Carceral Feminism and the Punitive State: Why I am not with the Mob — 1

I have never been a carceral feminist anytime in my life. Right now, there is a massive tide of abuse and misrepresentation of non-carceral feminism in Kerala, so much so that any suggestion of solutions to the problem of sexual harassment outside the framework of the state is immediately dubbed anti-woman and anti-feminist. Carceral feminists are so warped, they seem to be totally unseeing of the fact that the debate has always been about the significance of the state and its instruments in the generally agreed-upon goal of gender justice, and not really about who is the true, or truer feminist. Indeed, this is strongly reminiscent of the mass attack on the sex worker activist Nalini Jameela years back and the anti-carceral feminists who were prepared to hear her out and stand with her. I remain a non-carceral feminist, rejecting the binary between carceral and anti-carceral feminism. I refuse the insistence that proportional punishment is irrelevant in dealing with sexual misconduct. I refuse to see ‘Men’ — I will not buy the idea that all male bodies share the same privilege and power and hence must be dealt with in the same way. I write the following in this spirit. If I am banished from the feminist mainstream for this, so be it.


Something akin to the ‘sex panic’ that Roger Lancaster writes about in his 2011 book Sex Panic and the Punitive State has been sweeping through the Malayalam social media after a Dalit woman poet accused a well-known civil society activist and poet, the 73-year-old Civic Chandran, of demanding sexual favours in return for help with publishing her book, and then proceeding to kiss her inappropriately. Though the cultural collective that he is associated with, Patabhedam, took up the matter with an internal inquiry committee set up with the POSH Act as a broad guideline (Patabhedam is not a workplace and has no employees, but many women do participate in their cultural and political activities), and with the consent and knowledge of the complainant, public outrage on FB only grew. Rumours about what transpired in the inquiry process began to circulate even as the inquiry was on; the members of the committee including its Chair, a leading Dalit woman member of the Patabedham collective, were accused on the social media of being likely to side with the accused even before the inquiry report was out. When the complainant rejected the report and suggestions of the inquiry committee and filed a police complaint which also evoked the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, Dalit activists, intellectuals and leading mainstream feminist activists led the charge demanding the immediate arrest of Civic Chandran.

Soon, another complaint of sexually-coloured behaviour was filed against him. The police did not comply with the demand; while stories of Chandran ‘absconding’ attributed to police sources spread in the media, they took time to interview witnesses and find evidence. By ‘absconding’ they meant not being available in the usual premises, not running away from a warrant. But it seemed too long for Chandran’s detractors who insisted that no inquiry was necessary for his arrest.

The recent years have seen many such complaints – MeToo revelations which were converted to police complaints after massive outrage on FB and sometimes outside as well. In most of these cases, the accused possessed wealth, considerable social and political connections in powerful circles, and caste-capital; those who demanded their arrest pointed out their likelihood of absconding and misuse of wealth and other connections to intimidate the accuser. Indeed, one of these did leave to the country and even openly threaten the accused and reveal her name. Frustration has also been growing at how the police and courts dealt with such complaints – women more often than not failed unable to meet the higher evidential requirements of the courts and were accused of being inconsistent, and hence untrustworthy. Indeed, this has been a recurring feature of such cases that mainstream feminists in Kerala have tried to highlight and support – from the infamous Suryanelli case to the recent Franco Mulakkal case.

But that Civic Chandran cannot be compared in his ability to evade the law with other similarly-accused like the actor Dileep, the politician P C George, or the film director Vijay Babu, all of who are well-endowed with resources and powerful connections and likely to abscond, seemed irrelevant. The cry that ‘all men are alike when accused of sexual misconduct’ reached deafening proportions. The inquiry committee set up by the Patabhedam collective was defamed through social media and outside even before it presented the results of its work – the members of the three-member, all-women committee chaired by a Dalit woman activist were dubbed ‘agents of Civic Chandran’.

