• “There is no room for religious fundamentalism among us”

    The 2018 Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture

    Nayantara Sahgal

    October 9, 2018

    When Murlidharji asked me to deliver this lecture in his wife’s memory, I was intimidated by the long list of eminent speakers before me. But I accepted because these lectures are in memory of a woman who made a distinguished mark in a man’s world. We live in a conservative medieval-minded patriarchy. The majority of women in this country are not allowed to make decisions that intimately concern them like marriage and giving birth. The majority do not own or handle money, even when they themselves are earning it. They don’t own their bodies and they are not in control of their lives. The abuses they may suffer in their homes remain secret and unreported, for fear of the consequences if they speak out, or social stigma, or fear of the police.

    Many women who are privileged, and in a position to strike out, don’t do so. They accept the limitations imposed on them. They are content to remain protected by privilege in return for recognizing that it’s a man’s world.  Sunanda Bhandare accepted no limitations, and was supported by a family that took pride in her ambition and her achievements.  She achieved the heights in her chosen profession – which, incidentally, is a profession that is much in need of women – and she would have gone on to greater distinction if illness had not tragically cut short her life.  I have been struck by two statements of hers. One defines her position on the meaning of a judge’s role in a developing society, and the other statement is her view on the very meaning of civilization. On what a judge’s role should be she said: “In developing societies, judges can be the sentinels of progress.”  This interpretation of  justice, and of judges as guardians of progress, is crucial to any society but more specially to a developing society. Laws can light the way ahead to take a country forward for human betterment, but they will remain pieces of paper unless they are upheld in judgements, and unless judges stand guard over them. On the meaning of civilization this is what she said:  “A woman’s place in society marks the level of civilization.” To put it differently, a society is only as civilized as the way it treats its women. No society has the right to call itself civilized unless its women citizens have the same rights and freedoms as men have. So let me begin by saluting the woman for whom justice in general, and gender justice in particular, was crucial for progress,  and whose memory we are honouring today.

    According to her view of what civilization means, India in 2018 is a country that does not deserve to be called civilized. The enlightened vision of our founding fathers who established gender equality at independence – overturning centuries of injustice by establishing equality in law –  and who aspired to give women their equal and dignified place in society at long last  –  that vision has degenerated into an environment where India is now seen as the world’s most dangerous country for women. We do not need foreign observers to tell us this. It is a fact that Indian women and even little girls are not safe, in the home, on the street, or in the workplace.  Gender injustice is much too weak a phrase to apply to this shameful state of affairs. Added to the hangover of persisting  age-old injustices, and crimes against women, there is  now a lawless climate of violence, which of course targets men, as well as women and children, and is emboldened by a fundamentalist mindset that is the subject of my talk. But although this situation endangers all citizens, women are its special targets and always its worst sufferers. It has made life specially dangerous for them if we look at the rising graph of gang rapes. Rape is central to the mob violence we see today. It  makes brutal use of women’s bodies to humiliate and assert its power over an entire community.

    This prevailing climate is different from anything we have seen in India before. It is not merely criminal, or ‘communal’, or ‘divisive’. It is a result of, and it has the authority of, a fundamentalist mindset given free rein by a political ideology. But before I get on to fundamentalism,  let me explain what true believers mean by religion. And I am speaking as a true believer.

    Religion is a relationship between a human being and God.  All the men and women of every nationality and every religion whom we revere as saints, have held this view.  A whole Bhakti movement crossing religious frontiers has held this view. It is human beings who are in need of religion.  A mountain does not have a religion. A tree does not have a religion. A block of land has no religion. Therefore there is a nonsensical fallacy about giving land masses a religious identity, and calling them a Muslim country, or a Hindu country, or a Jewish country. The nation state has no role to play in the intensely personal relationship between an individual and God. This personal view of religion is thrown aside by fundamentalism. For the fundamentalist, the state – which is a political entity – rules over religion.

