The ‘Laxman rekhas’ can no longer appear ‘natural’ – each of them is being met with defiance
Kavita Krishnan Delhi
Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.
— Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
‘Middle class selective outrage’; ‘lynch mob mentality’; ‘macho protectiveness’; ‘coexistence of placards demanding women’s autonomy with those demanding castration for rapists’ — these are the ways in which some sceptics have described the ongoing movement against sexual violence. Activists of women’s and students’ movements, who have chosen to identify with this movement, have been accused of romanticising what is actually a dangerous mob phenomenon.
Why should the prospect of contradictory consciousness in a mass movement worry us so much?
This question brought me, inevitably, to the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci: “The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which, nonetheless, involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.”
This contradiction, this conflict, is the stuff out of which political transformation and radicalisation is made. On the streets, I saw it in action many a time. Let me recount one occasion. On December 29, the day the young fighter succumbed to her injuries, we gathered at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in condolence. Our appeals to desist from shrill sloganeering were snubbed rudely by a small group that was seeking to control the Jantar Mantar space. We moved a small distance away and joined some young women sitting quietly with tears in their eyes.
The slogan of ‘freedom’ was taken up with enthusiastic variations, demanding the freedom to be born, to be fed, to study, to work, to have control over property and money, to dress according to one’s choice, to love, to control one’s own reproduction and sexuality, to free oneself from abusive marriages, to be free of the fear of violence at home and in public spaces
Gradually, the circle of people sitting in silence and grief swelled, as people spontaneously gravitated to that space of gravity and reflection. Gradually, from among them, rose the songs and slogans of freedom, and towards afternoon, the voices of young women speaking their minds. A young man came up to me: “I have been at the protest every day,” he said. “I fully support the struggle for women to be safe from violence. But I am disturbed by the slogans of ‘freedom’ being raised. If my sister is free to dress or go out with anyone, won’t it put her at risk? I just can’t help feeling disturbed by the idea of her freedom.”
His admission of his discomfort was disarming in its honesty, and we talked for a time about why this idea of women’s freedom was disconcerting. He admitted that before his participation in the movement, he could not recall having felt similarly disturbed: the different rules for women and men in our society had seemed quite natural and right. “Embrace that feeling of disturbance,” I urged, “and see where it takes you.” After all, that disturbance was a crack in the edifice of patriarchal commonsense: a moment when patriarchal certainties turned shaky and doubts were born.
There were many other occasions. My favourite is the one documented by Shuddhabrata Sengupta of ‘Kafila’, where a man with a ‘Yamraj’ mask listened to anti-death penalty speeches, took off his mask, tore up his own placard, and took up a placard which said, ‘Death penalty is not the solution’.
The slogan of ‘We Want Justice,’ initially, was taken to mean only punishment — even hanging — for the rapists. At that point, it seemed that the rulers and MPs — from the Congress, BJP, and other parties — were happy to be seen endorsing it. As long as ‘justice’ meant ‘death penalty,’ as long as women wanted ‘safety’ and ‘protection,’ few in government or Parliament seemed to have any problems with it.
However, almost immediately, the slogans of ‘We Want Freedom’ began to expand the boundaries of ‘justice’, with women raising placards saying ‘Woh kare to stud, main karun to slut?’ (If he does it he’s a stud, if I do it I’m a slut?). Also, ‘Don’t teach me how to dress, teach men not to rape’.
And the men responded too. We saw a young man carrying a placard: ‘When we men wear muscle shirts, women do not rape us’.
We watched as the slogan of ‘freedom’ was taken up with enthusiastic variations, demanding the freedom to be born, to be fed, to study, to work, to have control over property and money, to dress according to one’s choice, to love, to choose a partner irrespective of caste or gender, to give birth to a girl-child, to control one’s own reproduction and sexuality, to free oneself from abusive or unsatisfactory marriages, to be free of the fear of violence at home and in public spaces, to protest without the fear of State repression and custodial violence.
There is a deliberate effort to contain the impulse of freedom; to re-impose patriarchal strictures on women in the name of ‘safety’. From all over the country, there is disturbing news of bans on mobiles, dress codes, bans on schoolgirls speaking to schoolboys, women’s hostel curfews being tightened. But this is not happening uncontested
As soon as the slogans of ‘freedom’ began to be heard, the polite pretence of the rulers and reactionaries came apart at the seams, giving way to raw misogynistic reaction. These statements had a calculated political intent: to reach out and organise the constituency of patriarchal backlash to the movement for women’s equality and freedom.
