Autonomous Bodies: Interview With Kavita Krishnan

A major power in international economics and politics, India continues to lag behind in key development indicators, particularly where women and minorities are concerned. Access to basic rights, such as healthcare, education, sanitation and decent work remain a daily struggle for many.

During a recent visit to London I interviewed prominent Indian feminist and left activist Kavita Krishnan about the current issues and challenges facing women and civil society in India, particularly since the election of the far-right Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in May 2014. Ms Krishnan is secretary of the All-India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and editor of ‘Liberation’, the monthly journal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

Rape and sexual violence are often presented by the international media as the main issues facing Indian women. What would you say are the main issues women actually face in India on a daily basis?

Rape is what gets covered in the media but I wouldn’t describe it as being the single largest issue for Indian women. This perspective is problematic. Recent studies, including rape statistics, have underlined what we’ve been saying right from the start: the biggest issue is women’s autonomy. Rape is a question of autonomy, but there is also the question of autonomy within the home: the decisions you make about who you marry, how you will live, where you will work, when you will have children, how many, what sex and so on.

It’s as though the walls of the home are porous, so all of these problems also exist in the workplace: the question of autonomy is a huge one for women workers as well. There are social cases where women are denied the right to have mobile phones, are told not to wear jeans, not to fraternise and have relationships with men from other communities and castes, and the international and Indian media pick up on these instances, but you also have factories in India where women workers have the same systems in place, where women are denied the right to speak to male co-workers, denied the right to use mobile phones, and are under constant surveillance, all in the name of their safety, that they need protection. Talking up the problem of rape is not an exaggeration because it is a huge problem, but framing the problem in terms of the need to protect women from rape is something that has actually worked against women’s struggle for autonomy.

The whole question of autonomy and control over your life in different ways is central and linked to the fact that women are almost invariably paid less for the work they do, their working conditions are extremely oppressive and there are problems even at home. Recently, there has been the virtual epidemic of forced sterilisation deaths. The Chhattisgarh incident was highlighted as 15 women died at one time, but I should tell you that 15 women die every month in this kind of botched sterilisation operation in India. This is happening because the Indian state and international funding agencies are pushing sterilisation as a form of contraception in the name of population control. Instead of women being able to have better control over reproduction, their bodies and lives, this is about state control, or the control of international funding agencies over women’s bodies. In many instances, this is costing women their lives.

What challenges are faced by those trying to deal with these issues?

One of the main challenges is posed by the institution of caste. The state as well as industry, and even international capital, has an interest in maintaining caste and caste relationships in India. Control over women’s bodies is central to this. It is particularly terrible for Dalit women, from the oppressed caste. It is terrible for all women because you cannot maintain the domination of the so-called upper castes without controlling the lives of women in those castes. It is a crucial institution and it would be a mistake to think of it as being merely a cultural problem. It is a very material problem and the state and corporations, both Indian and international, have an interest in maintaining those relationships because they help them to exploit labour much more effectively.

Women play a big role in many important people’s movements and struggles, such as popular movements against land grabs from farmers and indigenous peoples, and of forests by corporations as well as struggles in factories. The biggest challenge all of these movements face, including my own organisation, is state repression. The state tends to brand a lot of this activism as a threat to development to silence it. There are many instances where indigenous women active in movements against land grabbing have been severely tortured by police, army and paramilitary forces. It is very hard to take up these cases because simply raising them is branded a threat to development in India.

What impact does caste have on women?

One shouldn’t look at caste as though it is some vestige of backwardness. It’s actually the way in which labour has been organised traditionally in India and continues to be central to how labour is organised in rural and urban India. This makes it possible to pay Dalit workers less. There are also certain sectors of work, such as sanitation and cleaning work, almost entirely done by Dalits. This being the case, Dalit women are specifically marked out for certain kinds of labour, including cleaning work and rural agricultural labour. Maintaining domination over Dalit women and the Dalit community and keeping that caste structure in place is not simply the concern of some caste leaders, it is also the concern of the state and dominant castes, as well as factories owners who use the issue of caste to underpay workers and to be able to assign them to certain kinds of work. It is an enormous challenge. Even women in the supposedly dominant caste are under surveillance and control of their lives is crucial to maintaining the caste structure itself. This is happening in a big way. I would say that this is one of the big issues Indian women’s movements have to confront.

What has the impact of 9 months of BJP government been on Indian women and minorities?

