the political capital of the state, Ahmedabad can be seen as both an electoral bellwether for the rest of Gujarat, and the place where riots sometimes begin, especially when electoral gains and losses are somehow part of the equation.

Kumar begins by drawing a conceptual link between high-profile cases of sexual assault, including the Nirbhaya case, and sexual violence that is perpetrated during communal violence. Her main disagreement with the discourse of sexual violence is its exceptionalisation, the idea that sexual violence during a riot like 2002, for example, generates outrage because it is seen as rare or aberrant. “However,” she writes, “this sense of exceptionality was lacking in historical perspective” (p 4). Citing the widespread and horrific stories of sexual violence during partition, Kumar effectively shows that understanding moments of mass rioting in India also entails understanding how sexual violence is deployed, against and by whom, and to what effect.

To address this broad question, she begins by asking as to what facilitates the use of sexual violence during the kinds of riots that Ahmedabad, in particular, has witnessed. Using archival and interview methods, Kumar shows that the riots she discusses had been planned for, and awaiting the right provocation, for years prior. This is especially true for 1969 and 2002, with 1985 marking something of an anomaly, about which I say more below.

Locating Sexual Violence

By effectively describing the particularly devastating impact over time of the increased segregation of Hindus and Muslims in housing, combined with the increasing numbers of Hindutva-supporting officials within the police and state bureaucracy, it is clear that the exercise of sexual violence in these riots is about far more than men’s elemental need for sex gone berserk, as feminists have been arguing for decades. Kumar’s thesis proceeds from the idea that sexual violence is integral to how conflicts over governance are waged in India, an idea that is evidenced in how conflicts over governance, economic power, and public spaces are waged throughout the world.

Of India, Kumar writes,

Since Partition, however, the role of the state in inter-religious riots underwent a significant shift, which culminated in 2002, when several senior politicians, members of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly and police officials condoned the violence against Muslims, and, in some instances, even actively facilitated it. (p 50)

Throughout the text, she is careful not to say that the government “orchestrated” the 2002 violence, or any other instance of violence in the state. The extent to which Kumar does identify the culpability of the state is derived from evidence that has been corroborated and which is in the public domain.

My interest here is not in assessing how well Kumar’s book identifies the state’s responsibility in the 2002 violence. The evidence in this regard is clear for those who are familiar with the twists and turns of the Best Bakery case, for example, or of the “encounter killings” that took place in the few years subsequent to 2002. Rather, I am interested here in drawing out an idea that forms the spine of the book’s main points, the idea that the 2002 Gujarat riots constitute an almost epochal marker for the consolidation of the Hindu right in the machinery of governance, as a “culmination” of years of strategy that grew alongside a degree of economic inequality, which has become even more stark in the wake of liberalisation.

I am also interested in the parameters that the book draws around its subject, the hard analytic line around not just Gujarat, but Ahmedabad in particular, a line that reflects when the bulk of the research was done inasmuch as it serves to demarcate the book’s argument. While the scope of the book is rightly limited to Ahmedabad, and to a secondary degree, the state as a whole, the argument in the book could apply to sexual violence, reported in relation to violence, in any number of places where a power struggle is taking place in the government, where land is being appropriated, and where long-standing territorial disputes now seem to be simmering over (regarding the appropriation of land, see WSS [2017]).

Determined Analysis

While we may well imagine why the geo graphic and historical scope of the book is so tightly limited, some choices made by Kumar are curious, and were perhaps due to certain logistical or methodological constraints. The primary constraint in this regard, I would suggest, may be derived from an idea that has been fl oating in the post-2002 discourse on Gujarat, which seeks to understand why the state, in particular, seems to be so problematic. She never articulates this question in the book, and indeed, the aim of the book is not to exceptionalise Gujarat in order to de- exceptionalise it in the course of the argument. However, it is interesting that a book which aims to show that sexual violence is not exceptional, enters a discursive milieu which has tended to exce ptionalise Gujarat around the 2002 violence, as well as the Prime Minister that this violence, in a sense, produced.

In light of the post-2002 discourse on Gujarat that has been in circulation everywhere else, one is tempted to ask why the 1984 Delhi riots are not discussed, when they took place only a year before one of the riots in Gujarat that garners its own chapter in the book. Furthermore, why are the 1985 riots in Ahmedabad—which occurred on a relatively small scale and in relation to reservations rather than a perceived Hindu/Muslim conflict—discussed here, when other riots that occurred in the state arguably had a greater impact in terms of lives and property destroyed and long-term political consequences?

