Guest Post by RAHUL ROY
Nivedita Menon ends her commentary on the unfolding Tehelka sexual assault case in Kafila by asserting – “the time has come. It is now”. It should be, but is it? Are we witnessing the end game of an old Indian patriarchal sport called sexual assault? The sport is akin to another old game called the royal hunt that was an important part of elite political culture of South Asia. The rules of the sport were then as now heavily loaded in favour of the royal huntsman – weapons, support teams, timing, everything required for the thrill of a kill were with powerful men out to conquer. The expeditions however were not just about the kill. The sport was also a means of asserting authority over tracts of the wild and those that lived there and were by some misfortune not aware of prevailing authority structures. The royal hunt was an event to showcase to subjects the might, prowess and authority of the elite rulers. It was the stamping of power over human as well as animal kingdom. The royal huntsman could not but win. He could not but kill.
It has always surprised me, the similarity between descriptions of sexual assault cases and description of hunts. The description of the game in both cases is quite revealing. For the huntsman the sport is important for several reasons. No sport takes place at the spur of the moment or comes into being suddenly without warning, under the influence of alcohol or some other substance. All sport and this one too requires meticulous planning, strategy, preparation, cunning, guile to trap, to win, to make the kill and importantly display the trophy. It is a contest between the huntsman’s intelligence and the victim’s desperation to somehow escape. She will hide, he will spot her. She will change her timing, he will quickly track her. She will take refuge in a crowd, his sight will remain firmly focused on her. She will struggle, he will pin her down. She will beg, he will say it will be fun. She will protest, he will threaten her. She will cry for help, he will laugh. Again and again we hear the same stories, the same sequence of events. Faces change, victims change but the plot remains the same.
Why do men play this sport? Now, that sounds like a stupid question. The answer is fairly clear. It is great fun. It is enjoyable. It gives a high to subjugate a body. It is thrilling to feel that power surge through when he holds her against her will. It proves his superiority. He can do what many other men cannot. It is not quite as much fun to pin down someone who gave up a long time back. Who already belongs to him. The challenge is in a new kill, a new body. Because with each hunt there is a new thrill, strategies to be re-examined, fresh moves planned. The hunt is a game, a sport, because the huntsman is convinced that the victim wants to be subjugated by him, her resistance is part of the game, her existence is to satisfy his lust for power. The more difficult the hunt, greater the thrill and more powerful he feels. The victim therefore has to run, hide, struggle for the sport to become more interesting, worth playing. No fun in the victim walking into his arms without protest as it happens at home. How boring is that? There has to be a struggle, protest, fear in the eyes because that is the fun part, otherwise it is bland, boring and everyday.
It is almost one year to the last eruption of protests in Delhi and elsewhere after the 16 December assault, rape and murder of a young woman. As the mercury dips in Delhi the ‘establishment’ is once again facing the heat. In 2012 though much of the focus of protest was on the police and government there were some voices pointing towards the system, patriarchy, masculinity that were at the heart of the problem. Through this year and with generous contributions from a spiritual leader, a chief minister, a Supreme Court judge and now an editor of a free and fearless news magazine, the system is getting a face. That face as was being pointed out in 2012 by some is of a man and of masculinity as a systemic disease. In the coming days we are destined to see many more portraits ornamenting the gallery of great men who left a mark in this sport.
Sexual harassment and assault in institutions is not going to disappear with stricter laws or the setting up of internal complaints committee – although I am not suggesting that these shouldn’t happen – but only through a re-envisioning of institutions. The system, the apparatus, the establishment, call it what you may is made in the vision of masculinity. All these require a concentration and honing of power, muscle and authority and all these are attributes of masculinity. A re-envisioning of these requires the dismantling of masculinities, a lens that allows only a unipolar vision of how institutions can be organized. That vision is based, if I may be allowed the liberty of rephrasing the popular dialogue from a recent Mumbai film, upon – power, power, power.
