The day I read about Raya Sarkar’s list, a feeling of inexplicable satisfaction ran through me. I wondered if these were some sadistic tendencies I was unconsciously harbouring. I wanted to be rational in my response as we have always been taught to be, but my emotions were having none of it. The one thought that kept running through my mind was, ‘It’s about time this happened.’
I was not very surprised when Kafila published their letter of condemnation. It simply drove home what I’d been seeing and experiencing for a few years now – that whether Left or Right, what the average person encounters is an elite, self-protective circle of people, who believe they know what is best for the people of this country and righteously dismiss those who don’t act in accordance to their worldview.
The reason I’m getting into the political aspect of something as private as sexual harassment is because this list is testing our commitment to the fundamental tenet and clarion call of feminism – the personal is the political. If ever evidence was needed of the chasm between preaching and practising – this is it. Another reason is because this is a deeply personal moment for me and one which I am only writing about because I realise how political its implications are.
One of the people on that list was a mentor of mine, someone I respected deeply until the day I came to acknowledge that he had once, at the time that I was working with him, sexually harassed me. The incident had deeper emotional repercussions than I was able to comprehend at the time. That realisation, though, came a few years after the incident had happened, and this is the crux of why I’m writing this today, so do bear with me.
When I say I realised it a few years later, it does not mean that I did not know whilst in the midst of the incident that something felt gut-wrenchingly wrong. But at the time, I encountered the confused numbness which anyone who has been through something like this knows only too well.
‘What’s happening to me? Why the hell is this happening? How can he be doing this?’ All sorts of thoughts raced through my head but all I could do in the moment was to awkwardly push him away, feeling more embarrassed for him that he should have done something so reprehensible. He was, after all, a father figure. It was almost like, in that moment, I stepped out of myself, my own integrity, my sense of right and wrong, all of it – and stepped into the default mode of the average (Indian) woman – to pretend that nothing had happened.
And that’s how it stayed until about six months ago, when I was talking about sexual abuse to a friend, about how every Indian woman has had an encounter with it in some form or the other, with the perpetrators often being people the woman closely trusts… Suddenly, this repressed memory and its unexpressed emotions and anguish poured out. It took me by surprise. I experienced not just the unacknowledged indignation, but the harder emotion of self-loathing. Why hadn’t I slapped him across his face that day? Why didn’t I raise the issue later and do something about it? How could I have continued to work with him?
My friend wondered if I should have taken some legal action, the ‘due process’ position, and urged me that it was not too late to do it even now; not just for myself but for other women who might find themselves in a similarly vulnerable situation. And while that is exactly why all of us are now beginning to speak out, so that others don’t ever have to go through something like this, I am not doing this with the intention of maligning the man.
I am in fact doing this because I want him to know that us women raising our voices today are not against him or any of the other men on that list. This is not a gender war. It is in fact what they have been teaching their students about all these years – an upturning of patriarchal power structures, and the foundation of a new ‘idea of India’, a new world order even. It might sound absurd to bring in such grandiose ideas into an article on sexual violence but I truly believe that this is a watershed moment, and I know that I am not alone in feeling this.
Many of the men on that list are looked upon as intellectual torch-bearers of the country, who have deeply influenced and inspired the minds of many, especially young students. For many of us, this was also why we hesitated to speak out because somewhere, we were placing their progressive image and its impact to be of greater value than our own seemingly inconsequential selves.
After years of socialisation, we almost start believing that such ‘transgressions’ are ‘normal’ and that we shouldn’t make a big deal of them. The fact that many are raising an issue with this list without paying any heed to what these girls must have gone through to have taken recourse to something like this, shows that they too consider the minds of these men to be of greater value than the bodies of those women.
Personally, too, even though I had a strong feeling his name would appear on the list, when it did, I experienced a sense of relief. I could now deal with that internalised voice of patriarchy that keeps nagging us women saying, ‘Maybe you were asking for it in some way or the other.’ For those who are questioning the usefulness of the list, this should be reason enough – that many women like me across the country are now able to absolve themselves of the very thing they are being accused of causing: shame and blame.
But there was another part of me that experienced a deep sense of disappointment. A part of me that was somewhere hoping that what he did to me was an aberration, a ‘moment of weakness’ as we so euphemistically call it. It wasn’t because of my association with him, the respect I once had for him or the gratitude for the knowledge he had shared with me – it was because of the cynicism I knew would now enter the minds of many people associated with him, especially his students. I have experienced this cynicism and the journey from there back to idealism is a treacherous one.
And it is to lend a hand on this journey that I now write these words. I doubt that we will get out of this black hole by simply removing these men from their positions. We all know this isn’t about just these men. It is about mindsets, hypocrisies, false values, idolising, fake images and an unwillingness to hold each other accountable.
It is about our obsession with making heroes out of men.
The only way out that I can see, is for these false heroes to show us their feet of clay. To show us what it means to actually act on ideals rather than simply teach them. To raise their influential voices for social change once again, but this time against themselves.
Because what is at stake is the future direction of this country. It is a particularly vulnerable time for us all, and to have these men fighting these battles when they ought to be fighting for the very idea of India may seem like a waste of precious resources to many, but the fact is that ultimately the only real battle is the battle within oneself. If the very men we are supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with are as much of a threat as the forces we are trying to counter, then what are we fighting for and what moral right do we have to wage any other ideological battle?
There is a South African documentary about inmates called ‘The Choir’ which I would recommend to everyone reading this article. A scene in it has always stayed with me, though I must have watched it over 15 years back. The protagonist is a cocky young guy, who is in jail for multiple crimes including rape. A counsellor comes to work with the inmates on their hypermasculinity. She happens to be the same woman the protagonist had raped. Just facing this woman again brings him to tears and she hugs him letting him know that she understands what has made him who he is.
I believe that Raya Sarkar and all the women who have directly or indirectly contributed to that list are like that compassionate counsellor. They are simply holding a mirror out for all of us to see ourselves, for each of us in our own way is culpable for this collective silence. It is up to us now to let down our guards and initiate a much-needed process of truth, reconciliation and wherever needed, punitive action.
I find it so ironic that the critics of this list are raising the issue of ‘shame’, for it is many of these same people who never tired of quoting Marx’s famous words to us: ‘Shame is a revolutionary sentiment.’
Let’s have the courage now to embrace this revolution.
Views expressed are the author's own.