By Ashley Tellis
The outrageous and disproportionate punishment imposed upon the complainant by Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU), Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) in a sexual harassment case shows us how right-wing regimes are almost always misogynist, sexually conservative and intolerant of the idea of women’s rights, let alone the question of women’s sexual agency.
Sexual harassment as a quasi-law (it started as a set of recommendations, the Vishakha Guidelines) has had a difficult time from the start, not least because at the heart of it is the question of a woman deciding for herself what is acceptable and what not. Institutions like JNU and Delhi University (DU) interpreted the guidelines with rigour and foresight to produce excellent sexual harassment policies.
Instead of using these as templates, when sexual harassment was framed into a law, all of the hard work was undone and the democratic nature of those policies vitiated. ICC’s are decided by nomination as opposed to election and heads of institutions are given power, putting paid to the idea of a democratic process. Feminists and feminist student groups have been opposed to the law (which has built in it a false complaint clause that unravels the law from within) and the idea of the ICC (which is fundamentally undemocratic in its composition) from the start.
This ICC verdict is yet another challenge to the democratic culture in JNU which has been assaulted with challenge after challenge since this VC, stooge of the current dispensation, has sought to destroy all democratic and healthy institutional practices in JNU, one by one.
However, this is not justification for the internet feminists (who are, in any case, conspicuously absent, both online and offline, from any protest against this punishment or rallying around the complainant) to reiterate their belief in the uselessness of due process. Indeed it consolidates precisely the need for due process. What the JNU VC has done is hollow out the institution by breaking with due process on many counts and in most areas of University life.
Institutions run on processes and heathy institutions run on democratic ones. JNU is known, since its inception, for its commitment to democratic processes in University functioning and this has come under attack in the past few years. The attack has been mounted precisely by breaking the law, breaking with due process and the ICC is the perfect instrument of such an attack, producing kangaroo court judgements like this one against the complainant.
What this shows us is the isomorphic relation between social media trials in the name of feminism and institutions undemocratically silencing women and minorities but also democratic processes of all kinds. Both show a disregard for due process, one in the name of progressive radicalism, the other in the name of an ideology of regressive radicalism.
This must surely give us pause and make us re-think the gung-ho nature of social media activism and ‘movements’ conducted online. There is no substitute for struggles on the ground, no matter how difficult these are. In the JNU case, it cannot but be a struggle on the ground and many academics from there (including ones excoriated for asking for a withdrawal from social media activism in an earlier moment) have already issued a statement against the punishment and will doubtless start a campaign against it in JNU.
What is important for those of us who care about democracy and gender justice is to join them and offer support in that struggle on the ground. This has always been a bitter and lonely struggle and people burn out in it.
The paltry numbers in struggles against sexual harassment point to how collective feminist struggle in India has in the neoliberal moment more or less evaporated into NGOisation and statist assimilation, both of which have no critical edge and certainly no engagement with struggles on the ground against institutional power.
Social media and the internet in general have done nothing to form part of collective struggles, however small. Indeed, social media has further weakened the idea of collective struggle replacing it with mouse-click adventurism and self-appointed heroism, often with dangerous consequences. The backlash against it is visible in this ICC verdict which indeed also blames the complainant for using social media.
For the social media to have any value, it has to tie up with processes on the ground and be careful in its following of due process and ethical codes of conduct. This can only happen when it is used in conjunction with forces actually involved in struggles against the breaking of due process and ethical procedure.
It cannot become an online parallel regime that not only has no power to enforce any changes in abuse and malpractice on the ground but, counterproductively, also shares the undemocratic impulses of abusers and the stooges of right-wing radicalism.
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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