Thursday, March 21, 2013

JNU GSCASH Presidential Debate: What was said and what was left unsaid

The evening of 20th March, 2013 saw the presidential debate for the Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) in JNU. I will try to put up an account of what the candidates spoke about, what questions they were asked, what they replied, and how did it feel like being in the audience. At the outset I would want to eliminate a few misconceptions: even though most parties, by general consent, claim that the GSCASH candidate is “independent,” “neutral,” and so on – which basically means that most of them refrain from contesting under their party's name – in reality the affair is much more openly political. The publicity campaign is run by the parties. The floor of the debate is divided into clearly demarcated areas where each of the party's cadre sit, and loyalty votes are freely asked by the parties from those who they think sympathize with them. There are consequences of the results too: a party would look at it as a matter of pride generally if its candidate wins the election, to speak nothing of the prestige that can be used in the coming elections of the students' union or GSCASH in the next term. The other problem of this deliberate de-politicization of GSCASH elections is that this is what the right-wing powers in campus and outside want: you are students, you shouldn't be allowed to talk about politics, do not make gender a political agenda, let us do the talking for you, and so on. Why, then, should progressive left parties want to speak the same language? The second misconception that needs to be cleared is regarding the relationship between the candidates and the audience; this is an unequal relationship, since the candidates make many claims about what their party has done in the past, and what they will once again do when given a chance. Some candidates went to the extent of saying that every vote given to her would be a blow to patriarchy! Usually the “how” questions are avoided, and when pushed, evaded. Hence, even if the debate seems democratic in its format, it lacks a very crucial aspect: there is no way the audience can verify the lofty claims made by the candidates. While there did exist a procedure earlier to discuss the annual faring of the GSCASH before elections, this has become defunct. But it is clear that GSCASH autonomy rests in dis-balance until such mechanisms for review are reinstated.

Around 5 30 pm, the proceedings for the election began. There was a show of strength going on, meanwhile, in the audience, which comprised mostly of political parties by now. As the debate began and carried on, more and more people filled in. A liberal estimate would be that perhaps a thousand – out of the seven thousand students enrolled in JNU – students were witness to the whole debate.

Abhiruchi Ranjan (All India Students Association) She began with a couplet about the freedom of women. Her manner of speaking was rather affected, and spontaneity was clear in its absence. She began by saluting the spirit of women's resistance in various contexts – against the AFSPA, against feudal caste relations, against the state war against tribals (there are some obvious omissions in this list, as we will see later; these omissions, in fact, were spoken of by none). Apart from this, there were no threads running through her speech, except these: firstly, she seemed to be in favor of increasing official, administrative mechanisms dealing with gender (gender orientation programmes and modules in courses). Secondly, she spoke in favor of everyone's right over their own sexual choices and the integrity of their bodies. Thirdly, she constantly reminded the audience of the recent protests in Delhi after a gangrape that caught high media attention, more than hinting that its leadership came from the “Freedom without Fear” campaign headed by her parent party. She was asked what was done regarding the issue of the LGBT community in the previous GSCASH term, when a student of her party was the representative. She replied that it was talked about during the gender orientation session held at the beginning of the previous semester, to which many in the audience shouted back that these sessions hadn't much to do with alternative sexualities. The second question she was asked was that having spoken about sexual crimes all over the country and the world, why was she or her party silent over the failure of the GSCASH to support a girl from outside who was molested within the campus by a student? Her reply was that she doesn't distinguish between the outside and the inside, and that the crimes committed in other parts of the country are more gruesome. Many in the audience did not consider this a proper reply to the question asked.

Dipti Tamang (Democratic Students' Federation) She began by pointing out towards the momentum built around gender issues in the wake of the famous Delhi-gangrape. She said that while on the one hand people are questioning patriarchy and asserting their rights over their body, the parliament is still living in its patriarchal mindset. It is necessary to question the ideas regarding gender that we grow up with, as well as do away with the draconian powers given to the police and the military. She pointed out how the state is ignoring the JVC and instead pushing forth laws that are to the detriment of women, which needs to be fought on the streets. She is not against the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill, but wants it to keep gender bodies representative rather than nominated in their elections. She believes that the administration should grant support to maintain the autonomy of GSCASH, and that GSCASH should keep a regular counselor in the health centre to provide psychological support to complainants.

Lovey Srivastava (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) She began by narrating a string of developments world over where women achieved, recently, their equal rights with men, in terms of wages, right to work, right to social access, etc. But this enumeration ended abruptly, and she came to issues closer home. The most important part of her agenda was that GSCASH must be de-politicized, since it is a “neutral” body in the first place. It should not become a site for political clash, and must be impartial in its functioning as a court is. She has been in the campus since her BA days (now ten years), and she has consistently seen how the neutral character of the body has been watered down by political parties, and that GSCASH is often a tool for retribution. Hence, there should also be steps to curb false cases registered in GSCASH. Apart from these, she was in favor of demands for sanitary napkin dispensers in campus, speedy disposal of cases, and so on. She also spoke in favor of the students' protest that took place in Delhi of late, and against physical violence against women. She was asked what her idea of gender sensitization is. She replied that many students in campus watch porn in their rooms, and that should stop. She also believes that the administrative class that the girl faces exploitation from includes professors on one hand, and workers – mess, sanitation, etc. - on the other. She was asked how she could speak against rape when her parent party – the BJP – perpetrated these very crimes against minorities in state-sponsored pogroms. She replied that if these allegations are true, she condemns them. She was asked if she was in favor of condom-vending-machines in campus. To which she replied yes, and not only in campus but otherwise also. She was then asked how could she ask for stopping pornography given that MLAs from the BJP indulge in it in the parliament? She replied it is a detestable habit, and hence should stop everywhere, accepting the MLAs folly too. Lastly, she was asked what is her opinion about the LGBT group. She said she accepted them, but did not endorse them.

