Women and Conflict in India Today


What does it mean to be woman, minority, Other, and marginalized in India today? Are these states of being inevitably consonant with structural and pervasive subjugation?


“They would hang women upside down. They destroyed women’s lives. [To escape,] a woman committed suicide with her infant by taking cyanide. We are just surviving. We have just survived.”

Punjab, Victimized-survivor, violence against Sikh women, 1980s

“Your “race” is deranged. You are criminals. You are thieves. Your mother is a whore. Your sister will be raped by your people who are crazed. You will never see azadi [freedom].”

India’s state forces to Kashmiri male Muslim youth, 2010

“They grabbed her. She was pregnant. They brought a can of kerosene. They stabbed her in the stomach with a sword. Her screams were so loud. She pleaded with them to save her unborn child. They killed her. They cut out her baby from her womb. They doused her with kerosene and torched her.”

Gujarat, Victimized-survivor, violence against Muslim women, 2012

Conflicted Democracy

Postcolonial India is habitually afflicted by political and foundational violence. In the transition from feudal-imperial-colonial formations, the anatomy of India’s conflicted political democracy is surfeited with myriad disputes, nationalist assertions and unresolved politics.

India is rich in religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity. Resilient judicial and administrative institutions; formidable intellectual, artistic, scientific, and technical production; and a vibrant civil society and diverse social movements are emblematic of its culture and polity. A particular example of liberal democracy, India’s stability is of critical import to South Asia and globally. A rising nuclear power, India ranked as the third largest economy in terms of its purchasing power and is calculated to have a decisive impact on the global economy of the future. India’s population exceeds 1.2 billion. Between 2010 and 2014, India was the world’s largest procurer of arms, with a 15 percent share of the global arms imports.

Adjacently, India is home to one in three of the world’s poorest people. India ranked 143 (of 162 countries) in the Global Peace Index in 2014. This was based on the number of external and internal conflicts and the conditions of instability they foster. According to the Pew Research Center, religious hostilities have escalated globally. India ranked in the top 3 in 2011 and 2012. A 2011 report estimated that 506,000 persons remained internally displaced in India due to conflict and upheaval.

According to the Millennium Development Goals report of the UN, “in 2010, one third of the world’s 1.2 billion extreme poor lived in India alone.” The World Economic Forum ranked India ranked at 114 (of 142 states) in the overall gender gap index.

At the same time, every third person in an Indian city today is a youth and, by 2020, India is projected to hold the largest percentage of the world’s youngest population. The population is increasingly urban, and more than 10 million persons move each year in the largest rural-urban migration of this century. This includes entire communities that are displaced by mining, dam construction, water scarcity, and deforestation.

A member of the G-20 and BRICS, India has grown into the third largest economy in the world, and is predicted by the World Bank to replace China as the world’s fastest growing economy. Yet, the National Sample Survey Organization, in a survey conducted during its Sixty-Eighth Round in July 2011 to June 2012, recorded that 75 percent of India’s rural workforce and 69 percent of the urban workforce were employed in the informal sector.

Eighty-six percent of India’s poor are rural-based and 25.7 percent of the rural population lives in poverty. The erosion of the traditional and customary rights of rural communities, especially that of Adivasis and Dalits, is compounded by projects of careless globalization and the corporatization of large-scale development.

In 2005, a committee appointed by then prime minister studied the relative social, economic and educational status of Muslims, the largest religious minority community in India. Across various indicators, including relative unemployment, salary in public and private jobs), poverty, and government employment, the Sachar Committee’s report of 2006 noted that the Muslim community “exhibits deficits and deprivation in practically all dimensions of development.”

Fault Lines

India witnessed the world’s largest elections in 2014 with a turnout of 814 million voters to elect an ultra-right Hindu nationalist government. Hindus, the designated national majority, comprise various communities, castes, ethnicities, and sub-groups. Hindu nationalists both assert the “Hinduness” of India and seek to deny constitutional and non-degorable freedoms to non-Hindus through their non-consensual incorporation into a majoritarian social body.

Majoritarian groups enforce economic boycott of religious minority and other marginalized groups. Hindu nationalists act against conversions from Hinduism and for conversions to Hinduism. They stall or stop conversions to Christianity and other religions, and campaign for the denial of reserved economic benefits to those who convert to other religions as a way to circumvent Hindu caste oppression even as the social, gendered, and economic hierarchies.

3 Newsha Tavakolian, Ocalanʼs Angels, 2015Muslims are branded as internal/external enemy. This is akin to dominant Christian relations to Jewry in European history. Muslim women have been portrayed in dominant discourse as submissive and threatened by the hyper-sexualized and violent conduct of men in their communities and as in need of rescue—resonating with British and Dutch colonial positing of native women and men. Sikh women have been portrayed in dominant discourse as assertive and enabling of the authoritative and violent conduct of men in their communities and as in need of domestication.

India has been described as an “ethnic democracy” within an increasing majoritarian state. Majoritarianism in India is governed by cultural nationalism and political assertions by the majority and dominant community toward acquiring and maintaining power. This majoritarian polity is structured through religionization, racialization and securitization.

