Report Says Women Targeted during India's Violence

A multi-ethnic delegation finds that rape and sexual violence against women are prevalent in the recent surges of unbridled violence between India's Muslims and Hindus.

Chartoda Kabristan

Photo: Residents at the Chartoda Kabristan camp in Ahmedabad. The camp, with 6,000 residents, is located on the site of a Muslim graveyard. Residents were sleeping in the open, between the graves. Copyright 2002 Smita Narula/Human Rights Watch.

(WOMENSENEWS)-In the Indian state of Gujarat, where attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs have killed at least 1,000 people in the last three months, a shattered woman named Jannat Sheikh lives in helpless agony.

In one terror-filled day, this Muslim mother saw her husband tortured and burned alive, her baby niece doused in gasoline and set on fire, her mother-in-law raped and teen-age girls in the neighborhood rounded up and stripped before being sexually abused in the street.

“The police were on the spot, but helping the mob,” she told a group of Indian women of mixed religious backgrounds who set out late in March to document what they feared most: that Muslim women in Gujarat have become primary victims of behavior that ranks with internationally recognized war crimes.

The delegation, sponsored by a civic organization in Ahmedabad called Citizen's Initiative, found that at least 100,000 Muslims remain in overcrowded refugee camps in the state and others are in hiding or living with family or friends. Among them are countless women whose stories have never been heard. Their men dead, their homes and businesses destroyed, these vulnerable women have no hope of returning to a normal life any time soon. Their stories echo those of abused women who survived the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia or the genocide in Rwanda.

“We have been shaken and numbed by the scale and brutality of the violence that is still continuing in Gujarat,” the six-member team of women said in their report, published privately in India in April. “Despite reading news reports, we were unprepared for what we saw and heard; for fear in the eyes and anguish in the words of ordinary women whose basic human right to live a life of dignity has been snatched away from them,” reads the report, titled “How Has the Gujarat Massacre Affected Minority Women? The Survivors Speak.”

Diverse Group of Intellectuals Express Alarm over Gujarat Attacks

The six women who went to Gujarat to document the victimization of Muslim women represent a variety of independent organizations, including the Muslim Women's Forum in New Delhi and the multi-ethnic National Alliance of Women in Bangalore. They join a growing body of Indian intellectuals expressing outrage at not only what is happening to Muslims in that state, which has a Hindu nationalist government, but also the failure of the federal government in New Delhi, also led by Hindu nationalists, to act decisively. The filmmaker Mira Nair has called the events in Gujarat a “pogrom.” Others say the Hindu attacks tarnish the secular image of India and strip it of credibility when it berates Islamic militancy.

The violence in Gujarat began on Feb. 27, when a group of Hindu militants returning from a pilgrimage were attacked after their train stopped at the town of Godhra. The Hindus, some reports say, may have taken food without paying Muslim vendors at previous stops; when they reached Godhra, angry Muslims on the platform, possibly incited by unidentified provocateurs, set fire to the train. Fifty-nine people died. The women's investigating team noted that many of the Hindu dead were also women. In the wake of the attack on the train, Hindus in Gujarat began a massacre of Muslims in many neighborhoods.

“In many ways,” they report, “women have been the central characters in the Gujarat carnage and their bodies the battleground.”

The government's tepid response to well-organized attacks on Muslims in Gujarat-the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi-has led to the resignation of one minister in the national coalition government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which survived a censure motion in Parliament only on a narrow, partisan vote.

In Gujarat, it took politicians, led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and the police three days in early March to stop the initial violence against Muslims and attacks still go on-except in a few places where local leaders have taken a strong stand against it or Hindu neighbors or rural tribal people have come to the aid of besieged families.

Women Bear Brunt of Violence

The targeting of women in mob violence is not new, but international law experts and women's organizations say that this tactic has become common in the civil disturbances and guerrilla wars that have come to symbolize conflict over the last decade worldwide: Women, who bear the sons of the “enemy,” must either be destroyed or impregnated by other side. The women collecting testimony in Gujarat in March said they saw video footage of graffiti on charred buildings saying, “Muslims quit India or we will —- your mothers!” Women told them of being gored in the stomach, having a fetus ripped out or having sticks inserted in their vaginas.

Saira Banu said at a camp called Shah-E-Alam that this is what happened to the sister of her sister-in-law: “She was nine-months pregnant. They cut open her belly, took out her fetus with a sword and threw it into a blazing fire. Then they burnt her as well.” When the visitors asked a child of 9 whether she knew the meaning of rape, the little girl answered: “Rape is when a woman is stripped naked and then burnt.”

The women's team, which met with local politicians and police officers, recommends that an independent inquiry commission should be set up, headed by an Indian Supreme Court justice, to examine the violence, beginning with the attack on the train at Godhra. Victims need to have their cases registered and acted on by the police, the team said, adding that special courts should be established to try the accused, including public officials. The women also recommend the dismissal of the state government, which the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has the power to do. And they ask India to face up squarely to sexual violence against Muslim women and the overall threat to India's Islamic minority.

“The issue of sexual violence is grossly underreported,” the team said.

Barbara Crossette is a former New York Times correspondent in India and the author of three books on Asia.

For more information:

“How Has the Gujarat Massacre Affected Minority Women?
The Survivors Speak”:

Human Rights Watch report on State Participation and
Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat

“How has the Gujarat Massacre Affected Minority Women?”