Two months after news first hit that prominent politicians were apparently digging for condoms and empty liquor bottles in the trash bins of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a new wave of sexual-political sensationalism has emerged.
This time it takes the form of a so-called ‘sex-sedition’ dossier (we could call it the “sexism-racism-communalism” dossier as well), a 2015 document authored by 11 JNU professors and recently released to several journalists. Besides offering run-of-the-mill political leaflets as evidence of supposed anti-national and separatist activity on campus, the report continues the trend of lurid fan-fiction about JNU students’ apparently rollicking sex lives.
“Sex workers have been openly employed in hostel messes, where they not only lure JNU girls into their organized racket but also pollute the boys,” reads one particularly charming fiction (the word “pollute”, good lord). “Freshers are particularly inducted in this ring of vice by luring through money, sex, drugs and alcohol, so that they become tied up with the cause of foreign agencies.” (We should make it clear that while as far as anyone on campus can tell, the whole sex-racket thing is false, being compared to a sex worker isn’t and ought not to be an insult.)
While this wild sexism is characteristic of the report, the dossier has deep political significance, having been released in the midst of an ongoing JNU students’ hunger strike protesting against harsh punishments handed down by the High Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) — a committee whose composition, procedures, and findings the JNU student and teachers’ unions have both protested as illegitimate — in response to the incidents on 9th Feb. Its creators (as well as the document itself) represent a right-wing vision of state, nationalism, and a gendered, racialized citizenship — one that reinforces much of the ideological artillery that has thus far been thrown at the students of JNU.
The emergence of the dossier was quickly followed by fantastic takedowns by Kavita Krishnan and Ayesha Kidwai, who analyzed the two foundational figments of the frightened Indian right-wing imagination: The threat of women having “free sex,” and the threat that this “free sex” will result in the destabilization of not only gender norms, but also oppressive race, caste and religious lines.
Krishnan — who herself has been “accused” of engaging in “free sex” — pointed out the ethical crux of the issue: the opposite of “free sex” can only be “unfree sex,” and sex engaged without freedom or consent is rape. We know all too well, of course, that the logical conclusion of conservative gender roles, despite their appeals to “women’s safety,” would often rather see us raped than free (as then, we are at least still under patriarchal control).
We know all too well, of course, that the logical conclusion of conservative gender roles, despite their appeals to “women’s safety,” would often rather see us raped than free (as then, we are at least still under patriarchal control).
Kidwai further expounds on the way in which the dossier’s vision of sexual immorality is about more than gender — it is about the way in which love, sex, and desire can threaten hierarchies of religion and caste. She writes: “Well, if sexuality and amorous choices can be freed from the borders and boundaries enforced by caste and community, the main social institution crucially involved in the reproduction of caste and exclusionary religion — the FAMILY — is in danger of being reinterpreted.” Conservative nationalists desire and approve of family formations that reproduce hetero-patriarchy; the evils of communalism, casteism, and racism; and the consumerist logic of capitalism.
But it is perhaps more than that — a conservative nationalism that stresses abstract ideas of nation over the actual wellbeing of human beings demand not just allegiance, but love. Nationalism has its own eros, its own rhetoric of passionate desire, and it becomes oppressive when it emphasizes love for the nation over love for fellow human beings, for human lives. When adherents of oppressive nationalisms express fear of both free speech and free love, they do so because we threaten to unravel the hierarchies of the status quo — it is the fear that we will love and desire one another, and one another’s dignity and freedom, more than the social roles to which we are supposed to be devoted.
The state, through the discourse of nation, wants to be our beloved — and even if we must be forced, we must love it back. Systems of gender and sexuality regulate this flow of desire toward socially-acceptable forms. In this logic, gender infractions thus become infractions against the nationalist ideal.
How is this playing out in the context of the JNU dossier? We of course know that specific formations of gender are pivotal to right-wing imaginations the world over, and that the burden of national and racial identity and “purity” often falls on women. Our abilities to love and reproduce with the “wrong” person, to violate the norms of caste, race, nation, and religion, are a threat to social hierarchies that maintain oppression.
We can see as much in the way in which the sexual charges in the document come alongside the scapegoating of racial others. As a recent campus protest against the dossier by the Northeast Students’ Forum pointed out, the dossier implies a connection between female sexual “misbehavior” and a whole host of racialized, sexualized others: Not only women students in general, but specifically Northeastern students, Kashmiri students, Muslim students, and Dalit students. The dossier specifically accuses minority students of separatism and anti-national activity — and the spectre of female sexual misbehavior pointed to elsewhere in the report haunts and colors these allegations as well.
But it is not just any form of sexual activity that haunts the right-wing imagination animated in this document: it is particularly non-reproductive sex. This is the logic at play in the famous 3,000 condoms allegation: Gyandev Ahuja, a BJP MLA, draws attention not only to the notion that JNU students are having sex (which, yes, many — but not nearly that many — of them are), but that they are having sex for pleasure, sex from which no discernible benefit to the state will come.
But repressive gender regimes (à la the compulsory hetero-patriarchal family) are not the only way to keep people in check. Liberalism itself can also become a tool of control, as the proper sexual subject under patriarchal capitalism is also a consuming subject: a member of a family unit that buys Marutis or Fords; that gives gifts on Christmas and Diwali; a family that aspires toward the ownership of Apple watches and a new fridge. Find a way to integrate unruly sexual subjects into proper consumption patterns, and you can cut down on their unruliness, too.
In the American context, for example, queers (still problematic figures in our refusal to shut up about our marginalization) have become increasingly accepted and acceptable; we were even granted the right to same-sex marriage last year. Radical critics have raised the concern that this campaign for civil liberties has also had the side effect (or maybe this is actually the ideology at its core) of allying queerness with capitalism. A quick walk down the streets of New York City’s pride, festooned with expressions of how much companies like Uber love gays, is testament to this. What does it mean when sexually disruptive citizens can now be properly recognized through marriage — and courted by companies? We can see from this that gender and sexual freedom alone are not inherently disruptive forces.
But gender and sexual freedom coupled with anti-racism/communalism/casteism and anti-capitalism? Now that, my friends, is a dangerous cocktail. We could refuse to become both proper sexual subjects and proper consumers. The family being the primary unit of consumption, challenging both conservative notions of proper libidinal organization and the logic of capitalism is potentially revolutionary.
Because at the end of the day, the state is not a person. The government is not a person, the nation — though often characterized as one — is not a person. Political parties are not people, ideologies are not people, companies are not people (I’m looking at you, American Supreme Court), and fetuses are not people, either (just for the record, American right-wing).
People are people.
And when we love people — people we are not supposed to love, people we are supposed to oppress or be afraid of, people unlike us — more than we love governments, more than we love ideologies, more than we love businesses and more than we love going to Big Bazaar and buying things — then we pose a threat. We especially pose a threat when we express our love for people in ways that challenge the logic of capitalist hetero-patriarchal order: by touching each other in ways that make right-wing politicians flush with orgiastic fantasies; by politicizing public space through protest, art, and the simple act of being women walking at night; by forming friendships and falling in love and organizing across social boundaries.
Most importantly, we become threatening by animating that love through acts of material, social, and political solidarity. That is the sex-race-sedition report’s underlying anxiety.
The state does not have lips to kiss us with. Our friends and comrades do. It’s these lips that those who stubbornly wish to maintain oppressive social orders the world over are so afraid of. Kiss-of-love lips. Free lips. Lips that are smooching, smoking 8,000 cigarettes, committing carnal acts against the order of nature, lagana-ing naras, and cupping around a bottle of beer.
Bol, ke lab azaad hai tere — free lips can have free sex; lips free to kiss are lips free to speak. The authors of the sex-sedition dossier are afraid of the possibility of an open society — and they hear it coming from our open mouths.