    Added to the fallacy of a nation giving itself a religion, is the fact that religion everywhere has been boiled down into laws and rules made by men. The Manusmriti which is considered a dharmashastra, dates from around 200 BC, and is believed to have been written by Brahmin males over a period of time. It leaves us in no doubt about its upper caste masculine authorship. Central to the laws it lays down about how a society should be run is the inferior position it gives to women, defining a woman’s role as subservient to her husband, and her only duty being to serve and please him. One translation defines a ‘good’ woman  in these words: ‘Though he may be bereft of virtue, given to lust, and totally devoid of good qualities, a good woman should always worship her husband like a god.’  Offensive as this sounds to our contemporary ears, doesn’t this attitude still survive, and even flourish, in various degrees in our culture today? Our male-inspired cultural practices have come out of this sexist frame of mind. Has there ever been any cultural practice more inhuman and barbaric than sati?  No husband was ever burned alive on his wife’s dead body. This duty was reserved for wives.  And as far as other punishments are concerned, we have never heard of a man being stoned to death for adultery.  And of course female infanticide and foetal killing have been common and they still go on. The heavy hand of male dominance and male superiority is ingrained and embedded as a divine right in the mindset that has been imposed upon our people, making women inferior beings according to the laws laid down by men. And the laws which this authority lays down for Dalits in the caste system must be as offensive and obnoxious, since Ambedkar and E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ both publicly burned the Manusmriti in the 1920’s.

    I will now come to what women are up against today, in the background of this ingrained mindset, which now has the backing of religious fundamentalism.

    There is no greater danger to the meaning of religion than when it is made use of as a weapon of war. When it takes this turn and becomes militant, it loses the right to be called religion.  It becomes political policy for national reasons. In this garb it has been the most divisive and destructive force in history. This happened in Europe in the sixteenth century’s religious wars – Catholic against Protestant – based on an intolerance of religious differences – but an intolerance that had more to do with an assertion of  political power and pressure than with religion.  And this is the mindset that is at work in India today, which rejects religious differences  and calls for a single national religion. Again, the rising graph of rapes shows us the way this demand is affecting Indian women.

    Rape is nothing new. It happens in the home, within what is known as the sanctity of marriage. And stories of mass rapes in shelter homes have come to us. All this in peacetime,  and it has always been a weapon of war.  But what we are seeing today is a valorization of rape, and a justification of it, as of the mass rapes by Pakistan’s armies when they invaded East Bengal during the war for Bangladesh, or in the atrocities during the Partition.  And now we  are looking at the same phenomenon here, of rape and murder of a particular community,  the intention being to alter the population figures, in this case by cutting down the Muslim population figures.  We are looking at religious fundamentalism in its modern meaning, assisted in places by the use of modern technology.  A beginning was made with the massacre of mainly Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and now we keep  hearing of assaults and assassinations.

    These assaults have several features in common:  They are, without exception, well organized. They are often committed by gangs. They do not spare children, or infants, or unborn babies. And when possible, the families of victims are also killed.  They are also, without exception,  accompanied by prolonged and  horrific  torture.  These have been described – in fact we have seen some attacks on men on TV – and otherwise  they have been described by some of the women who have gone through them and survived, to investigators who have taken up their cases, and they are so horrifying that I will spare you the details by not reading out the women’s testimonies that have come to light. So there is a pattern to these events. I should add that this inhumanity has long targeted  Dalits and tribals – as the writers Mahashweta Devi, and Kiran Nagarkar,  and  others, have shown us so vividly in their unforgettable fiction.  Hindus who will not support such acts or such an ideology, have also been targeted, and there are instances of non-Muslim Indians who, at risk to themselves, have tried to protect their Muslim neighbours.   

    Yet another fact that is common to the attacks on  Muslim men and women by those who have been indoctrinated in fundamentalism is that they have not been regarded as crimes, if we look at the official, and in general,  the public silence about them, and at what happens when justice is sought by victims or their families in these cases. Typically there has been delay, or no action, by the police in acknowledging that they took place, and in arresting the criminals who have been named by their victims. In some cases, victims have been threatened with punishment if they name names, and there are even cases of the families of murdered victims being held responsible for the crimes committed upon them or against them. The police have also suppressed or tampered with evidence, and in some cases the indifference of witnesses in the villages and towns where mob violence took place have made convictions difficult or impossible.  Then, standing out from the general official silence, there has been the very vocal support of well-known legislators for these crimes.

