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The Language of Politics: Is Rape About Religion?

April 18, 2018


In the past week, there has been a rise in activism and rage- both online and offline- regarding the rape case of an eight-year-old girl from a nomadic Muslim tribe. People are marching out protesting on the streets, holding candle-light processions and circulating massive amounts of media on the internet. The incident has, and rightly so, touched a nerve in the people in India and Pakistan; where even those who’re usually ignorant and have passive responses to other rape cases seem to have an opinion. However, despite the strength of the political activism, many have been exceptionally uncritical about their approach to the case, which is a matter of concern. There are many points of contestation when arguing about the language of politics. However, I want to focus on a particular strand of this entire discourse vis-a-vis this rape case.


To bring out the problem, I want to focus on a picture posted by a Facebook page called “Tales Xpress”:





There a lot of similar posts made on the internet which seem to share the same ideology: that this rape case (or, any rape case) does not have to do with caste and religion. This ideology seems to be supported by some people I talked to during such protests as well, who said something along the lines of: “Oh, this isn’t about being Hindu or Muslim; it’s about being a bigot”. Somehow, there is a proliferating belief that the acts of violence and aggression do not have to do with religion, caste, class (to some people, even) gender. Somehow, there is a growing notion that the act of rape is committed in a void, separated from all social spheres. Somehow, people have adopted a dangerous, and a ruthlessly privileged idea that the language we use in activism has to do away with all these social dynamics.


Let’s take a minute, pause, and actually think about these questions: Does rape have nothing to do with all the sections of society? Does this rape case have absolutely nothing to do with religion?


Before I go on to explain where I’m coming from, I want to outline certain details of the case. The girl was kidnapped and gangraped by three men in a temple located 70 km from Jammu. During the four days she was held captive, she wasn’t fed and was sedated. Her body was later found, mutilated and discarded in the bushes, in Rasana. To quote a NDTV blogpost reporting the incident:



“...all this happened under the watch of the temple custodian Sanji Ram. His own son, Vishal, his nephew (a juvenile) and a special police officer, Deepak Khajuria, are also accused of raping her and are among the 8 men who were arrested by Crime Branch...the motive was to further what many political parties, civil society groups and lawyers in Jammu have been demanding for long that nomads and Gujjars, who are Muslim, should be evicted to prevent a "demographic change" in the Jammu region. The Crime Branch's investigations have established that the atrocities against the 8-year-old were meant to strike fear among nomads and bakarwals, who count for about less than 8 percent of the population in and around Jammu, and drive them out of the area. The nomads' demand for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Jammu and Kashmir, which would give them rights to use forest land has been stonewalled by the BJP as its supporters hold that the Gujjars are encroachers. The state's Forest Minister Lal Singh has cited Article 370 which gives the state the right to clear or reject central laws to block the implementation of the Forest Act"



I want to underscore certain facts of the case, not because they “undermine” the act of the rape (nor, as a lot of people believe, to “intensify the case in the wrong ways”, whatever that means). I highlight these nuances because they shed light upon the power-dynamics involved in the case: The act was committed in a temple. It happened “under the watch of” the temple custodian. The perpetrators involved the juvenile son of the temple custodian and a person in a position of authority. The act was intend to assert the authority of a particular religious identity and to instil fear- and drive away- another; the crime committed was influenced by a political agenda. Also, I would like to repeat: the victim was an eight-year-old, she was a girl, she was a Muslim, she was part of the nomadic tribe which constituted less than eight percent of the population (according to the NDTV article).


The case evidently has religious, political and social dimensions with very obvious power dynamics. The site of the case was a religious site for Hindus, the perpetrators involved called themselves Hindu and were motivated by an agenda which favoured BJP. Furthermore, the power was asserted over a person who was an easy-target: a child, who was already in a position of less power due to the gender allotted to her and the minority group she was born into. Not to mention, the Gujjars had faced “daily harassment, attacks and burning their settlements of huts" (NDTV) because of the Forest Act.


To ignore these demographics is to ignore that certain people are in positions of authority. To ignore these social dimensions of the people involved is to disregard the fact that structures of power create spaces and cultures which enable such acts of aggression. To ignore these dynamics, is to ignore power, power which enables rape.


Many people in support of the “Tales Xpress” viewpoint feel that since this rape case was influenced by religious, social and political tensions, to use the same identitarian terms would add fuel to the fire. I’m sorry to break this to you but by disregarding these social dynamics, you are unwittingly allowing power to be exercised without check. You are enabling a culture of rape. By ignoring these aspects, you are giving a free-pass to another member of a privileged group to exercise power through violence over the underprivileged. You have fallen into the trap set up by the rapist.