Sandhya Das (UDSF, SFR, New Materialists, Independent support) Her election agenda was based on the idea that patriarchy not only identifies the woman as its target, but also different kinds of women, based on lines of caste, nationality, and so on. She asked those who supported the protests against the famous Delhi gangrape why they remain silent about the Soni Soris and Asiyas and Nilofars. She pointed out that the Justice Verma Committee report – and law in general – would remain useless until and unless society steps up to uphold that, for which a patriarchal mindset will have to be questioned. In this regard, she criticized the dominant left for sacrificing work amidst people to media-centric attention. (What would be the nature of this work, however, she did not clarify.) She also exposed the image-centric notion of activism – the jholas, unruly beard, glasses of the standard activist – against allegations (these allegations have been made, but there is exageration also) that she is elite in her appearance and diction and so on. She upheld the right to sexuality also, openly raising the issue of the right to safe and free sex. She was asked what she thought wrong with the JVC report, and she clarified that nothing was wrong with it, but it was wrong to assume it will somehow work by itself, given the state's continuous disregard for reports of this kind. She was then asked why she was against protesting at Jantar Mantar, to which she replied that the kind of media-centric protest that JNUSU and the left in campus believe they are leading is actually just a “hang-over” from their Anna Hazare obsession.

Srirupa Bhattacharya (Democratic Students' Union) Srirupa was the only candidate who admitted to fighting from her party. She pointed out that we do not recognize that what the gender movement is up against is not simply misbehaviour, but entrenched patriarchy. In the context of the gang-rape protests in Delhi, she said that those of the campus left who claim to have led the protests had nothing to say when the demands for death penalty and chemical castration were raised, and they couldn't do anything when demands for increased surveillance and policing came about. She accused them of failing to recognize that it is this police that is the agent of patriarchal forces in our society. It will take a popular struggle to even uphold the autonomy of GSCASH. She also raised concerns about women of the marginal sections of society – SC/ST women, women of oppressed nationalities, and so on. She also put forth the suggestion that the results of GSCASH inquiry be binding for the administration to act upon. She was questioned about this point, as to what exactly she meant by it. Her reply was rather unclear, but suggested that as things stand presently, the GSCASH gives out its conclusions to the administration, which then acts on these. It should be GSCASH which decides how to act upon the findings they have.

Tintumol Joseph (Students Federation of India) She saluted the spirit of the people who took to the streets after the Delhi-gangrape and condemned the govt.'s passing the ordinance rather than accept the recommendations of Justice Verma. While she condemned the upper hand of the state with its draconian laws in Kashmir and North East, her party's position in Tripura still remained unclear. Tintumol argued towards preserving the autonomy of the GSCASH from administrative interference as well as from being made nominative under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill. She spoke against the vulnerability that a student has to face in lodging and carrying through a complaint against a professor, and promised to balance out these inequalities if given a chance. She also said that there needs to be a more timely dispensing of justice in GSCASH cases, and was ready to brace all these challenges as a GSCASH student representative.

We must also ask ourselves a few questions after having heard what the candidates have to say. Firstly, amidst all the slogans for Bhanwari Devi, Nilofar-Asiya, Manorama Devi, Irom Sharmila, nobody mentioned Shah Bano. That is the Achilles' Heel of the left (even the “independent” left/caste-based/tribe-based parties) on campus. The progressives here rarely talk about Shah Bano. And we know this belongs to the votebank strategies in campus. There is nobody asking the question if patriarchy also further marginalizes women and children within the marginalized. Secondly, nobody raised the question of the moral-policing that hostel rules allow. There are huge fines levied upon students if guests (of either gender) are found during warden checks. Mostly, hosting men is easy for men, since it only requires putting a letter requesting permission, which then costs Rs 10. There is no way a woman guest can stay over. Why does this never figure into the discourse on moral-policing in campus? Thirdly, there are considerable gaps between the agenda put on the parchas and those spoken of in speech. For example, nobody spoke of sanitary-napkin-dispensers, even though it was part of the agenda. Nobody spoke of condom-vending-machines. The former was promised last time too, but not given, hence it was better not to mention it. The latter was an attempt to sound progressive, but as it turned out, repression got the better of most left candidates, while it was an ABVP candidate who agreed to it! Likewise, nothing substantial was said about the issue of alternative sexualities. What is to be done with token support? How about speaking against the stereotypes and misconceptions that many in campus hold regarding the LGBT?

The most important thread running across all these concerns is the disappearance of the “how” questions. A friend who witnessed the election remarked that nobody seemed to be interested in really doing something, it was just a power-game that one plays in the interest of one's party. What will be required now isn't simply voting for one or the other candidate, who seems to us most radical or most progressive, but rather a strong pressure on GSCASH from outside to deliver sincerely and deliver on the correct issues. We need to have quarterly report discussions in which all the developments in GSCASH are publicly read out and discussed. We must demand and help ensure that complainants are not threatened by professors or political parties to take back their complaints, and that they are helped against psychological torment by insensitive and crooked elements. We must demand that gender sensitization should include students and professors, and must be regular. GSCASH elections need to be organized with the JNUSU elections. There must be provisions that if a student's representative has resigned, there must be by-elections so that the student representation is not weakened. More time must be given for the candidates to be questioned: it is seen that they talk nonsense for this limited time and simply get away without answering important questions. The effects of the Sexual Harassment Bill on GSCASH autonomy and our plan of action must be made more clear. And these are only preliminary demands. The list must definitely grow. Meanwhile, we must not take the elections lightly and must cast our vote having thoroughly judged the agenda of each candidate. We must not think of voting as a favor for somebody whom we know or who has helped us. We don't want privileges, we want what is rightfully ours.