The biggest issue is that it has sent a message to Hindu right-wing groups that their government is in power and they can unleash violence and repression and assert their domination without any consequences, with a sense of impunity, far more than they could before. This has been very visible. In Delhi, five churches have been vandalised in two months. This is unheard of in Delhi. There has also been the ghar wapsi programme, a sort of forced reconversion to the Hindu religion. Reconversion is not a word I would use because you are then essentially denying the legitimacy of the choice to convert out of the Hindu community, so the very term ghar wapsi means that the ‘home’, or ‘ghar’, is the Hindu religion and therefore India can only be home to Hindus, and everything else is foreign. The Prime Minister’s silence on this matter and that these kinds of things are happening quite openly speaks for itself.

The impact on women has been immense and is closely linked to this business about ghar wapsi due to a fabricated anxiety about the number of Hindus and Muslims, a fear that the Muslim population is going up and the Hindu population has to compete. Along withghar wapsi, there have been statements telling Hindu women that they should have large numbers of children. I’m not saying they’re actually imposing this but the fact that this is being said sounds an alarm bell for women.

There has been violence against women who have fallen in love or married Muslim and Christian men, with the blessing of the BJP organisation and the RSS organisation. This is happening now on a scale that was unimaginable earlier. This is happening in West Bengal on such a large scale that people are actually announcing on social media that we’ve rescued a girl from her Muslim husband but that the hard work now begins of having to persuade her that she doesn’t love him. It’s clearly a forced kidnapping. The situation has escalated but I would say that the recent Delhi election results are definitely a very big blow to this kind of campaign. I believe women in Delhi voted with a vengeance against this as they sensed it was an attack on their autonomy.

In the current political climate, what are the chances of justice and reparations for victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat?

Where the Sikh community is concerned, I think one of the big issues the Aam Aadmi Party won the elections on in Delhi was a promise of justice through a new investigation that will work towards some kind of justice and reparations for the Sikh community. I think this is something people will definitely expect results on and I think one can be hopeful about that.

As for the riots against Muslims – I wouldn’t even call them riots – the pogroms against Muslims, whether in Gujarat or Muzaffarnagar in 2013, I think it’s a very tough call. It’s the same with fake encounters, extrajudicial killings of Muslims in Gujarat as well as in other parts of the country. The speed with which matters are moved to acquit or weaken cases shows that all our institutions are compromised: the police, the Central Bureau of Investigations as well as the courts to some extent. I therefore think the whole question of justice is a very tough one.

In addition to this is the question of justice for victims of massacres of Dalits in Bihar. Many of the perpetrators are very close to the BJP or the ruling Janata Dal United in Bihar. The BJP is trying to reach out to the Dalit chief minister of Bihar and get him on side. The whole question of justice in these cases is not allowed to advance. It is extremely disturbing and it’s a very hard struggle, one that we are also very closely involved in.

India is the world’s largest buyer of weapons, is frequently rocked by communal violence, and has ongoing violent conflicts in Kashmir and Manipur, among others, in addition to rampant prison torture. It is also often perceived as a peaceful country both from inside and out. What relationship would you say exists between the state and violence, and how it is perceived?

People tend to only think of resistance, struggles and political terrorism as violence. There is an unwillingness to acknowledge that the state is immensely violent, much as in other countries in the world where the tendency is not to acknowledge that you are implicated, that violence is being done in your name. I would say that this extends to gender too. There are many, many instances, but if you look at the Kunan Poshpora rapes, which are so stark because in Kashmir an entire village’s female population was raped in 1991, the whole case has not yet come to trial. Even now I believe that something has been done in the last week or so to stall a fresh investigation that was recently ordered.

In 2004, a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, was raped and killed in Manipur. I keep referring to her case in the context of the Delhi December 16th rape as there is a lot of media attention in India on the torture suffered by the Delhi rape victim. On the other hand, the fact-finding report into the 2004 rape and murder of Manorama was suppressed by the government of India and Manipur for very long. It became public just last month, and that report gives details of the kind of torture that young woman was subjected to by the Indian army before she was raped and killed and her dead body desecrated. It is disgraceful that the accused have not been brought to trial because they enjoy the protection of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Although this does not officially give impunity for rape, the Indian government has been protecting the accused men from prosecution. Our media turns a completely blind eye to these issues and never wants to talk about them.

The outlook appears bleak. What would you say is the way forward?

People’s movements need to come together and work together. We are in the process of trying to do that, of trying to build a platform for people’s movements which are able to highlight the issues, not only the issues of communal or sectarian violence but other forms of violence too. If you’re grabbing land from people, denying them the right to food, weakening labour laws, you are actually complicit in a daily kind of violence. This is something we need to highlight and I think that is the way forward.