NLS prof slut-shaming student in shorts is not surprising: It shows how India's premier law school behaves like a khap panchayat - Firstpost
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NLS prof slut-shaming student in shorts is not surprising: It shows how India's premier law school behaves like a khap panchayat


The National Law School of India (NLS) in Bengaluru, a premier institute for legal studies, is used to being in the news; but not, for the reasons that have recently brought it into the media glare.

A few days ago, the alumni circuits started buzzing with news of a standoff between the one batch of students and a particular member of the faculty. It turns out that this member of the faculty had taken umbrage to the fact that a female student was wearing shorts to class.

Going by the reports, the professor chose to make this sartorial choice an issue of sexuality saying: "We all know why parents marry their children off - so that they can have sex. Just because the parents marry off their children for this reason, it does not mean that the children have sex in front of their parents." When the student in question objected to this statement the professor is reported to have shot back "You can come to class without a dress also. That is how your character is, I'm going to ignore you." Stunned by this turn of events, the response of the batch was for all of them to turn up to class the next day dressed in shorts and demand that the professor apologises. No such apology being forthcoming, the class was cancelled and the issue escalated to the Vice-Chancellor.

In their statement condemning the issue, the students have indicated that the resolution they seek is twofold, the first is against the moral policing so flagrantly demonstrated, and secondly against concerned member of the faculty.

Recollections from various alumni available online will demonstrate that contrary to this professor's protestations, this is not the first time he has expressed himself in such a problematic manner. However, his is not an isolated case, the present case is merely a manifestation of a systemic problem in NLS. It is therefore with the first issue that I would like to concern myself in this reflection, largely because it speaks to a larger institutional culture existent in NLS, an institute where I have had the privilege of being a student for five years, and was subsequently member of the faculty for a year.

The culture of the institution is best captured, as one where the faculty assumes a parental role, and to a large extent denies the student body their status as independent adults. This is compounded by the blatantly patriarchal manner in which this parental role is exercised, most obvious in the manner in which sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, is regulated.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

This regulation of female sexuality can be traced right to the inception of the Law School and the institutional culture crafted by the first Director N R Madhava Menon and supported by a majority of the faculty. While the segregation of sexes into different hostels is a common practice in the country, the manner in which this premier legal institute managed the bodies of women resident of campus gives evidence to the fact that it wasn't liberal legality that governed the institution, but a casteist (il)legality. Women's hostels were segregated from the rest of the campus, by internal barriers composed of barbed wire and ditches; the physical movement of women hampered by unequal curfew periods for male and female students. Further, the interaction between men and women, regardless of romantic involvement, was made particularly difficult.

There is one particular incident that perhaps illustrates this situation ideally. Unable to receive male students, or visitors within the confines of the hostels, the students would fraternise around a bench located immediately outside the barbed wire fences. At some point, however, this bench was destroyed following one of the cyclical frenzies of the moral policing that marks life in the NLS campus. Some indignant students sought to crudely reconstruct the bench, and the fraternising continued, until the bench was destroyed again.

The final response of the administration brings to mind the kind of iconoclastic violence that early medieval subcontinental rulers reserved for the deities of their enemies. In this case, not only was the bench destroyed, but the students forced to trample over it thanks to the slab being incorporated into the paving of the path they used daily.

The moral policing one is witness to in NLS is in fact no different from that demonstrated by the notorious khap panchayats of Haryana. While in the violence may be naked and hence horrific in the case of Haryana, it is no less implicit in the National Law School. In both cases it is through the control of women that social order is maintained, and the repercussions for violating it are, as in the present case, vicious.


What is interesting about NLS is that despite being an institute committed to the study of law, and more importantly rights, it is these very rights that are systematically discounted in the internal operation of the institution, and the dignity of individual students consistently offended. Student unions, for example, were systematically prohibited from being instituted on campus.

Another telling example in NLS would illustrate this fact. Students are encouraged to meet with faculty to discuss the research papers they are obliged to write every tri-mester. What is incredible is that despite almost twenty-five years of existence, no thought has been given to provide chairs for students to sit on while they wait for access to the faculty. Students squat on the floor, even as faculty, staff and students walk through the corridors nonchalantly. The similarity of this failure to provide infrastructure to the way subaltern castes are humiliated on a daily basis is to striking to escape notice.

This is not to suggest that the faculty of NLS deliberately seeks to humiliate students, but that the failure to be concerned with a larger project of securing the dignity of individuals has allowed it to not see quotidian social practices in India as profoundly humiliating.

The behavior of the member of the faculty is in fact no different from the kind of moral policing whose tone has increasingly increased in the country over recent years. There is in fact a single line that connects the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, the vicious attacks on students in JNU, and the humiliation of this female student in NLS and the institutional culture it stems from.

For this reason, in a season of student protest one should welcome the protest of the students in NLS, and encourage other batches in the institute to join in this dissent. There has been a history of consistent student protest, often against the moral policing enforced by the faculty that has consistently ensured that the instutionalised caste patriarchy of the institution is challenged. However, the fact that larger student unions were never permitted in NLS has also ensured that the student politics of NLS is insular and does not link up with larger social movements. Given the timing of the protest in NLS, one hopes that this trend will change.

The author is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for International Studies at the University Institute of Lisbon. His writings are archived at www.dervishnotes.blogspot.com

First Published On : Apr 9, 2016 09:31 IST

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