Dear Madam(s) and Sirs
Greetings from a long-suffering woman, a shocked and appalled parent, a worried social scientist, an angered citizen, a furious teacher, a firm believer in the Indian Constitution determined to defend it, a irredeemable feminist — I greet you in all these capacities.
Respected Madam(s) and Sirs, my grievances are all about you, in fact, about the incalculable damage you are collectively doing to young people in Kerala, to the future of democracy here. They are about your utter disregard for the spirit and the letter of the Indian Constitution and your and powerful hatred of young people in general and young women in particular, clearly manifest in your despicable efforts to deny them their rights as Indian citizens. My grievances are also about your utter lack of humane concern for the students under your care, your rank cruelty and disregard of their humanity and dignity.
I daresay that the systems of disciplining that you preside over in your respective institutions function as mechanism of stunting — of the intellect and moral character — of thousands of young people, particularly women, whose dignity you implicitly assault on a daily basis. Educational institutions in Kerala are now notorious for being glorified prisons-cum-factories in which young people, especially young women, are treated as raw material to be hammered into saleable/marriageable labour power, more through daily assaults on their sense of dignity and individuality and less through specific forms of (often thoroughly wooden) technical training. It is interesting how young students are often able to get past the daily dose of mediocrity fed to them by ‘teachers’ and work on truly creative ideas — and I have no doubt this creative sparking happens through informal sharing, friendship and camaraderie that most of your institutions consider to be dangerous contagion.
Your ‘educational institutions’ are now places where outright weird restrictions and constant surveillance are imposed on senior teenagers and young adults,even after college/ high school hours. These are often places where teachers seem to think that academic incompetence can be covered up with intensified surveillance and moral policing. These are places in which the violation of Constitutional rights and freedoms pass off as ‘security measures’ and ‘moral considerations’. These ‘moral considerations’ apparently deserve more weight when they come into conflict with Constitutional rights and reduce woefully the academic competence and personal capacities of students! Strangely enough, ‘moral considerations’ after school at least, are almost entirely focused on women students who are majors, never on their male counterparts. And of course, since your salaries have been hugely inflated by the state, you have no qualms about doing the dirty work of moral policing and depoliticising.
Unless these utterly degrading systems are totally dismantled and thrown away, there can be little future for democracy in the country. That means that your powers will have to be challenged and extinguished, Madam(s) and Sirs!
Let me begin with an instance that serves to illustrate the utter lack of humanity and concern about the young people that many of your colleagues exhibit. I insist that this is not a singular incident — it is just one among the many shocking instances that I have come across in my experience as a mother, a teacher, a researcher, and a citizen in the past couple of decades.
This happened last Women’s Day when I invited to speak at a Women’s Day discussion at a local residents’ association at Thiruvananthapuram. The other speaker invited was the principal of a neighboring girls’ school, a respected convent school, one of the oldest in the city. This lady was a nun, and sure enough, her address was all about disciplining and the manner in which it should be done. I sighed inwardly when I heard her pull out the ace that our arch- conservatives wield these days : this is Kerala, she said, not Delhi or America. We are Malayalis (read: we are obsessed with sexual control to the point of being tight-assed). We live in families (read: this tight-assed state of affairs is God’s will and Our will too). And so on. I was beginning to doze, naturally, until her plaints turned towards her own role as school principal disciplining young girls. As an example, she pulled out a story — of a young girl who wanted to be a boy, who was the number-one disciplinary problem according to her. After much ridiculing of this young person’s behaviour which only revealed that this respectable lady, the head of an old, much-venerated city school, was woefully ignorant of human sexuality in general and the possibility of other gender identities, she then proceeded grandly to reveal crucial details about this young person — her name, pet-name, the class she was in, the location of her home, the members of her family, their social standing, their caste, and religion! Since the residents’ association was one located very close to the school, it was apparent that many people gathered there were well-likely to know this young person and the family!
