Beyond “Culture”: Feminist Activism in India since 2012

By Hannah Carlan

Since the horrific gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, attention to violence against women in India has been ubiquitous in the mass media. Online media repeatedly explained the attack using tropes of India’s oppressive culture, a well-established orientalist trope that simultaneously homogenizes Indian culture and represents Indian women as perpetual victims (Chaudhari 2015; Roychowdhury 2013). Since 2012, when I was living in South Delhi as a Fulbright Scholar, and continuing through my current research at an NGO in New Delhi, I have been analyzing the effects that the mass mediated representation of violence as “culture” have had on the way social media users and activists in Delhi construct discourses about violence against women.

What I have found in my analyses of online media and my work with activists in Delhi is that often women in India are caught in a double bind when it comes to understanding the causes of gender violence. On the one hand, they are highly critical of social and structural forces that continue to make women vulnerable to multiple forms of violence (not just attacks on middle class women in urban centers, but politically and economically motivated crimes against women of low class and caste backgrounds). On the other, their efforts to expose collective violence are often portrayed within India as an effort to “demonize” the nation-state and particularly its male population, leading to recent efforts to censor activists by calling them “anti-nationalists.”

This trend is evidenced in several recent policy moves made by the Delhi government. After a documentary called India’s Daughter was released about the 2012 Delhi rape, the Indian government banned it from being televised in the country, claiming it was part of “an international conspiracy to defame India” (Conlan and Rahman 2015.) When Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist, attempted to travel to the UK to testify about human rights violations committed against tribal groups in central India, she was prevented from boarding the plane based on claims that she would negatively project the nation’s image abroad (S.N. 2015). This event led prominent activist Kavita Krishnan to release a video on YouTube entitled “Who is an Anti-National?” in which she proclaimed that the government’s attempts to curtail the freedom of its citizens was tantamount to true anti-nationalism (Media Collective 2015).

As a linguistic anthropologist, my work has sought to uncover the ways in which discourses about gender violence in India have emerged in the context of anxieties about the international reputations of the nation-state and Indian “culture.” I have been particularly interested in how activists—both online and in everyday conversations—must position themselves vis-à-vis both denigrating essentializations of India as inherently violent by international media as well as local attempts to romanticize the nation-state at home. Aware of the dangers of both representations, in which culture is either seen as the root cause of violence or entirely irrelevant, activists are faced with the challenge of finding a way to frame their discourses without falling into unproductive debates about culture.

One way they do this is by using a careful combination of Hindi and English to express their criticisms of violence against women, which allows them to convey their understanding of local politics of belonging while also appealing internationally salient discourses of human rights. Consider the sophisticated mixture of ideas embedded in the code-switching style of Asha, my informant at a Delhi NGO, as she explains to me the politics of “anti-nationalism”:

So whatever opinion I will make

I will make based on my observations, my experiences

toh agar mere pas itni freedom bhi nahi hai

            [so if I don’t even have enough freedom]

ki main apne experiences share kar sakun

            [to be able to share my experiences]

kisi bhi platform pe

            [on any platform]

then, you are again violating

ya know, my right of expression

I am not saying that, you know

again, if we talk about this in detail

we will again get into the debate of

you know, why am I criticizing my country

nobody is criticizing the country

we should get away from this thought process because

we are talking about an issue

this issue which exists in India

as much as in US, as much as in UK,

Netherlands, Canada, China, whatever country

In this excerpt of a longer interview I did with Asha in August 2015, she wove together her beliefs about women’s rights to safety and freedom in the city alongside explanations of her deep personal connection to Delhi and to Hindi as the language to which she feels most connected. Here, she indexes her orientation toward her rights, her disapproval of unproductive arguments about “the nation” as a source of gender violence, stating that this issue exists worldwide, and exemplifies an explicit linguistic association between her experiences and her identity as a Hindi speaking Delhiite.

This balancing act between tailoring their efforts to the unique concerns of women in Delhi and making their arguments legible to an international audience via mass media is certainly not a new experience for activists in the Global South nor is it confined to the Indian context. Activists are adept at invoking multiple registers of discourse, including human rights and global modes of governance, as well as specific, locally salient issues contributing to violence including politicians’ strategies of intimidation and harassment done in the name of protecting the reputation of the nation-state.

The ability to adapt globalized notions like human rights, consent, and freedom to serve the issues of local contexts is an example of what Tom Boellstorff has called “dubbing” (2003) and Sally Merry and Penny Levitt have called “vernacularization” (2009). These scholars note that globalized discourses like human rights do not simply travel from the global to the local, where local actors simply incorporate them unchanged into their own discourses. Instead, globalized ideas get dubbed or vernacularized by local actors to fit their individual contexts, making them compatible rather than at odds with their identities as national subjects. This is happening in India as feminists take up human rights discourses and incorporate them into their very specific concerns about the way violence works on a structural level in India.

