Guest Post by Parnal Chirmuley
A very young man, who should have been cheerfully devouring the world of ideas over samosas and tea from the canteen, tries instead to hack an equally young woman, his classmate, to death. With an axe, some say. Tries to shoot her too, but the pistol is too stubborn, they say. Then turns the blade and the poison on himself. There he sees success. Succumbs to both.
This leaves behind rivers of blood in the classroom and gashes in the minds of those who witnessed this, bravely intervened, or ran away from it. It leaves everybody entangled in a sea of Gordian knots that are just questions.
It’s like a cardiac event for absolutely everybody on this campus. I don’t have to tell you that. It’s a cardiac event for me too. But we all try to ‘come to terms’, and ‘try to understand’.
In trying to ‘make sense’ of what happened, all that is kept hidden in the folds of the deft academic mind comes pouring forth. If anything, it is confounding the incomprehensible even further. I quieten my mad monkey mind and try to listen because I too hunger for words that will help me ‘make sense’. All I can see is a shadow-dance in the hall of mirrors. And this is why:
There is shock all around because this happened here. It’s as though this was the last bastion of women’s safety and now that too has been toppled. Somebody even said ‘that sweet bubble burst’ (and I think, well, you selfish fool, you never saw life on a campus as a way to make the world right for everyone, you only wanted it to be YOUR little bubble of fun. But I don’t say this aloud). You hear more such things: they start with ‘back in our day’, or ‘what is happening to people nowadays’, or ‘it’s the first time such a thing has happened on this campus’. And there is suddenly so much nostalgia as a first response! Faculty who came as students with green bones and grew roots here, others who made a space in the world ‘outside’ and even those who ‘hung out’ here and still do. They are saying that this could not have happened back in the day. We all know it did. All the time. Are we behaving like there was a golden age – which there never was, all our historians will tell you that – because we want to put ourselves in an artificial space where nothing of this kind happens? Why do we do that? Why do we disown the times we are living in to claim the mythical ones that are no longer there? Because we are subconsciously aware that we are in a space where we run the risk of colluding and condoning, and we probably actually do that every single day. The golden age idea helps us to brush off this blame, which can otherwise cling and bite. But it can also spur you into honest and sensitive action. This we often forget. Besides, there was no golden age – violence happened and people trained themselves to engage, fight, be sensitive, whether their childhoods carried these lessons or not.
This nostalgia makes me angry not only because it’s a tool to absolve oneself of blame, but because it is a dangerous kind of blindness that makes us believe that we can speak in terms of ‘back in our day’, ignoring or denying the truth about violence against women even on this campus. The easy aftereffect is that you imply that this particular kind of violence has its own spaces, far away from your sphere of operation. More importantly, this is blindness to the pervasiveness of patriarchal / masculinist cultures. You don’t even know you are sipping from the stream. And if in spite of long years of training we are suggesting we don’t know that we are easily implicated in this mire, then we are doing all women and men a disservice by being yet another person who can’t fight the right fight because we have all sorts of temporal and middle class excuses.
Then there is much talk of this being against ‘campus culture’. This campus is a campus, not a cult or a religion. Why should we just have ONE campus culture? This campus and generations of incredibly sensible people who went out, always saw themselves – and this campus – as being of a piece with the rest of the world. Really, what the hell is campus culture? What this campus is known for is engaging with different world views to arrive at a consensus on ways to change the world for the better, for everyone. They never felt the middle class anxiety to define a code that marked off this little gated enclave from the rest of the world.