My jaw dropped as this woman,stuffed with her own sense of importance as the guardian of public morality and social order, went on and on, caring nothing about the breach of privacy she was committing, the actual harm she was doing to a young person, probably old enough to be just her granddaughter! Indeed, she just thought that the position she enjoyed as well her status as a nun entitled her to not only ridicule a young person but also behave irresponsibly with information about her.
I repeat: this is NOT an exceptional case. There are too many such stories. Such is the banality of violence practised by you, self-satisfied high-priests and priestesses of moral policing! Your inhumanity, often, is only matched by your appalling ignorance. I could recount many other stories from the experiences of my own daughters and many, many others who have been tortured mentally and humiliated simply because they did not conform always to your sickeningly misogynist notions of how teenaged girls should look, walk, talk, or think. But that would take up a dozen posts or more. Maybe we, long-suffering students, parents, and concerned citizens, ought to set up a blog on which we could document your banal cruelty and everyday criminality. That is perhaps the way we will be able to expose your crimes against democracy, which now pass off as ‘disciplinary measures’.
Madam Principal, you know well of the efforts that the residents of the Women’s Hostel at CET have been making to gain your ear about their grievances in the past few months. You know perfectly well that these young women, who are full-fledged adults, have been trying to put before you good reasons on why the curfew time in the girls hostel which is presently set absurdly at 6 30 in the evening, should be changed. Since you turned a deaf ear to them, they have had to approach Kerala’s civil society and the press, who are now fully convinced by their reasons. They have refuted with strong evidence your apparent claim that this idiotic rule is justified for reasons of ‘security’, and the police authorities have public confirmed that there are no security issues in your area. They have also said that in case the girl students need police presence in the area, they will provide it. The college, I am told, functions till 9 30 at night, with the evening classes and the library is open till 9. The neighboring IISER hostel for women has a curfew time of 10 o’clock at night and the boys’ hostel observes no curfew at all. It is pretty obvious to anyone whose mind is not clouded with patriarchal nonsense that this is rank discrimination. Indeed, the agitation in your institution has prompted other similar institutions such as the NIT, Calicut, to revise women’s hostel timings in a more rational way.
Madam, you are obviously a technically-trained person, possibly exposed to scientific thinking as well.But it appears to me that you have chosen not to think through the demands of the students rationally and act in that light. Several other bits of evidence persuade me to think this way. A whole range of people from our MP, Shashi Tharoor, the local MLA, and professionals trained at CET who are prominent public figures in Kerala have tried to persuade you against this unbelievably stupid rule, but you have not bothered to offer a sensitive ear. But the problem seems to be not just the inability to be rational; it also seems to be, sadly, undeniable callousness. I am forced to conclude thus because it is impossible not to see how hollow your constant use of ‘women’s security’ as an excuse for inaction is. For example, I am told that the CET has not yet set up the Committee Against Sexual Harassment, which is the responsibility of the head of the institution — if this is indeed true (of course it is easy to cobble together one it seems these days but the students swear they haven’t heard of it at all), given the fact that women form a very large proportion of the teacher and student population at CET, this is a truly criminal oversight. The students have also pointed out that the irrational curfew rule is the cause of much insecurity, actually, since hostel inmates who are delayed for unforeseen reasons are shut out and have to seek refuge either in friends’ houses and in unfamiliar or insecure places such as photocopy shops nearby and railway platforms. Obviously you care nothing for the security of your women students!
Worse, I suspect that ‘moral considerations’ lurk beneath your citation of security reasons. I hear that the authorities mentioned the fear of ‘misuse’ when women students demanded equality with their male peers. Typical of Khaps is this combination: a general fear of threats to patriarchy through ‘misuse’ by youth, especially young women, of the many spaces they now have access to, and the total absence of genuine concern about their security and also the callous neglect of their education and competences.
Madam, you have, I hear, passed the matter to a committee, so that you could retire by 31 March leaving everything as it is. Citing bureaucratic hurdles does not absolve you. Bureaucratic hurdles are in the way of every action that furthers democracy, and it is human political effort that changes them. You seem to display an extraordinary reluctance to contribute to such an effort. What a pity, Madam! Those who pursue fairly mediocre careers may nevertheless earn warm memories because they may have behaved in more humane ways to their students. But you (your career might be illustrious otherwise) will be remembered in history (you may not know, but your students’ struggle is a truly historic one in Kerala and will be recounted and researched in the history of women, gender, and democracy in Kerala) mainly as someone who was nothing but an obstruction. You will be remembered as a woman who collaborated with the patriarchal establishment against the interests of all women in general, a mere instrument of patriarchal will. How pathetic!