However, this is not it. There are a lot of sides to this argument which I want to address. Many feel uneasy and/or sceptical about acknowledging “religion” as a dimension for various reasons: for one, many believe that we are “politicising” the issue too much; secondly, some believe gender is the only social dynamic which influences rape and not religion; thirdly, they believe this strategy of political action will propagate the false idea that “all Hindus are rapists”; lastly, (and this- I believe- is the most important argument), is that the idea of the religion and the code of conduct which all religious practices follow does not influence rape, thus, religion should not be a political issue. I want to respond to all of these concerns.


The first concern is by people who think rape does not have to do anything with politics, or the society, or social groups; it is simply, wholly, purely an “inhumane” act. To them, the only thing wrong with rape is that it is morally considered wrong. The response by this group of people, in my opinion, is the most uncritical. There are certain spaces, cultures, ways of upbringing and forms of uncontrolled power and privilege which allow rape. To think that rape happens “out of nowhere”, or as an act completely divorced from any social reality, you are not only logically incorrect, you ignore power structures which render some people vulnerable to acts of violence. To the displeasure of all the people saying we are “politicising” the issue: to ignore the many social strands involved in rape is also a political stance. And, if this is the politics you’re aligning yourself with, you are not keeping in check how power is exercised. By thinking of rape as “apolitical”, you are enable the wrong use of power.


While some people are ready to consider the gender dynamics of harassment, they are too uncomfortable with acknowledging other facets of the social spectrum. This is a viewpoint very clearly supported by the “Tales Xpress” post. For them, it is irrelevant if victim is identified as a “Hindu”, “Muslim” or “Dalit”, but it is of specific importance if the victim is a “girl”.  This viewpoint is largely influenced by the sexist notion that men are inherently powerful and women have innate weaknesses which puts them in a position of powerlessness; and thus, men are supposed to protect women. If it were recognised that the social constructions privilege certain groups of people over others, and not any inherent qualities, then they would not consider gender as the only relevant facet.


The argument about gender can be used to think of religion. While the domains of gender and religion are different, they overlap when we’re talking about power, privilege and political action. I would like to draw a parallel regarding an argument which a lot of people discussed online few years ago, following the Nirbhaya rape case.


When people talked of rape as a “form of masculine aggression”, there were a lot of campaigns (the ones usually identified as “meninist”/mens-rights-activists) who, influenced by a misguided interpretation of the feminist cause, held up statements saying “#NotAllMenRape”. Their concern was that by looking at the gender dynamics of rape we are ignoring acts of sexual harassment against men. To this, multiple people online, feminist activists, academics and media-collectives responded (and very correctly) that they too know not all men rape. They pointed out that to ignore male victims is itself an anti-feminist endeavour and agreed that rape isn’t an act committed solely by one gender. However, there is a need to acknowledge the ways of giving privilege and power to certain groups of the society which allow such acts of violence to be perpetrated. That is why the number of male perpetrators of rape are reportedly more than female (irrespective of the gender of the victim). Moreover, sexual harassment cases with female perpetrators and male victims usually involve other power dynamics (say, for instance where the woman was upper-caste, elder or was in a position of authority- like a teacher). What the argument points out very rightly is that rape, if anything, is about power. It is (usually, unchecked and unaccounted) power which allows rape, influences rape and sometimes legitimises rape. There are multiple intersections when speaking of power dynamics in rape [1]. This is why the argument “what about a Muslim man raping a Hindu girl” is redundant: that just offers an example where a man exercises their privilege over woman.


We can think of religion in the similar way: we know not all Hindus are rapists. To assume that rape is committed by people belonging to one religion is completely false. However, religious identities also function in a hegemony: where certain identities have more power (politically, socially, economically and in population as well) than others. 