    I have said these are features that are common to the crimes committed by the fundamentalist mindset, and I will enumerate these from one case, now well known, of Bilkis Bano, because it has all these features. It attracted public attention because of the extraordinary persistence and courage of this young survivor of incredible brutality. As the only survivor and eye witness of a massacre that took place,  she went on fighting for justice.

    On May 3rd, 2002, in a post-Godhra riot-hit area of Ahmedabad,  Bilkis Bano and her family – seventeen of them – were in a truck, trying, like thousands of Hindu and Muslim families, to escape to a safer place, when a mob attacked the truck.  Bilkis was nineteen years old. She had a two-year-old daughter, and she herself was five months pregnant.  Her daughter was smashed to death on a rock. The female members of her family were gang-raped and killed. Altogether fourteen of her family were murdered. Bilkis herself was stripped and gang-raped by twelve men and left to die. She recovered consciousness hours later and saw her family’s dead bodies lying around her. She covered herself with what clothes she could find and went looking desperately for help and shelter. She found shelter with a tribal family who were fearful for themselves but they took her in. Later, when she saw a police van she begged for protection and was taken to a police station. There she lodged a complaint and gave the names of her rapists. The police refused to accept the names and told her that if she spoke out she would be taken to a government hospital and given a poisonous injection. They then falsified her evidence and made her put her thumb print on it. Her complaint was dismissed and her case was closed for want of evidence. Later she went to the National Human Rights Commission for help and they backed her petition in the Supreme Court. The court ordered a CBI enquiry, shifted the trial of her case from Gujarat to Mumbai, and the bodies of her family members were exhumed and examined. Finally, fourteen years after the slaughter, thirteen of the twenty men she had accused – including the police who had falsified her evidence and the two doctors who had suppressed evidence in the post mortems –  were found guilty and eleven of them were given life sentences for rape and murder. The twelfth rapist had died. The verdict was delivered on May 4, 2017. Vrinda Grover, human rights activist and senior advocate at the Supreme Court, has pointed out that the conviction of the policemen and doctors who were found guilty showed, and I quote, that “there was institutional  state complicity in sexual violence.” Bilkis meanwhile had been under threat of attack. She had had to keep changing her place of residence for her own safety,  but she had refused to give up her search for justice.

    Fanaticism of this selective kind, targeting a particular community has not been confined to India. It took place during the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, in a highly organized manner. Muslim women from Bosnia, Albania, and Croatia were kept confined in camps where Christian Serbs raped them. This selectivity, here as in Yugoslavia or elsewhere, has a specific purpose. It is aimed at ethnic cleansing, and is part of a policy to alter population figures by denying a particular community its right to exist. The persecution of the Rohingyas is also a case in point, along with the rape of Rohingya women that has been going on in Myanmar.

    All these examples come under the label of crimes against humanity. The term was first used in the Nuremberg trials after World War Two and it was defined as follows: ‘a deliberate act, typically as part of a systematic campaign that causes human suffering or death on a large scale.’ The International Criminal Court says these crimes against humanity include: murder, torture, sexual violence, persecution against a group, and other acts causing injury to body, or to mental or physical health. They can be committed by non-state groups, or paramilitary forces, or individuals, in peacetime or wartime, either as part of government policy, or condoned by a government. It is important that such crimes  have been recognized and labelled by international law, since many governments around the world have denied that any such thing has happened in their countries. One of the cases which our own government and our public have not acknowledged, or taken steps to provide relief or justice to the sufferers, is the mob attack on Christians ten years ago in Kandhamal that killed more than a hundred Christians, destroyed their homes, schools, churches, and made thousands of them homeless. Similarly, the United States has never acknowledged the outbreak of lynchings of black Americans in the  American South in the early part of the 20th century.

