The Oxford-based scholar, whose book has been at the centre of a recent controversy, tells us about the work she has been doing for the past 12 years
Riots and rape
The latest casualty of self-censorship in Indian publishing is historian Megha Kumar’s book Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969. After printing and selling copies of the title in April, academic publisher Orient Blackswan (OB) recently decided to halt its sale and distribution.
OB took the decision after Dinanath Batra, who heads the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, served the company legal notice for one of its earlier titles, From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India by Shekhar Bandopadhyay, which was published in 2004.
Batra was also responsible for having American academic Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, withdrawn from circulation and pulped by publishers Penguin earlier in the year.
He alleges Bandopadhyay’s book makes derogatory remarks about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu group he belongs to, and wants it to be withdrawn from circulation, even though the work has been in print for the last 10 years.
After Batra’s notice, OB said it undertook a revaluation of many of its backlist and frontlist titles to avoid similar legal entanglements in the future. However, its decision does not explain why Kumar’s book and the work of many others, which have already been subjected to rigorous peer reviews, should be put through fresh rounds of appraisal. OB has not explained the exact manner in which this process will be conducted or even clarified the timeframe within which it will be completed.
In an interview on phone and over email, Kumar, a Rhodes scholar based in Oxford, UK, shared some insights that have gone into the making of her book.
One way or the other, she said, “the book will come out."
How did the idea for the book come to you? How long did you work on it?
In 2002, when I was a BA student at Delhi University, I worked with rape victims in several relief camps in Ahmedabad, Dahod and Panch Mahals in Gujarat. Before then, I had been part of the women’s movement in India and participated in the US-based V-Day movement against sexual violence against women around the globe. The seeds of this research were sown around that time. I dedicated myself to studying the issue of sexual violence in communal conflict in India from 2005, when I was doing my Masters at Oxford. My doctoral work was also on this issue. So, in all, I have spent 12 years on this research.
Could you briefly take us through your thesis and the ground that you cover?
My book covers Ahmedabad’s history over a period of 50 years, focusing on the incidence of sexual violence against Muslims women in three largest episodes of communal violence in the city—1969, 1985, and 2002. The extant historiography tells us that sexual violence during such episodes is motivated by the majoritarian and patriarchal ideology of the Hindu nationalist movement. I depart from this understanding. I agree that such ideology plays an important role in motivating violence against Muslim women—instigating men to ‘dishonour’ minority women, appropriate the ‘sexual property’ of Muslims, and destroy the ‘biological reproducers’ of the minority community. But this ideology, which has been in circulation in various parts of India since the 1930s, is one of many important factors. The unique political, social and economic context of the ‘riot’ plays an equally important role. I argue that it is the interaction between elite ideology and the local specificities that create the conditions for such violence to occur—or to be avoided.
This interaction, for instance, created the conditions for extreme violence in 1969 and 2002, and its avoidance in 1985. In 1969 and 1985 the Congress was in power at the Centre and in Gujarat. But while in 1969 and 2002 religious minorities constituted the exclusive targets of fundamentalist propaganda and of organized attacks, in 1985 alternative forms of mobilization (especially of Dalit people who supported their Muslim neighbours and forged a strategic alliance with them out of sheer necessity) and alternative forms of rhetoric (that did not incite sexual violence) were equally robust.
The 1985 riots began over caste identity. The upper castes got enraged when the local government extended reservations to the backward classes. But soon the clashes assumed a communal colour. As a result there were two kinds of mobilizations: while the upper castes targeted the Dalits, the supporters of the Hindu Right targeted Muslims. So Dalits and Muslims, who lived in close proximity in the city, got together to defend themselves, though in the riots of 1969 and 2002, Dalits attacked Muslims and there was a degree of reciprocal violence especially in 1969.
I interviewed a young Bajrang Dal leader from Gujarat—in the book, I call him Mohan—whose father was a Dalit mazdoor (labourer) in a textile mill in 1985. When Godhra happened in 2002, Mohan’s father reminded him that had it not been for the Muslims, Dalits would have been killed in those clashes and asked him not to harm the Muslims. But Mohan did not listen to him. Spurred by his Hindu nationalist beliefs, he went out to “teach Muslims a lesson".
Finally, there is also reason to believe that some men, irrespective of their ideology, use the chaos of ‘riots’ to inflict opportunistic rape.
Since the focus of your research is Ahmedabad, did your work take you to the city?
I have visited Ahmedabad regularly since 2002. During some of my field trips I have also travelled other parts of Gujarat, such as Dahod, Panch Mahals, Kutch, Surat and Baroda (now Vadodara). Between 2006 and 2008, I spent around 18 months living in the city—interviewing survivors, politicians, human-rights activists, academics, members of various Hindu nationalist and Islamic organizations and so on.
Did you work in any archives or on the basis of interviews? What was the methodology you used and did that pose any difficulty for you?
I have drawn on archives in Delhi, London, Mumbai, and extensively consulted research libraries in these cities and elsewhere such as Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara.
Any empirical research must draw on a plurality of methods—document-based, interview-based and observation-based. My book uses a combination of all three. I have, for example, drawn extensively on published sources such as reports and other publications by Central and regional government, publications of political parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Hindu nationalist literature and propaganda material, English- and vernacular-language media reports, human-rights reports of Indian and overseas organizations, and academic literature. I conducted over 80 interviews with various people and participated in many meetings organized by women’s groups in Ahmedabad.
Did you face any major obstacle while writing the book or preparing it for publication?
Writing on sexual violence is very difficult because of the lack of accurate statistics on this issue and the notion of shame and stigma that routinely prevents women and their families from speaking out. The lack of state support—or the state’s failure through acts of commission and omission to prevent such violence—has intensified insecurity among the victims. But it is important to remember that the lack of accurate statistics on the rate of sexual violence (in conflict or in ‘peace time’) reflects the scale and nature of problem rather than the absence of the problem. My research has had to contend with such limitations, and I have only used testimonies that could be cross-verified by government reports, human rights reports, media publications and court proceedings (where available).
Have you heard back from your publishers since they decided to suspend the distribution of the book? Have you been informed about what the second round of review will entail?
Yes, I have heard from them, and they have informed me that they want to do a “fresh review" of my book to ensure that its contents do not violate Indian laws. They haven’t specified a time frame for when this will be completed. Yet—and this is the remarkable bit—they have conceded in their last email that my book is of the highest academic standard and has already undergone a rigorous review before it was published and released for sale in mid-April.
Have you thought about publishing your book with someone else or on your own?
I have yet to decide how I intend to take this forward. The book will come out, one way or another.