In the past fortnight, scholar, activist, feminist and internationally renowned academic Nivedita Menon has been under a barrage of defamatory attack in sections of the national primetime media. Following this media attention, Menon has found herself at the receiving end of the vicious abuse online that goes by the cute name of trolling. Some websites have openly asked for her personal details to be shared online, and shadowy individuals who themselves remain anonymous have obliged with details on her marital status, her family relations, their professional affiliations and personal details. Outfits associated with the ruling party including the ABVP, and an ostensibly unaffiliated private individual have filed separate sets of complaints in three different police stations.
The allegation is the flavor of the month — anti-nationalism. Much has been written and better than I can, on nationalism. Here I only want to speak of Menon as a teacher and a human being, and not a disembodied object of abuse or a collection of grainy video clips with her face circled like some ordinary criminal.
I distinctly remember the first time I ever met Nivi as she is known to us — it was July 1997, and my friend Janaki and I were sitting in a sweltering classroom in Lady Shri Ram College, in Delhi, having entered the third year of our undergraduate degree and idly curious about a course with the clumsy title of "Women and the Political Process". Nivedita would be teaching that course and Janaki and I were not looking forward to it; like most of our public school-educated female peers, we were suspicious about feminism and imagined the world to be a gender-neutral, meritocratic place.
We were also full of conceit about our place in this world. After all, our fathers had treated us like sons and sent us to a premier higher educational institution, even though it had a bit of a bad reputation as a factory for feminists. Had we not been told at home we could do anything we wanted? Then what was the need for feminism, or to study a separate category called 'women'? Of course, we hadn't considered, at that time, that the circle of parental permissions within which we defined our freedom could tighten any time.
So we sat in that classroom, eyeing Nivedita warily. Being nicer to a couple of bratty, entitled undergraduates than they deserved, she flashed her soon-to-be famous dimples at us and teasingly suggested to us that she could see this wasn't our first choice but we may want to give it a try. Janaki and I looked at each other, shrugged, and that was it. We didn't realise it then, but we had just enrolled in one of the most life-altering experiences we would ever have. Heady, brilliant, mind-bending — Nivedita's classes became the crystallising focus in a hectic final year.
It wasn't simply ideas, books and discussions inside the classroom, it was an entire way of being that Nivedita exuded — a form of speech, address, manner and commitment that I now associate with the rather heavy-duty word democratic. But there was nothing heavy-duty about Nivedita, except her formidable intellect. We realised for the first time that teachers needn't be authority figures to command respect. That they were vital, breathing, struggling human beings, located in particular relationships to the world — neither smothering Mother Indias, sacrificing sati savitris nor cussed dragon ladies. That they needn't be objectified because the only way you could counter their power, as the boys in my school would do with the pretty English teacher. In a college where to pass a teacher on the corridor meant a suffocating whiff of perfume and the rustle of silk or starched cotton, Nivedita's attire was designed for being mobile — faded salwar, t-shirt and kolhapuris. For us, it meant only thing — liberation!
Most importantly, here was a teacher who wasn't afraid to accept she was wrong or confused when she needed to. There weren't many occasions but when it happened, she would say, "You know, I have no idea, but I will check and let you know." We were in love! It wasn't all fun and games. At times we were bitterly angry at Nivedita for upsetting our ideological apple carts, for destroying the happy family fantasy we had nurtured all our lives. But feminism and good social science are like that — they trade comfortable but ultimately deadening belief for a lively, quicksilver curiosity and emotional roller coasters. And Nivedita allowed us to argue, debate, get angry, disagree, without ever abusing her power as a teacher. That is democracy.
One has to be sorry for anybody who hasn't been in a transformative space like that, which so often comes in the guise of a classroom. It's troubling that an experience like that is so experiential and so subjective that it cannot be expressed adequately in words. Troubling because prejudice is a Gordian knot — the more you struggle against it, the tighter it gets. You get drawn into endless arguments in cyberspace where most battles for legitimacy are being fought these days. I want to believe that all the trolls and haters online and those offline who would like to see a teacher arrested for having "seditious" ideas have been deprived of such an education, one that clears your adolescent brain out and replaces it with a much nicer, much finer mental apparatus. Not to mention a heart that equips you to try making the world a better place than you found it when you arrived.
When at the end of my undergraduate degree on impulse I applied to a university abroad, Nivedita's response was characteristically mock-melodramatic. With a hand on her heart she sighed and said in Malayalam, "Oh I wish I hadn't written you that recommendation…now you'll go and never come back to this country." How could I not come back? The day after my final exams for the M.A ended, I caught a flight back to India, to resume a life I had found to be irresistibly exciting, not to mention intellectually and politically meaningful. Nivedita could have taught at any of the best universities in the world where she is regularly invited to give lectures, but she never considered it. All those who insist now that nationalism is purely the blood-soaked defence of territory will never get it, but we were fierce patriots when we dreamed common dreams about living and teaching in India.
How do these trolls reason? That if they can find out about your personal life, it would explain your public self in some way? Of course, a man's personal life never explains his public life or his views. This is a sign of deep sickness, this attack on women in public. Alice Miller, the renowned psychoanalyst in her path-breaking The Drama of the Gifted Child has movingly argued that a child deprived of adequate loving attention from adults retains the possibility of becoming cruel in later life. A culture that reproduces machismo consigns its children to this fate. A macho father and a docile mother cannot produce the fiercely loving, confidently protective embrace a child needs to become a secure adult. A child will quickly pick up depending on her gender, which parent she needs to mould herself around.
If you think girls will pick mothers and boys will pick fathers, this is only partly true. The instinct for cruelty and humiliation that machismo and excessive docility reinforce in a loop between genders, gets distributed as so much psychoanalytic material within the future generations. So a woman can appear overtly docile but practice little cruelties on those less powerful — young children, domestic help, female relatives. On the other hand, a man who appears macho can be racked by doubt and fear inside, which he handles by a growing spiral of anger and aggression in his responses.
Miller, most of whose family perished in the Holocaust, identifies nationalism as the favourite refuge of the cruel, insecure child. Miller's book helped me understand a lot of the viciousness I see online — the anonymity of personal identity, combined with the legitimacy of the public religion of nationalism allows an orgy of violence and humiliation that would be unacceptable in any civilised community. Yet it is there, and it is only growing… Perhaps it is nerve-rackingly stressful and unfulfilling to live a regular, mechanical life — job, families, children, car, house — and I suspect these cyber-bullies abhor women and men who live differently. Why they cast us as spongers while considering themselves honest citizens. Thinking, reading, writing, questioning, even if you have a job as a teacher, is sponging. Acting, especially violently, is citizenly. This is as old as Socrates and his executioners.
Nivedita's classes broke the circle of parental authority for many of us, allowing us to question these patterns of cruelty and deceit in our personal relationships. A few years ago, when my mother met Nivedita properly for the first time and I was anxious because in my head, they were from different universes, my mother held her hand and said she had learned feminism from her, through me! Nivedita was almost in tears, and so was I. The fact is my feminism truly began only when my mother became my friend and equal, and this was made possible by that life-altering classroom. This may be scandalous for those who believe in the natural dominion of parenthood, but as I said earlier, I can only feel sorry for those condemned to live within these prisons.
Nivedita's continued presence in all her students lives as a friend, comrade and fellow academic have been a lodestone — whenever we forget who we are, or what we are doing in this life, we remember her grit, her passion and most of all, her integrity. It has never failed us. Now, when this collective madness has put her in the line of fire, we have to make sure we don't fail her.
Sunalini Kumar is Assistant Professor in political science at Lady Shri Ram College.