The idea is not to create more religious differences and tensions. We all want to do away with identitarian differences, but as long as a certain identities (gendered, religious, or otherwise) are privileged over another, we cannot simply ignore them. If we decide to forget who “Hindus”/ “Muslims”, “men”/ “women” are, we are disregarding the power exercised by the privileged category over the other. After so many acts of violence have been perpetrated because of privilege, at no sudden instance can we magically say: “Oh! Let’s all forget all the violence which has been done, forget our differences, and live happily ever after”. As much as we want that, we cannot ignore difference as long as people are violated because of the difference. Feminists acknowledge identity not despite there already being difference, but precisely because of it. It is in a hope of social equality and justice, that differences are acknowledged: this needs to be understood. Moreover, difference doesn’t necessarily take antagonistic forms; there are collaborative ways of looking at differences as well. If you are still at unease with this language: good! This is something scholars, political enthusiasts and activists have been dealing for a long time i.e. to think ways of using language which helps us acknowledge power difference and at the same time not fracture shared political action. Welcome to realm of political activism.


Lastly, and most importantly, is the concern that who we call “Hindus” in this case aren’t really so. That Hinduism, in its practice and scriptures would never allow rape. That, “rape is of no religion”. According to this frame of thought, those who call themselves Hindus in this case are “misusing” the identity. This view comes from a fear of religion getting into the murky space of politics.


What religion “really” is (arguably the scripture(s), the holy books, code of conduct or the practices) does not have much to do with how the religious identity/name is used. If you think only those people who “really” follow the religious practice can use the identity, you are too speaking from the vantage point of privilege, a high-ground where it seems to be in your hand who gets to identify as what.


In a Facebook post, a person who has the same viewpoint, criticizes media which uses Hindu symbols to represent the act of rape. She writes “It is a professionally funded and managed campaign with support from across the border to malign Hindus, attack our religious symbols and make all Hindus bear the burden of guilt of a crime like rape”.


The object of her criticism were pictures like:




Whether religious identity is or is not really the religion, is an important question. However, in either case, what these posts forget is the privilege/power dynamics involved with religious identities. Even if Hinduism doesn’t encourage crime, many using the “Hindu” identity (like those identifying with a specific brand of Hindu identity: Hindutva) do and have. And those associating with the identity have the power to continue using it and getting away with the crimes they commit. What these posts are doing isn’t blaming the religion, it is checking how the religious identity is exercising power.


In a country like India, religious identity is fused with political identity. BJP is unarguably Hindu-oriented and has used the Hindu identity multiple times. So is the “Shiv” Sena. These religious symbols ceased to be just religious the moment religion in India entered the sphere of politics. Sadly, the Hindu gods and symbols aren’t just yours anymore, they are also of Hindutva, of the Shiv Sena, of BJP. The very fact that being a “bhakt” is a political stance should have made this evident. Those who associate themselves with the Hindu identity have political advantage over those who don’t, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. By using Hindu symbology, what these posts try to do is precisely call out on the privilege the identity holds. 


Additionally, to reply to the fear Hindus have at this point, the fear that they are responsible for the crime of rape: you are not responsible for how others use “your” religious identity, that’s true. But you are responsible if you have ignored your privilege and allowed it to evoke crime.


On a similar note, the Hindu Sanghatan[2] decided to take legal action against a comic which comments on Hindutva brigade misusing power by playing with the figure of Hindu gods. Even though this comic says nothing overtly offensive about the religion, it seems to come across as offensive to Hindu extremists. 


 (Screenshot, from a Facebook post)



And yet, even those who are supposedly against rape and harassment seem to be happy with this decision. Again, these gods and symbols aren’t just yours anymore. Your religious identity is (and has been) misused for a long time. If there is a need to call out, point at those in power who are misusing your identity. Dislodge your political stance with your religion. Instead of further maligning the underprivileged, stop giving legitimacy to what the Hindu Sangahtan is doing.


For the last time, remember: the rapist wants you to think that it is “everyone else” who is making the case about religion and not him; the rapist wants you to forget power exists whenever these posts remind you otherwise; the rapist wants to get away as “just a rapist” and not someone misusing power given by his identity. Don't do what the rapist wants you to do.


A lot of activists, academics and supporters online have talked about these issues as well, and I’m grateful for that. If you think this rape case was "not a matter of a religion", you separate political privilege from religious identities, structures of powers from forms of violence and ignore the dominance allowed to a specific group of people.


You too have power: so use it in your activism. Go out on the streets, protest, share media and talk. Use your power for justice. And while you’re doing that, look at who you are attacking. At the very least, think of the language you’re using critically.




[1] Few of the strands, when talking of rape, involve: religion, caste, class, gender, sexuality, age, institutional benefits, positions of authority, economic advantages, language benefits, number of perpetrators. Even this list barely scratches the surface.

[2] An extremist group following the pro-Hindu/Hindutva ideology.

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