By- Nilanjana Sengupta on Facebook
I have kept a silence on facebook for a long time on the question of Raya Sarkar’s list…not because I had nothing to say but because I was more interested in listening and also because I had a complex location vis a vis this question which could fit neither polarities that were created at that time. But Nivedita Menon‘s write up in Kafila beat it all and I felt I too had to join the conversation through ‘fingertip’ activism. I do not claim to be ‘right’ or invested with a greater or lesser ‘historical memory’ than anyone else or add anything significantly new to the conversation.
I am a Savarna cis woman with certain class privileges, a queer non-gender-conforming feminist with an ideological leaning to the left. I was part of a premier University (JNU- currently under severe attacks, like several other universities in the country), at a time when the Vishakha guidelines were being put in place institutionally. It was a defining moment when feminist struggles had been able to convert a ‘non-issue’ to one that required institutional recognition and needed to be made part of everyday politics. I, for one, learnt to recognise and voice sexual harassment for what it was largely because of the existence of the GSCASH.
The conversations around Raya Sarkar’s list, more than the list itself has taken me further along the path in thinking, rethinking, revisiting, re-shaping my understanding of sexual harassment. From an initial anger at ‘naming and shaming’ without an opportunity for the accused to defend themselves, I have come to respect the ‘movement’ despite my critiques and regard it as another defining moment in feminist history. I regard it as a movement because it has raised deeply political issues and because it has engaged the ‘mass’. Yes, since it is talking about institutions of higher learning, it excludes large sections of people who do not have any access to these institutions. It does not claim to be a movement of all people(s) facing sexual harassment –its scope is limited by definition–but within that, it has brought to the fore voices, opinions, experiences that remained unheard not only to others but to themselves-ourselves.
Many of those who stood against the List also contributed to the movement in reminding us of the struggles that wrested from the state, institutions embedding ‘due process’, how continued recognition and credibility of these institutions depend critically on following procedures of justice. However, the list did not claim to be an alternative to institutions of justice or an alternative form of justice. Rather I believe it was one of those mass movements that only work to strengthen institutions of justice. That reiterates the widespread harassment that women face on campuses and also pushes our boundaries of thinking and naming sexual harassment. I have often dabbled with the idea of what would have happened if people had not been named–especially men we love, admire, read and look up to. It is precisely those names that created rage and the movement. But why those names? Did Raya Sarkar have a particular dislike towards all progressive intellectual brilliant men? Some demented thought process that made her gnaw at such people? (Well I don’t mind telling you that I have always been deeply suspicious of the ‘intellectual progressive man’, in my times often the radical left ideolog who hogged the limelight and beautiful women all the time—but about that another time!).
The names on the list are not just people in positions of power–these are not registrars, vice chancellors, bureaucrats, mainstream politicians–these are people who have shaped our politics, our aspirations for alternatives, our critical minds. They wield power over our minds. And trust me–imagining them to be culpable of sexual offence destabilises roots. It is deeply personal for many who do not even know them personally. It is like the shock of discovering that the male trade union leader who you have respected all through your life, is a wife beater.
The discourse on harassment has taken another leap…by questioning those who were ‘insiders’. It has taken another leap by redefining what harassment means and how insidiously it may work. One of my ‘younger’ feminist friends, in a conversation, observed that this List is not about punishment. It is about holding those people accountable to what they teach in class and write in books. This has deeper layers. If the celebrated scholar/artist/writer we admire is also a misogynist/sexist/sexual harasser–do we acknowledge that and articulate that to ourselves, to our students, in classes and public presentations? It does not mean that their work becomes meaningless and no one should read them, see their work anymore. It means demystifying heroes and making them culpable for an offence as well as capable of great work. It means simply sexual harassment and misogyny are NOT acceptable, no matter who you are…and definitely not if you are somebody we look up to!
It has also brought to light, in my mind, the need to talk ‘desire’ within institutional spaces and how to differentiate it from harassment. How do we understand ‘consent’ in such spaces? How do we ‘punish’ people found guilty of offences? And yes…I do believe in grades of punishment depending on grades of offences. And I do believe in a process of enquiry where the accused has to prove his innocence. The List and most of the conversations in favour of the List do not deride such processes. The list is a moment to rethink, redefine, rearticulate sexual offence within institutional spaces for both women and men, teachers and students.It is definitely a defining and historical moment.
And when people mock this movement, deride it (deride not critique it) claiming the authentic voice of the senior (I know it best and I know it all) scholar feminist— another moment arrives of harassment and disempowerment of those who are trying to break years of silence. You may disagree. And please do so Nivedita Menon. But let’s not have the “us feminists” versus the “infantile hysterical women” (my words not yours) binary brought in. Because you use your position of intellectual power to make your point.
At the same time….a few on the other side…(and sorry to use such binaries…the reality is much more of a continuum) also do not hesitate to pull down people through various kinds of branding and dismiss their critical contributions over the years…simply because right now they are in disagreement. Not all who critique the list are being dismissive. And I am sure most people who are upholding the list are open to conversations in a non hierarchical democratic space..
Can we please have room for difference and dissent without drawing blood?
Orginal post appeared here https://www.facebook.com/nilanjana.sengupta.948/posts/10215981157344550