Gender inequalities, sexual harassment and discrimination are the organizing principles of all our institutions and practices through which power is consoliated. All these institutions have already practiced and made perfect forms of discrimination and harassment based on class and caste prejudices so gender could not be left behind. There is as yet no history of Dalit and other women of the service castes who have endured sexual assaults for centuries in the course of their laboring in upper caste households and other institutions. This is also the moment to remember that history. However, let me get back to men and the pathology of masculinity.
Why not pose a simple question? Why do men sexually harass or assault women in institutional settings? These are their colleagues, juniors, co-workers, people they share their working hours with, whom they interact with on a daily basis. What happens in their head? What drives them to treat this as sport and women as fair game?
One answer often provided is that women are looked upon as sexual objects and this objectification leads to harassment because men primarily see all women as bodies. This argument may have held some validity when it was made in the 1960s but it does not stand to scrutiny anymore. Working women are no longer a new phenomenon or apparitions that have suddenly appeared in offices. They have now been around for some time and there has been ample opportunity for men to acquaint themselves with their women colleagues beyond their physical appearance.
How many of these men whose portraits adorn the gallery of this great sport have attempted assault on women who are their bosses or seniors? The answer would be – not one. In recent cases, the victims have been a sixteen year old girl, a law graduate intern, a young architect, a twenty something journalist. And the men, all heads of their institutions. Besides being much older all the men were in positions of power and authority that were utilized to make the assault or sexual harassment or stalking possible. I am certain this was not the first time in their institutional career they have assaulted women and I am equally certain that they have never assaulted a woman senior to them in their working life. So, it is not as if men are driven by some hormone which is urging them to assault women. Not at all. They choose their prey on the basis of vulnerability. And the hormone never surfaces when faced with women in positions of authority, a rather cunning hormone which acts up after an assessment of consequences.
So, why do men do it? They assault because it is part of a noxious cocktail of masculinity, a sense of entitlement, power and authority. The complainant in the Tehelka assault case hits the nail on the head when in one of her email to the fearless editor poses a question to him – why does a ‘no’ turn men into beasts? The answer is fairly self evident. As men climb the ladder of power and authority there sense of entitlement increases exponentially. What they want, they should have it. What they desire is rightfully theirs. There is no question of hearing a ‘no’ and that too from a woman who they feel ought to be grateful that she has been given an opportunity to serve them and their institutions. And one of the services women are obliged to offer men is sexual. It is part of the privilege of being men, a dividend that men feel is part of their entitlements guaranteed by patriarchy. And when men occupy positions in institutions where work happens through a hierarchy of power figures with masculinity as the source through which authority is imagined then gendered entitlements of patriarchy form an integral part of these institutions.
When there aren’t women who can suffer the consequences of this order then there are other men – juniors, Dalits, and others who are vulnerable. I don’t mean to suggest that sexual assault of women within institutions can be equated with the harassment or humiliation that other men face but it is important to keep this in mind to understand the nature of institutions, spaces that are systemically driven towards a practice of harassment, subjugation, intimidation and humiliation with an impunity that goes in the name of authority and power. While it is important to focus on individuals and justice that needs to be delivered to victims, this focus also should not shift our attention from what institutions are and how they are built.
Most if not all institutions are built on the principle of nurturing, harnessing and promoting values that are closely linked to masculinity, which as a principle provides us both with a vision of authority and modes of achieving it. Success can only be measured through the prism of aggression and power. These are the fundamental building blocks of institutions and here sex is of no consequence, it is gender that counts. And only masculinity triumphs. Women negotiating these institutions find themselves caught in a web of pulls and pushes that give them few options but to either follow the tenets of these masculinised cultures or be looked at as outsiders who have to be tolerated and occasionally reminded that they lack a sense of humour and should learn to be good sport.
