Amid changing nature of sex as an activity, debates over Raya Sarkar's list represent post-colonial binaries

The reactions against Raya Sarkar's list is fascist in their language, which ironically, is similar to the language of 'anti-national' used by the Hindu right

Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan November 05, 2017 17:24:10 IST
Amid changing nature of sex as an activity, debates over Raya Sarkar's list represent post-colonial binaries

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself;

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman

Raya Sarkar has brought us a list, setting the creeds and schools in abeyance, and we will not understand what they did until it has all been done. This list comes in the epoch of the leaks — "Unlike societies in the 1970s, our social body is defined by leaks; everything leaks, from surveillance tapes, wire tapes, nudity on a remote beach, books, music to medicinal drugs and lives”. It comes also in the era of new technologies of sex. In this, the list should not surprise us.

All we need to know about the list, for now, is that it is a “crowd-sourced list naming alleged sexual harassers in academia”. Further, some of the names in the list are the leaders of postcolonial theory which also determines the most dominant feminism in India. The list liberates women from the terror of men and the demand for submission to the postcolonial norms in the academia. In this, the list reveals the critical-ised state of feminism.

All we need to know for now is that Sarkar is 'they' since we do not give a damn about what anyone was born as. This 'they' is not Whitman’s multitudes but something different which indicates the passion for the future which — this time it is of everything — is already here. They and their list are showing us something beyond sex, death, and the little fascisms in the name of "the left".

Amid changing nature of sex as an activity debates over Raya Sarkars list represent postcolonial binaries

File image of Raya Sarkar. Image source: Facebook

Critical-ised feminism and its necessary line of descent

The list has elicited bitter responses, and more lists have appeared. These incoherent sounds of a broken internal milieu — the lists, casteism, more and more pronouns, territorial shouts, threats, curses — are the only ones a critical-ised movement can make, like the tattered skin of an old drum. These paranoid gestures — checking the locks, tough postures out of a vacant power, camping into caste ghettos, territorial markings, dirt wars — are all that an organism in a foreign milieu can make. This is feminism at its critical limits or the birthing moments of critical feminism.

Critique is the activity of passing something — an organism, a system, a society — through a sieve to find the distinct powers within it, and then to find the limits of these powers. Critical is, in mathematical terms, the point at which a curve changes direction, either up or down. We know too well that when the hospital tells us that “he is in a critical condition” he will not return from this state the way he was earlier; he may come back either as better or as worse, but never the same.

A critique was at home in the concept of "feminism" since its beginning. This beginning though came too late in the history of the concepts of politics, even later than racism. The division of people into men and women in a hierarchy, determined by the concept patriarchy — of which we still have not understood everything — was to be opposed. The opposing concept which would reverse the hierarchy was named “feminism”, and it was destined to remain in a relation of dependency with patriarchy.

Feminism made the division in people explicit and made us aware of the hierarchy which held men superior to women. It soon became an epistemology, the science of how we come to know some things to be what they are. Feminist epistemology allowed us to see the investment of male enabling values in most human institutions and even in our language.

As feminism was brought into contact with anti-racist epistemology it was forced to see that feminism was predominantly a white people’s theory with their point of view of the world. This meant that if white women were in charge of “due process” they could be trusted to be first white and then women. That the division between people into black and white is more powerful than the division between men and women. This forced a division in the feminist process, into white and black feminism so that white women will not speak for and sell the voices of black women. This is also the moment at which what is called identity politics entered feminist politics.

This gesture of a division was imitated by postcolonial theory. Postcolonial feminism was necessitated by the understanding that first-world women were first first-world and then women. Now, postcolonial feminists spoke for postcolonial women. These divisions were also about taking territories and concentrating power.

Power is the ability to decide how people should or should not behave, to make the laws which define regular behaviours, to negotiate between men and women, to speak for the many and to be symbols of cool activities.

Postcolonial theory and postcolonial feminism too concentrated power in the hands of a few women in the subcontinent. They held that universal human rights, class struggle and progressive institutions were, in truth, invested with first-world enabling values. Postcolonial epistemology aimed to expose the continuation of colonial ways of seeing and speaking about the third-world people even after formal decolonisation. It aimed to let these people speak for themselves in a non-universal language, through non-European epistemic categories. It aimed to let these people speak from out of their own histories and traditions.

But, it is evident that all postcolonial women do not have the same epistemology and power. Muslim women are not in the same position as Hindu women. Dalit women (the pejorative term “subaltern”, like the term “Harijan”, should be rejected) do not have the powers upper caste women have. South Indian women are not equal to North Indian women. Women of the North East are not as visible as the women of the North West. It was clear from the history of the feminist process thus far that it ought to yield to more divisions — Islamic feminism, upper caste feminism, Dalit feminism, Dravidian feminism, etc.

However, of these divisions, the one between upper caste and lower caste feminism is more significant since caste is the determinant of all relations in the subcontinent. Caste is the codified racism which defines the social order in the subcontinent.

