July 05, 2020
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The Chilly Justice Of The Gulag

Raya Sarkar’s letter reveals a feminism that seeks to fight patriarchy with Stalinist methods, discarding human warmth and personal engagement

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The Chilly Justice Of The Gulag
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
The Chilly Justice Of The Gulag

I must confess I write this paper with a sense of hesitation, even doubt. My friends warned me that this is the time of political correctness where debate is not welcome and controversy is read as obscene. I feel the sadness of a generation where movements were a part of the everyday imagination. Whether it was ecological, Marxist, feminist, human rights or peace, political movements defined a way of life, a style of thinking, even living. We felt that, in defining a relationship, we were inventing a way of life. Politics also ­defines the way we look at the personal, the intimate, the ­domain of sexuality and friendship. Yet today what was a playing field, a space for friendship, has become a minefield. It is like being asked to undo the storytelling of a generation. Part of this rupture, at least for an academic, comes with the Raya Sarkar affair. For me, the man-woman relationship had a sense of celebration, of tolerance and humour. It was open and open-ended; it was not that we did not make mistakes, but we lived with them. There were moments of poignancy, ­innocence, beauty which nothing could destroy. It was real and there was no nostalgia about it.

Today, when I talk to my students, things seem different. They often approach me in essentialist terms assuming that, as a male, I am sexist and patriarchal. The trigger, if not the cause of it, is the Raya Sarkar affair. It begins with a letter naming and shaming a whole list of academics, many outstanding, for sexual harassment. There is little proof offered but proof seems unnecessary. One of my students asked, “When are you going to respect my subjectivity? I have been mistreated by so many men and you ask for proof. Where has proof made a difference? It is a question of power and you males get away with mayhem.” I realised three things at the moment. The notion of proof, of due process, of evidence made little sense to this group that had seen proof dissolve before power, reducing a girl who had been raped to abject silence. It is this silence that was exploding into the Me Too movement. It was silence which was demanding a symbolic justice. For it, courts or kangaroo courts made little difference. Secondly, the years of silence had created a sense that a woman’s anger and her scars were proof enough. It was this und­erbelly of sil­ence that we were guilty of ignoring. It did not make any difference if a few innocent males were eliminated. History and the logic of politics made it inevitable. It set an example, it warned males in general that the silence was over. The Raya Sarkar movement, for all its Stalinism, was treated as a festival of celebration by many younger feminists. A student told me a few inn­ocent males hardly make a difference. The silence of our ­victimhood has been ruptured. I asked her, “What if there was one innocent man on the list?” For her this was an oxymoron. She claimed it was nothing compared to the violation that women had suffered throughout history. “Men as men had to be taught a lesson. That was justice.”

The student reminded me of Naxals and Stalinists who felt that history and politics would define truth. Power, not the rule of law, was the variable. The Raya Sarkar incident had ­exposed the hypocrisy of institutions, a form of justice had opened up the repressed history of silence. Sadly, there was no acceptance of vulnerability, or error. It was as if conversation had to give way to surveillance. Sexuality seemed more an assembly line for ­inj­ustice. More like a gender war than the celebration of a relationship, a conversation laced with ­humour and vulnerability, a sense of ­romance that no ­future could destroy. The ­student’s ­hatred for males made her contem­ptuous of the entire idea of the rituals of justice. What was missing was a balance that keeps the search for justice alive along with the reciprocity of ­con­versation. A few ­scapegoats were necessary to bring justice back on track. There was a transition from politics as a lab­oratory to a coercive politics.

What the student saw as “a rupture, an opening up of truth”, I sensed as an impasse. She had little sense of history. What she had was a packaged discourse, an ideology which gave her solace. It was a talisman at a time when rape, harassment, molestation had destroyed so many women’s lives. It was this silence that made a mockery of the search for justice through institutions, laws, norms and procedures. For them, enlightenment was a lie as far as women’s rights were concerned.

