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December 2012 saw vigorous protests, mostly in the city of Delhi, centred around women’s safety. The trigger was the brutal gangrape and murder of a 22-year-old woman who had been labelled “Nirbhaya” or Fearless to conform to Indian law that rape victims should not be identified.
Politically, much of this anger hit the Congress, which at the time was ruling in both Delhi as well as the Centre. It is unclear if the protests directly swung many votes, but like the allegations of ministerial corruption at the time, they helped to delegitimise the Congress government in the public conversation. Later, an angry Sheila Dixit, the Congress chief minister of Delhi during the assault, blamed the media for blowing the incident “out of proportion” in order to create a “political scandal”. Unsurprisingly, one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s major attacks against the Congress in its successful campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was lack of women’s safety.
Fast forward a decade back and the political economy of women’s safety seems to have taken a drastic turn. In August, 11 men convicted for rape and murder during the 2002 Gujarat riots were released from prison. On their release, they were felicitated by a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Union government as well as the Gujarat government, both controlled by the BJP, pushed for the release of the convicts, endorsing their “good behaviour” in prison.
This official backing for convicted rapists and murderers is especially surprising considering the brutality of the crime. The incident involved the mass murder of 14 people in Dahod district during the 2002 riots along with sexual assault of women, including Bilkis Bano, who survived the attack. The trial determined that the attackers had smasked the head of Bano’s infant daughter.
That wasn’t all. On October 15, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the leader of an influential religious sect, was granted a 40-day parole by the Haryana government. Rahim has been convicted of raping two of his female followers, murdering a journalist as well as one of his employees. To make the politics of the parole clear, a religious event he held after his release saw BJP leaders in attendance, including the mayor of Karnal town.
Notably, the release of the convicts in Gujarat as well as Haryana parole coincide with elections in the state. Gujarat will see Assembly polls soon and Haryana will conduct panchayat elections. While the Nirbhaya protests resulted in the Congress losing ground, with the explicit backing of rapists in these two cases, the BJP actually hopes to gain votes.
Communal identity vs women’s safety
The contrast underlines the incredibly powerful role of religious identity in Indian politics. In both cases, the BJP has been successful in linking the rape-murder convicted to communal identities. In the case of Gujarat, it related to Hindu nationalism. For Rahim, it is connect to his Dera Sacha Sauda sect, which has lakhs of followers who are extremely zealous (his rape conviction in 2017 saw widespread rioting, with 30 people killed). In both cases, the BJP hopes that any criticism about the release of the convicts will backfire, given that they will be seen by voters not as criminals but as representatives of their communities.
Notably, opposition to the release of the convists has also largely been mediated by identity, with Muslims in Gujarat and Sikhs in Haryana angry at the BJP’s actions. However, since these minorities don’t vote BJP anyway, it does not matter electorally.
Remarkably, at least the BJP’s initial gambit has been proven correct. Both the Aam Aadmi Party and the Gujarat Congress have studiously avoided mentioning the release of Bano’s rapists, afraid that centering communalism in the election would only solidify the BJP’s vote bank.
The power of religious identity in Indian politics means that while women’s safety should certainly be an issue on its own, it can easily be overwhelmed if politicians successfully manage to portray the criminals as being linked to a community.
To some extent this has always been true. It is the reason widespread sexual assault documented during bouts of communal violence such as Gujarat in 2002 or Delhi in 1984 produced no political reactions centred around women’s safety. However, the change that Modi’s BJP has brought about with its radical Hindutva ideology has been to incorporate this into official policy, with even the Union government being unafraid to endorse the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case.
Though the Modi government came to power in 2014 on a largely economic mandate, it has struggled to deliver on its promises, given faltering gross domestic product growth and lack of job creation. Instead the government has concentrated its efforts principally on the emotive issue of Hindutva (with a supporting role being played by welfare). That this now involves even endorsing convicted rapists shows just how strong this politics is and how much the BJP now depends on it for winning elections.
The fact that the BJP’s opponents cannot directly challenge the party on this issue marks this out as a major shift in Indian politics during the Modi age. The result: identity politics will continue to be supreme for the near future. At best, the Opposition could try and corner the BJP on other forms of identity, as is already being done on language. But any attempt to make economic issues as the central point of Indian politics in place of identity seems unlikely.