By Janaki Nair
A grisly attack on a young woman student and the violent suicide of a “spurned” boyfriend has shocked and alarmed the campus community at JNU in Delhi. Long believed to be the small “republic” where few of the violent hierarchies that are the staple of Indian life prevail, and where the everyday brutalities of the National Capital Region have largely been kept at bay, the shattered peace calls for confronting some painful truths, of which such grotesque violence is only a symptom.
What does such acts of senseless violence reveal about the speed and direction of the bewildering changes in our social life, for which even higher education in one of India’s most prestigious universities does not prepare us, and to which it is not immune? And how do we prepare realistically for an increase in the rise of such violence, where aspirations are not matched by opportunities?
There are at least three levels on which such changes are occurring. For at least two decades, we have witnessed newer forms of misogyny that keep pace with the increasing individuation of Indian women. This has been difficult for not only men but for some women to accept. There is the violence with which women are reinserted into official kinship relations of which the khap panchayat is the most visible reminder: men continue to be well served by this “symbolics of blood” much more than women. As student bodies are changing, with higher and higher proportions of hitherto underprivileged castes and groups, including women, seeking higher education, the hypervisibility of women from all backgrounds who control their destiny – intellectual, financial, political, sexual – is too much for some sections to bear. Class differences combine in important ways with differences based on region, language and caste, and have already been the cause of much tension in campuses such as JNU.
More important are the ways in which young men feel entitled to “love” women to death: our contemporary visual culture is saturated with messages that teach us, over and over again, that sexualized violence and violent male sexuality is normal. Love is unidirectional, declared by men, and succumbed to or accepted by women. Pre-marital love between Indians can blossom, but only on the distant shores of Australia, as in Salaam Namaste, which was set in worlds beyond the reach of parents and neighbours, litigants and agitators on behalf of female chastity and “honour”. The stain on national honour by the arrival of a love-child in Salaam Namaste was prevented by the timely production of a ring by the hero, and birthing squalls came safely after the legal bond, and conjugality was saved among Antipodean Indians.
No such luck, it appears, attends the lives of real life heroines. They are often loved to death by men who, once spurned, wield the axe, knife or acid bottle with great skill on their “loves”. Indian cinema has carefully nurtured this version of loving, a unidirectional flow of feeling from man to woman, whose outcomes are always predictable. In one Malayalam film, a police officer (Mohanlal) shackled the woman he “loved” to a tree and compelled her to say the three little words. Vishnuvardhan, the Kannada actor, playfully whipped his heroines into submission, and on the rare occasion when the filmic narrative called for Rajnikanth to be slapped by a woman (Chandramukhi), the hero’s honour was recouped on the streets by his angry fans.
Real women are a different matter. Many new entrants to the university system who come from a very wide variety of socio economic backgrounds, envy and fear the economic and social independence of women, themselves often from Dalit and OBC communities. They are a major threat to social life and civility as it has long been defined by men. Ironically, there are women fellowship holders on our campus who have become the new victims of the preying male, when the latter depend on them financially for years, but eventually leave them in the lurch (and several lakhs poorer). In addition to these new forms that a renewed patriarchy is taking are many features of the old ones: the entitlement that upper castes feel they have to lower caste female bodies, of dominant communities to minority women, of men who throng the repressive state apparatuses of army and police to those who they purportedly protect, and last but not least, of male faculty to their female students.
To make sense of the near pornographic performance of violence by the male student, we must ask, from what has this self destruction emerged? Even as our youngsters are adept consumers of goods of every shape and description, and there is relentless pressure to acquire as much and as quickly as possible, they have become most vulnerable at an emotional level. An unprecedented brittleness is everywhere evident – in the excessive (and new) dependence on faculty; in the inability to face and accept the hard knocks that life sometimes deals us, whether in the form of low grades or unrequited love; in the loneliness to which the new consumerism condemns us — for which there appears to be no immediate succor. This is in inverse proportion to the precocious and promiscuous handling of objects from a young age – mobile phones and computers at the age of 12. Our young are increasingly unable to deal with the heaves and shoves of our monstrous society.
Leaning too heavily on securitization or the law alone is dangerously inadequate. What is needed most urgently is the building of a new civility by men and women, of lower and upper castes and classes, of urban and rural areas. The new civility must reveal that the social and economic independence of women is not always at the expense of lower class male prospects, that women are no longer the playthings that invite possession rather than respect. This new civility will be seriously challenged in the one sphere where the individualities of women have been celebrated, namely the market, turning women’s, or anyone’s, independence into a freedom to consume, and to be consumed.
To overturn such newly entrenched and older ideologies is no easy task, and calls for nothing short of a revolution. We may take heart in what caste movements in India have achieved over the past three decades, making discriminatory speech, actions or beliefs in the public sphere more difficult (though not yet impossible). At the same time, women are made the ground for new forms of assertion. A completely new gender and caste just civility must be the goal, which will make our campuses, and indeed the country, safer and less threatening for women.
Janaki Nair teaches History in Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.