In fact, this dirge on the passing of ‘campus culture’ is making many like me angry, because we have started to witness how it has become a stepping-stone to talking about MORALITY. One venerable (actually, NOT so venerable, and you will see why) colleague said that students have no moral values, they are incapable of respect – ‘I mean, they don’t even give way when you pass them on the staircase… they act like demigods’ he frothed – and that this was the reason why ‘such things’ are happening on campus. All right, I know, this does not merit a response. But what do you say to a more subtly worded statement that says that charas and alcohol are causing these problems? Why, some of the world’s most radical and highly effective, impactful movements were not conducted with republican sobriety. In fact these are only a small part of the toolkit that helps people break out of class determined shackles – it’s a toolkit that also contains music, books, food, love, solidarity, humour, and hope. And, let me remind you, women too have partaken of the sweet furl of the leaf, like, forever, but have rarely tried to bathe men (or women, or anyone else) in acid, rape them, axe them. How quick the transition is from being the flaming radical to being the ossified paternalist castigating ‘these kids’ for being immoral. This is not stupid, its not even the guaranteed characteristic of aging, as some tend to believe (I know many people whom some might call ‘old’, but who will put all of us to shame not only because they are energetic and full of hope, but because they have not become cynical, because they are unwaveringly sensitive and principled). This is a dangerous confounding of the word morality. Its not a particularly useful word to keep in your pocket. It leaps out only to restrict people’s freedom. Especially women’s right to an autonomy about themselves. My blood boils to see the bandying about of the word ‘morality’ when what has happened is the most mind numbing violence against a woman. If anything, being moral has to do with standing up for people’s rights.
I don’t want to hear the phrase ‘these kids’. What this does is to rob them of the category of gender, it clubs the perpetrator and survivor in this undifferentiated basket. This is dangerous too, because it takes us one more step away from recognizing that gendered violence is such a part of society that we need to recognize gender in its living form. Everywhere. Even ‘kids’ are gendered – like, real people called children, not the adults in the hostel or classroom or dhaba (you got the point, they are not kids), but the ones in your own home (Now that makes you think, right?).
This event is also a crisis of kindness in my mind. Yet, thankfully, we learnt the value and social utility of kindness. No, really, it’s a useful thing to have. But we apply it in a very creative gender blind manner. And I know I am in near-virulent disagreement on this with my kinder colleagues who are at pains to tell me that ‘of course what he did cannot be condoned, it’s the most horrible, despicable kind of…’ and that yet, we must talk of humanity. We must try to understand why someone would do such a thing, and that we are all to blame, because he had problems which needed tending to. I must add that I don’t feel I am to blame. No thank you. I am a woman who raises these issues and I want no part of the blame for patriarchal violence against another woman. In that sense, I am NOT part of the SYSTEM. There was even talk of a condolence meeting for the young man called for by the dean of the school with the understanding that though we condemn what he did we should also mourn his ‘sad demise’. I am feeling disturbed that I find it difficult to ‘try and understand’. I have no doubt that the young man who did this could really have used help of a serious and engaged institutional kind. My personal kindness is, however, not my default. Because I find the category of ‘human being’ yet another reprehensibly gender blind way of looking at the world. There are no ‘human beings’ here: there are those who no one has the right to box into M or F, and there are women, and there are men. And gendered kids, and older, much older people, also gendered. I cannot help pointing out that the quick psychologisation of a criminal act, even accompanied by politically correct statements, is inevitable when it comes to violence against women. We all try to understand – this means we try to take that subject position. As a strategy of thought, it has implications for how we see gendered violence in the real world. We have enough people to try to get into the minds of the perpetrator, sympathetically almost. My politics tells me something else. I am that kind of a mutinous, cantankerous woman, I choose to take the subject position of the other, the survivor, of the one brutalized, excluded, violated. Just as it is possible to choose to axe someone even if you are, in a way, a victim of patriarchal culture. It’s that simple and that crucial. Kindness will only dull the edge.
So what is the point I am making? I am arguing that all these mirrors of morality, psychologisation, of campus cultures, into which we are looking, are only giving us a picture of ourselves. They are telling us something very important – that they are all structures and tools of blindness to gender and to violence against women. So if you want to look at reality, don’t stand fondly in front of a mirror. Go step outside and look at the world anew.
Parnal Chirmuley is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for German Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi