In Tragic and Tough Times, Let Us be True to Our Democratic and Gender-Just Principles.

We are confronted by a painful episode involving a rape charge and a suicide, that poses many tough and tangled questions to us – as the JNU community and also as individuals and activists committed to secularism, democracy and gender justice. Let us, for a moment, reiterate what one of the late Khurshid Anwar’s friends has said in his recent post on Kafilathe suicide does not prove him guilty of the charge of rape, and it does not prove his innocence either.

The suicide is a horrible, tragic occurrence – and it is a tragedy we should not compound with irresponsible utterances. A charge of rape does not necessarily turn the accused into a convicted rapist. True. And equally truly, it does not turn the woman making the charge, overnight, into a slut, a murderer, or a communal/political conspirator.

Those who, on social media and media, pronounced Khurshid Anwar guilty even before a due process of investigation could be initiated, were highly, condemnably irresponsible. However, to brand the complainant as a conspirator is equally unacceptable.

It must also be noted that even though in our opinion, Madhu Kishwar is not a women’s rights activist (she is not only vocal against women’s rights on most occasions, she is also politically opportunist in her treatment of cases), the complainant cannot be dismissed on the sole grounds of having approached Kishwar, whom whether we like it or not, media has often portrayed as a women’s rights activist. The complainant cannot be branded as part of any conspiracy hatched by Kishwar, merely because she approached Kishwar’s office Manushi, which is portrayed in the media as an organisation that works for women.

There is a group of persons that has, shamefully, left no stone unturned to brand the complainant – a young woman from Manipur – as a ‘blackmailer,’ and now a ‘murderer’. Open character assassination has taken place. There are several facebook and blog posts that have questioned the credibility of the complainant for “having drunk heavily with the accused”, or for “having filed a delayed complaint”.

The fact is that the complaint made by the young woman is of a very serious nature. Women’s rights activists, disturbed by the social media campaign, tried to respond very responsibly. Kavita Krishnan of AIPWA, approached by the complainant’s friends, tried to contact the complainant through Manipuri activists, trying to make it possible for the complainant to come forward. Till the complainant did so, she did not speak to anyone from the media about the complaint. Kalyani Menon Sen, a women’s rights activist who was on the board of ISD, the NGO to which Khurshid Anwar belonged, got to know of the ugly social media campaign, and contacted Kavita Krishnan. Kalyani Menon Sen initiated an enquiry, and several members of the ISD Board wrote to the complainant urging her to come forward. In addition to the open character assassination of the complainant, a malicious vilification campaign is also being run in the social media against these activists and concerned individuals who felt that a charge as serious as rape, must be seriously investigated irrespective of the credentials of the accused. Women’s rights activists – not only Kavita Krishnan and Kalyani Menon Sen but even others who have uttered a word against the character assassination of the complainant have been subjected to vile, sexist abuse and branded as ‘killers’. Dalit writer and activist Anita Bharti was called ‘dalal’ and asked ‘how much did you sell yourself for?’ Well known writer Uday Prakash and DU lecturer Ashutosh Kumar have also been subjected to vicious abuse.

What has been most distressing is the message that these cyber-bullies (some with apparent ‘progressive’ credentials) have tried to convey- to the complainant and women activists as well as to lakhs of women who battle harassment and rape everyday!

  • There are facebook posts in which certain individuals with shocking brazenness have taken credit for having made the complainant’s name public and dared the acquaintances of the complainant to take action against him. One may chose to side either with the accused or the complainant, but that does not give any individual the right to openly threaten others. What is the message that is sought to being conveyed? Is the message meant to warn women that if at any time, they chose to report harassment or rape, they must be willing to risk humiliation and further attacks and harassment?
  • There are others who have cited the delay in lodging the complaint as a proof of the falseness of the complainant’s charges. Whether or not the charges are true are not for us to decide, but the logic that delay in lodging complaint is indicative of them being false is highly problematic. In several cases (including the most recent one where a retired judge has been accused and found guilty of harassment) it has been observed that it is not easy for the victims to file complaints. There are several structural and psychological obstacles that hinder the victim from seeking justice. There is always the social stigma, isolation, and character assassination that deters every complainant of sexual violence from filing complaints. In addition, we are all aware of the hostility and prejudice that Delhi police and Delhi society bears towards women and rape complainants from the North East – a factor of which the complainant, like every woman from the North East, would be acutely aware. In our recent struggles, it is this very atmosphere of antagonism that a victim faces that we have sought to fight. Therefore, to cite these arguments does great disservice to our collective struggles of last many months.
  • The complaint made by the woman amounts to very serious charges, of rape, and also of drugging and destruction of evidence. Now that the FIR has been filed and the complainant has made a full statement before a magistrate, the investigation should proceed, and persons she has accused of destroying the evidence of rape and drugging her should also be booked under the relevant charges. And if the complainant has been booked under ‘abetment to suicide’ charges, as reported by the media, this is likely to intimidate her further and hinder her in proceeding with her own complaint. Therefore, such charges must most certainly be withdrawn against the complainant.
  •  It is extremely unfortunate that even some so called ‘progressive individuals’  have used this painful incident to launch an offensive diatribe against women activists who felt that an investigation should take place. Terming this whole incident ‘conspiracy’, some of them have gone as far as cautioning people to beware of feminists and women’s activists!  So what is the underlying message? Are the women activists to selectively entertain complaints based on their judgement of the political affiliations of the complainant and the accused? Why are Kalyani Menon Sen and other members of the ISD board condemnable for writing to the complainant and seeking to contact her and get her to file a complaint?  Is not the instinct to immediately defend those whom one considers as one’s political or ideological allies, also reflective of a largely patriarchal mindset of attempting to safeguard the ‘honour’ or ‘respect’ of one’s own group. Would it not have been better to support activists in their effort to allow the due course of justice to take place?

Whether or not the charges are true, unfortunately, there has been an attempt to delegitimize the secular, progressive, democratic and a gender just space. The attempts to rupture such a space by positing one facet of it against another, by some self claimed ‘left and secular’ individuals, using extremely sexist, abusive and violent language, can only strengthen the right wing patriarchal forces whom we all desire to collectively fight against and defeat. In the context of this specific case, for the purpose of justice and a dignified closure of the case and even for carrying forward the secular legacy of Khurshid Anwar, it is important that one distances oneself from those who find in this unfortunate situation an opportune moment to discredit both- the secular and women’s movement.

 Sucheta De and Shivani Nag are both students and All India Students Association (AISA) activists in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi

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