A statement from concerned students and teachers
What does one do sitting in the middle of an audience roaring with laughter at jokes that one might find downright humiliating? Laugh along, retire hurt, or ask people to stop? It’s a dilemma that many of us on the ‘wrong’ side of various lines of privilege (caste, class, gender, race) and those sensitive to these divisions often find ourselves in. Some students at the National Law University, Delhi seem to have been put in a similar situation when during their annual college fest, comedian Avish Mathew of AIB Roast fame would not stop amusing his audience with one offensive joke after another. They first decided to walk out and then came back with a placard saying, “Get out you sexist pig!”
Avish Mathew eventually left the stage before he was due. The near 200 students of the University attending the program closed around the 4 women students who had protested. They were pushed around, heckled, and abused and were called names and booed all the way to their hostel rooms. They have since been flatly equated with the state which had put a ban on the AIB Roast and derided for exercising the ‘heckler’s veto’, their FB walls are full of charged accusations and professions of shame and contempt, and the collective hostility of a closed campus breathing heavily down their collar has in all probability put them in an extremely vulnerable situation. In a society where sexism and censorship are both rampant, the dilemma indeed comes home with much force when we stand wondering how to respond. How does one deal with sexism and other such dominant, widespread and deeply biased opinions that not only draw from, but also perpetuate forms of discrimination and violence on certain sections of society without falling into the trap of censorship?
Language and expression not only communicate but also construct. This is why contestation over expression becomes of such significance and the weight of every word, every image, and every gesture is felt so acutely, that the use of the word ‘mankind’ always evokes a raised eyebrow and a brief pause among those tuned into the debate. These are important sites where we struggle against the dominant. Yet, we also know that dominant culture is not only dominant but acts through persuasion. Both the strength and the fragility of the dominant lie in this. Its persuasion is both its armor as well as the chink in it. The act of banning on the part of the state is often a moment of defending the chink, the moment where an expression escapes its power of persuasion and therefore must be throttled, snubbed and snuffed out before it spreads and infects the others.
The attempt by a small group of women standing up against a 200 strong audience, the college administration and the organizing committee of a fest etc. can in no way be equated with the premeditated crackdown by the state on various expressions of dissent. Not for anything but the fact that such an attempt has in this situation no ‘dominant’ that it can restore and therefore yields the weapon of censorship with such fragile strength that it changes the meaning of the blow. The silencing of the derisive laughter that it tries to effect can only silence it symbolically and briefly and the backlash even if not anticipated is inevitable. The women’s movement historically has gone and burned down liquor shops to stop men in the community from drinking and striking workers have picketed their worksites and refused to allow others to work instead of them and break the strike. Yet, women smashing liquor shops much to the infringement of the right of men to drink and workers picketing factories much as a violation of other unemployed people’s right to get work, do not act to repress the other or really violate their right.
While we will often be called upon by the situation to put our foot down, to smash the bottle of alcohol, to stop the bus full of ‘strike-breakers’ from entering the factory compound, to ask someone peddling sexism as humor to step down from the stage, one must see how and to what extent doing so really works for us. It does not work for us as it works for the state because we as struggling subjects work towards ends very different from the state and therefore will be also served by very different means. Progressive politics yearns not merely for the establishment of a different dominant but for the abolition of all domination. The tactics of banning essentially does not open up but closes the debate and leaves it unresolved against our purposes. When we raise the demand for doing away with sexist humor, we do not raise it as a sectarian demand per se (even if it might appear sectarian in certain very polarized situations), but as a demand on which we expect most of our friends across genders to come on board. Ours is a struggle not to repress but to engage and it must to a large extent be fought on the terrain of persuasion in the collective interest rather than an establishment of dominance in a sectarian way.
We struggle in the interest of a greater unity, although possible probably only through struggle. The ‘other’ in such actions is often not an adversary to us, neither as far removed as the state today is from its subjects. This difference is crucial and decisive and must be taken into account while we strategize as struggling subjects and also when we criticize the struggle in its form or tactics etc. While the statement of the protestors asking Mathew to leave runs into this challenge, a lot of the accusations being piled up on the protestors at NLUD too miss this point and in that are vulnerable to turning the defense of freedom of expression against the interest of all progressive politics, into a denial of the very same, denying the right to protest, or at least surrounding it with so many and such conditions that it would have little space to figure out its own language and gesture. We therefore hope that the university fraternity and other members of society will reflect deeply on the questions raised by the protest and determine how these can best addressed, and contribute to cultivating a ground where these questions and many others such will find a resolution in the interests of forming a more equitable, less discriminatory and violent collective.
Subhashini Shriya, DU
Devangana Kalita, JNU
Nikita Agarwal, ex-NLUD student
Natasha Narwal, AUD
Anshita Dawar, JNU
Gertrude Lamare, JNU
Deepti Sharma, Guest Lecturer, DU