The Power of Names: India’s Rape Problem

Although memorization of names and locations is one of the more misunderstood aspects of our discipline it can serve a purpose every now and then. I have been following the story of the 23-year old Indian who was gang-raped, and subsequently died from her injuries, and was dumbfounded when the story, or at least part of it, became geographical.

For a bit of background, post-colonial (i.e. post-1947 independence) India’s political and social narrative is partly characterized by the Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”, pronounced Hindu-twa) movement. The academic hypothesis goes something like this, Hindu nationalists blame the British colonizers for the emasculation of the “Hindu” identity, based on the way the Hindu community was treated during the British imperial period. The link between this narrative and rape is clear, however, South Asia was a poor place to be a woman before the British arrived (unless you were politically connected and wealthy, which I goes for everywhere…). Once the British left and the two-winged “Muslim” Pakistan was created, this movement gained some momentum. As an aside, I have been told (by Hindu friends) that there isn’t a Hindu “religion” similar to Christianity or Islam, the systems varies based on place. Thus the idea of Hindutva is necessarily general (perfect for politics!). The Bharat Janata Party (“India” People’s Party, BJP) is the center-conservative party that most often promotes a Hindutva-approved agenda. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization, RSS) is the grass-roots, militant organization primarily responsible for promulgating the Hindutva message. Generally, there are violent militant elements within the Hindutva, if not the RSS, fold. Recently, India officially concluded that a bomb blast in 2006 (that killed over 30 people) was perpetrated by Hindu fanatics not Muslims, who are usually blamed when something bad happens.

A geographical manifestation of Hindutva is evident on a map, making it a geographical concern if you acknowledge Hartshorne’s view (more on this to come!). Since India’s independence, the now “representative” Indian state has set about establishing its dominance over the land by renaming places at a variety of scales from “English” names to other names. The most famous of course are Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai), and Madras (Chennai). In completing the circle with Hindutva politics, the BJP evidently proposed renaming the cities of Allahabad and Ahmedabad in 2001 and 1990, probably because the names were Islamic. I suppose if it was British (and we all hate colonizers) it was fair game but an under-siege minority group (which makes up a substantial portion of the Indian National Congress’s votes is off-limits. But what does this have to do with a rape in 2012?

In the previous paragraph I ironic-quoted Bharat (in BJP) as being “India”. The head of the RSS, Mohanrao Bhagwat, made the world turn by asserting that “Rapes occur in India, not Bharat,” subsequently pointing out that rapes occur in urban areas, which are heavily influenced by the West, not in rural areas. The Madhya Pradesh interior minister, Kailash Vijayvargiya a member of the BJP, suggested that women will be punished (according to the sacred text of the Ramayana) for “breaching moral limits“. There’s really too much here to stuff into a paragraph but we should acknowledge that rapes go unreported everywhere and rural heavily patriarchal rural India (and probably even the matriarchal bits too) are no exception. To Bhagwat, there are two India’s that occupy the same space, the idealized “traditional” “Bharat” (that wasn’t unified until the British came by the way) centered on “Hinduism” and the India he can’t come to grips with. Based on the amount of geographical renaming that’s gone on, it seems that India’s politicians agree with him and are yearning for a return to an older age, before parliamentary democracy, and women’s, dalit’s and minority rights.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Names: India’s Rape Problem

  1. Pingback: The “non-geography” geography of India’s Rape Problem (update 1) | Z Geography

  2. Pingback: Geography of Naming: Volgograd/Stalingrad | Z Geography

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