We live in a world of lies and clichés and Indian institutions have become symptomatic of our social fabric which is based on layers of hypocrisy. We speak with many tongues simultaneously. We will speak of equity, equality and social justice in our public personas but practice the worst forms of caste, class and gender based discriminations in our personal lives. The institutions we build cannot but be reflective of what we carry in our hearts. From mainstream corporate institutions to NGOs we know of only one way of functioning and that is on power based hierarchy.
I don’t think it is a co-incidence that almost every significant Indian institution is up for questioning at this point of time. From politics to spirituality, from media to the judiciary none of these have ever been as scrutinized as they are being today through the lens of gender and masculinity. The psychopathology of institutions from all account is a clear and present danger in most working women’s lives. Sexual harassment and assault in each and every case under discussion needs to be stated and understood as part of the larger design of subjugation. Personal and interpersonal behavior is political because it reflects and dialogues with larger socio-structural patterns. It may come as a shock to the free and fearless editor but he and his actions are part of institutional mechanisms that enforce gender inequalities. It is a laceration that women endure not as a self imposed exercise of atonement but as permanent fears and scars for daring to enter spaces that belong to men.
Angry Indian men
The anger and vehemence with which TarunTejpal has been flayed this past week must no doubt have come as a shock for him. From being a darling of the left, secular, liberal opinion to be reduced overnight to a buzkashi carcass must be in recent times one of the steepest falls of a public hero.
Much as we might hope otherwise, the ferocity with which Tejpal is being attacked today on TV and social media does not however to me suggest either that the media has finally come of age or that metropolitan India has now zero tolerance to sexual assault and harassment of women. The reasons for this rage lie elsewhere.
16 December 2012, besides throwing up a range of issues that have left their mark on post independent India’s tryst with gender equality also marked the coming of age of the self righteous Indian male. It was in the making through the Anna Hazare movement and finally reached its peak with the protests that emanated in December last year. Modelled and fashioned on opinionated male TV anchors who every night regale us with kangaroo courts and appear to be experts on every possible subject from films to economics to history to the environment, the metropolitan middle class Indian male finally has a role model he has sorely missed in the last few decades.
Displaced from his seat of authority in the post Mandal churning of the Indian political and power scenario but having gained tremendously from the opening up of the Indian economy, the old as well as the new urban Indian male elite had been left rudderless. Flush with money, loaded with gadgets, and beaming with degrees under his belt, it was only a matter of time before he got restless with the denial of political power to him.
After all look at him. He is educated. He is successful. And he has the knowledge required to change India from a poor country to a world power. How the Indian elite male’s chest puffs in pride when Europeans and Americans acknowledge the great things happening in India. He is part of that change. He is the change. He has also in the last few years discovered ‘Gandhian’ phrases that are prominently displayed on his car bumper – be the change you wish to see in the world; that Gandhi didn’t ever use that phrase is a small aside. The problem however that he has been facing is that those in power don’t seem to be giving him as much attention as he thinks he deserves, he feels entitled to. Rather, they are wasting his hard earned money to invest in social programmes like NREGA and Right to food. Corruption is the bane of his country.
But how will he get his voice heard? Who will take him seriously? Who will represent him? Who else but those who have emerged from his own fold and can bring politicians to their knees with their insistent questioning, with their superior intellect? It is so much fun to watch those squirming politicians outside their own abode, the parliament. The TV is aam aadmi’s parliament. It brings the court into the urban Indian male elite’s bedroom, living room and board room. It unleashes a blood sport every night.
But let’s get back to the blood sport unfolding at the moment. Why this vehement attack on Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary? I have been carefully perusing the social media for comments with reference to Tarun Tejpal. And the responses are clearly gendered. Men seem to be getting some kind of a pleasure out of abusing and calling Tejpal names. Articles are being shared, jokes are being invented, one liners are flowing thick and fast. Women too sound upset and extremely critical of Tejpal and Chaudhary. However, they are also sharing stories of what has happened to them, their colleagues. I have read remorseful confessions of not having done as much as they could to protect women colleagues in their office. On the other hand not one man in the social media outbursts that I have read has shared a story of sexual harassment from his workspace and his role in stopping or ignoring it. Not one. I can only hope that I am wrong and some stories that counter my claim have been shared.