Religionization refers to the politicization of religion, rendering it an object of violence. Racialization creates representations of the Other through ascribing racial and ethnic identities to peoples that defy their self-recognition. Securitization is the establishment of policies, discourses, and practices that define the parameters of freedom, threats to national security, and mechanisms for national preservation. This process builds and fortifies the national collective. Political violence through conflict is regularly comprised of militarization, securitization, and the quotidian strategies of heteronormativity.


The Thomson Reuters Foundation (2014) ranked India as the fourth most dangerous country for women. Gender-inequitable cultural ethos and political structures subject women, as other marginalized genders, to indignity and render them vulnerable to gendered and sexualized violence.

Gender-based violence targets individuals on the basis of the person’s perceived gender and gender identity and is linked to structural violence, and in part to state violence. Violence as gendered links aggression to the apparatuses (mechanisms and structures) of social and political power. Gendered and sexualized violence increases with the militarization of masculinities and heightened militarization of states.

A UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women described the female experience in India as commonly consisting of a “continuum of violence…from the ‘womb to the tomb.’” A recent study showed that 65 percent of men in India believe women should tolerate violence and that 24 percent of men have committed sexual violence (2011).

Rape is the fourth most common crime against women and only one in ten rapes are reported. According to the Indian government, a woman is raped in the country approximately every twenty minutes and three out of every four perpetrators of such crimes go free.

Conviction rates for rape have been as low as 24.2 percent in 2012, declining from previous years. Fast-track courts for sexual crimes, instituted following the 2012 gang rape of a woman in New Delhi, demonstrate low conviction rates and high backlogs prevalent in regular courts. Moreover, conviction rates do not adequately reflect or resolve the issue of sexualized violence given the stigmatized nature of the crime, which remains more underreported than other crimes. This occurs in the context of pervasive gender discrimination and gendered violence.

Indian laws criminalizing sexualized violence remained predominantly unchanged from colonial times until 1983; and from 1983 to 2012; after the gang rape of a woman in New Delhi in December 2012. Significantly, the law in India does not extend to marital rape and domestic violence law does not include sexual violence.

Women’s participation through history has been critical to configuring politics and discourse on issues of nation, caste, class, sexuality, religion, and ability in India. In this current phase, feminists and activists in the Indian women’s movement have acted to make visible the issue of women’s individual and collective oppression and agency.

Women’s struggles, scholarship and advocacy have led to significant policy and social shifts, including the passage of significant pro-women laws in the past decade and a half. Despite the strength, breadth, and import of this work, the chronic devaluation of female life and the glorification of violence against women, and minority women in particular, remain structurally condoned and historically–socially permissible across India. In public and domestic spheres this has lead to abandonment, disinheritance, dowry deaths, acid throwing, psychosocial suffering, sexual slavery and trafficking, torture through gang and collective rape, mutilation, custodial deaths, and honor killings.

Gendered violence is used as an act of power, tactic of torture, and weapon of desecration. Gendered and sexualized violence is not limited to isolated acts of individuals, but is used as a tool of oppression by both state functionaries and combatants to subjugate communities and silence dissent.

Women of all communities are particularly vulnerable to gender, sexual, and domestic violence in India, although women from religious minority, Dalit, and Adivasi groups are especially impacted. In struggles for political power, control over territory, or cultural and religious dominance, retributive vengeance against a social group is often transmitted through individual and collective violence against women of the group.

The perpetrators of gendered and sexualized violence against women in conflict and upheaval may be from within the state forces or members of hostile communities. Rape, mass rape, gang rape, and stripping and torching of women and girls are common during social upheaval and episodic violence. The rape of women is a weapon to gain or consolidate power over members of the “enemy” or opponent group.

A large body of literature has analyzed the deployment of sexualized abuse on women of the Other in India, as vindication by members of a dominant culture. Opportunistic and retributive violence against minority women is a means of attack whereby women’s bodies become battlefields for cultural nationalism. The deployment of sexual violence against minority women by majoritarian vigilante groups is a recent example, where the severing of breasts and tearing open of wombs and vaginas in Gujarat 2002 “signal[led] complex levels of deterrence against Muslim reproduction.”

Economic indicators demonstrate that women from ethnic and religious minorities are especially targeted preceding, during, and following conflict and social upheaval, including by men who perpetrate violence against women in their own communities. Sexualized violence in these contexts, whether orchestrated or opportunistic, frequently occurs with the participation or tolerance of Indian officials. The capacity of existing policies, law enforcement, and legal mechanisms to prevent and redress the impact of gendered and sexualized violence on minorities in conflict remains significant. The imposition of special laws in conflict areas limits the scope of accountability.

LGBTIQA communities are exceedingly vulnerable to gendered and sexualized violence. Evidence records that lesbians, gay men and boys, and transgender, third gender, or intersex individuals continue to be victimized by sexual violence under regular conditions of life. Various factors, including deep social stigma, act as impediments to investigating such violence.

Nationalist and Routine Violence

Gendered and sexualized violence has accompanied tectonic shifts in polity and culture. Embodied gendered and sexualized violence was inherent to the colonial-feudal encounter, the internal colonization of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans in the United States. Such violence was ever-present in the Holocaust of Jews and others in mid-twentieth century Europe.

