We, a group of concerned citizens and feminists wish to register our sorrow and shock at the death of W R Varadarajan, member CPI (M). We also wish to record our extreme unease at the manner in which crucial facts to do with the events and circumstances that preceded his death appear to have been deliberately ignored by the party leadership. That the party was aware of these facts is evident from a letter that the late Varadarajan addressed to CPI (M) General Secretary, Prakash Karat, and extracts from which were reproduced in the Indian Express, New Delhi edition, dated 24. 02.2010.
Over the past two decades, women’s groups and civil rights groups across the country have worked very hard on the issue of sexual harassment and set up procedure and protocols to address it. Feminist debates have also expanded our understanding of sexual and emotional choices, intimacy within and outside marriage in very fundamental ways. With respect to the events that preceded Varadarajan’s death, such critical debates are even more urgent and necessary. It is because of this that we have drawn up this statement. In doing so, we have drawn on Varadarajan’s letter –since this is the only document to do with this matter that is currently circulating in the public domain.
1. The letter places on record Varadarajan’s extreme dissatisfaction at the so-called enquiry that was instituted into his alleged improper behavior towards a woman – comprising his sending ‘inappropriate SMS’s to her. Varadarajan notes in this letter that the enquiry panel’s probe cannot meet ‘standards of justice or fairplay’. He also notes that the judgment meted out to him – summary removal from all party posts – is completely out of proportion to the offence and in fact ‘grossly unjust and severe, in the backdrop of earlier cases of proven physical sexual relationship involving Party members in Tamil Nadu at the level of CC Member to State Committee Member.’
This statement is in stark contrast to Prakash Karat’s subsequent defense of the party’s decision to relieve him of his posts and responsibilities. It also raises significant questions about the party’s attempts to mourn him posthumously.
2. From this letter it appears that the enquiry committee had adopted a procedure that raises a number of questions.
(a) The enquiry was based on complaints made nine months after the alleged behavior had transpired and by third party sources, in the absence of the first person complainant.
(b) The enquiry committee arrived at its decision, solely on the basis of oral statements and ‘telephone’ evidence given by third parties and not by the first person complainant to the committee. In fact no written submission was demanded from the first person complainant, as is usually the case, making one wonder at the seriousness of those who subsequently took it up. A basic principle outlined in policies to deal with sexual harassment is that no third party can complain even if it states that it is on behalf of a complainant. This is a necessary safeguard for two reasons: i) It rules out the possibility of misuse by a third person for his/her own reasons as well as moral policing by a person who is not personally aggrieved and ii) makes the complainant the centre of the complaint, seeking redressal for herself and ensures that the complaint is serious, and will be pursued by her. She can also indicate what redressal she is seeking: an end the harassment, an apology or any other mode of redressal.
(c) The ‘evidence’ adduced in favour of the complaint – the so-called SMS messages – were not made available to Varadarajan or to members of the committee.
(d) The ‘phone interview’ with the first complainant was not made in Varadarajan’s presence – usually an enquiry is conducted in a way that both parties are aware of the statements the other is making and has an opportunity to respond to the statements before an enquiry is completed.
(e) In violation of procedure as it is observed in these cases, one of the original complainants, a CC woman member was coopted to the committee – where the prosecutor became the judge, vitiating thereby its commitment to principles of natural justice and fair play.
3. It is also evident from the letter that neither the original complainants nor the enquiry committee appears to be clear about what they were complaining about. One of the complainants had alleged that Varadarajan had a) sent inappropriate SMSs to a third party (who did not participate in the proceedings) and b) that he had told the recipient of his SMSs that he would divorce his wife and marry her. The second complainant pressed the first charge, but not the second charge. Both these complainants are not the actual parties involved.
The letter indicates that both Vardarajan and his wife subsequently took steps to file for divorce by mutual consent but she was stopped from doing so by the second complainant, who told her that this step would provoke awkward publicity for the party. Instead, she was assured that the party would take disciplinary action against her husband. It is noteworthy that Varadarajan’s wife had written to the party even before the charge of inappropriate behavior was brought against him, saying she wished to file for divorce – for reasons that had nothing to do with her subsequent complaint.
Given these questions that come to mind on reading Varadarajan’s letter, we wonder at the committee’s understanding of his behaviour, since it is not at all clear what the nature of the ‘impropriety’ was. This is important, to repeat what we have said earlier, in view of the sustained efforts by women’s groups over the last two decades to sharpen their understanding and action with respect to sexual harassment and violence against women, in a legal, procedural and political sense. It is ironic that the enquiry committee comprised members from the All India Democratic Women’s Association, which, in other contexts has been part of efforts to define feminist protocols with respect to instances of sexual harrassment.
We wonder too if the enquiry committee members had not pre-judged the matter at hand and acted in haste for reasons best known to themselves.
In view of these concerns we would like to raise a set of questions for further thought and debate:
- The enquiry instituted against Varadarajan appears to have been hasty, ill-conceived and directed by motives that had little to do with the merits of the case.
- A reputed civil rights activists and women’s rights lawyer appears to have begun the process that led to the enquiry – by stating she wanted to make sure that Varadarajan turned away from the ‘wrong track’. A member of the enquiry committee appears to have counseled Varadarajan’s wife to not seek divorce since this would create ‘awkward publicity’. Both these responses betray a stifling moral anxiety that we usually associate with conservative and right wing opinion-makers, and not feminists or leftists. Given the complex and sustained debates by feminists on questions of marriage, family and intimacy, it is disheartening that older and oppressive notions of morality appear to direct our actions.
- The CPI (M) appears to have mangled the idea of human intimacy – through resorting to an enquiry process that was deeply problematic. As feminists and democrats, we are committed to a transparent public culture that is willing to discuss seriously and responsibly issues of emotional and sexual choice. Hasty and furtive action in these matters cannot but lead to a tightening of patriarchal controls and encourage sexual and political hypocrisy at home and in the world. A party that calls itself ‘communist’ surely needs to interrogate inherited and given notions of marriage, conjugality and family – whatever the position it adopts, the least it can do is to be open to debate and discussion.
- Lastly, it would not do to dismiss away criticisms of the party’s stand as ‘interference in its internal affairs’. This is not unlike what errant and violent husbands say when charges of domestic abuse and violence are brought against them. Now that Varadarajan’s letter is in the public domain, it is important that the CPI (M) addresses questions that it raises and account for their actions to the larger public.
Issued by Penngal Santhippu, Chennai (contact no: 98409-98517)
A. Mangai, V. Geetha, Geeta Ramaseshan (for Penngal Santhippu)