What is it about being men that makes it so very difficult to be introspective and use the opportunity to think about what they may have witnessed or ignored in the context of their own working lives. To be the first one to give an opinion, to without fail bring violence to their speech, to run with the hounds, comes naturally to men because that is the gift bequeathed to them by masculinity; a system that allows for men to count each and every wound inflicted on them but doesn’t allow them to ever look below to notice the many men and women they may have trampled in their rush to climb the ladder of success to be a real man.
That explains to an extent the almost personal animosity that is at display against Tarun Tejpal. Men who may never ever have met him, have had nothing to do with him, are not even regular readers of Tehelka, they all hate him. The woman he assaulted must be wonderstruck at the overwhelming support she has received from these men. But is it about her? I don’t think so. Tejpal, to a certain elite Indian male represents what they could be, what they want to be. He is hated because he generates envy. He has touched the kind of success that a lot of men today desire but fail to achieve. I am aware that my statement will generate a fair amount of anger and I am willing to change my opinion if a more convincing argument is put forward. He is the twin that a lot of men have but never acknowledge.
There is a collective psycho-pathology at display in this self righteous anger which begs an explanation that goes beyond individual horror at what Tarun Tejpal did to a colleague and his subsequent actions. Being part of the urban Indian male tribe myself, I don’t buy it for a minute that we are so enraged at Tejpal’s assault. There are just too many skeletons hiding in each Indian home for this anger to be purely driven by the agenda of adding voice and muscle to the cause of gender justice. In fact this could well be a collective purging or wishing away of ghosts that lurk too close for comfort. His now well documented compromises with sections of the soul destroying corporate sector of this country is sadly not the reason for the anger at display. In smaller measures those compromises have also been made by many of those who are now pointing fingers accusingly at Tejpal. Is it that in some strange way the Tehelka case is turning the mirror to many men and the reflection they see is so frightening, so close and so familiar that this anger is a desperate attempt to purge themselves of the shadow of Tarun Tejpal? He is the twin that needs to be punished for revealing himself through the cracked mirror.
The tragedy of being Shoma Chaudhary
And this brings me to Shoma Chaudhary, who has been declared an accomplice of Tarun Tejpal by most commentators on social media as well as our TV news channels. I personally find it extremely disturbing the lynch mob that has set upon her. To all those who find her actions questionable I would ask them to produce one instance of a case where the boss and co-owner of an institution like Tehelka has been forced to tender an apology and go on leave within a day or two of receiving a complaint. It has simply never happened. And if it has happened in this case it is because the managing editor was a woman. It is easy to lead a lynch mob but much more difficult to look inwards. I would like to ask all the TV news executioners a set of simple questions. Can you please produce for public consumption a list of your own actions to stop sexist, discriminatory and unjust practices within your houses and institutions? And how many of you have reported the matter to the police? Or is that your homes and offices are a feminist utopia?
Shoma Chaudhary deserves to be criticized but not lynched? She should be questioned for not having initiated action earlier against Tarun Tejpal for his past ‘misjudgments’ which from what is appearing now in social media and the Press were not uncommon in Tehelka. These are never one off incidents. If she had been attentive to those whispers, Tejpal could have been stopped much earlier. And she wouldn’t be in the dock today facing condemnation for being part of the Tejpal defence committee.
As a long standing friend of Tarun Tejpal I am sure the decisions she had to make couldn’t have been easy and she must have been torn between doing the right thing, trying to save the institution and getting Tejpal to hold himself responsible for his actions. I am not suggesting that she was absolutely right in all her decision making but she was not entirely wrong either. If anything she, however inadvertently, through her action, has created a body of evidence that will in all likelihood convict Tarun Tejpal.
