When ‘With the Survivor ‘ Rings Hollow: Observations on the Rage over the Civic Chandran Case

The internet frenzy over the Civic Chandran case has reached a new zenith over the two highly problematic — deeply elitist, sexist, logically and empirically flawed — anticipatory bail orders issued to the accused by the Sessions Court. There was a strange silence about the first one which was stuffed with elitist statements, and an even stranger pause over the blatantly sexist and conservative order before the active condemnation of the latter began to be voiced over the internet. Even stranger, because there is far more tolerance of elitism among the internet woke-folk than of conservative sexist understandings of the appropriate clothing for women’s bodies in Kerala. The three-day break from expressions of outrage did not, and still does not make sense.

After that interval, it has resumed, and with much greater viciousness, now targeting everyone who does not repeat the With the Survivor slogan in exactly the same way as the leaders of the present thrust — mostly carceral feminists, including senior feminists, the younger urban liberal feminists who have thrived in social media and who stay squarely within the state-set terms of liberalism, prominent Dalit feminists, and some who were intense anti-feminists till just a few weeks back. Those who refuse this alliance and their reading of events face the risk of being battered beyond recognition. The discussion of restorative justice which came up in this context has been crudely reduced to a ploy to exonerate the accused, even though I, who initiated the discussion, had clearly stated more than once that it cannot apply in this case as the survivor’s consent to the process is central. My position has been that since the complainants have chosen the path of retributive justice, their case should be fortified for trial with all the lessons we have learned about our failures in these cases.

And definitely, I have not been insensitive enough to approach the survivors with any offer of restorative justice process since their choice had been evident from the beginning. But I have been grossly and constantly reviled for trying to reduce this case and the attack is being carried out jointly by the CPM trolls and the social justice mob.

I am used to this by now, having weathered worse battles in the past, but they do not spare the gentler voices. For example, a prominent, highly respected feminist academic, Janaki Sreedharan, tried to ask on Facebook if a dialogue wasn’t possible with anti-carceral feminism. A more nuanced and humane dialogue developed below her post. However, I am told that a Malayalam version of her post has been circulating which seems to be twisted in a way that she sounds more like my adversary than my interlocutor.

Meanwhile, malicious attempts at even-more colossal misrepresentation continue. In a strange and unprovoked attack on Twitter, the prominent senior Malayalam author NS Madhavan claimed that I am on my way to becoming a Madhu Kishwar, because the only person, according to him, who ‘supports’ the ‘rape-accused’ is Rahul Easwar, known face of Hindutva in Kerala. Well, Madhavan is known for his Islamophobia, but I would not say that he is or was on his way to becoming Rahul Easwar!!

But more striking is the sly use of the description ‘rape-accused’ by Mr Madhavan in the tweet. Because that is not what the complaint has been about. Like I said, in a sex panic, all distinctions disappear. Complaints about unwelcome touch are equated with rape. But now here this does not seem to be just a sex panic — it is laced with a desire to settle scores of all sorts and not just with the accused.

In this context, I find the slogan With the Survivor to be not just hollow but worse. Below, I will try to present as clearly as possible the reasons why I will not give in to the brutal pressure.

1. I think that it is high time that feminists in Kerala started making the slogan With the Survivor(s) somewhat more substantial. Creating a tumult on social media and outside has not yielded results in such battles earlier for sure and careless public utterances have exacted a huge price in earlier cases. Right now, just endorsing the slogan on Facebook is the easiest thing to do. As long as they are not doing anything to fortify the survivors ‘ cases in court when the trial comes up, their slogan-shouting does not impress me.

In fact, I have every reason to think that little effort is made to strengthen the cases for trial. Instead, ever-more compromising public statements are being issued. But the private use of absolutely crucial information seems even more damaging. A friend who was subjected to the most brutal pressure by the leaders of this campaign to join them, told me that one of the leaders of the mob sent him images of WhatsApp chats between the accused and a complainant, which, according to him, can be interpreted in any way. Goodness knows how many now possess these chats? I myself had the strange experience of being called up by one of these leaders on the night of 3 July and fed a whole bunch of lies about members of the inquiry committee but also revealing the complainant’s identity. This keeps me convinced that from the very beginning to now, there has been less interest in protecting the interests of the survivors and much more space for other nefarious interests.

2. Secondly,  the demand to endorse this slogan now also implicitly prods one to endorse the absolutely unethical misogynist, ableist, ageist, statist filth being peddled as antipatriarchal politics. I find it pointless to endorse it when it undermines the very field of politics itself. In other words, my reluctance is not from a concern to stay pure but from the determination that politics should be defended first. I don’t think a return to medieval mob justice and the punishment of not just an accused but also of his family and anyone who the mob may suspect of supporting him is the way to revive a politics of gender.

