by Kalpana Wilson
This contribution was first presented at the 2 December 2022 workshop on Transnational “Anti-Gender” Politics and Resistance, part of the AHRC-LSE project on Transnational ‘Anti-Gender’ Movements and Resistance: Narratives and Interventions.
Listening to Tooba Syed[i] speaking about the struggles in which feminist movements in Pakistan are currently engaged, the resonances with the current situation in India are inescapable. On one level, it is very tempting to describe what is happening on the other side of the violent colonial creation which is the border between India and Pakistan as a mirror image. In fact, doing so has been historically important for the building of intimate solidarities between Pakistani and Indian feminists which might be better called transborder rather than transnational. From Partition itself to the present, there are many such shared experiences, and for many, this mirroring has been particularly striking with the rise of the religious right in the region.
In India of course we have seen the rise of Hindu supremacist politics, further consolidated with the coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014. One of the increasingly openly stated goals at the heart of the Hindu supremacist project of establishing a Hindu Brahmanical state is the replacing of India’s Constitution and the rights embedded in it with the Manusmriti, a Hindu text which explicitly states that women must be under the control of a man, whether father, husband or son, throughout their lives, and dehumanises oppressed castes and queer people. We can observe too the legitimacy granted to the gender and caste violence of patriarchal village councils, khaap panchayats, now being invoked by the government as an authentically Indian form of democracy; the institutionalised violence against those who choose their own partners, especially if these relationships are intercaste or interfaith – and in the latter case, the recent laws which actually criminalise such relationships; the leniency and even felicitation offered to rapists of Muslim and Dalit women. We witness also the construction of the figure of the free-love practising, cosmopolitan, Marxist, Muslim and Pakistan-loving, and terrorist-supporting woman who is often not explicitly named as a feminist but rather as an Urban Naxal (a specifically Indian term of abuse which takes its name from the revolutionary left Naxalite movement).
Yet while there are many parallels, we also need to consider the asymmetries and the differences. These lie not only in India’s economic and geo-political dominance in region, but the fact that central to Hindu supremacist gender discourses is the figure of the excessively patriarchal Muslim man onto whom gendered oppression and violence is continuously displaced. And along with this there is a particular notion of women’s empowerment/naari shakti as something authentically Hindu, and specifically of course, the mobilisation of women within the Hindutva project and their incorporation as perpetrators of violence. This includes what feminist historian Tanika Sarkar has called almost inexhaustible violence which the Hindu supremacists have directed at Muslim women – violence which incorporates the genocidal horror of pogroms like that in Gujarat in 2002, and the day-to-day war of attrition exemplified in the vicious online targeting of Muslim women journalists, activists and others critical of the current regime.
At the same time, as scholars such as Paola Bacchetta and Dibyesh Anand have argued, Hindu nationalist discourses are pervaded with a preoccupation with the hypersexuality of Muslim men, and the emasculation and stigmatised queerness of the Hindu man who can only overcome this through the performance of spectacular violence against the nation’s Others.
In its continuous projection of both excessive patriarchy and hypersexuality onto a Muslim other, it could be argued that Hindu supremacism has more in common with the western far-right than with other right-wing ‘anti-gender’ formations in South Asia. And of course, Hindu supremacism does have direct links with European fascism. The RSS, the cadre-based organisation at the heart of the network of Hindu supremacist groups, was formed in 1925 modelled on Mussolini’s fascist youth organisation. And Hindutva ideologue MS Golwalkar notoriously hailed Nazi Germany as a ‘model of race pride’ which India should emulate. More recently, the construction within Hindu supremacism of Muslims as the ‘enemy within’ has had multiple intersections with the post-Cold War global racialisation of Muslims.
The presence of Hindu supremacist forces within the Indian diaspora here in the UK, and its relationship with the white supremacist far-right, as well as an Islamophobic and racist British state, has received wider attention since the Leicester violence in September 2022, but it has a much longer history. This convergence was in fact evident back in 2007 when the Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB) made allegations of ‘forced conversions’ of ‘hundreds’ of ‘Hindu and Sikh girls’ by ‘Muslim extremists’ at British universities. The allegation of forced conversions of young women, so-called Love Jihad, is part of an arsenal of myths propagated by Hindu supremacists in India.
The then Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair, who was a guest at the HFB conference where the claims were made, seized the opportunity to commit his force to action, despite the complete absence of any evidence of such conversions. Blair’s remarks were duly reported under headlines like the Daily Mail’s, ‘Police Protect Girls Forced to Convert to Islam’ (22 February 2007) and the Metro’s ‘Hindu Girls targeted by extremists’ (23 February 2007). The Metro further reported that ‘Scotland Yard is to set up a Hindu Safety Forum with “aggressive conversion” as its top priority’. Yet a few months later, the police were apparently unable to cite a single such case.
Importantly, it is also in the UK diaspora context that we can see connections and common ground between Hindu supremacists and the self-described ‘gender critical’ or trans-exclusionary elements emerging. This intersection is particularly visible, for example, with the intervention of right-wing think tanks like the Henry Jackson Society, to support the Hindu supremacists current project of labelling all criticism of the Indian state as what they term ‘Hinduphobia’.
