Ethnic Minorities, Sexual Violence and University Spaces: Notes from Visvabharati and Jadavpur University
Sarmistha Dutta Gupta
On a September afternoon, when the sky was signalling the arrival of the Pujo season in Bengal and yet monsoon flowers like dopati were in full bloom, I joined a rally in Santiniketan. The rally was organized by the students of Visvabharati to demand justice for a fellow-student from Sikkim who was sexually abused by her seniors in the university shortly after joining the institution in July. The rally also bore a special significance as it was being organized on the birthday of the survivor who was still hospitalized, bearing the brunt of severe physical injuries and psychological trauma. It was mainly the ethnic minorities from north Bengal, Sikkim and other north-eastern states that participated in this rally though a small group of other students also joined them. A smaller group of leftist students, mostly from the plains, had already submitted a deputation to the university authority demanding action against the accused. The day after the Santiniketan rally, another procession in solidarity with the Visvabharati students walked from College Square in Kolkata, led by the students of north Bengal and the north-east studying in JadavpurUniversity.
The rally in Santiniketan was without slogans. Some of the students carried posters, sometimes they sang. The team of five ‘outsiders’ from Kolkata to which I belonged, comprised of members of the West Bengal-based women’s rights network Maitree. By virtue of being an ‘outsider,’ I also had the perspective of the ‘unattached’ observer. I noticed that most of the students felt a deep sense of let-down. Those from the hills were not convinced as to how many from the university community were standing by them and by the painter couple who had sent their daughter to study fine arts in Santiniketan. Some divisive political outfits were already exploiting the extremely sensitive nature of the situation and trying to polarize the students of the hills from those from the plains. Many of those students from north Bengal and Sikkim, who were stolidly standing by the survivor and her family, seemed to be quite unsure of the sincerity of those protesters who, following the same thread of events, were demanding the formation of GSCASH in Visvabharati, the way it has been implemented in JawaharlalNehruUniversity.
‘Are they genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of the girl?’ asked the student-organizers of the rally.
The procession seemed to reflect a couple of things. First, a definite lack of trust and bonding between local students and those from the hills and from north-eastern states. The ethnic minorities and other students from these regions, who usually tend to stick together to negotiate language and other cultural differences when they first arrive for study, may develop friendly terms with their other peers but feel a justified uneasiness in trusting others to take up issues collectively. Let me come back to this anon.
The other thing I noticed was the conspicuous absence of local citizens and the university community in this near-silent protest walk. I am not assuming for a moment that their absence means that they were necessarily unsympathetic and insensitive towards the survivor and her condition. It may well be possible that many of them did not get the news of the protest march on time. With my close links with Santiniketan, I can testify to the fact that many local residents including university teachers extended their helping hand unhesitatingly to the friends of the survivor without making themselves visible. Yet I certainly sensed an atmosphere of terror, spread among the local citizenry in a calculated manner, which influenced them to stay in, rather than to come out in support of students. This has been done without any use of force whatsoever, by coercing people into believing that being undisturbed is a virtue and any flutter or dissent is a severe crime to be curbed ruthlessly. It seemed that these courageous students were taking out a protest march in a society which is well on its way to becoming an oppressive Orwellian dystopia, where breaking conventions invites strict chastisement and lessons in moral edification.
Every year a sizeable number of students come to study in Visvabharati and JadavpurUniversity from north Bengal, Sikkim and north-east India at large. Although on campus they may not feel any particular discomfort, there is a lot of unease outside the university spaces with the kinds of provincialism usually directed at them. The feeling of discomfort and perceptions of insensitivity are felt much more acutely in Kolkata than Santiniketan as Visvabharati used to generate a sense of shared cosmopolitanism which may not be metropolitan in its outlook but was certainly borderless and more international in its engagement.
As many Bengalis from both India and Bangladesh, routinely face the incredibly banal and downright obtuse question ‘Are you a Bengali or a Muslim?’, similarly many young people belonging to ethnic minorities from Darjeeling-Gangtok-Shillong-Imphal are regularly asked in Kolkata and other places in south Bengal, ‘Are you a Hindustani or are you from China or Japan?’ Such questions might be posed and racial comments passed on them anywhere—while shopping in the old Gariahat market or any of the new malls in Kolkata, or while looking for a place to rent in the city.
The situation is much more complex for girls. They are forced to tolerate the intent gaze of many male strangers in the streets, who are always indefatigably curious in measuring the difference in their bodily features. The rude stare and often lewd remarks equally combines racial and sexual aggression with the young women (usually dressed in western clothes, speaking English or their mother tongue) perceived as the ‘other’ by local men. Sometimes such aggression takes extreme forms, taking full advantage of a person’s unfamiliarity with the local language and distance from the social milieu. This is what happened recently in Santiniketan where the vulnerability of the first-year-student from Sikkim was manifold.
While it is true that hate crimes haven’t yet taken lives of young men like Nido Taniam in Bengal, the repeated sexual assault on a girl from the hills by three-four fellow students, the university’s reluctance to respond sensitively to the survivor and her family’s needs, the sense of alienation that her friends have felt in mobilizing support for her case, all resulted in her mental breakdown, losing faith in the institution and abandoning her studies there. She has gone back home but many like her from the hills and from the north-east, regularly deal with various grades of racism and sexism. So there is an urgent need for providing a space of engagement within the universities for addressing the intersectionality of issues like class, caste, ethnicity, gender and disability.