The slogan of women’s freedom touches a raw nerve precisely because there is an intimate relationship between power and patriarchy. Patriarchy and women’s unfreedom makes it possible to exploit women’s unpaid labour in the household and even in jobs like the National Rural Health Mission; and to pay women less for the same work. In India, neoliberal policies have made life worse for women, not because they have imposed too much modernity on women — but, rather, because they have failed to usher in a healthy and thoroughgoing modernity, choosing, instead, to strengthen, exploit, and profit from existing structures of gender oppression.
There is a deliberate effort now to contain the impulse of freedom; to re-impose patriarchal strictures on women in the name of ‘safety’. From all over the country, there is disturbing news of bans on mobiles, dress codes, on schoolgirls speaking to schoolboys; women’s hostel curfews being tightened; and so on. But this is not happening uncontested. This time, thanks to the movement, these things are being debated spiritedly and resisted. At a meeting in a prominent Delhi University women’s college recently, women residents of the hostel spiritedly and openly rebelled against the move to advance their hostel curfew timings by an hour. “Men rape; why, then, are women locked up?” was the outcry.
This impulse of freedom is by no means an exclusively urban phenomenon. In rural Haryana and Bihar, after Dalit schoolgirls were gangraped by dominant castes some months ago, our activists found that schoolgirls had participated in protests in huge numbers. One anxiety foremost among these girls was that the threat of sexual violence would result in curbs on their right to attend school and coaching classes.
The ideological assault on women’s freedom is also deliberate. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s ‘Bharat/India’ remarks were defended by BJP leaders who said he only wanted to say that Indian culture respected women, and it was ‘western’ culture that led to rape. The double standards are glaring: Bhagwat and his brigade, wearing khaki shorts (very much ‘western’ in origin), telling women not to embrace modernity! We may recall RSS founder MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts; in the chapter ‘Call to the Motherhood’, Golwalkar deplores ‘modernity’ in Indian women. According to him, women who enjoy the freedom and equality of modernity, lack in virtue and think that “modernism lies in exposing their body more and more to the public gaze”!
Bhagwat held forth about women being contractually bound to do housework for their husbands. Later, he clarified that he meant this as a criticism of ‘western’ marriages, not as a prescription for all marriages. Well, what is the RSS model for an ideal Indian marriage?
At a meeting in a prominent Delhi University women’s college recently, women residents of the hostel spiritedly and openly rebelled against the move to advance their hostel curfew timings by an hour. ‘Men rape; why, then, are women locked up?’ was the outcry
Krishna Sharma, leader of the VHP women’s wing, elaborated in an interview, “It is the man who must earn and support his family (while the woman manages the household), his education is more important. This division of labour is natural.” (quoted in Women and the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays, edited by Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia. New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1995, pp: 331-335). In the same interview, Sharma defended wife-beating: “Don’t parents admonish their children for misbehaviour? Just as a child must adjust to his/her parents, so must a wife act keeping in mind her husband’s moods and must avoid irritating him.” Sharma’s words have been echoed verbatim by Sharda, a Rashtriya Sevika Sangh activist, when a reporter from Outlook asked her about wife-beating (‘Holier Than Cow,’ Outlook, January 28, 2013).
Indeed, the ongoing movement began, for many, with a moment of empathy: “It could have been me on that bus.”
Day by day, that embrace of empathy grew wider. On the streets, among scores of protesters we were meeting for the first time, we spoke of Soni Sori, of Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange of Khairlanji, of Kunan Poshpora, of Neelofer and Aasiya, of Thangjam Manorama of Manipur, of the Muslim women raped in Gujarat 2002; of the rapes of Dalit women in Haryana; of the rapes of LGBT people in police custody or outside. We spoke of the many contexts of power in which rape occurs. Rape happens to remind you that you are a woman; sometimes it happens to remind you that you are a Dalit woman; a Muslim woman; a ‘deviant’ person; a woman from the ‘enemy’ community while the rapist in uniform represents the Indian State.
What this movement has done is to make visible the many Laxman rekhas in our country. The Laxman rekha for women; but also the Laxman rekha for protest and dissent, which, if you cross, will be met with tear gas, batons — and, anywhere outside the capital, with bullets and outright bloodshed. Now, these Laxman rekhas can no longer appear ‘natural’ — each of them is being met with defiance and resistance.
The writer is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).