I am told too that the students have been accused of letting ‘people from outside’, including myself, to incite them. I reject this charge and condemn it as yet another effort to infantilize these young women in struggle and to deny them agency. Indeed, that seems to be the flavour of the season – deny even the most powerful women agency and set them up as victims who need protection. These young women are among the most powerful in Kerala, no doubt. They are all adults, have cracked a tough entrance exam to enter a prestigious centre of technical education, and their sociological characterisitics are more likely to be of the more favoured sections of our society. If they don’t have agency, who has? But as I said, this seems to be the flavour of the season — as is evident in much public debate on the manhandling of women legialstors in the Kerala State Assembly recently.
While it may well be the case that the fifty-percent reservation for women in lower levels of politics, in local self-governments, was actually a signal to all women to evacuate the space of high politics completely,and that the women legislators are now being punished for having stayed back and wanting to participate in the game of high politics, I also think that the women legislators are not exactly powerless women; they are as adept in the game of high politics as their male counterparts and do not really need much help from others to get back into the game. In that sense, high politics is a field in which (the few) women participants can be as masculinist or gender-sensitive as men. No one is going to think it unforgivable that Bijimol or Jameela took their slippers to some of the scoundrels who now lord over our political field. But nor are they likely to receive high praise for being gender-sensitive – in other words, no one in Kerala expects politicians, male or female, to be gender sensitive; a woman politician who hits back at patriarchal hubris will not be perceived as the champion of gender justice acting in the interests of all women. Rather she will be appreciated perhaps as a woman who can give back as good as she gets; she will not be condemned if her strategies of hitting back are just as masculinist. Indeed, she might well be seen as playing the game of politics to the fullest perhaps.
But what about women who cannot hit back thus? Why is it that patriarchal assaults on their dignity receive so little attention? It appears to me that this persistent effort to deny agency to powerful women goes along with the entrenched banality of violence against less powerful women. The most vulnerable are school-children, especially teenagers who suddenly find themselves expelled from childhood and unwelcome in the world of non-children. There is plenty of sexual harassment in schools but the thrust is always on inflicting everyday violence on children and teenagers. Many schools and colleges in Kerala are not really centres of education; they are Kerala’s own Khaps, where mediocrities suddenly find themselves in possession of immense power over young children and then proceed to destroy everything that is human about them. Children learn little about science or maths or humanities, or indeed,languages, but become intensely aware of such rules as the one against wearing sleeveless clothes, knee-length or shorter skirts, and other such garments. I am not at all surprised that children are doing crazy things in their desperate attempts to ward off the all-pervading control on them. If they are wrecking themselves, it is this heartless system presided by Kerala Khap Managers that is to blame.
I shudder to think what you must be doing to children of underprivileged social, especially caste backgrounds. Not just to their bodies but more importantly, to their minds. You must indeed be filling them with rage and anger, on a daily basis. How I wish one day that rage and anger will be transformed into the political energy that will end your tyranny and bring forth a system of education that promises dignity and freedom above everything! For that alone can form the basis of meaningful, creative, enduring, and independent learning.
