“Torture isn’t new to us, ” quipped my seventeen-year-old daughter. We were discussing the future of Indian democracy.She had just quit regular school and got herself enrolled in the Kerala State Open School.
I turned to look at her, surprised. She held me in her gaze, questioning that surprise. “In school, we were watched constantly through CCTV cameras … We were summoned to the Principal’s room whenever they thought they saw or heard something wrong. My friend was questioned by nine people, teachers and non-teaching staff. They sat in a circle with her standing in the middle. The more she denied their accusations, the more they pressed charges, threatening and insulting her… So why should we feel illegal interrogation to be abnormal? It is utterly normal to us!” I could only stare blankly. “And the punishments … do you know how humiliating they are? They even maintain ‘reports’ – gossip by teachers – which they pass on to the next school you’d join.”
I remember being jolted by the easy way in which she connected schooling and torture then, and it comes back to me now, in the wake of widespread outrage around the Kerala educational authorities’ treatment of mixed seating arrangements in classrooms as violation of discipline, or undesirable sexual excess. Colleges in Kerala are now abuzz with discussions on whether it is alright or not to let students sit in gender-mixed groups. A student at the Farooq College in Kozhikode had even faced suspension for refusing to comply with segregated seating arrangements. What is striking is not the authorities’ preference for segregated seating arrangements, but the sheer force and violence which authorities now use against students who break it. That is really the context which brought my daughter’s observation back to memory.
Why is it that school and college authorities in Kerala now seem determined to hit back with maximum force against students who question their practices? Indeed, their punitive measures resemble torture more and more – and the Farooq College incident is just one in countless numbers of incidents. In my daughter’s case, the school where she studied accused her and other students of loitering on the roadside with “some men” two hours after school, and when they denied it, teachers interrogated one of them for over an hour, in the presence of “witnesses” – the staff of the school bus who had reportedly seen them. When the student refused to buckle (because she was not anywhere there and her grandfather had picked her up that day), they resorted to threats. They claimed that “some other men” had also seen them (apparently autorikshaw drivers or oil-mill workers — the version kept changing), and that they would be summoned the next day to school to conduct an “identification parade”. At Farooq College, formal procedures were not invoked against the “erring” students; instead pressure was applied on their parents to tender humiliating apologies, and indeed through precisely such an act, a “confession” of sorts was extracted. Despite widespread condemnation of the management’s “disciplining” in Kerala, the authorities have remained totally unrepentant and indeed, secure in their contention of the rightness of their punitive measures – even though the Kerala High Court has now stayed their suspension order against a student who refused their humiliating “solution”. No wonder, then, that recent reports on campuses in Kerala abound with words like ‘apartheid’ and ‘ghettos’. Anyone who needs more evidence should take a look at the recent Report on The Committee on Gender Justice On Campuses, submitted to the Kerala State Higher Education Council by a committee of eminent educationists. The documentation of practices that resemble torture by the report was summarily dismissed as exaggerated by the highest educational authorities in Kerala!
No one can deny the resemblance of these procedures to torture – even when they may not actually be torture. The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatments or Punishments, in Article 1, states that:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
A clue, I think, to making critical sense of these reactions, may be found in the argument that gender segregation and inequality on campuses cannot be addressed because “parents object strongly.” In other words, these rules are the very structure that makes possible the survival of the powerful caste and religious communities that took shape in the early 20th century in Kerala and entrenched themselves through resource competition politics through the rest of the century. The organizations that represent the communities are in the business of defending and bolstering the gender inequality at their very heart, and the male elite-elder-dominated leadership. The gender ideologies of the early 20th century community reformism have also been hegemonic in the state, informing public institutions as well. Thus it is hardly surprising that this imperative cuts across caste and religious difference: we see the same eagerness to defend gender segregation and inequality in institutions run by Christian, Muslim, and Hindu community organizations, and in public and private institutions alike. There have been voices which attributes the conservatism of Farooq College authorities to Islam; others have condemned criticism of Farooq College as Islamophobic – both positions are fundamentally flawed.
Nevertheless, this does not explain the use of extreme instruments of control ( I am wary of calling it ‘torture’ outright because I am also wary of the tendency of global ‘governance feminism’ to strip forms of gender violence of all cultural and regional specificity and label them universal forms of violence, especially ‘torture’) to enforce segregation on campus. Scholars like Elaine Scarry point to a fruitful direction, I think, when they remind us that torture often represents the sheer helplessness of the state to subdue resistance. It reveals that the authorities’ systems are down and therefore they now have to desperately apply force, any which way they can.
The same I think can be said about educational authorities in Kerala: it is in the interest of the elite male elder leadership of the caste-community organizations to keep these communities ossified – to maintain untouched the unequal internal balance of gender, but this is now increasingly difficult. As the Kiss of Love protests revealed, a major contradiction emerging in the Malayali social world is between the young and the elders. Not surprisingly, almost the whole of last year was punctuated by crude efforts to ‘discipline’ young people through police surveillance and extreme punitive measures. Young people have been hunted for ‘looking like’ Maoists or fans of Bob Marley; police were deployed to corral students bunking classes to watch movies and inform their guardians; male student excesses have been made an excuse to clamp down on all student freedoms on campus. Indeed, the KOL activists have been persistently hunted by the police through a range of tactics through the year, including those that had been deployed during the Emergency, including intense rumour-mongering and slandering. And it needs to be never forgotten that these tactics were employed to bring down not just students but also long-standing activists and public figures, even.
This, I think, is the reason why there should be no compromise at all on the gender segregation issue and why all people interested in democratic social transformation in Kerala, and not just students, must stand up and be counted in the opposition to it. Putting up with it will only bolster the authorities’ feeling that the people see them as powerful (as Scarry says, about torture).
And there is hope too. As Scarry notes in an interview,