What should be can be, but only if the radical gaze turns inwards as well. Until then, beware of the Right-eous trojan horse of Brahminical-Gandhian fear of sexuality inside Camp Left.
Here’s proof that there exists a clear and present danger from ‘within’ to the project of making the necessary possible: fundamental changes in the social order to bring freedom and democracy into the lives of the subcontinent’s most oppressed classes – a project that has so far been borne on the wings of the Naxalite movement, the Dalit movement, Adivasi movements for autonomy and self-determination and struggles for women’s freedom; a project that gets a boost every time a citizen stands up to insolent authority and speaks truth to power.
From the forests, hills and plains where Adivasis, Dalits and other sections of the oppressed classes have been for decades taking on the might of the Indian State, to workers’ struggles in the industrial belts and the question marks that stood proud at the gates of FTII, Pune, the campaign against police occupation of campuses in Hyderabad, the ‘Pinjra Todo’ (break that cage) fight by hostel residents against a mindset that refuses to believe that women are adults even if they live on campus, the call for ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ (fearless freedom) from the streets of Lutyens’ Delhi in the midst of the ‘Nirbhaya’ protests against sexual violence: resistance against oppressive authority comes in many shapes, sizes and colours, mind-boggling in its diversity.
Confronted with the resistance, a shaken authority is stirred to respond with violence and slander. So, the FTII protesters are denounced as “Naxals and drug addicts”; women activists are slandered as “Naxals promoting free sex” for challenging the anti-women structures of governance; “condoms were recovered from the spot” becomes part of ‘reportage’ on security forces raiding Naxal camps in the forests. Sample this piece of bullshit in a “mainstream” daily:
“Orissa’s dense jungles and hostile mountains reverberate to the sound of music late into the night as women dance and men tap to the beat of the music, passing lewd comments and mark their woman for the night. This is not a scene out of a Bollywood flick, but the reality of Naxal women. Sex and music is what keeps the trigger-happy Maoists going in the rugged mountains and jungles of Orissa. It is almost a Sholay-like setting in the camps. Maoist fighters, who are always on the run, source their entertainment with sex solicited from women colleagues, who are also asked to dance for them. At times they are little better than camp followers, doing odd household chores rather than taking active part in guerrilla operations. This is the story pieced together by police from interrogation of several woman combatants captured in recent months… ‘Maoists try to add some elements of glamour to their isolated life in the forests by taking village girls into their fold. This is more for personal pleasure rather than to add to their cadre,’ said a senior police officer… Arun Sarangi, DIG (north-central range), said in most other cases women cadre are used for ‘sexual purpose’. ‘Women are no longer interested in joining the Maoists because of reports of sexual abuse,’ he said citing the death of ‘pregnant’ cadre Sulochana (23) at Sambalpur District Hospital in November.” (‘Naxals party Sholay-style’ by Rajaram Satpathy in Times of India, 14 December 2006)
Coming from the adversary, the slander can be seen for what it is and, though it reveals nothing either about the “Naxal way of life” or on whether women from the most oppressed classes are interested to join the ranks, it tells us enough about the misogyny of the “mainstream”. But, then, how would you react if you find this convenient myth of “free sex” being referred to as a “theory” in a Left organisation’s ‘guidelines on man-woman relationships’, and used to shout down and shut up those who disagree, oppose or resist the guidelines, criticise the perspective on patriarchy that led to such a code of conduct for relationships of intimacy, and demand its overhaul?
Yes, you got it right. “Free sex theory”, a phrase that does not figure in any sort of radical, progressive discourse anywhere else on the planet, finds pride of place in the denunciations of feminism as ‘bourgeois ideology’ by the most radical organisations belonging to the authoritarian Left tradition in India – the very organisations that are marked, hounded and hunted as ‘Naxalite’ by the Indian State, and which, in Arundhati Roy’s words, include “the only people who are able to make a dent”.
This is where the pamphlet No Revolution without the Liberation of Women & No Liberation of Women without the Revolution! Our Critique of the Revolutionary Movement’s Perspective of Gender and Patriarchy by Banojyostna Lahiri, Umar Khalid, Reyazul Haque et al, former activists of Democratic Students Union (DSU) in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), comes as a significant contribution to resistance against the part-feudal, part-colonial systems of authority in India, tied in innumerable ways to feudal social relations and an economic structure that serves the Empire of global capital.
As DSU activists, the rebels had waged a long battle inside the organisation to get its systems of centralised authority to engage with its approach towards relationships of intimacy through the lens of its own political understanding of social reality in what is referred to in its documents as “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” India. What they ran into, however, was a system dominated by what the rebels would eventually identify as “semi-feudal patriarchy” and the extreme forms of misogyny and prudery it generates.
And the course of the battle revealed how dissent is forced to fester as “minority opinions” for far too long, facilitated in no small measure by the top-down model for exercise of organisational power through individuals arranged in a hierarchical order, which is said to be based on Lenin’s prescriptions in What is to be Done? (an early 20th-century work that talks of “democratic centralism” as the core organisational principle for Communist parties and describes its implementation and functioning).
Identifying the specific nature of patriarchy in India – is it essentially feudal, or is it mainly colonial, or is it increasingly capitalist? – is key to fighting and overcoming it. In a society weighed down by feudal social relations and values, indifference or hostility towards personal freedoms – the demands for which grow along with the reach and depth of the invading market – as “bourgeois demands” is most likely to come from a feudal mindset, rather than from an emancipatory working-class one that does not rest content with “bourgeois rights” and seeks something more real and more emancipatory.
