Late last year, eleven Hindu extremists walked free from a prison in India’s Gujarat state. Their crime: brutally gang-raping a pregnant Muslim woman and murdering fourteen members of her family in 2002, during one of the worst outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in recent Indian history. They served just fourteen years in prison — but far from criticizing such leniency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) congratulated the men on their release.
The survivor, Bilkis Bano, was rightly horrified by the courts’ utter failure to keep these men behind bars. But the BJP and large swaths of the Indian public received them as heroes: they were garlanded with flowers, fed sweets, and touted as respectable icons by the ruling party. One BJP parliamentarian praised them as having “good sanskar” (values) while implying that Bano had lied about the attack to “to corner and punish them.” Two other BJP politicians hosted one of the ex-cons at an official government event like a celebrity.
After November 25’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, it’s time for the world to take a long, hard look at India. It’s no secret that the country has long struggled with troubling levels of violence against women, most notably against low-caste Dalit women. But under the influence of Modi and Hindutva, a supremacist ideology that believes that India should be a Hindu ethnostate, it has become mainstream to dehumanize, vilify, and inflict violence on minorities, with Muslims in particular labeled as enemies of Hindus and India. As an extension of this climate of violence, rape threats and sexual violence have become weapons of choice for India’s Hindu right, used for the explicit purpose of intimidating and terrorizing Muslim women.
Mainstream Anti-Muslim Slurs
Women who publicly criticize the Modi government face the most blatant forms of sexual harassment. Perhaps the most shocking instances are the cases of “Sulli Deals” and “Bulli Bai” — two mock auction apps, named after anti-Muslim slurs, that were designed by Gen Z Hindu extremists to “auction” the pictures and contact information of Muslim women to Hindu men. Several of the women were activists, journalists, and lawyers. A number of them described the anxiety they suffered after realizing their information had been shared so widely, and in such a dehumanizing manner.
“What if someone just comes and claims their deal of the day?” activist Afreen Fatima asked. “I don’t see anything stopping them from doing that.”
But even outside of these shocking cases, threats against vocal Muslim women are dangerously mainstream. In 2022, Muslim journalist and Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub said that she had received twenty-six thousand death and rape threats over Twitter/X alone, the majority of which came from Hindu right-wing accounts. Student activist Ladeeda Farzana is one of several activists who has had her face juxtaposed with pornographic images by right-wing accounts for supporting nationwide protests against India’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Non-Muslim and even non-Indian women who have criticized the Modi government, like US-based academic Audrey Truschke, are flooded with rape and death threats on social media.
By and large, however, women do not need to be activists to become the target of harassment. Bilkis Bano is a prime example: she, along with hundreds of women and young girls, were subjected to rape, sexual humiliation, and mutilation during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, simply because they were Muslim. One Hindu extremist, Babu Bajrangi, boasted as much to an undercover reporter, gleefully talking about how he’d enjoyed murdering Muslims, including a pregnant woman.
Like the men who raped Bano, Bajrangi served minimal time in prison before he, along with dozens of other rapists and murderers who participated in the violence, was acquitted on what Gujarat courts deemed — to resounding criticism — a lack of evidence.
The online Hindu right does little to distance itself from men like Bajrangi and the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence. Instead, social media is used to amplify these threats. On platforms like Facebook, Twitter/X, and WhatsApp, Hindu extremists make comments about wanting to add Muslim women to harems or “fuck and dump” them. In one particularly disturbing case, watchdog accounts on Instagram and Twitter/X exposed a since-deleted Reddit community called “Muslimah for Hindu Men,” with over fifteen thousand users engaging in dehumanizing sexual fantasies about Muslim women. Screenshots of the subreddit showed users posting pornographic images of Muslim women and elaborate fantasies, along with the heavy use of misogynistic sexual slurs.
Increasingly, however, these threats aren’t just floated by anonymous users online — they’re blasted by Hindu extremist leaders who have no qualms about publicly encouraging sexual violence. Videos containing these threats often go viral. As one female religious leader threatened, if Muslim men try to seek interfaith marriages with Hindu women, Muslim women would “give birth to Hindu children” through rape. BJP legislator Raja Singh, who is currently running for reelection, declared at a rally, “If [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we’ll take ten of theirs.” Similarly, Hindu extremist leader Bajrang Muni Das went viral after he threatened to publicly rape Muslim women in front of a mosque in Uttar Pradesh.
“I am telling this to you [Muslims] . . . if a single Hindu girl is teased by you in Khairabad, I will openly bring your daughter and daughter-in-law out of your home and rape her,” he announced into a bullhorn, amid cheers and applause from his audience.
One might ask if this fervent rape apologism is really a product of Hindutva ideology, or if it stems from Indian patriarchal views on women in general. The answer can be found in a 1963 book called Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History. Its author, pioneering Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Savarkar, is known for hot takes such as “Germany has every right to resort to Nazism” and “[Fascism and Nazism] were . . . imperative and beneficial.”
This particular book plays off similar ethnonationalist themes. In it, Savarkar justified the rape of Muslim women as a political tool to right wrongs of the past. After claiming — ahistorically — that Muslim Mughals saw it as their “duty” to abduct and forcibly convert Hindu women, Savarkar declared, “In the event of a Hindu victory, our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women.” In other words, Savarkar believed that raping women in the present was a fully reasonable way to avenge atrocities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
But ahistorical or otherwise, Savarkar’s logic has been branded into the Hindutva-supporting consciousness. Echoes of it can be seen every time a right-wing account on Twitter/X brings up “love jihad,” a baseless conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men have an agenda to convert Hindu women to Islam through seduction. The chest-thumping that follows is easily visible in “retaliatory” rape threats issued by people like Bajrang Muni Das, Raja Singh, and countless right-wing social media users.
The message is clear: Muslim men, who are already the primary victims of mob lynchings and other violent attacks, cannot afford to have any semblance of interaction with Hindu women. No talking to them, no befriending them, and certainly no forming romantic relationships with them. Otherwise, the extremists threaten, Muslim women will also pay a price.
It’s the normalization of dehumanizing, violently misogynistic logic like this that prevents women like Bilkis Bano from seeing justice. Her appeal to the Indian Supreme Court remains in limbo, while her attackers walk free on grounds of their “good behavior.” The creators of Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai are going about their lives after only a slap on the wrist. Raja Singh making violent threats against Muslim women and men alike has become a normal occurrence, yet the BJP has announced it will field him in upcoming elections. It has not only become the norm for women to face threats of sexual violence; impunity for those who encourage such horrors has also become a simple reality.
Calls for justice for these women, and the pressure to prevent future women from being traumatized and violated, can no longer come solely from within India. There should never again be another case like Bilkis Bano’s, or another instance of mass sexual violence like the one in Gujarat in 2002. It is imperative for women and men around the world to demand an end to the Indian right’s disturbing celebration of sexual violence against Muslim women.