I understand the poignancy of pain but I feel there is a one-sidedness to it. To make a man suffer just to open him up to women’s suffering does not add up. I admit mine might be a more innocent, stupid world where people learnt to confront each other’s mistakes. There was romanticism here but also a genuine attempt to work out a more humane relationship. Yet this search for shaming eliminates the joys of a man-woman relationship.  I remember meeting the scientist C.V. Seshadri, kicking the tyres of his Ambassador car. I asked him, “What’s up, Doc?” He said, “Gender was the first diversity and we muffed it”. Yet Seshadri’s sense of error emphasised the joy, the anticipation, the adventure, the celebration of a man-woman relationship. It was as if even the errors added up to an evolutionary understanding of the relationship.

I sensed two things missing. First, a sense of intimacy, conversation, friendship. Second, as these private spaces emptied out, the personal became political, and ultimately froze into the ideological. It was as if patriarchy defined the new global war. One sensed that the reciprocity, narratives of caring, stories of relationships, were missing. It was a need for an abstract resolution that men must be punished and politics must take over from law. Innocence hardly mattered.

But it was more than this. One missed the fun, the nuanced narratives of a relationship. The agony and the anticipation of communicating, a relationship had something complex which could not be calibrated or reduced to a contract. There was a magic to the face-to-face which no institution could rupture. There is little of this sense in stories today, cap­turing the individuality and music of a relationship. I sometimes wonder whether it has to do with technology. Digitalised radicalism seems ­industrialised. It cannot capture the way a stack of letters captures a relationship.

“What if there was one ­innocent man on the list?” For the ­student, this was an oxymoron.

I think the older generation of radicals, feminists, Marxists, sensed this. They respected time and waited for institutions to develop. They believed in the normative and in trust and were sceptical of quick solutions in personal life or in public solutions. They tried to weave the personal and political into a tapestry of radicalism. Also, the older generations somehow felt freer, joyful, able to talk, live with difference. They understood liberation better and did not treat it like a quick fix. Also, participating in movements gave them a sense of ­pat­ience and anticipation. This new generation which salutes a Raya Sarkar ritual wants justice as instant gratification. Partly, this stems from this lack of sense of technology, where technology bec­omes a substitute for politics. We need to ref­lect how technology has transformed the human relationship. The Raya Sarkar document is Orwellian in nature but it is sadly seen as liberating. If a woman feels unsettled, she dem­ands an instant resolution. It is like saying “I feel pain so the man must be guilty. If I cannot catch the specific pe­r­petrator, anyone will do”. It is McCarthyism by default, where suspicion constitutes fact and rules the day. Trust and reciprocity are casualties. I realise power and patriarchy must be fought but they must be replaced by the wonder of the face-to-face, with its sense of surprise, desire, where an aesthetic grows around every relationship. Justice must add joy and des­ire, not puritan primness, to the ­rel­­at­ionship. To call Raya Sarkar’s letter the new Truth Commission violates my sense of history and aesthetic.

Maybe this is nostalgia, maybe it is utopian, but it is around gender and sexuality that life is built and such life cannot be panopticonised. A feminist movement which becomes a ­symbolic or voyeuristic lynch mob is like the queen in Alice, who says “off with his head, judgement afterwards”. What Lewis Carroll captures as comic is now macabre.

The older ­generation was sceptical of quick ­solutions. The youth want ­instant gratification.

I think the question we are asking is on two levels. Publicly we want our institutions to embody fairness, privately we want our relationships to celebrate love and desire. To set up a ­kangaroo court, no matter how well-­intentioned, destroys the personal and intimate, the joy of difference and the risks inv­olved—and that is too high a price to pay for an arid justice. Naming and shaming creates a society where fear is key. No joyous relationship can survive under these conditions. A Pavlovian world offers little possibility of mutuality or surprise.

(The writer, a sociologist, is a member of Compost Heap)

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