SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN INDIA
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN KAVITA KRISHNAN AND BRINDA GANGOPADHYA LUNDMARK
BGL: Many have called the 2012 rape case a breaking point in terms of how women’s rights have been discussed in India. Why do you think that this particular case, sparked massive protests?
KK: I have to start off by saying that it is a very difficult question to answer. I also think it is important to note that this is not the first massive protest against sexual violence in India. For instance, in the 1980s, there was a big rape case (often referred to as the Mathura rape case) that led to important changes in terms of protesting. In that case, the Supreme Court judgement acquitted the policemen that had raped a 16-year-old indigenous girl while in custody. They were able to claim that because she had been sexually active before, she had consented to the act, even though she was in custody during that time. When the Supreme Court’s verdict came, it sparked immense protests. Activists and women’s groups demanded a re-visit of India’s rape laws. I would say that there is a relationship between this movement and the one in 2012. What was, however, significant for the 2012 event was the scale of protest, and especially the amount of young people that attended. Also, what was further important was that a very large number of people raised slogans against victim blaming—not only in this specific case, but in general. They were demanding women’s freedom by making a distinction between the state’s language of protecting women and the language of women seeking to expand their freedom. That is since the state’s language of protection has been used to impose further restrictions on women’s freedom in the name of their safety.
BGL: Do you think that the continuation of putting women’s rights on the agenda in India we are witnessing now could be seen as a counter reaction to the current government’s right-wing politics?
KK: Yes, I think so. There is a very strong reaction against right-wing politics and the way Hindu majority groups are talking about women. There is a strong concern of such groups telling women what they ought to be wearing and telling Hindu women that they cannot marry Muslim men or Christian men, and so on. This is ringing alarm bells in a large number of women. But I also think that we must recognise that it is not just these right-wing groups that are saying and doing these things (and not even today’s Indian government!). There is a larger matrix in which you’re having these strong notions of ‘good Indian women’ versus ‘bad Indian women’ that are being deployed to discipline, for instance, women in factories. This is not being done only by Hindutva groups. It’s part of the everyday practice of disciplining women workers. It’s also in general used against women activists. So, this is the time when more and more people are starting to question such practises.
BGL: What structures need to be challenged in order to tackle violence against women?
KK: First and foremost, it is a question of recognising and promoting women’s autonomy. I also think that we need to recognise that violence against women happens in various contexts of power. It of course happens because of gender discrimination. But it also happens because of, for instance, the caste system in India. It happens at the hands of the police, army, as well as paramilitary forces. As well as in work places and factories, to mention a few. Recognising that also means that we have to start challenging institutions. We have to start challenging those structures of organising labour, organising families and household, and challenge so many other structures of power. During the protests in Delhi we used to say a slogan (that is a quote from the book Why Loiter) that I believe resonates very well with this claim. It states: “The city can only belong to all women when it belongs to all people”. This illustrated the fact that women should not feel scared when going out during the night. But it also emphasised the point that it is not only women that are in danger. For instance, Muslim men or Kashmiri men should not have to explain their ‘respectability’ in public streets and public places.
BGL: The Kiss of Love protests in Kerala in 2014 (meant to celebrate freedom of expressing love) are often used as a great example of how the youth in India mobilised against moral policing. However, the protest was met with large opposition and people argued that the youth was searching only for ‘Western freedom’. Can you comment on that?
KK: There are two things to this. Firstly, the issue of moral policing should not be seen only as an issue of young, urban women only—or even couples. It’s not only an issue of public display of affection. Even though that is of course a big issue. I would say that the whole issue of moral policing goes very deep into the surveillance of women’s lives as a whole: that is not only in their homes, but even in factories and so on. In factories we see the same kind of policing when women are not allowed to talk to male co-workers and not use mobile phones. These are the conditions under which women in India are working. Clearly, moral policing is also used to organise women’s labour in their homes as well as in factories and work places. This is part of the global labour production in international garment brands. So clearly we cannot see these protests as ‘western freedom’ versus ‘traditional freedom’. That is the way they are trying to frame the debate. But it is of course much more complex.
BGL: In an interview in The Diplomat, you said that it is very easy to say, “violence happens over there in India” and not recognise that structures of violence and domination exist everywhere. How can we practice transnational solidarity?
KK: It is in fact quiet easy. Especially if one sees it as a willingness to learn, rather than to imagine. … For instance, an easy way would be for an activist in the UK not to ask questions such as ‘is it still really bad in India?’ or ‘when is it going to get better for women in India?’ but instead ask what we together can do about this. Ask activists in India about what success and troubles they are experiencing and share experiences and solidarity amongst one another. So the focus should not be to try and ‘uplift Indian women’, but see that struggles happen in so many different parts of the world, including the UK. There are a number of platforms (such as the Freedom without Fear platform) that raise similar women’s issues in, for example, the UK and India, but acknowledge the different contexts. Also, challenging global capitalism can be done everywhere. If there, for example, is a UK-based corporation that is involved in issues of violence against women in India, people should pressurise them in the UK. For example, British funding agencies, which are implicated in issues of violence against women in sterilisation in India should be campaigned against. That’s a wonderful way of working transnationally.
Kavita Krishnan is a prominent women’s and left activist in India. Krishnan has been involved in the anti-rape movement in India, which sparked after the 2012 rape case. She is the secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and she is also an editor of the monthly journal of “Liberation”.
Artwork © SALLY DESKINS / sallydeskins.tumblr.com