3. I will not endorse this campaign also because I do not consider this mob to be coterminous with the public. They are just a group on Facebook, even if some leading voices with feminist claims and dalit leaders are with it. I am rather unperturbed by their excitation because I really don’t identify this as my space. So to my friends who worry about my health: do not worry, I am as tranquil and bright as a lake on a serene summer day.

My work has been with women of communities outside, whose lives are hardly touched by Facebook social justice posturing. Indeed, the curse of the conjuncture of social media and identity politics is that many with rich political pasts of engagement in struggles with people who are largely outside seem to have migrated mostly to social media, or the media in general. They believe that they can speak for the people outside on the strength of their politicized identities alone which then start to function like ontological passports of sorts.

How abysmal this disconnect is dawned upon me recently when I was in a group interview with women climate refugees on the Kerala coast. I asked them if they had been contacted by any feminists or feminist organization. That provided the only lighter moment in an otherwise unrelentingly bleak conversation. Puzzled for a second by the word ‘feminist’, one of the women turned to her sister, who told her, ‘oh, yea, remember, those sanitary towel ladies?’ There was general laughter. ‘They got a project because we are menstruating, ‘ remarked one of them. ‘Don’t grudge anyone’s livelihood,’ said her neighbor, with an absolutely straight face. Which made everyone laugh again. But in the end, with immense pain, they asked why anyone genuine about women’s rights in a situation like theirs would focus on sanitary towels when even the few toilets in the camps were overflowing, and when they had been reduced to a state of absolute despondency. Though menstrual hygiene is important, no one can blame them for feeling so. If I approached and pestered the survivors of this case with offers of restorative justice solutions, going to them and handing it to them, when it is clear that they chose the retributive path, I would be similarity guilty of reformer-hubris — which is what this vile campaign tries to claim about me.

My journey as a feminist is definitely to the outside of the circles of the senior feminists and the younger urban US imperial-style liberal feminists as well. If senior feminists appear to be just ‘sanitary towel ladies’ it is not because menstrual hygiene is unimportant in general or to women in the climate refugee camps. It is because of a certain reformist style of functioning, which I have critiqued from way back in 2011 and earlier too. This style had served them well and blends beautifully into the present moment of carceral feminism and they are not likely to give it up.

As for the younger internet feminists, the larger share of them has remained obsessed with American imperialist-style feminist questions like that of women’s clothing. They have been beset with the constant fear of women forced into religious attire which saps their intelligence and agency, purportedly. Islamic women have struggled with the constant attack on their clothing choices from many of these feminists even in the Karnataka hijab controversy. But when someone tried to use the liberal answer to the question of covering the female body in a truly subversive way, like the body activist Rehana Fathima, they recoiled in horror. In every single one of her struggles, Rehana has been mercilessly abandoned by the very feminists who rise up on occasions as the present one, eager to muddy the boundaries to their convenience.

Even in the ongoing discussion on gender-neutral school uniforms, I have seen no one saying that boys should be permitted to wear skirts or frocks, without other culturally feminine attributes — which would be subversive and not merely aiming at comfort. I have also not seen much attention paid to the observations of anti-ableist activists like Sabari, that pants are ableist attire. None of these new urban liberal feminists dare still to initiate a really subversive conversation on contraception, even. Even the little activism they engage in is clustered around individual fights around the liberal feminist issues they prioritize.

I also notice that both these groups of feminists have also been either outright hostile or weakly endorsing the non-liberal feminist struggles we have fought. This applies to the Hadiya case when those of us who stood with her were dubbed ‘sudapinis’ — associated with extremist Islam — by precisely the leaders of the present social justice mob. More recently, when Anupama Chandran fought for the restoration of her baby to her, these very same ‘feminists’ did everything in their power to portray her as a slave of patriarchy, marrying and giving birth early. C S Chandrika tried the other trick, of setting her up as a sexual freedom champion, when she was fighting, clearly, for her child. They also rubbished the fact that Ajith, her husband, was a Dalit man, fighting for his right to fatherhood.

I notice now that the small group who stood with Anupama and Ajith were mostly activists whose daily lives are of engagement with power outside social media, in the real world. No wonder, I would think. There is no reason at all for me to think that the dominant feminists who are running this malodorous campaign are the future of gender or social justice in Kerala, even though they might well turn out to be the face of feminism here. That is, if they are successful in ‘canceling’ others, as the academic Binitha Thampi so boldly and confidently — even joyfully — proclaimed in her recent article (that these others had canceled themselves out, yay!).

