‘Publishers fear legal or violent reprisal’

Dr Megha Kumar

Dr Megha Kumar

First, Penguin pulped Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History; then, Orient Blackswan withdrew Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India from the market. And now it has pulled an unspecified number of other academic works, including Megha Kumar’s book Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, although there was no legal action or protest against it. Dr Megha Kumar, currently deputy director of analysis at Oxford Analytica, spoke to S. Raghotham about her book and the worrying development for academic freedom of publishers withdrawing books merely in anticipation of opposition to their content.

What was the trouble with your book?
Orient Blackswan published and released my book Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969 in mid-April this year, but soon thereafter withdrew the book from the market. On May 19, they sent me a letter stating they had withdrawn the book for the time being because one of their other books, Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition… had been served a legal notice by Shiksha Bachao Andolan. Orient Blackswan said they had put all books that may elicit a similar response under review. They said that beyond legal issues, they are also concerned about possible violent attacks against the authors and their families, the publisher itself and their staff.
I wrote back to them asking what the review entails because, after all, the book had gone through a rigorous process of academic review already, and what is the time-frame for it. Unfortunately, I have not got any response from them so far.

So, your issue is with the publisher, not Shiksha Bachao Andolan, at this point of time.
My book has not elicited any legal objection from Shiksha Bachao Andolan. Orient Blackswan’s action is anticipatory — they fear a legal or violent reprisal. Mine is not the first book to get mired in such concerns (actual or anticipated); I fear it may not be the last.

How would you describe your book?
It’s a piece of historical research that tracks the incidence of sexual violence against Muslim women, although there are discussions of violence against Hindu women, too, during communal riots in Ahmedabad city since 1969. It examines the 1969, 1985 and 2002 riots. I tracked the context within which such violence occurred — political, economic, cultural, spatial — and how different political stakeholders — the government, police, judiciary, civil society, the victims themselves — responded to it.
My key finding is that the incidence of such violence against minority women, or against any women, is not inevitable in communal riots, and I tracked the context within which extreme sexual violence, in the form of rape or gangrape, is actually avoided. I think that’s a very important contribution of the book.

Can you explain that?
The 1969 and 2002 riots saw brutal sexual violence against Muslim women, but during 1985 riots, sexual violence against Muslim women (and some Hindu women) seems to have been limited to verbal abuse and sexually intimidating behaviour. The incidence of such atrocities against Muslim women in each of these riots was governed by a complex interaction between patriarchal and Hindu nationalist ideologies and the local economic, social and political triggers of conflict.
In 1969 and 2002, religious minorities constituted the exclusive targets of propaganda and organised attack, but in 1985 alternative forms of mobilisation, especially of dalits who supported their Muslim neighbours, and alternative forms of rhetoric (that did not incite sexual violence) were equally robust. Also, there is reason to believe that some men, irrespective of their ideology, use the chaos of riots to inflict opportunistic rape.
Moreover, it seems that wealthier Muslim women are not made targets of such violence. Even in 2002, middle-class Muslim women were not attacked in this way. This suggests that even during the chaos of large-scale rioting, so-called mobs make conscious decisions about who to attack, who not to. The victims, it seems, are primarily poorer Muslim women.

What were some of the stories of sexual violence you heard from the 2002 riots, and what did they reveal about the phenomenon?
I worked in the relief camps after the 2002 violence, recording the testimonies of rape survivors. For example, I met Sultani who was gangraped on February 28 in Eral village in Panch Mahals district. She told me, “the men caught me from behind and threw me on the ground. Faizan (her son) fell from my arms and started crying… One by one the, men raped me. All the while I could hear my son crying. I lost count after three”. I heard several stories like that; they were heart-breaking. Even now such stories outrage me, partly because there have only been two convictions for sexual violence committed during communal riots — both those cases are from 2002. The first conviction was in the Bilkees case in 2008, the other was in 2012, for the rape of 16-year-old Naseemo in Naroda.

How did Ahmedabad come to this between 1969 and 2002?
Broadly speaking, there are three or four trends that are important here. One is the gradual decline of the textile industry in Ahmedabad. The decline started in the 1960s. From the 1990s onwards, the economy of the city changed. With it changed how closely members of different religious communities interacted with each other. The decline in the textile industry caused labour market insecurity as well as a housing crisis, because migrants continued to pour into the city in search of a better life.
At the political level, as the Congress declined in the 1960s, the city and the state explored new political options in the 70s. For example, the Gujarat Mahaparishad. But it was like the Aam Aadmi Party of today — it was inexperienced, it did not have ideological cohesion, or local cadres. That experiment did not last, and the Congress came back to power in the mid-1980s.
Then, cadre-based Hindu nationalist organisations began a push to bring the BJP to power in Gujarat. That came to fruition in 1998, when the BJP came to power with a clear mandate, and it has retained Gujarat since then.
On the neighbourhood side, which is where a lot of my work is concentrated, even in the 1960s, Ahmedabad was a very spatially segregated city — people from different regions, castes, etc., live separately. Over time, the caste, class and religious divides increased, straining the groups’ interaction and understanding of each other’s cultures. This allowed, in the context of rising labour insecurity and housing crisis, Hindu nationalist organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to mobilise support because they offered social welfare and support to people when they had none. All these trends came to a head in 2002.

Has that segregation sharpened since 2002? Is the city sitting on another communal tinderbox?
After 2002, religion-based segregation seems to have increased even further. Juhapura, notably, has the largest concentration of Muslims in India. Some scholars have called it a “ghetto”.
We may not necessarily be “sitting on another communal tinderbox” — even 2002 violence (both sexual and non-sexual) occurred primarily in neighbourhoods where Muslims were a minority and the area was dominated by non-Muslims. In Muslim-majority areas like Juhapura, violence was minimal. This spatial segregation would inform the next riot, should it occur. Of course, this kind of segregation is damaging in all sorts of other ways: it fuels religious polarisation, marginalises minorities and adds to their insecurity. That is damaging as it is, irrespective of violence.

Comments

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