An attack on a woman student and the suicide of a ‘spurned’ boyfriend a while ago shocked the campus community at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.
What do such acts of violence reveal about the speed and direction of the bewildering changes in our social life, for which even higher education in one of India’s most prestigious universities does not prepare us, and to which it is not immune? And how do we prepare realistically for an increase in the rise of such violence, where aspirations are not matched by opportunities?
For at least two decades, we have witnessed newer forms of misogyny that keep pace with the increasing individuation of Indian women. This has been difficult not only for men but also for some women to accept.
There is the violence with which women are reinserted into official kinship relations of which the khap panchayat is the most visible reminder. As student bodies are changing, with higher proportions of hitherto underprivileged castes and groups, including women, seeking higher education, the hyper-visibility of women from all backgrounds taking control their destiny is becoming too much for some sections to bear. Class differences combine in important ways with differences based on region, language and caste.
Our contemporary visual culture is saturated with messages that teach us that sexualised violence and violent male sexuality is normal. Love is unidirectional, declared by men, and succumbed to or accepted by women.
They are often loved to death by men who, once spurned, wield the axe, knife or acid bottle. Indian cinema has carefully nurtured this version of loving, a unidirectional flow of feeling from man to woman, whose outcomes are always predictable.
Many new entrants to the university system, who come from a very wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, envy and fear the economic and social independence of women, themselves often from Dalit and OBC communities.
They are a major threat to social life and civility as it has long been defined by men. Ironically, there are women fellowship holders on our campus who have become the victims of the preying male, when the latter depend on them financially for years, but eventually leave them in the lurch (and several lakhs poorer).
In addition to these new forms that a renewed patriarchy is taking are many features of the old ones: the entitlement that upper castes feel they have to lower caste female bodies; of dominant communities to minority women; and of male faculty to their female students.
From what has this self-destruction emerged? Even as our youngsters are adept consumers of goods of every shape and description, and there is relentless pressure to acquire as much and as quickly as possible, they have become most vulnerable at an emotional level. An unprecedented brittleness is evident everywhere — in the excessive (and new) dependence on faculty; in the inability to face and accept the hard knocks that life sometimes deals us; in the loneliness to which the new consumerism condemns us.
What is needed most urgently is the building of a new civility by men and women, of lower and upper castes and classes, of urban and rural areas. The new civility must reveal that the social and economic independence of women is not always at the expense of lower class male prospects, that women are no longer the playthings that invite possession rather than respect. This new civility will be seriously challenged in the one sphere where the individualities of women have been celebrated, namely the market, turning women’s, or anyone’s, independence into a freedom to consume, and to be consumed.
To overturn such newly-entrenched and older ideologies is no easy task, and calls for nothing short of a revolution. We may take heart in what caste movements in India have achieved over the past three decades, making discriminatory speech, actions or beliefs in the public sphere more difficult. A completely new gender and caste civility must be the goal, which will make our campuses, and indeed the country, safer and less threatening for women.
Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.