On December 19, 2012, just three days after the attack on Jyoti Singh Pandey and her male friend Delhi bus, prominent activist Kavita Krishnan spoke at a public protest outside the Chief Minister’s residence (Kumar 2012). In this 12-minute speech, delivered entirely in Hindi, Krishnan criticizes several recent events as specifically an assault on women’s universalized rights and freedom. She Krishnan explains specific strategies of violence and intimidation perpetuated by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharitya Janata Party (BJP), such as threatening girls who wear jeans or date outside their religion. She also takes issue with the then-Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, who made a statement that suggested a rape victim in Mumbai was too “adventurous.” These attitudes and tactics, Krishnan asserts, are contrary to women’s right to freedom and to live free of terror:

                        lekin BJP jo hai

But the BJP

                        uske jahan sarkare hain

where their governments are (in power)

                        wahan par uske apne jo goonda vahinyaa hain

there, the BJP has its goons and thugs

                        woh jeans pahenne wali ladkion ko daurdate hain

they chase down girls who wear jeans

                        Muslim ya Christian boyfriend rakhne wali ladkion ko daurdate hain

chase down girls who have Muslim or Christian boyfriends

                        aur kehte hain ki ladkiyon ko Bharitya sanskriti ke hisaab se rehna hoga varna

and they say that girls have to live according to Indian culture, or else

                        yeh goonde jo hain yeh aa kar ke

these thugs, they come

                        is tarah ka jo samadhan dete hain

and they give these kinds of solutions

                        is ke khilaaf hamen ek pura counter counter culture dena hoga

in opposition to this, we will have to give an entire counter, counter culture

                        ek counter politics deni hogi

we have to give a counter politics

                        jo ke sachmuch mein mahilaon ki puri azaadi

that can genuinely (provide) women’s complete freedom

                        mahilaon ke bekhof jivan jine ka jo adhikaar hai

the right that women have to live their lives free of terror

Both Asha and Kavita are speak about the ways in which tropes of “culture” and “nation” are used to silence activists who speak out against crimes against women. Asha realizes that many people will misunderstand her criticisms of violence as criticisms of the country writ large. She is adamant that this is not a productive thought process, and insists that we focus on violence as an issue that exists throughout the world. Kavita Krishnan shows that “Indian culture” is often used as a way to morally police girls, denying them their freedom to live how they choose. These two activists both avoid the trap of focusing on culture or nation by employing the language of women’s rights (or adhikaar) and freedom (or azaadi) in order to situate their critiques within a globally recognized discourse of gender equality. This allows them to posit alternative possibilities for a “counter culture” and a “counter politics,” moral imperatives that are not antithetical to their having a positive, proud Indian identity.

Activists in Delhi creatively negotiate the tensions present in the recent political climate in India, which revolve around polarizing debates about “Indian culture” that have been dominant in the mass media. These dichotomous positions, in which culture is either condemned as inherently patriarchal or praised and romanticized, leave little room for nuanced debates about structural forms of inequality and oppression. Asha and Kavita Krishnan are two examples of activists who, in very different contexts—one a major neoliberal NGO, the other a Marxist political organization—are able to subvert dominant discourses about violence as a product of “culture” in favor of more substantive explanations of the political, economic, and historical causes for women’s inequity.

Hannah Carlan is a second year PhD student in linguistic anthropology whose research focuses on the politics of language, gender, and class within the context of anti-sexual violence activism in the contemporary women’s movement in New Delhi. This research was supported by the Center for the Study of Women and was presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado in 2015.


Chaudhari, Maitrayee. 2015. “National and Global Media Discourse after the Savage Death of ‘Nirbhaya’: Instant Access and Unequal Knowledge.” In Studying Youth, Media, and Gender in Post-Liberalisation India: Focus on and Beyond the “Delhi Gang Rape,” edited by Schneider and Titzmann. Berlin: Frank & Timme.

Conlan, Tara, and Maseeh Rahman. 2015. “India’s Daughter: BBC Brings Forward Airing of Delhi Rape Documentary.” The Guardian, March 4, Media.

Kumar, Vijay. 2012. Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of Hte All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).

Media Collective. 2015. Who Is an Anti-National?: Kavita Krishnan.

Roychowdhury, Poulami. 2013. “‘The Delhi Gang Rape’: The Making of International Causes.” Feminist Studies 39 (1): 282–92.

S.N., Vijetha. 2015. “Court Relief for Greenpeace Activist Priya Pillai.” The Hindu, March 12.


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