It might be objected that racism is a colonial construct, but we too can object saying that after all caste inspired racism and the construction of “race” greatly. Casteism refers to the discriminative, eliminative and oppressive racist practices of the “upper castes” against the "lower castes". It cannot ever designate the lower castes since the upper castes are the creators and the regulators of caste laws historically. In symmetry, postcolonial theorists cannot be called colonialists by the colonialists.

In the story of the modern style of politics in the subcontinent starting with the anti-colonial struggle that resulted in the Union of India, the upper castes spoke on behalf of the lower castes and have held power. This trend continues in postcolonial theory and feminist struggle in the subcontinent too. The argument should come as no surprise to postcolonial feminists that like the first-world women who are first first-world, upper caste women are first upper caste. And that postcolonial epistemology suppresses the anti-caste consciousness and struggle which sees tradition, nation, and postcolonialism differently.

Now, Sarkar’s list has brought this division into something which must be addressed and it has also forced the barely contained casteism in academic and public spaces to become visible. Like the divisions between white and black feminisms, and that between first-world and postcolonial feminisms, the apparent division between “upper caste” and “lower caste” feminism too is about more than feminism.

Sex, death and “due process”

There are two primary accusations against Sarkar: 'they' is destroying the unity of the feminist movement and that they are violating the norms established by “due process” and possibly endangering men who are likely innocent.

In the societies of the subcontinent, women were expected to commit suicide to protect their honour/modesty/shame before a sexual crime was to occur or after the crime. Legend and Bollywood maintained this expectation. We see this relation between sex and death extending to men who have been accused of sexual misconduct and harassment too as in the recent case of the activist Khurshid Anwar’s media trial or a kind of listing, and suicide.  There have been other such incidents in India and elsewhere before Sarkar appeared on the scene. Sarkar in a few statements and the list indicates that the intention is to be liberated from this power held over sex and death.

Prominent feminists such as V Geetha and Priyamvada Gopal have commented on the insufficiency of "due process" in most situations. That the list was irresponsible was refuted by Karuna Nundy who equated this gesture with civil disobedience. It is likely that there will be more lists until all of us are included in them, then animals and plants, and even stones. Lists should not make anyone kill themselves. They are meant as a map for navigation as Nehmat Kaur points out.

When a man accused of stabbing another does not have to kill himself and the woman who was stabbed does not find it necessary to kill herself in order to protect her ‘honour’ it appears that harassment, molestation, and crime with the adjective sex points towards death.

Perhaps, this is the power invested in sex, in the nomenclature of sex offences, its policing and trial, that it is a matter of life and death. It is important to think about the history of the separation of sex from one domain into another; for example, from the domain of caste laws which decides who can have sexual relations to biological domain and eugenics. This isolation of sex from other relations of power has a history.

Eroticism and technologies of sex

The technical determination of sex in order to separate it from reproduction began early with contraceptives in the ancient worlds of Egypt and Greece. The effective separation of sex from reproduction became possible only in the 20th century with industrial production of contraceptives and their political deployment by Margaret Sanger, and it gained the possibility of art, as anticipated by the works Marquis de Sade. This recent separation allowed the power over sex to change hands from family and religion to social organisations and the state. The separation of sex from reproduction was soon followed by the separation of gender from birth through technological assignment of gender.

In the recent decades, gender has become a technologically assignable physical condition which can eventually be more than man, woman and in-between. We do not yet know the possibilities involved in gene editing. Gender can be given as yet unknown regularities by those who are creative. Gender can be an art.

With Viagra and the related developments, sex as an art has been separated from sexual desire. There are already devices of remote sexual engagement, including long distance kissing devices and hence the possibility of contactless sex. Soon implantable devices, 3D printed body parts, also for sexual art, will be industrially produced. The “Future of Sex Report” authored by Jenna Owsianik and Ross Dawson claims that by 2024 “people will be able to be anybody with anybody”.

Corresponding to these developments, technolog-ised policing of sexual activities to prevent crimes are available. One of the difficult problems of philosophy, the meaning of consent and will, is being solved through consent apps such as We-Consent. Even these apps may not resolve the problems entirely as they can also be coercive in enforcing what had been agreed before commencing sex. The recording of sexual acts being made mandatory is not entirely unimaginable in this era of continuous surveillance. However, it is already possible to separate a sexual crime such as rape from legality through the invention of sex robots with variable settings for resistance.

And corresponding to the increase in penal and political attention on sexual activities, the possibility of sex without human to human contact is increasing. It is conceivable that soon humans will not be able to engage in human to human sexual contact without the concern about one kind or the other of sexual offence being committed at least accidentally. It is perhaps not a terrible development that ours could be one of the last of generations to experience human to human contact and practise the already too dangerous act called sex.

A politics of love and affirmation

Harassment inside institutions takes not only sexual but equally other forms which also remain shrouded in complicit silence. Both are made possible by the power of social status that regulates people’s interaction. Students and research scholars are forced to perform menial domestic chores and even unacknowledged research work for teachers. Research directions and publications which are counter to the established norms are suppressed through cliques. There are as yet no guidelines and no "due process" to redress this exploitation that also occurs on caste lines within institutions. It must concern us that a charge regarding sexual harassment seems so legible while the charge regarding caste discrimination remains questionable.

The tone and the reactions from traditionalist feminists to the list are disturbing and threatening. There are lists given of what Sarkar and her friends are or are not — Dalit, queer, American, Indian, Hindu fascist agent, liar, a hoax. These intimidating gestures are aimed at young men and women of all castes and religions, who are anti-caste and seeking new possibilities in politics. They further reveal the politics of sex and death.

The reactions against the list are also fascist in their language, 'if you are not with us you are with evil'. This, ironically, is similar to the language of 'anti-national' used by the Hindu right for anyone who opposes it. A wave of repression by this Hindu right government started in IIT Madras against Ambedkar Periyar studies circle. It reached Hyderabad where Dalit students were attacked for protesting the death penalty to Yakub Memon and the disruption of the screening of Muzaffar Nagar Baqi Hai, and for supporting autonomy for Kashmir.

The Pune film institute was next.

Then Dalit students in JNU celebrated “Mahishasura Martyrdom Day”, which provoked the sharpest reaction from the then HRD minister, but, all this receded before the nationalism debates in JNU. These were compiled into a book whose introduction admits that the teach-in had "glaring absences…of themes from the North East, the minority communities of India…too little discussion of the virulent communalist and divisive legacies of which we are an heir. Did the inaugural moment of the JNU struggle, Afzal Guru and the Kashmir issue, retreat into the background? Was the somewhat muted struggle with the Dalit struggle of the Hyderabad Central University also not a sign of failure?”

Amid changing nature of sex as an activity debates over Raya Sarkars list represent postcolonial binaries

File image of Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI

The JNU protests brought intelligent and articulate voices from the left in Shehla Rashid Shora, Umar Khalid, and Kanhaiya Kumar. Perhaps the voices and concerns which were eclipsed by "JNU protests" are rising again.

Sarkar has been insinuated by many including Partha Chatterjee and Nivedita Menon to have been working for the Hindu right by targeting the academics of the Left and destroying the possibility of defeating the Hindu right. However, Menon herself, the leading opponent of the list, has spoken ambivalently with respect to the Hindu Right. When she was accused by ABVP of making a statement against the Indian government’s position on Kashmir in her lecture, she denied it and claimed that “I never said anything about Kashmir being illegally occupied by India”. Defending herself before the Hindu Right, she opposed Hindutva to Hinduism and wrote, "Hinduism as a heterogeneous set of religious practices, that have cultural roots and deep meaning, which I respect as I do all religious practices". In the same essay, Menon accused the Hindu Right of not showing sufficient respect for "the views" of Savarkar who coined the term Hindutva, which she opposes: "Savarkar, was, in fact,  opposed to caste discrimination but modern day Hindutvavaadis don’t read him or respect his views".

One feels certain terror imagining a time in which all the 'views' of Savarkar are realised including his idea of national pride, “To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here.”

What is troublesome about these remarks is that both Hindu religion, temple entry movements, and the Hindu right politics were invented at the same moment in reaction to colonial census circulars in the last century which would have otherwise reduced the upper castes of India into a religious minority. It is pertinent that we should not distinguish between Hinduism, casteism, and Hindutva-vaad which are all to be annihilated.

In spite of all the viciousness in the air, there is also the generosity of a revolutionary embrace in this event of the list. In moments of disruption such as this, it is possible to imagine and invent new forms of politics, alliances, responses, responsibilities. If Sarkar — it should not matter who they are or what castes they are or whether they are — and their friends who are already charting new directions choose to, they could also create futures which are based on love which disobeys the laws of caste, religion, and class. They could begin the schooling — which descends from the ancient Greek Schole, which meant leisurely creation — in loving, seeking forgiveness, forgiving, wooing, accepting rejections, consoling one another in sorrow, caring. It should never take an oppositional stand to Menon and what her generation has consolidated and represents.

Instead, there is room for everyone in this world to create new alliances to dissolve identities; to take new territories of thought; gift each other new ideas of togetherness; to give birth to what is more than nations and passports; create systems and epistemologies which remain open to reason; experiment in language to make poems which send love across languages; through care, make skins permeable to let in pains and joys of all — Dalit, Kashmiri, Adivasi, American, feline, White, canine, Bahujan, gymnosperms, Black, stones, Pakistani and forests.

In this era of technological explosion all of you are — you know who you are — already worlds away from the fantasies of postcolonial gossips riding their bullock carts calling out to ‘the subalterns’ to get out of the way. You are already a gathering in the form of a conch shell from which the matter of the world is murmuring its invitation to create an animal which can relieve the human. You are also suffering the weight of unprecedented crises which are descending.

(Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan are philosophers based in the subcontinent)

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