Communalism and Sexual Violence

Ahmedabad since 1969

Megha Kumar

Sexual violence has been a feature of several communal conflicts in India since independence in 1947. The Partition riots, which saw the brutal victimization of thousands of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women, have so far dominated academic discussions of sexual violence during such conflicts. By examining three of the deadliest riots that occurred in Ahmedabad city, Gujarat, in 1969, 1985 and 2002, this book identifies the specific conditions motivating gendered violence against religious minorities. Providing in-depth, grassroots-level analysis, Megha Kumar moves away from existing academic approaches that focus exclusively on the role of Hindu nationalist ideology in inciting
attacks on women. Rather, by examining the actual dynamics of each episode of conflict, this book shows gendered communal violence to be governed by the interaction between elite ideology, and the unique economic, social and political factors at work. Using government reports, Hindu nationalist publications and civil society commentaries, as well as interviews with activists, politicians and riot survivors, the book also identifies the conditions that have prevented sexual violence in riot contexts. Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969 will be valuable for academic researchers, human rights organizations, NGOs working with survivors of sexual violence, and those involved in community development and urban grassroots activism.


"This book combines fine-grained empirical research with considerable conceptual acumen and penetrating analysis. Megha Kumar has taken on a particularly difficult theme to write about and she writes with great honesty and meticulous scholarship" – Tanika Sarkar, retired professor of history Jawarlal Nehru University, Delhi.


"This book makes it clear that social scientist can approach analytically the question of sexual violence at the time of communal conflicts" – Christophe Jaffrelot, senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences PO/CNRS, and professor of Indian politics and sociology, King's College London.


"This is a gripping and, unfortunately, apparently accurate account of the largely hidden and silently tolerated victimization of mostly Muslim women and men by a vast segment of Indian society that, for the most part, turns a blind eye to it." – Paul R. Brass, professor emeritus of political science and South Asian studies, University of Washington.

"Megha Kumar’s book raises an important question for the study of history and politics of postcolonial India—how the presence and/or absence of sexual violence against women shape the discourses around communal conflict. The study is located within the city of Ahmedabad and tracks three disparate events of communal conflict in the city: the 1969 communal riot that has remained largely outside the purview of academic studies on communalism; the 1985 violence that included caste-based hostilities alongside Hindu–Muslim antagonism; and the 2002 communal violence that had specifically targeted the Muslim population.

Kumar argues that while explicit sexual violence was committed against women during the events of 1969 and 2002, the 1985 communal violence targeted women for verbal abuse and stripping in public, refraining from rape, mutilation and gang rape. Kumar reads these events through unusually diverse and rich source material, ranging from printed pamphlets, reports of fact-finding missions, court proceedings and judgments, periodicals in Gujarati and English to interviews with
a large number of respondents.

The Introduction makes a commendable effort to provide a succinct road map to the information, references and analysis covered in the three chapters of the book. It starts with the protest mobilizations in 2012 and 2013 after the infamous Delhi gang rape on 16 December 2012 to emphasize the significance of studying sexual violence in contemporary India. Kumar makes the pertinent distinction between sexual violence in everyday life in times of ‘peace’ and in extraordinary moments of intense political violence. The way her argument proceeds, the reader assumes that she is keen to rethink this distinction through the conceptual
approaches to everyday life and violence. Kumar, however, does not push her argument in that direction and goes into the specific histories of sexual violence during communal conflict. There is an attempt to situate her research questions within a larger context of postcolonial civil war conditions in different countries of Africa, ethnic conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s and the War of Liberation in Bangladesh in 1971. Such a broad context hangs rather loose in her work as these contexts are rarely invoked later in the chapters. There is no scope in the book
to read the differentiated international contexts of sexual violence through the specific history of the 1969, 1985 and 2002 riots in Ahmedabad.
The book has three principal chapters, each dealing with one event of communal violence. The substantive chapters contain the required ‘thick description’ of the events. Kumar, it seems, has made a conscious choice of bringing the already available academic literature on each event in conversation with the fresh material her research has produced. The strategy works well to a large extent. However, it would have been more helpful if the book began with a chapter on the history and sociology of the city of Ahmedabad, detailing the spatial dynamism of diverse urban communities, which is instead dealt with rather hurriedly in a very short
section in the Introduction. Kumar’s observations include the declining Textile Mills of Ahmedabad in charting out the lives of victims, survivors and perpetrators of communal violence at different temporal junctures. While the working-class and poorer sections of Ahmedabad are referred to in all her chapters, it is not quite clear how gender politics operate through relations of power and she refrains from giving a fuller analysis of the intersections between religion, class and caste within an urban space from the point of view of gender. It would have also been helpful for the reader to understand the historical processes by which the Hindu nationalist ideology spread in the city of Ahmedabad.

Kumar’s book does not provide a conventional concluding chapter. Her final
chapter ‘Aftermath’ sets out to narrate the experiences of relief camps after the immediate violence ended in 2002, the arduous process of rebuilding community lives of surviving Muslims in Ahmedabad, and the response of the Indian national government and the Gujarat government to the atrocities, especially the sexual violence against women. This chapter tracks the lives of several Muslim women who suffered sexual violence during the riot, faced sexual coercion while living in relief camps and are undergoing serious trauma years after the riot, in order to readjust to everyday life. Kumar characteristically brings individual life stories,
reports of women’s organizations who had sent fact-finding teams to Ahmedabad immediately after the communal conflict, and vignettes from the police investigation and trials of alleged perpetrators together to weave a poignant narrative of life after a riot. The absence of a conventional conclusion, however, affects the analytical structure of the book. Since Kumar does not provide a longer discussion of her conceptual framework in her Introduction, the reader starts to expect a series of reflections on the conceptual terms at the end of the thick descriptions in the substantive chapters. Kumar does not engage at all with the expansive academic
literature on violence. Thus, her analysis suffers from a confusion in defining ‘communal conflict’ as a distinct term from ‘ethnic violence’ or ‘caste-based atrocities’ or ‘development-induced political violence’, and she has to give hasty disclaimers against the Leftist or Dalit critique of violence committed by Hindu nationalists by citing violence committed by Leftist parties. Similarly, though her note in the Introduction on method outlines the ethical questions of research on sexual violence with great honesty, there is no critical engagement with interview and testimony as research methods. Her important contribution to the source material on women survivors of sexual violence during communal conflict would have benefitted from some reflections on testimonio as a mode of accessing
individual and community memories of violence.

Kumar’s book is well written. The chapters on each event unfold lucidly how violence emanating from politicized religion tends to view women, and yet the modes of violence differ due to various cross-cutting political and social forces at particular moments in history. The thoroughness with which Kumar has unpacked her primary material into a compelling analysis establishes her claim that her book is one of the initial attempts to link discourses of communal conflict with sexual violence against women at the grassroots level. " – Mallarika Sinha Roy, Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Studies in History


"Assiduously researched and deeply committed, [Communal and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969] book explores the close, in fact, integral connection between communal conflagration and sexual savagery." – Subhoranjan Dasgupta, The Telegraph


"It is a testament to the book’s richness that, while it clearly shows the effects of economic privation and electoral failure on the exercise of sexual violence in communal riots, it also elicits questions that far exceed this purview. Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969 is an important addition to a library of resources that help explain how we have reached this point politically, and possibly, how we may change its course." – Svati P Shah, Economic and Political Weekly