The students who travel far away from home to their educational institutions and may also belong to ethnic minorities need an engaged platform to freely express their difficulties in coping with the cultural and linguistic difference. Opening a separate cell for such first-year students in the universities will be a good gesture of reaching out to begin with. They are also baffled by our lack of knowledge and tremendously vague cultural understanding of their societies, especially when Bengalis brag hypocritically about love for the mountains. We simply can’t wash our hands off this process of reconciliation against years of damaged cognitive and cultural understanding. Both Visvabharati and JadavpurUniversity need to figure out what they can do so as not to perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices that marginalize these communities further and instead help students and staff to critically engage with issues of racial and other cultural stereotypes.
The term university itself has an upright concept of borderlessness and inclusiveness attached to it. In this globalized era of continual information flow and agenda-driven cultural politics we must rethink our method of situating culture so that the sphere of music- poetry-painting-performance art can accommodate the unique stamps of different cultural identities without prejudice. This will inevitably bring people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds much closer without losing their own sense of cultural pride. I am not talking about establishment and sponsor-driven cultural events which regularly take place on university campuses but rather more informal yet lively gatherings where people express their ideas and creative expressions freely. At least even some time ago in Santiniketan this vibrant tradition of cultural exchange in small groups was alive and well. These gatherings almost never had any agenda or ‘disciplined’ narrative of culture, but it always nourished and (re) generated minds. Perhaps there is a need to collectively think of re-generating such spaces/collectivities in newer forms.
Students from urban as well as rural and remote areas of West Bengal also flock to institutions like Visvabharati and Jadavpur. The Centre for Counselling Services and Studies in Self Development in my alma mater Jadavpur University used to be an excellent outlet for the anxieties, fear and doubts of students from diverse backgrounds. In the past both victims and perpetrators of ragging on campus have been sent to the centre with positive results. The centre still hosts eminent doctors and counsellors but it seems these days most students have very little idea about its functioning and the nature of work it promotes.
Founding architects of this centre had taken an extremely crucial task upon their hands. By going to the different departments of the Faculty of Engineering they raised awareness about the centre especially among the students of engineering and technology. With great clarity they explained many different facets of ragging and gender violence on campus to the students. They have also visited the students’ hostels at times. As far as I know, the School of Women’s Studies also collaborated with them in raising awareness. This was an inspiring step which tried to focus on proactive rather than punitive measures and form a participatory culture of gender-sensitization. This is also certainly very central to the Vishakha guidelines. But the question is, has the Jadavpur University authority ever prioritized gender sensitization involving all the faculties? Or does it think it is only a matter of importance to girls and at best to Arts students? We cannot harp on gender-sensitized committees unless we begin to address these basic questions.
There is no one Jadavpur, like many other educational institutions and spheres of public engagement it contains multitudes. Students from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds come to study here and as we know gender, class, ethnicity issues are almost always interlocked. Besides, there is a need to recognize how sexual violence and ragging are sometimes linked, and how ragging can also be very gendered in nature. I think the less-discussed sections of the Vishakha guidelines ought to be widely debated among all stakeholders of the university. The connection between objectification of women and sexual harassment need to be talked about in all faculties and among all sections of the university community.
The reason I am saying this is because varying degrees of sexual assault and gender violence, which do not become news headlines, are a part and parcel of everyday university experience. For example, girls routinely face lewd remarks while walking past the boys’ hostel on campus. Teachers and academic staff who stay on campus too tolerate rampant indiscipline and rakishness of some student boarders. It is interesting to note that ‘outsider’ is an alien word in the boys’ hostel, everybody has the unofficial license to enter the hostel at any given time of the day or night, and to indulge in boorishness in the name of exercising freedom. Needless to say, rules are very different in girls’ hostels. As if the boys have a permanent entitlement over the female body! They abuse it both physically and verbally, and this has taken a new perverse turn with the advent of social media.
Girls, on the other hand, bear the brunt each time some news of sexual harassment on campus reaches the public domain, with more stringent restrictions imposed on their movements. There is always the pressure from the family to curb one’s social life as much as possible, which basically is a graduate and elaborate form of domestication. “Avoid evening courses”; ‘Don’t wear short pants for the football practice, in fact, avoid football practice”; “Keep your mouth shut even if unidentified men tried to grope and molest you during the police crackdown on campus”—the list is endless. The worst victims are unsurprisingly those who come conquering their marginalized economic and social status.
There is another kind of pressure on those young men who go against the tide and reject this false promise of perverse masculinity at the risk of getting ridiculed and marginalized by their peer group. These men are few and far between and they are truly fighting an inspirational battle, along with their female friends and peers for a more just society where gender equality will not be a distant and unconquerable dream. I was happy and inspired to see such students in action in Kolkata and Santiniketan. They have a long and arduous battle ahead of them, and we need to be more attentive to their trials and tribulations. Are we ready to do that?
Sarmistha Dutta Gupta is a Kolkata-based independent researcher, writer, literary translator and an activist of the women’s movement. Her publications include Identities and Histories: Women’s Writing and Politics in Bengal (2010) and her most recent work is called Egaorey Pa (co-edited with Ahana Biswas; 2014) about breaking taboos around menstruation and women’s other bodily experiences. She also happens to be the founder-secretary of the voluntary organization Ebong Alap that works with young people on gender, sexuality and queer issues.
[A shorter version of this article was originally published in Anandabazar Patrika on October 16, 2014. The author acknowledges with pleasure Somak Mukherjee’s help in working on the English draft.]