At the same time, as Clare Hemmings points out, the ‘anti-gender’ far-right in Europe invokes a colonial modernity of equality and complementarity between essentialised men and women perceived as simultaneously under threat from the dangerous ‘premodern’ Muslim and the postmodern excesses of what they term ‘gender ideology’. But if colonial modernity is central to what the ‘anti-gender’ far-right in Europe claim to be defending, Hindu supremacists are increasingly engaged in trying to appropriate and mobilise ‘decolonial’ ideas, by celebrating an ‘authentic, ancient’ Hindu culture understood as predating not only British colonialism but, more importantly for them, Muslim rule in India or what they term ‘Islamic invasions’. And they are particularly active in this appropriation of decolonial thinking in the academic sphere, as we saw when a rabidly Islamophobic Hindu supremacist book by a far-right Indian lawyer came to be endorsed by leading decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo (Mignolo later sought to withdraw his endorsement).
In reality, of course, Hindutva itself is deeply colonial, with origins in the 19th century. The rewriting of Indian history as a perpetual struggle between indigenous Hindus and Muslim invaders was a project deliberately adopted by the British colonial rulers after 1857, when a massive uprising in which Hindus and Muslims united almost succeeded in driving them out of India.
But this appropriation of decolonial discourses also complicates the narrative of Hindu supremacists relating to sexual and gender rights. Homophobic and anti-trans violence remain, in distinct but interlinked ways, deeply embedded in the day to day practices of Hindu supremacy and the legal framework in which they operate, with ‘Indian norms’ and ‘moral values’ invoked in their support. At the same time, claims that acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is inherent in Hinduism are increasingly advanced, as a marker of the supposed superiority of pre-colonial and pre-Islamic Hindu society, in what has been termed a version of homonationalism.
Another significant way in which Hindu supremacist ideologies diverge from European ‘anti-gender’ ones relates to the shape which struggles for reproductive justice take in India. Hindu supremacist fascism is not only deeply colonial, but in its current form inextricably intertwined with neoliberal corporate capitalism. This is also central to shaping understandings of women’s empowerment under the current Modi regime. This empowerment primarily refers to incorporation into global labour markets, and associated with this, the operation of population policies which are shaped at global as well as national level. The discourse of a Muslim demographic threat is ever present in India, evoked to legitimise infinite violence against Muslim women, and it is at times accompanied by exhortations to Hindu women to have more children. But in practice women from poor households – mainly Dalits, other oppressed castes and Adivasis or indigenous women, continue to be targeted for coercive sterilisations and unsafe injectable and implantable contraceptives, practices which have been a focus of feminist resistance. This targeting often coincides with campaigns of dispossession and displacement to make way for Indian and foreign transnational corporate mining.
It is difficult to talk about resistance separately from these attacks, which themselves have often been shaped in response to resistance. In the mining-afflicted regions, we continue to witness the protracted resistance of Adivasi women to the gender violence of the police, security forces and militias whose role it is to defend corporate capital from those it dispossesses. Hidme Markam, an activist who campaigned against mining by Adani and other big corporatesand was arrested at a meeting held on International Women’s Day 2021 to commemorate Adivasi women killed by the state. She remained in jail for nearly two years under the draconian the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, only recently being released on bail after being acquitted of four of the charges against her.
We must also resist the silencing of voices from Kashmir, including those refusing the erasure of memories of sexual assaults by the Indian Army, or those campaigning against enforced disappearances of loved ones. This requires a consideration of what feminist resistance means in the context of what many describe as a new phase of settler colonialism, a context of the gendered violence of military occupation, acute repression, disappearances, censorship, internet shutdowns and sieges. These are questions currently being addressed for example by the Zanaan Wanaan feminist art and scholarship collective, which seeks to provide platforms and spaces where strategies to resist and challenges to both the gendered militarisation and violence of the state and the patriarchal structures of households and communities can be collectively developed.
Finally, it is important to reflect on the practices of resistance which marked the iconic Shaheen Bagh occupations of public spaces by Muslim women protesting the exclusionary Islamophobic and gendered Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. As many activists and scholars have noted, Shaheen Bagh, where women of all ages left their homes to indefinitely camp, many with their children, in the depths of winter, not only once again demolished the myth invoked by Modi, as by so many others, of the Muslim woman waiting to be ‘saved’, but it transgressed boundaries between public and private, the space of reproduction and the space of the political. Shaheen Bagh became a complex space of thriving artistic productions, practices of care, and multiple ideologies, drawing Left, Ambedkarite, queer and feminist activists and groups among others into dialogue (these categories are of course not in any case mutually exclusive). Despite its premature ending with the Covid-19 pandemic used as a pretext to violently dismantle the occupation, Shaheen Bagh remains a defining moment of possibility.
Kalpana Wilson’s research and writing explores questions of race/gender, labour, imperialism, fascism and reproductive rights and justice, with a particular focus on South Asia and its diasporas. She is the author of Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice (Zed Books, 2012). Kalpana is a Lecturer in Geography at Birkbeck, University of London, and is a founder member of the campaigning organisation South Asia Solidarity Group.
[i]Tooba Syed is a political activist associated with Awami Workers Party and Women Democratic Front. She is a gender studies lecturer and feminist writer, currently working on her first book on the feminist movement of Pakistan. Her important and inspiring contribution to the panel discussed current anti-gender mobilisations and feminist resistance in Pakistan. Due to the operation of the racist and imperialist border regime, she had to join the panel online as she was refused a visa to visit the UK for the workshop.