The question that Shoma Chaudhary has to face and what she is probably now referring to in her letter of resignation as ‘many things she could have done differently’ are very serious and she has to face the consequences of these no doubt. Her assertion that she took cognizance of the complainant’s version against Tarun Tejpal’s is evidence of her following feminist principles is not the point at all. It is not important to always believe the version being forwarded by a woman because that is not a ‘feminist principle’. She would have been truer to the principle if she had immediately set up an enquiry committee and informed the police. It doesn’t cut much ice with me the argument that is being forwarded wrapped in feminist jargon about autonomy and agency of the complainant. It is unfortunate that Shoma Chaudhary’s actions and inactions have pushed some of the debates on this assault into an area that is reactive rather than about setting a precedent for the future. This seems to be extremely dangerous and will and can be used by institutions to justify their inaction based on a reading of what the complainant desires. Also, this position smacks of looking at sexual assault and harassment from an elite and upper caste position. Sexual assault is rampant in this country and some of the worst sufferers are Dalit and Adivasi women. Forest guards, contractors, agricultural landlords, factory owners are regularly accused of assaulting women and this needs to be countered both through criminal proceedings as well as through other means by various institutions including women’s groups acting on their own rather than waiting for the agency of harassed or assaulted women driving them to police stations. The two positions are not mutually exclusive. Sexual assault is a criminal offence that the state and other institutions have to actively counter regardless of whether a complainant is prepared to go to the police or not. It is the duty of the police and the institution to act once it has come to light. How it is done and what kind of protection the state can and should provide the complainant is the other side of the story which is equally important but cannot become the reason or argument for not initiating police cases. While Shoma Chaudhary seems to have taken refuge under Section 19 (g) of the Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal), Act, 2013 which describes the duties of the employer and provided her with the argument that the Law allows for the complainant to choose whether she wants to go the police or not, she ignores the following clause (19h) which clearly states that the employer can put into motion criminal proceedings on her own –
“Every employer shall…cause to initiate action, under the Indian Penal Code or any other law for the time being in force, against the perpetrator, or if the aggrieved woman so desires, where the perpetrator is not an employee, in the workplace at which the sexual harassment took place;….”
The Tehelka assault case much more than the other cases currently under public scrutiny has thrown up a set of challenges that for the moment are escaping the kind of feminist debate that is required. There seems to be a reactive spiral under which the more important feminist principles are being currently discussed. The case is an opportunity to reassert the feminist position that our biggest and most important social institutions are reflective of a widespread practice of gender based violence and feminist vision is to create structures that do not mimic models of masculinity. In the coming decades feminist action and theorizing is going to face a fundamental challenge as more and more women are absorbed in these institutions and adapt to masculinity inspired work cultures because that is the only option available within these structures. Sex of employees is going to become an increasingly redundant category by which the functioning of these organizations can be questioned and gender and masculinity will have to emerge as pressing challenges both for feminist theorizing and action. The peculiar problem that women’s enrolment in armed forces throws up for the women’s movement/s which has from its inception called for opening up of doors tightly shut for women will become more and more of a contentious area in situations like the Tehelka case where an institution which has always supported the feminist cause is today facing flak for supporting an offender. While it is easy and simple to dismiss Tehelka, a more serious engagement is required where we can assess institutions not simply on what they speak but how they are organized and the kind of gender, class and caste attitudes and practices that are incorporated in their vision and structure. This is the writing on the wall and is the consequence of the shattering of glass ceilings as well as a challenge for future feminist action. The tragedy of being Shoma Chaudhary is that she could utilize Tehelka to raise feminist debates on what was happening outside Tehelka but failed to do so inside and we are destined to witness several replays of this tragedy in coming years.
Rahul Roy is a documentary film-maker and writer, especially interested in the construction of masculinities in South Asia. His films incude ‘When Four Friends Meet’ (2000), and ‘Till We Meet Again (2013)’. He is the author of ‘The Little Book of Men’ (Yoda Press)