Rumours abounded on social media and the local press that he had ‘absconded’, when he had applied for anticipatory bail (which is of course impossible if he did not reveal his full whereabouts to the police and court and declared his willingness to cooperate with authorities). His daughter, an important government official, was accused of hiding him and protecting him through a liaison with a senior police official. Liberal doses of misogyny and misrepresentation were applied, ironically enough, to ostensibly secure justice for a Dalit woman. Strange alliances seem to have sprung up in the course of this frenzied campaign, for example between a woman writer infamous for her liberal use of misogyny and mainstream feminists. Most importantly, mainstream feminists did not seem to have any qualms about participating in the rumor-mongering and misogyny. Typical of what happens during a ‘sex panic’, definitions were thrown to the wind – what appeared to be unwanted physical touch was inflated on social media by many into a rape attempt or even rape itself. Some authors whose submissions were rejected by Patabhedam now claimed that these rejections might have been because they were probably assessed as beyond sexual seduction. A whole flood of ‘I-have-heard-someone-say’ statements about Chandran’s ‘sex-talk’ (during public meetings and in public places, about the necessity of sexual experience, and so on) was unleashed as though this was a crime. Two complaints were instantly inflated into ‘many, many, many women complaining’ . Every single rumour about Chandran’s failings in the past has been hurled into the pyre set up on social media to burn the accused as guilty.  More recently, gross misrepresentation of the charges, deliberate or casual, has been normalised. The prominent Malayalam writer N S Madhavan, for example, in a recent tweet referred to the accused as the ‘rape-accused’ Civic Chandran.

The women members of the inquiry committee have seen their reputations besmirched, and aspersions have been cast about their careers – solely because they suggested non-carceral solutions, apologies, and reparations based on the nature of the complaint that was put before them. Mrudula Devi, a leading Dalit activist who crafted a strong Paraya voice in Malayali Dalit discourse, P E Usha, whose historical struggle brought sexual harassment into visibility in Kerala’s political domain, and Dr. Khadeeja Mumtaz. respected author, medical practitioner, and feminist– members of the inquiry committee — were blamed for forming a ‘khap panchayat’ to save the accused.

This appears curious:  Civic Chandran is known to be a very consistent critic of the ruling party from the left of the political spectrum, someone who, even his enemies would admit, has not received any favours from power, ever. His material resources are transparent and indeed very slim. While his attackers have persistently referred to him as ‘Chief Editor’ of the journal Patabhedam (which has a circulation of fewer than two thousand copies) and even as a ‘CEO’, the Patabhedam collective does not have any such positions; it functions through collective decisions. Chandran’s social capital is mostly of connections in the oppositional civil society – Patabhedam is known for its highlighting of dalit, adivasi, and feminist causes. He, it is alleged, offered the complainant ‘editor’s post’ when no such post exists — what was offered was the Readers’ Editor’s work for three months, and the recommendation was made by Mrudula Devi, a member of the Patabhedam Collective, and not Chandran. He is of lower caste, rural origin, belongs to the middle class, worked as a school teacher – the Ezhava community into which he was born still struggled against untouchability barely a century ago – and made his way up taking serious political risks on the radical left and refusing any recognition from power.

Of course, none of the above can cancel the possibility that he may be guilty. However, the vociferous demand for annulling due process in his case is indeed troubling, especially considering the fact the powerful men with strong connections in the mainstream left accused of sexual violence – far beyond harassment – seem to live placid lives, undisturbed by the outrage of Kerala’s oppositional civil society. For example, there have been MeToo revelations, repeated and persistent, against CPM activists leading the party’s cultural front which definitely involved sexual harassment/violence, sexual violation of children, and the caste atrocity as well – and some of the prominent protestors in the Civic Chandran case did pay attention to some of these. Known sexual harassers and violators in the CPM have been recently reinstated to positions of high power.

But the kind of fevered cerebral excitement and the call for instantaneous punishment and degradation one sees in this incident is perhaps unprecedented in recent cases in which public-political figures are involved. The question is why this happens when a person known for his consistent critique of the mainstream left and his steady refusal of rewards and positions, someone whose origins are not in the caste-elite, has been doggedly suppressed.