To the Dalit feminists who now vent their fury on me: I understand your anger and actually anticipate it. But unless these malevolent elements that have gathered around this case have been thoroughly exposed — because it was perfectly possible for the complainant to file a case against the accused without so many despicable add-ons, I find it hard to join the chorus. The unity that you perhaps sense is illusory, and it is already evident to me, because the righteous anger against the first anticipatory bail order, which was frightfully elitist, was definitely low-key compared to the never-ending howls of indignation against the second one, which touched the ultimate urban-feminist issue, of women’s clothing.

So I definitely don’t see any point in seeing the dominant feminists as my interlocutors. Feminism, for me, is politics, ethics, and spirituality. Clearly, that is not how they think.

6. I am seeing the petrifying impact this is having in cultural circles, especially. Kerala’s cultural circles are big but not big enough for everyone there to be anonymous, so this is not just a surmise — it is very palpable on and outside social media. It is even comical, this fear. Many male intellectuals now feel that their past chat messages or interactions may be troublesome given the present freeing of reading from all sensible rules of interpretations, and are silent as the grave. Even though they see their errors and might even want to make good their mistakes. Others whose interactions have been innocent are also afraid. Known sexual harassers — however, have found a very convenient way out! Especially those among them who are on the fringe of power and so are not sure of Party protection have leaped into the fray — as they know that the best way to keep the cover is by shouting loudest with the mob. It will be very hard to even spot any of them from now on. And the impact on women’s access to cultural spaces is also beginning to show. I don’t think the mindless paranoia of this campaign can help with dealing with the fallouts of all this. It will soon dissipate once the accused is hauled into a police lock-up.

4. Further, the call to join the With the Survivor slogan also seems to endorse the reduction of the survivor to the victim. An interesting misrepresentation peddled frequently has been of the complainants as penkuttikal (girls). However, at least one survivor has spoken several times in public. But addressing her as an equal citizen capable of taking responsibility for her statements seems well-nigh impossible under present conditions. There are many who say that she cannot take responsibility because of the trauma she is enduring. In that case, why is she not allowed to heal? Because patriarchal courts are hardly sensitive enough to read trauma in public statements that appear in the media. What is uttered while in a state of trauma can still be used against the utterer in court.

5. In trying to build my own views of anything, I start by judging the narratives available in the light of the past record of their creators — the only way to start, I suppose. Then I revise my views in the light of emerging facts, and indeed, if the weight of the facts is heavy enough, I change my views. If there are two versions, two narratives of the same event, I tend to choose initially that of the person with greater integrity. So if PE Usha and K K Shahina issue two versions, I will begin by trusting the former, not the latter. Because Usha’s struggle to get sexual harassment recognized as a crime in Kerala against the full force of the CPM that protected the accused is important to me. Especially when Shahina enjoys considerable notoriety for her persistently malicious obsession with creating and spreading false narratives aimed at throwing Hadiya and her husband into the jaws of the NIA. This was the infamous Hadiya case, in which this young woman was punished for having chosen her faith and her life-partner. In those awful days, these urban liberal feminists allowed their Islamophobia to flow free and unfettered, reinforcing the stereotype of religious Muslim women as brainless puppets. K K Shahina was their intrepid leader. The flow of social media may have covered up this cantankerous reputation, but my memory strong and decidedly old-fashioned.

Then, I will review my views in the light of emerging information and the lines of force in the struggle. In the present case, I can see nothing at all that gives me a reason to join the dominant feminists. How feminists can so coolly ignore the gross violation of the fundamentals of feminist ethics simply baffles me.

In this case, one of the survivors has been steadily speaking to the public. The exhortation to simply believe the survivor and shut out everything else is not acceptable to me. I think that the survivor should be seriously heard, deeply heard, and helped to clarify her thoughts. This is not the same as just shutting down your brain. As far as the survivor’s words uttered in public are concerned, they are of a different significance from those of the supporters — no matter of what degree that support is. The survivor’s words are going to be examined in the trial court. No matter how shrill, the supporters will not be cross-examined in court, and not for too long, either and so can afford to indulge in verbal diarrhoea. Believing will not help her, only help to clarify her thoughts before uttering anything public will.

So instead of shouting ‘I believe you!’ the effort should be to clarify and strengthen them. Instead, the effort now is to infect the survivors’ words with unfounded accusations peddled by dominant feminists against those who question their motives and tactics (as is evident from the complainant’s Mathrubhumi online interview). This, undoubtedly, will boomerang on her in court with a force that nothing can reduce.

Finally, I have a feeling, finally, this is a historic moment in which the semi-fascist state in Kerala is finding its allies in civil society. Hence the easy dismissal of due process for critics of the system, the use of mobs and trolls, the rise of full-blown carceral feminism. I definitely do not see this as my moment in the sun.

Have a great time, ladies. I am out.

L

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