Gendered and sexualized violence remained a significant element in contemporary state formations and transitions in Africa, South America and Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Nationalist violence combines militarization and patriarchy. This has been noted in the literature on

India. This has been recorded in the domestication of religious politics in Ireland, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and in Israel’s governance of Palestine. Anthropology of violence posits how, in targeting the individual, nationalist violence focuses on the political and cultural identity of minority groups.

History merges with contemporary grievances across the country, spurred by issues of territorial and political conflict and self-determination as in Kashmir, internal conflict and social upheaval as in Gujarat, identity, majoritariansim, and minoritization, and the struggle for control over resources. The contradictions in the political-secular nature of the state in India and the will and capacity of the state to respond to the gendered targeting of minority groups are sharply evident in the repeated instances of religionized violence targeting minority groups.

Nationalist violence in the postcolony incorporates majoritarian and supremacist norms. The sexualized and performative dimensions of nationalist violence accelerate minoritization. Minoritization is the social, political, and economic exclusion and targeting of non-dominant peoples and groups through dehistoricization, marginalization, and stereotypification.

Virulent nationalism mediates the militarization of gendered roles and the use of structural and direct violence in furthering the minoritization of socially vulnerable and marginalized groups. Gender inequities and relations in society; the status of women, LGBTIQA, and other marginalized genders, and the systemic rights violations experienced by them, serve as preconditions to massified sexualized violence in social upheaval and political conflict.

This is enabled by states of exception. Distressed locales are periodically and routinely governed through exception. These areas are impacted by deep cultural and social fragmentation, including movements for majoritarian assertion, minoritization, and self-determination, and civil war and internal conflict. The conditions of emergency are expanded and routinized. Regularized emergency delimits states of violence during periods of exception in what is politically “not a dictatorship, but a space devoid of law” (Agamben, 2002: n.a.; Benjamin, 1978).

Prolonged political violence casts long shadows across a culturescape of enduring inequity, injustice, and insecurity. The Indian state frequently and sufficiently serves segments of the population yet is unable to effectively provide justice and accountability to subordinated groups, especially those entangled in, and impacted by, conflict and upheaval.

The relations of power and cycles of violence that convert postcolonial spaces as neo-imperial states are predicated on fatalities. Subaltern women’s rights and futures are foremost among them. The fault lines of history justify sovereign violence as necessary for the preservation of the state. Foundational violence in India’s conflicted democracy binds political violence.

Kashmir 2016

4 Newsha Tavakolian, Ocalanʼs Angels, 2015Those that speak out; scholars, activists, human rights defenders, are charged as anti-national, as seditious, and have been threatened, imprisoned, and continually targeted.

Khurram Parvez, a distinguished and courageous human rights defender who works with families of the disappeared in Kashmir, was remanded to custody and booked under the draconian Public Safety Act on September 21, 2016 and remains in jail, despite outcry from the United Nations HRC, distinguished scholars and activists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In Kashmir’s conflict zone, the conditions of collective internment require urgent attention and intervention. Since July 2016, over 80 persons have been killed in Kashmir, over 11,000 persons have been injured, over 1,000 persons have been arrested and over 100 ambulances have been attacked.

Pellet cartridges with about 400-500 pellets each have been fired, aimed above the waist, permanently blinding youth at civilian protests. Communication systems have been repeatedly shutdown; mobile Internet and pre-paid calls have been repeatedly banned, post-paid phone lines have been suspended for a number of days, and even newspapers have been shutdown for a couple of days.

In Kashmir, where political resolution remains pending, the rights to freedom of speech and movement and the right to dissent and self-determination are imperiled. The repeated abrogation of international law, the disregard for India’s constitutional provisions, the unceasing targeting of civilians and the continued denial of their civil and political rights are of grave concern.

Where Is My Story?”

No comprehensive records archive the immensity of violence against women across time, space and political conditions in India. The living memory of women victim-survivors inhabits the margins of dominant history. There, they are frequently rendered incidental and peripheral.

The myriad shadows of the past, for so many Muslim, Parsi, Sikh, Adivasi, Dalit… women are daunting and immovable. Women speak of being there for each other, of things that help them endure. They mention the difficulties in speaking of their traumatic life experiences outside their communities. Yet, when voiced in the midst of family or community, or in the seclusion of their minds, the memories are engulfing, overwhelming. Speaking to outsiders, allies, is a way to feel heard and interject counter-memory, many women reiterated, to reach past the deep silence (in the world relating to their lives) and connect with others. The resolve, agency, and articulation of these women interlocutors in speaking to the past, and the continued injustices they experience in the present, disrupt the too often diminished and “taken-for-granted location” of minority women’s memory narratives (Metta, 2010: 29).

She says, “To talk is hard. To talk is a relief. We have just one story. It is in our heads all the time. To talk is a connection. We cry when we talk. But it feels lighter, a little less alone. I think, ‘I have spoken [my grief ].’ Our stories connect us to each other.”

Angana P. Chatterji