Guest Post by UDITI SEN
Prof. Ranabir Samaddar of the Calcutta Research Group has recently published a screed (in the DNA Newspaper) against the #Hokkolorob movement initiated by the students of Jadavpur University which has found resonance with students and young people all over West Bengal and elsewhere in India. Samaddar, who seems to have lost the ability to recognize the many intersections of solidarity between students, young people in metropolitan as well as non-metropolitan contexts, women, young workers, accuses the movement of what he calls ‘elitism’ and a disconnect with realities on the ground.
Uditi Sen responds.
It is settled then. With this latest denunciation (by Ranabir Samaddar, in DNA, see link above) of the student movement at Jadavpur, we finally have a verdict we can trust. Student politics is not what it used to be. The glory days of the 60s are long gone and the protesting young today fail to live up to the authentic radicalism of their elders. Those were the days, indeed. Those were the days when student politics, organised under the banner of the organised left took up real issues, such as those of the peasants and workers and did not distract themselves with inequities closer to home. Such as, why women ‘comrades’ were expected to cook and clean and provide for their men, who led the vanguard. Such as why even the most progressive politics, when speaking of the rights of peasants, meant the rights of male peasants. Those indeed were the days of glory, which we should remember and seek to emulate, when the leaders, usually dadas, had no answers when a peasant woman asked, ‘“Why should my comrade beat me at home?” (See Samita Sen’s Toward a Feminist Politics: The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective)
Oh yes! The comrades fought the good fight and held the line, maintaining unity, maintaining the radical content of class-based, socially informed politics at any cost- especially if that cost was the routinely bound, battered and raped bodies of women. (The full horror of how far all social movements, including radical left ones had failed to serve women was revealed by the report Towards Equality published in 1974 by Committee on the Status of Women. )
And look at the sad contrast offered by the students of Jadavpur University today, especially those who are inspired by left ideologies but seem to have totally left behind the ideals of their elders. They actually believe that a woman should be safe to love, and walk and speak and pee, yes, pee, on the campus of an educational institution. Pee, because she was attacked when she went looking for a place to relieve herself. Now here opens up several possibilities of analysis for the intellectual. Maybe, we could ask, that why should a woman not have easy access to a toilet, at night, in a coeducational university? Could it possibly be a reflection of the same patriarchal mind-set that sees women as not really belonging to public spaces? Deserving to be locked up (for their own safety, of course) at night? Maybe we could ask if there is a logic to why women struggle to find clean and safe toilets in most public institutions in West Bengal? Meanwhile every neighbourhood in Calcutta has long boasted odes to phalluses in the form of open ‘public’ toilets that need not even specify that actually, these are for men alone. The ‘public’ is gendered male, after all. Women are not really part of the public. And to speak of it, is to speak of ‘elite’ issues, devoid of social content.
And it is such a pity that the students of Jadavpur have failed ‘to reach any agreement’ with the administration on the issue of the molestation of the said female student. Because, come on, that is usually how things function, right? The men (and in these days of inclusiveness, men also give the mike to women who have been trained to reproduce the language of patriarchy) reach an agreement on the rights of women, so that the real business, of real democratic politics can keep moving. Instead, these elitist students are pretending as if the hard-won rights of women to be free from sexual harassment at workplace actually matter! They have gone so far as to suggest that the Vice Chancellor of a University should prioritise informing a victim of sexual harassment of due process of investigation and facilitate the process, instead of banning her from campus for fifteen days so that his travels are not disrupted. It seems like they have even educated themselves on the landmark Vishakha Judgement and the guidelines it proposed to combat sexual harassment and are mimicking its language in their demands. Such idle chatter! Could they have not just ‘reached an agreement’, with the authorities, and turned to the real politics of workers and peasants and provide them with enlightened political leadership, or at least solidarity, leaving their college mate to deal with such minor issues as the trauma of surviving institutionalised sexism? (The extent of their elitist chatter, and the fact that they have committed the patently elitist crime of taking issues of gender violence seriously is available to all at this timeline of what unfolded at Jadavpur)
Student politics today is indeed in a sorry state as it has begun to believe that the only students that matter are not men. It is sacrilege that boys cannot be boys at the expense of the safety and dignity of women. And it is terribly elitist of a general body of students to demand that justice be done to a woman who has been molested, even if it means that some students of Jadavpur (male ones) might have to actually answer for their drunken antics.
And now, for the government’s role in this. The same political scientist who has declared the current student protests to be a preserve of the chattering classes, has also declared that the government is best understood to be ‘committing mistakes’ and ‘fumbling’. He is a political scientist of no small erudition, so this characterisation must surely, be true. We must therefore assume that this pattern of ignoring and/or perpetuating violence against women is a ‘mistake’ and not a pattern, with no political antecedents. If the truth of the patriarch has to be accepted, then the rest of us, especially those of us who have wombs and boobs and might even need to pee at night, are left with two options:
1. Historical Amnesia: We need to promptly forget the violence waged on women’s bodies during partition, followed by the violence waged on them by governments. These are all the ‘chatterings’ of feminist scholars so they are best forgotten anyway. So we need to forget that during and after 1947, all political parties decided that the best way to score points against their rivals was through the bodies and wombs of ‘their’ women. Like property women were abducted, like property and land, defiled. Then the government stepped in to correct this wrong. They returned abducted women, often against their wishes, to the men to whom they rightfully ‘belonged’, like cattle. These men were free to reject them and thousands of women spent their days in acute poverty in the ‘care’ of the government, the supreme patriarch. Old history, this is. But not that old, when the very government that seems to have so well-intentionally ‘fumbled’ protects an elected MP, Tapas Paul, who promises to rape ‘their’ women to prove his prowess. But there is clearly no pattern here. These are unimportant details. The students should learn nothing from them and believe, fervently, that the government is not patriarchal, but well-intentioned and only ‘makes mistakes’.
2. Redefining Fumbling: This has greater appeal to me as the scale of the amnesia required may not be possible for the feeble minds of women to achieve. So maybe we should redefine ‘fumbling’ as governing. After all, decisions and mistakes made at the expense of women’s bodies and autonomy is nothing unusual: it is governance as usual and really, a non-issue.
If this is the situation in Calcutta, globally, it is worse. Take, for example, Ferguson in Missouri, USA. Students have been at the forefront of protesting the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer, using such unfamiliar slogans such as ‘Hands Up: Don’t Shoot’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. Apparently, in USA too, the government ‘fumbles’ a lot. Their police especially make the most ‘mistakes’ when they look at unarmed black teens and decide they are dangerous criminals to be shot down in cold blood. Unable to understand the good intentions of their government, black youth have taken to the streets and called for equality and even organised conferences around that politically suspect category of ‘freedom’! Indeed, the call for freedom in the face of police brutalisation is hollow, may we even say, ‘neo-liberal’, since it is devoid of intellectually sanctioned and identifiably radical social content.
As a mere woman, and an academic, I am eternally thankful to my esteemed senior colleague for explaining to me the hollowness of current protests. Indeed, from my elite bastion in the USA, where I live a life dotted with the privileges of routine racial profiling and micro-aggressions, institutional sexism and transcontinental criminalisation based on being a sexual minority, I would be lost and in despair if I did not have the glory days of the 60s to be nostalgic about. Thank you!
See also – The Prose of Power and the Poetry of Protest by Uditi Sen, earlier in Kafila.
Uditi Sen lives in a small town in Massachusetts, USA and teaches South Asian History at Hampshire College. She was active in student politics, with and without banners, at Presidency University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.