But in fact, the differences between the two moments are more significant than the similarities, and tell us a lot about the dangerous turn Indian society and politics have taken in the past few years.
In 2012, I and other feminist voices could stand among thousands of angry protesters in Delhi, and persuade them to give up “hang the rapist” or “lynch the rapist” slogans in favor of “women want freedom” slogans without risking violence or abuse. We could make our calls for accountability heard above the “death penalty” din. We could criticize the prime minister and the ruling party without being deluged by rape and death threats.
This gave us the opportunity to begin reframing the discourse around sexual violence. We successfully pointed out that authorities in India tend to understand sexual violence as a loss of honor rather than the violation of consent. This conflates consensual inter-caste or interfaith relationships with rape, in turn allowing “honor” crimes and patriarchal restrictions to hide in plain sight. Our protests tried to set reality right, and for the first time, won significant visibility and support for women’s assertions of unconditional autonomy and pushback against victim-blaming.
This time, feminist voices are finding it much harder to be heard above the calls to hang, lynch or summarily execute men accused of rape. A member of Parliament called for the suspects in the Hyderabad case to be lynched in public. Days later, police shot and killed the four unarmed suspects in the dead of night, in what they claim was self-defense. The killings are widely believed to be executions — and, ominously, are being welcomed and celebrated as such. There is a growing clamor for the Modi government to execute the convicts who are on death row in the 2012 rape-murder case.
Custodial killings are not new in India. Even in 2013, feminists had to battle to have their views heard over calls for violence, especially when one of the suspects in the 2012 rape-murder case was found dead in prison. But now, feminists are facing unrelenting abuse by the troll armies of right-wing public figures. These propagandists accuse feminists who condemn the killings of betraying women. Many of them propagate fake news claiming that the rape suspects were all Muslims.
This toxic turn in the discourse around sexual violence has a political subtext. During the campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections, Bharatiya Janata Party President and current Home Minister Amit Shah justified anti-Muslim violence, saying, “No one likes to riot. But when a community violates the honor of our daughters and sisters, and the administration does nothing, people are forced to riot.” This open celebration of anti-Muslim violence on the pretext of protecting and avenging women helped win Modi landslide support in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
Far-right outfits have made it their job to identify and violently attack interfaith relationships, claiming to rescue Hindu women from a “love jihad” by Muslim men. Feminist campaigns asserting the right to autonomy pose a threat to these attempts to harness patriarchal ideologies for an Islamophobic agenda.
This is why far-right attacks on feminists are so vicious. The same propagandists that celebrate lynchings and custodial killings as “justice” and profile Muslims as “rapists” and “love jihadis” also call feminists “anti-nationals” and proponents of “free sex.” Feminist lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, who helped indigenous people in central India fight legal battles against custodial rapes and killings by police and paramilitary, is currently in jail after pro-government TV channels and police ran a campaign branding her an “urban Naxal,” or agent of left-wing militants.
These forces simultaneously claim that men are victims of the “misuse” of rape and domestic violence laws. Some have run conspiracy theories proclaiming the innocence of men convicted of raping and killing a little girl in Kathua in Jammu to terrorize her Muslim community — not to mention lawmakers from the ruling BJP facing #MeToo and rape accusations.
As I see television channels run footage of crowds distributing sweets and showering rose petals to celebrate the killing of the rape suspects, and hear feminists being labeled elitist for opposing lynchings and custodial executions, I recall an op-ed by a BJP leader, Ram Madhav, on India’s Independence Day in 2017, in which he implied the liberal unease with mob tendencies was elitist. He declared: “The mob, humble people of the country, are behind Modi. They are finally at ease with a government that looks and sounds familiar. They are enjoying it.”
As our government celebrates the worst instincts of Indian society, feminists valiantly continue to appeal to its best ones.