A reading of the book elicits two possible answers. First, because it is Kumar’s intent to focus on why sexual violence does or does not occur in the course of these kinds of riots, and to what degree, it is incumbent on her to source archival and interview materials, which lend support to an argument that addresses this question. This is difficult because, throughout the book, she details the problem of archival silence; while data is available on “riots” and “communalism,” very little data was collected historically on “sexual violence” as its own category. However, there were both documented cases of sexual violence in the 1969 riots, and interviews of some of the survivors of the 1985 riots in this book. Therefore, the experience of sexual violence in both these riots can be traced and corroborated, unlike instances where there may be no reliable sources, or no one willing to speak on the record. Kumar uses the 1985 riots to show that there are conditions in which sexual violence is less pervasive, and these are closely related to how segregated Ahmedabad’s localities came to be, along with the extent to which the Hindu right was able to infiltrate the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and, eventually, the state government.

Second, it is clear that the book does not seek to traffic in stereotypes or reductionisms, such as the idea that communal hatred is somehow fundamental to something we might call a “Gujarat mindset,” by the fact that the reasons for each instance of violence is argued with care, and that these reasons converge around the inability of the government to meet the demands of its citizens regarding basic provisions. Instead, a focus on Gujarat and Ahmedabad allows Kumar to argue that an exacerbated economic and social environment goes a long way in explaining the involvement of Dalits in the 2002 violence, and, much earlier, in explaining the fissure in the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance that had served to keep the Congress in power during roughly the last decade of its rule in the state. While Kumar is careful to discuss the reasons why the Congress had garnered so much electoral enmity, she also shows that the losses of the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had a direct impact on the likelihood of the 2002 horror unfolding.

Hindu Right and a Complicit State

One challenge that a book like this reveals is in how it will be taken up within a decidedly reified discourse. The discourse on Gujarat is far from neutral, and it may take a skilled reading to see that the book’s larger intent is not in exceptionalising “Gujarati communalism,” but it is, rather, in showing what economic and electoral conditions may have facilitated these riots, and the incidence and uses of sexual violence during these times. Kumar ultimately argues that there is an upward slope in all of these analytic maps. That there is, for example, an upward trend of, both, Hindu nationalism which is now “more extreme” than it was before—for instance, during the run-up to 1969 riots in Ahmedabad—and of state involvement or facilitation in these riots over time, with 2002 being an example of the pinnacle of these two trends, so far. While we may debate whether there is a quantitative, linear uptick in trends like these over time (is there another model that would serve us better, perhaps?), it is clear that this book builds on a number of excellent works on Gujarat post 2002, and expands the ground on which we may ask these kinds of questions.

It is also clear that the differences in the state responses in 1969, 1993, and 2002 are devastating. Whereas the government was unequivocal in stopping the violence through the imposition of curfews, deploying the army, and in setting up independent committees of inquiry prior to 2002, it is well known that none of this occurred during the 2002 violence. Rather, Kumar (p 169) quotes historian Howard Spodek (2011: 261), who observed that, “the 2002 pogrom was not just a reaction to Godhra. It became part of the electoral campaign of the BJP and of its institutional allies, the RSS and the VHP.”

In the last chapter, on the conditions of the relief camps in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, Kumar discusses interviews where women who had been in the camps reported having to exchange sex for basic necessities from the camp authorities. In light of the ways in which the discourse on Muslims is itself so polarised, it is difficult to show that gendered power was also at work in these hastily assembled and frequently-targeted spaces to which people had fled.

At the same time, if I had one question to ask about the book, it would be regarding the use of the term “sex work” in the text, and its association with the term “exploitation.” This is not because I hold the view that exchanges involving sex are never exploitative, but because the question of sex elicits the question of feminism, and of which historical lineages of feminism we rely upon to make our arguments. As a feminist scholar, I would have a similar question about the argument that there was “more” state complicity in 2002 than at any other previous time, because the Indian feminists’ first demand, as a movement in the modern era, was that the state take cognisance of sexual assault and domestic violence as serious crimes. When it failed to do so, they argued that the state was complicit in sexual violence, by virtue of abdicating its responsibility to protect its citizens within the terms of the law in the so-called “private” sphere, especially when the application of the rule of law was, and is, so categorically majoritarian.

It is a testament to the book’s richness that, while it clearly shows the effects of economic privation and electoral failure on the exercise of sexual violence in communal riots, it also elicits questions that far exceed this purview. Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969 is an important addition to a library of resources that help explain how we have reached this point politically, and possibly, how we may change its course.


Spodek, Howard (2011): Ahmedabad: Shock City of Twentieth Century India, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

WSS (2017): Bearing Witness: Sexual Violence in South Chhattisgarh, Laxmi Murthy (ed), Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, Gurgaon.

Updated On : 3rd Jan, 2018


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