Co-authored by Shirin M. Rai, Professor, Warwick University
Among all the issues that received media coverage during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the U.S., one notable exception was the issue of women and gender.
It's an important issue everywhere, but given the pervasiveness of violence and discrimination that Indian women face, its become even more politically charged for Modi and his new government.
We know that Modi abandoned his wife and claimed he was single although he has been married for almost 50 years. In the past, he has used women's groups to gather votes but never addressed their problems. His much-vaunted work as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat included few efforts on behalf of his female constituents. For example, sex ratios did not improve during his tenure in Gujarat.
While Modi has placed women in powerful positions, some of his new appointments have been controversial. Smriti Irani, for instance, is the new minister of Human Resources Development (which includes Education), has no experience in education, and made some dubious claims about her educational record.
It is unclear how these appointments of women translate into addressing pressing issues for women in India. There is sexual violence and harassment, skewed sex ratios, discrimination, illiteracy, and a host of other problems that include high-caste violence over women from lower-caste and minority communities.
What is clear is that Modi and the BJP are willing to use concerns for violence against women, not to reduce the violence, but to instead to increase it. Modi and his BJP profess a 'fake" feminism, promote some women into important positions, but use these women to increase the authority and power of Hindu men over their women and over men and women of other religious communities.
One example of this "fake feminism" is visible in the statement about 'Love Jihad' by Modi's newly appointed female head of the National Commission on Women, Lalitha Kumaramangalam. These statements were made in an interview with the national newspaper, The Hindu, published on October 1, 2014.
But first, a little background on the term: "Love Jihad' is a specious and fictional BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi's party, allied to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, RSS, the Hindu right wing affiliate mobilisational organisation of the BJP, ) and RSS-inspired moral panic. It is a term circulating through rumor and innuendo that relies on gender and sexual politics to incite alarm. This rumor says that there is widespread kidnapping by Muslim men of Hindu girls.
Now there is no evidence for this at all; "Love Jihad" is simply a rumor circulated to create animosity and violence against Muslim men.
Kumaramangalam's claim is that 'Love Jihad' is not a political construct of the RSS but a 'social problem' caused by skewed sex ratios. In her argument, because of India's sex ratio, there are fewer women and many men who cannot find wives, so that Muslim men are resorting to kidnapping Hindu girls. While the sex ratio has everything to do with the victimisation of poor women who are moving within the country from poorer to more prosperous regions, there is no evidence that Muslim men are marrying Hindu women in disproportionate numbers.
Such a rumor plays to the most pernicious kind of violent Hindu nationalism that purports to protect Hindu women. There is a long history in India of violence against women and men generated by such a logic of kidnapping and protection. The potential for violence against Muslims generated by this formulation cannot be underestimated.
The term "Love Jihad" is an Islamophobic idea created to foment Hindu nationalism as majoritarian power by excluding Muslims as citizens of the Indian nation. In recent elections, the BJP president, Amit Shah, urged Hindu crowds at rallies to get revenge on Muslims by voting for the BJP. The BJP and RSS see Indian Muslims as aliens not as citizens. India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world (after Indonesia), and Indian Muslims are a discriminated-against minority with endemic poverty -- see for example the Sachar Report on the Status of Muslims in India.
The history of Modi, the BJP and RSS in creating such violence was clearly visible in the pogroms against Muslims in Godhra, Gujarat in 2002. Modi's failure to lift a finger to protect the Muslim citizens of his state, where he was Chief Minister, was widely understood as tacitly allowing their killing. This sanctioned violence that allowed the killing of over 1000 poor Muslims (and injuries and assaults to many more, including women) stood in the way of Modi getting a visa to visit the U.S. for many years.
To be sure, Lalitha Kumaramangalam acknowledged that bride buying cuts across castes and religions. But she also went on to say that she considers 'Love Jihad' a 'sociological problem." In an interview with the national newspaper, The Hindu, she denied that the BJP and RSS had coined the term. Though she claimed she did not like the term, she thought "Love Jihad" created a furor because it reflected "social outrage against what is the norm."
Her response is typical of the Modi government's approach to gender issues. Modi's fake feminism consistently brings up women's issues only to use them for their own Hindu nationalist political purposes, ignoring the needs and demands of all Indian women and the demands of women's groups. For instance, his response to recent gruesome rape/murder cases of girls has been to focus on building toilets for girls rather than addressing the underlying issue of gendered social inequalities and its violent forms. Now his NCW appointee's response to this pernicious discourse of 'Love Jihad' is to legitimize the concept through suggesting that "social outrage' is an understandable response to something she implies is fact.
What she should have done as head of NCW was to denounce the term as a vicious and fake moral panic designed to promote violence against all women who dare to marry across communal and religious divisions, and against Muslim men in particular.
As the president of NCW, Kumaramangalam holds an important position in an institution that has a deeply problematic history. Set up as part of a post-Beijing UN Women's Conference initiative to establish state machineries to promote gender equality, the NCW has always struggled with political interference. Such interference has reduced the NCW's power and led many women's autonomous groups to boycott it. For example, a previous chairperson Mamta Sharma was removed from her post allegedly in response to her outspoken criticism of the Modi government. This latest intervention by Kumaramangalam is not going to allow this organization to improve the reputation of this organization.
Given the history of BJP's anti-Muslim politics, it is not surprising that a Modi appointee is trying to justify BJP's Islamophobia. But for the chairperson of the National Commission for Women to be seen to claim, without evidence, that particular religious groups are involved in kidnapping of women, while at the same time suggesting that social norms can never change, or are even understandable, seems to be going against her job description. NCW then becomes a legitimiser of the status quo on issues of gender, caste and religion, rather than taking the lead to improving all Indian women's lives.