By Ashley Tellis
As more and more horror stories pour in of girls and women being beaten, molested, tortured, and raped in custodial homes across the country, the question to ask is whether institutions in general are unsafe spaces for vulnerable populations.
Why is the family any safer as a space for the vulnerable (women) and the young (boys and girls)? It is a hierarchical, structurally unequal institution that is based on and breeds violence. Parents just have to say, “You are not allowed to because I say so” and it is the law. Why is school any different? Schools are the breeding grounds of violence and authoritarian discipline. The violence of the administration is mirrored by the violence of students against each other. Where do the young learn this violence from? From the very institutions they come from and to which they belong.
Colleges and Universities are no better and we see naked violence being perpetrated on students in these institutions across the country, the region (witness Dhaka right now), and the world. Historically, the University is not a space of freedom of any kind, as we are led to believe. It was formed to shore up a monarchical state.
Communities are no better and police their boundaries through violence and the brutal excision of outsiders (the lynching of so-called child kidnappers) and transgressors (intra-gotra, inter-caste, and inter-religious marriages). Marriages are no better and become prison-houses for women, often under the signature of love, protection, and security.
Finally, the state commits brutal violence on citizens who do not conform to its diktat arresting them as Naxalites (G. N Saibaba, Shoma Sen, et al), breaking their skulls if they protest (Talib Hussain) and killing them if necessary (Ishrat Jehan). The state as the ultimate institution has no qualms about leaving a trail of dead Adivasi, Dalit, women’s, and minority bodies to prove its authority.
How is it that we express no outrage at this continuum of violent institutions from the family to the state but focus on custodial institutions which shelter the detritus from these other institutions? Because it is easy to do. It is also really convenient. We shelter ourselves and institutions like the family by saying these terrible institutions produce violence; the family does not. If only everyone had a family, we would not need these institutions is the argument. Apart from the fact that it is the dysfunctionality of family that has produced these institutions in the first place, there is enough evidence to show that the family is far from a safe haven for women and children.
What is the pattern in all these institutional violences? The weak and the relatively powerless are preyed upon by the more powerful. Some would like to call this human nature but that is just nonsense. There is no human nature and human nature is historically variable. The second pattern is a rhetoric of care and protection and security and a practice of violence. Some would call this a theory-practice binary but that is nonsense. Theorising is a form of practice and vice versa and the very rhetoric of these institutions shows clearly the fangs of violence. The fact that you invest power in two adults to protect you in the family shows the conception of the subject of the protected.
‘So, what is the solution,’ is always the question asked, ‘get rid of all institutions? Is that practical? Is that possible?’ In logic, this is called a slippery slope fallacy. To move from a specific critique of an institution or several institutions into a ‘You are asking to abolish all institutions’ position.
There are several practical solutions within each of these institutions. In some instances, there are fairly easy solutions. In the case of custodial homes, for example, transparency in processes, involvement of citizens in participatory, co-operative running of them, institutionalising (by the state) social work as a profession and getting social workers and health care workers paid jobs to build protocols and processes in such institutions are all easily achievable. In other cases, like re-thinking the family, solutions are more difficult.
But what is important is to build subjects that are able not just to see through the rhetoric of the institutions but also work at re-writing that rhetoric through a practice that assumes subjecthood and agency for all involved.
If you see children in the family as hapless, brain-dead and incapable of thinking; if you see schools and colleges and Universities as wards of these ‘children’ who will protect them by keeping them under lock and key (and how different are women’s hostels from these custodial homes?); if you see community members as needing to be policed and denied any desire; if you see citizens as needing to obey and be silent, you will only produce a fertile landscape of horror stories of violence and abuse.
We are a society of adults unprepared and unable to assume adulthood because we were children unprepared to have a voice. Voicelessness is not an ontological condition; it is determined by access to the ontic. If you have no food to eat unless you obey, it is difficult to have a voice.
Institutions have to change their rhetoric and their practices (all of them work within a field of constraints; all our lives work in these fields) but this can happen only when inmates have the space to articulate their voices. This requires a fundamental respect for the human voice that none of our institutions – from the family to the school, the community to the state – have at the moment.
Ashley Tellis is an LGBH, anti-communal, feminist, child, Dalit, adivasi, and minority rights activist. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
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