I have seen this violence at close quarters as a parent of young girls who do not conform to the stereotypes Kerala Khap managers nurse about young women. I have seen how vile ‘teachers’ can be, especially women teachers, who are actually the most pathetic bunch of all. There can be little doubt that the power that they wield is undoubtedly patriarchal — it is as if they justify their own presence in public institutions and spaces, and in the educational sector by letting themselves be made into instruments of patriarchy. It even appears to me that the intense and often utterly irrational hatred they display towards young women who appear to be less fettered is actually rage and frustration against a system that permits them no such freedoms and no simple envy. But then, I do not blame you, Madam(s) and Sirs. As a people, Malayalees get the ‘teachers’ they deserve. My own generation grew up reading about deschooling and experiments in critical pedagogy, but then we fell headlong into the race to become the richest and most slothful of globalized parasite-societies in the world. The experiments in democratising schooling undertaken in the 1990s seemed rather naively oblivious of structural aspects. The great respect that the teachers of Kerala won in their struggles against the princely states and colonial government first and entrenched forces of community-capital later is now perverted in shocking ways, refracted sadly through the considerable social distance that now defines the relationship between school teachers and a very large section of school children in contemporary Kerala (as has been argued by Roshni P, a researcher who is presently investigating such questions, rarely addressed with any seriousness in public debate here). And I know too well that within nearly every new elite Malayali, there lives a ‘teacher’ who seeks pedagogic control. That is part of the less desirable parts of our national legacy (the history of which needs to be probed better) and to my mind, one that needs to be fought with self-reflexivity and openness.
I have, therefore, taken my daughter out of Kerala’s despicable school system and enrolled her in the Kerala State Open School. Since she turned fifteen, she had been subjected to everyday torture by ‘teachers’ — mediocrities par excellence, little above the goondas who roam the streets indulging in moral policing (their expensive sarees and upper middle-class trappings wouldn’t allow you to suspect that though. Just as it wouldn’t let you suspect their gross academic ignorance). It is quite striking that this generation of ‘teachers’ seem willing to stoop to any level to ‘break’ a student who refuses to be a moral mediocrity — threats, intimidation, physical punishment, humiliation, outright abuse, rumours and vicious gossip, and worst of all, near-arrest through constant surveillance and strict limitations on mobility and even personal grooming! The schools often employ an elaborate network of spies, including school bus-drivers and conductors, who watch students even after school-hours — the security implications of this are appalling but who cares? The whole experience of childhood has undergone a complete transformation in the past two decades due to a range of changes from better nutrition to vastly expanding communication technology, but instead of reexamining and transforming our educational systems to address this fundamental transformation of childhood, we have simply tightened the screws. Indeed, we are now producing a generation of jail-breakers, children-on-the-run, who seek to evade authority at every turn and any cost. They harm themselves in the process, and rebellion sometimes ends up in criminality and its borders. The real criminals who push children to the brink are never punished.
My daughter has however bloomed after I found the courage to pull her out of this sick system. She bounced back from the brink of nervous and physical breakdown and now has a full life. She now studies on her own, with help from her family and tutors, attends other classes, and has returned to her older cheerful self. Her academic performance seems to have bounced back to older standards (she was the school’s Proficiency Prize student for five years at a stretch before the mediocrities got to her). She no longer feels constantly watched and forced to walk on eggshells for the fear of offending ignoramuses who masquerade as ‘teachers’ at school. She feels free to wear her hair as she likes and choose her clothes without fear of the moral police.She is no longer nervous about nail polish. In short, she has freed herself from tyranny and I am determined to make sure that she escapes the clutches of Kerala’s Khap when she is ready for college.
My own life, Madam(s) and Sirs, has taught me that fear is the worst of all emotions, the surest path towards mediocrity. Indeed, you manage to cripple our young people through putting them,since their earliest childhood, into a system which functions through inducing fear. Your time, unfortunately, is up, if the struggle by the young women at CET is any evidence. I wish you a very restful retirement, Madam, indeed, how I wish all of your kind, irrespective of whether they have reached the age of retirement or not, could be retired, pensioned off, every single one of you! That would be, as they say, a ‘win-win situation’ in which the petty are left free to indulge in pettiness in their limited circles, while the non-mediocre are left free to soar and seek adventure. If only we could do that, we could save ourselves from the geriatric abyss Kerala is becoming, thanks to the likes of you (the favourite line of all patriarchs here, of course, is “this is Kerala, not America …”). Of course like most elite Malayalis your own children must be aiming for a nice life in precisely ‘America’and other such countries, and it comforts me to think that if they do succeed in reaching there, the battle will be right inside your own home, for a change.