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After a Spanish woman went public with her account of being gangraped in Jharkhand’s Dumka district last week, social media has been aflame with debate.

First, Rekha Sharma, who heads India’s National Commission for Women, said that this incident should not be used for “defaming the whole country”. Then, relatively-unknown social media users began to push the rumour that the suspects were Christian Adivasis.

The woman was gangraped by seven men on March 1, when she and her partner, who are on an international motorcycle tour, stopped for the night in Kurumahat area, according to a first information report. The police on March 5 said eight men have been arrested.

The police did not disclose the names of the eight men. Nor has the local media published any reports revealing their identities.

Yet, on X, some social media users called the suspects “rice bag converts”, “Christian converted fellows” among other slurs, with others claiming – falsely – that the incident took place in a Christian-majority area. According to the last census, eight of ten people living in Dumka are Hindu.

“Rapists of Spanish woman are Christian but Hindus get the blame,” claimed one user. “Perpetrators and victim were Christian,” claimed another. “Two Christians raped by missionaries,” claimed yet another.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former parliamentarian Hari Manjhi also amplified the rumours. In a post on X, he claimed that the suspects worked for “Christian missionaries” and that faith and religion meant little for those who could be bought for a “bag of rice”.

The attempt to emphasise the “Christian” identity of the victim and the unknown suspects is part of a larger pattern over the past decade to frame sexual violence against women in India along religious lines.

For instance, in February, Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani deployed similar tactics while highlighting the sexual assault of women from local farming and fishing communities in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali.

Latching on to the fact that one of the accused, Sheikh Shahjahan, is a Muslim leader from the Trinamool Congress, Irani accused West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of facilitating the sexual abuse of “young married Hindu women”. “Who is this man who has been charged by the women of Sandeshkhali of the mass rape of Bengali Hindu women?” Irani said.

Political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya pointed out in The Hindu that a situation that is actually a crisis of governance under Banerjee was being given a communal spin. Besides, two of the immediate perpetrators of the alleged crimes against women were both non-Muslims, he wrote.

This trend of communalising sexual violence can be traced as far back as 2013 when social media posts and forwards claimed falsely that the juvenile convicted in the 2012 Delhi gangrape case, the “most cruel and perverted” of the five convicts, was a Muslim. As recently as 2019, a rehashed version of the same claim was debunked by Alt News.

More recently, in 2022, the murder of Shraddha Walkar by her live-in partner, Aaftab Poonawala, was used to stoke hate against Muslims and fan fears of “love jihad”, a Hindutva conspiracy theory according to which Muslim men lure and trap Hindu women in romantic relationships with the aim of converting them.

Similar incidents, or even murders, involving Muslim women and Hindu men or cases where the victim and perpetrator are from the same religion or caste draw scant attention.

Only a day or so before the gangrape of the Spanish tourist in Jharkhand, two teenaged Dalit girls died by suicide in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur district on February 28 after they were allegedly sexually assaulted. The suspects were men from the same community.

It is not that caste or religion do not matter. They do.

Caste, religion, social location and privilege together shape women’s safety in India – in the home and outside. For instance, in 2006, in Khairlanji village in Maharashtra, a 40-year-old Dalit woman and her daughter were gangraped and killed for challenging the caste order. The woman’s two other sons were also murdered. Caste and religion also undergird the so-called “honour killings” of youngsters who marry for love instead of adhering to social boundaries.

Ignoring the violence within communities, the ruling BJP has appropriated the discussion on “violence against women” to drive forward its agenda to protect women from the dangerous “other”, a threat always lurking outside the home and family. Of course, one of the most dangerous places for women, as data suggests, is the home.

The imposition of the national lockdown in 2020 following the outbreak of Covid-19 led to several women being confined in close quarters with their abusers. Domestic violence was referred to as the “shadow pandemic” that left women vulnerable and open to assault in the home.

The National Family Health Survey 2019-’21 found that 32% of married women, between the ages of 18 to 49, had experienced physical, sexual or emotional spousal violence. “The most common type of spousal violence is physical violence (28%), followed by emotional violence and sexual violence,” reported The Indian Express. It is unlikely that such “routine” violence is ever used to whip up communal frenzy.

The reaction to the Jharkhand incident reflects how this notion of “violence against women” invisibilises some incidents and hyper-amplifies others. It solidifies the perception that only some kinds of men are capable of violence while providing the rest a convenient cover.

By implying a seamless connection between “Indian” and “Hindu”, the social media narrative around the Jharkhand incident serves to displace culpability for the crime onto “others”, now deemed outsiders and non-Indian in the Hindutva vocabulary. It also explains why pro-Hindutva handles rushed to the defence of India’s image, with several posting videos of foreign women tourists praising the country, and some even playing the “anti-India” elements conspiracy card.

Not too long ago, India’s top women wrestlers, among them an Olympian, sat on the streets of Delhi for months to seek action against Wrestling Federation of India President and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who they accused of sexual abuse. Were they also “anti-India”?

Polarising the narrative on sexual violence creates narrow confines within which only those incidents, which fit the right narrative, merit outrage and thus justice.

Away from the glare of the media, on March 7, a day before International Women’s Day, the father of one of the two teenaged Dalit girls in Kanpur was found dead – he is suspected to have died by suicide.