Those who ask this question immediately and shrilly accused of siding with the accused, of being anti-woman and anti-caste. The same fate has met those who question the deployment of rampant misogyny, ableism, ageism, and plain unethical lying, in a struggle ostensibly for social justice. Those who point out that the excessive focus on the demon to the neglect of the actual preparation of the complainants for legal battles through psychological support and strengthening the complaints and evidence is bad strategy too have been dubbed enemies of feminism. Bullying, browbeating and intense pressure seems to have been applied to get public figures to sign an aggressively-worded petition to the Kerala Chief Minister demanding the immediate arrest of Chandran.A leading cultural figure in Kerala, the poet Satchidanandan, who expressed his disagreement with the tone and content of a joint petition to the Kerala Chief Minister to arrest Civic Chandran, still found his signature on it. His attempts to distance himself from the petition have met with dogged resistance, including the publicizing of a voice clip which was probably recorded without his knowledge or consent.

Feminists like C S Chandrika and BinithaThampi seem keen to deplore as non-feminist, anyone who expressed doubts about the utility of carceral feminism in the shadow of growing semi-fascist and strong punitive tendencies in the state. Thampi, for instance, has gone so far as to declare in an article on her website that such feminists (including me) have effectively ‘cancelled’ the feminist discourses that they themselves nurtured. By declaring so without actually naming them, she was, of course, not just cancelling the anti-carceral feminists she did not agree with, but actually trying to annihilate them.

Indeed, it is as if this is the ultimate test-case of one’s feminist credentials.  How it became the one is indeed curious. In none of the earlier MeToo cases, or in the protests against the violation of child rights and criminal acts with the active connivance of the state’s welfare machinery, (such as the infamous child-trafficking case that rocked Kerala just a few months back, which was also an appalling caste atrocity) such an ultimatum issued. Indeed, mainstream feminists had been truly reluctant to protest in many such cases; indeed, some of them actively participated in misogynist slander and cyber lynching of the aggrieved mother, Anupama Chandran. Anti-patriarchal victories in the recent past have, more often than not, been won by women who were not supported by mainstream feminists – Hadiya Asokan, Anupama Chandran.

In the other parts of this essay, I try to think of this strange feminist response in the light of the recent history of Kerala’s oppositional civil social politics. It is too easy to attribute the acquiescence of very many to peer pressure though there is research that reveals the strength of the need to belong. It is also not enough to point to the bad intentions of individuals trying to settle scores or act out psychological insecurities.

The spirit of the anti-sexual harassment law prompts us to listen carefully and empathetically to the aggrieved woman, help her sort out facts and feelings, firm up her complaint, and prepare her psychologically, materially, and legally to fight her case; it does not urge us to fall in line and concentrate all energies on launching a vitriolic attack on the accused in order to project ourselves as committed to her cause. The latter does not help the complainant at all; at best, it can bolster her public image for some time.

If the complainant is not actually empowered to fight the case, the courts are much more likely to find fault – we have seen ‘inconsistencies’ and other issues being poked at to make survivors fail. And then, the vast gap between the affect produced by the demonization of the accused and the fragility of the evidence only exacerbates the survivor’s loss of face in a patriarchal public; it only makes her, even more, an object of sympathy, once again a victim, emotionally (and sometimes even materially) dependent on her feminist and other supporters.

There can be no doubt that feminism as a discourse is far more pervasive in Kerala now compared to the early 2000s. Back then, complaints of sexual harassment were condemned by the left parties as a malady afflicting the ‘elite, upper-caste, highly-educated woman’ who deserved neither justice nor sympathy. The entry of feminism into university syllabi and the appearance of ISBN-bearing women’s studies journals in Malayalam (that count for API points in college and university promotions) have certainly had a huge impact on accelerating the circulation of feminist discourses. Indeed, the identity of the feminist is claimed by almost all left-leaning groups to some degree or the other (including the ‘I am a feminist, but…’ brigade).

Yet the response of feminist activists to sexual harassment complaints has been strangely partial: they have focused almost exclusively on the accused while assuming that the complainant’s truth will necessarily and automatically surface and be acknowledged in courts that they too recognize, are deeply patriarchal.

Why does this continue to be the preferred response from the ‘feminist mainstream’ in Kerala, even after we have seen the same pattern of response and failure in such cases? Why is it informed by such a naïve conception of patriarchy in the structures of the state? Why is it that they fight patriarchy so selectively – such that powerful men with connections in higher circles and the ruling left seem more or less exempt from their righteous fury? Why are they unable to even think of non-carceral solutions especially in the face of the incontrovertible rise of the punitive state in Kerala (as elsewhere in India)?

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