    What makes people behave in this way? What makes such crimes possible? How can they be committed on this scale, and repeatedly, and then be brushed aside, or forgotten, or treated as justifiable? This is an interesting question- political and psychological – for us to think about in view of what is happening here. A philosophy professor at Yale University, Dr. Jason Stanley, has made a study of  why and how such a situation of intolerance and Right wing extremism has arisen in different countries across the world and is making itself felt in many countries today. He has written about it in a book called How Propaganda Works,  and a second book that is about to be published called How Fascism Works. He says that the ground is first prepared so that a mood can be created that makes hatred and violence  acceptable to society. And there is a standard formula by which this is accomplished, and it is a formula that is common to all such breakdowns of democracy wherever they have occurred and are now occurring. The method is as follows:

    1. The values of liberty and equality have to be replaced by authority and hierarchy – hierarchy which is ethnic, or religious, or gender-based. The dominant group, ie. the majority community, is made to feel it is being victimized by minority groups. This builds up a mood of hysteria against minorities, and in some cases against socialism and communism. In this atmosphere  the nation’s leader and the military  are glorified, and dissenters are treated harshly.
    2. The truth has to be destroyed and this is done by spreading a fear of so-called outsiders and so-called enemies of the state. And this is done by appealing to the emotions and cutting out all rational debate. Conspiracy theories are manufactured and an irrational fear is let loose. When this happens there is a complete breakdown of the truth. A myth has taken its place.

    This is how Professor Stanley describes the myth that replaces the truth : “The myth of a glorious bygone era, where the nation was supposedly ethnically or religiously pure, and rural patriarchal values reigned supreme…Outgroups are represented as threats to the dominant culture (and) its men are cast as criminals or sexual predators…”  This myth places one ethnic group over others, men are placed over women, and all opposition is called anti-national. On this prepared ground the mood that has been built up in society  sanctions all kinds of behavior that would not be acceptable otherwise. And obviously there is no place for liberty, equality, or democracy, or the give-and-take of democratic politics, in this situation. In a chilling conclusion he says: “History shows that such propaganda licenses extreme brutality.” One recent example, about a month ago comes from Germany where a Syrian migrant was attacked by three men in a park and whipped with an iron chain. And Germany has seen the biggest riot against ‘outsiders’  in 26 years  where the rioters have given the Hitler salute and hurled missiles. Hitler-worship now celebrates the most terrible era in German history. What should deeply disturb us is how accurately Professor Stanley’s analysis explains what is happening here.

    At a time when human rights are in such poor shape in India, let me acknowledge the debt we owe to the contribution of an Indian woman, Hansa Mehta, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There was no such concept as human rights until the end of the Second World War  and for the non-Western world, with large chunks of it under colonial rule, there was no question of any rights at all. It was because of the atrocities committed during the Second World War, and during the period leading up to it, that the concept was finally addressed. Hansa Mehta had been one of the fifteen women who had helped to shape the Indian Constitution, and it was her absolute insistence on sexual equality that influenced the language of our Constitution. She had been a trail-blazer in the field of women’s rights in India and had been part of a Committee to draft the Hindu Code Bill, which as we know was a major reform after independence, and had a major impact on women’s lives. As a delegate to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48, it was Hansa Mehta who changed the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal”. It took a woman to realize that this change of wording was crucial if whole societies were to be shaken out of masculine dominance.  And to go further back, it is the determined struggle of Indian women reformers fighting for equality since the nineteenth century onward – not just for women’s rights, but against the cruelties and injustices of caste – that has brought us to where we stand today. And, of course, the fight is far from over. Under religious fundamentalism the minorities are feeling hunted. The poor and helpless among them, some of whom have been driven out of their villages and homes and jobs, live in terror. And India is no longer safe for its women.

    I have spoken as a Hindu and I am one of millions of Indians who practise their different religions. At independence our founding fathers had the wisdom to respect this diversity, and to declare India secular and democratic –  democracy to guarantee equal citizenship with equal rights, and secularism to provide the space and fresh air for the practise of all religions and different ways of life and thought. No other nation in the world  gave its people democracy before development, or its women  the right to vote at the very start of nationhood. And no other country has achieved the multi-cultural miracle that is the meaning of Indian civilization. There is no room for religious fundamentalism among us. It is an insult to religion, a danger to all who disagree with it, and a frontal attack on the Constitution.


    This is the text of the 25th Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture delivered by Nayantara Sahgal at the India International Centre on 9th October 2018.


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