And, even if you fall for the “Indian society, economy and the State are no longer feudal” trope, you would surely be aware that we live in post-Orwell times and so we know that only a totalitarian worshipper of power would resort to Marxist jargon to justify taking the community’s side when it gangs up against individuals who transgress social norms that are determined by the powerful. Often the norms that are debunked and resisted by individuals are strictures on intimacy between individuals – for instance, watch Nakul Singh Sawhney’s film Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyaan (Immoral Daughters in the Land of Honour) that documents the resistance of young couples in Haryana against feudal “morality” that prescribes “who you can love, and how, and how much”.
Explaining why merely identifying the dominant classes behind the apparatus of the State is not enough for emancipation, Michel Foucault said, “Political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centres and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true solidity is, perhaps, where one doesn’t expect it.” That is why it is important for those who seek a real transformation in the lives of the most oppressed to “locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which the domination (by the dominant classes) is exercised. And because this domination is not simply the expression in political terms of economic exploitation, it is its instrument and, to a large extent, the condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well, if one fails to recognise these points of support of class power, one risks allowing them to continue to exist; and to see this class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent revolutionary process.”(Chomsky-Foucault debate, 1971)
In other words, without recognising the mechanisms of the exercise of power, as well as the necessity and possibility of multifarious resistance wherever power is sought to be exercised, “revolution” would literally mean “coming full circle”, “round and round the mulberry bush” and “much sound and fury signifying nothing”.
In India, it means, among other things, that the resistance must see how the fear of women’s freedom, which draws most of its poison from the anxiety that a “free-loving” woman might sexually reject a man and prefer another man, woman or just be happy to please herself, is given a violent edge because of its key role in the functioning of the caste system. After all, control over female sexuality is crucial in maintaining the “purity” of the blood line and for “purity-pollution” to work as the basic organising principle of the unique system of hierarchy called caste, whose peculiarity lies in the religious sanction it enjoys as an all-encompassing ideology that makes even each oppressed caste think of itself in terms of being superior or inferior to all the other castes, including those just as oppressed, that its members have to interact with.
Since this poses a huge structural hurdle to class solidarity among the oppressed castes, one inference is that ignoring questions of sexual agency, or treating them as secondary to other pressing concerns of class warfare, is a sure-shot recipe for a revolution bound to fail. Because this attitude, no matter what kind of Marxist jargon is deployed to rationalise it, is an impediment to the task of uniting all real friends to fight all real enemies. And sometimes it also blurs our vision when we try to tell friend from enemy, leading to consequences disastrous for the revolutionary process.
Look at it from the point of view of a woman activist, one who has either managed somehow not to internalise the “false consciousness” of feudal anti-sex/pleasure prudery, or successfully fought it, or from the vantage of a male activist with “unconventional” sexual preferences, and then this question arises: Why would they allow other men or women to interfere in their sexual or other relationships of intimacy? Should they allow such interference and “guidance” or “education” by their leaders or comrades after fighting against similar regressive ideas and practices in their family, school/college, workplace and the rest of society? Just because they agree with their leaders or comrades that, yes, India is a semi-feudal, semi-colonial society and there can be no freedom or democracy without revolution, and, therefore, they want to give their best to the collective effort?
That is the height of intolerance, and only MK Gandhi’s ghost or the Sangh are supposed to approve of such an authoritarian, counter-democratic approach to sexuality.
Also, there is no evidence to suggest that economic deprivation makes sexual desire irrelevant to happiness. Do we think that if everyone gets good food, clothes and houses, they would not feel oppressed by those who claim to know the gospel truth on what is good for them in their sexual lives?
And, similarly, do we think those who fight for bread and land today do not feel oppressed by those who won’t let them seek companionship and pleasure on their own terms? Suppose we are indeed able to bring up many examples of women activists from the oppressed classes who would agree that they have no problem in conforming to authority in matters of love and sex, what makes us so sure that it is not just their “false consciousness”? How can we say that they are not merely submitting quietly to the overwhelming force of traditional, feudal authority in a new form, as the trojan horse of semi-feudalism inside organisations claiming to fight the semi-feudal, semi-colonial system?
Also, those who argue that “the strategic goal of liberation of the working class from the dominance of capital cannot and should not be sidetracked” should ask themselves how on earth can they take even the first steps in that direction, in a semi-feudal society, without simultaneously raising the banner of revolt against the feudal misogyny and fear of sexuality that finds legitimacy also through the structures of authority in radical organisations.
The critique from JNU is important for everyone concerned with radical politics in India as it brings to the open some key but little discussed aspects of how the system of authority that exercises political and organisational power over a wide range of resistance struggles and militant organisations of the most oppressed in India, especially in the countryside, approaches the question of patriarchy. It is the outcome of years of engagement with the organisation’s stated positions in the course of agit-prop and organisation-building work among students in the national capital, on the basis of the understanding that resistance in the villages holds the key to emancipatory politics because that is where the feudal roots of the system of exploitation and oppression in India go the deepest and are likely to be the most rotten, and that is also where the Empire of global capital seeks the resources that it would turn into profit using cheap wage-labourers (weighed down by the hopelessness of the semi-feudal agrarian economy) and largely foreign technology.
Once feudal social relations and the ideology of caste that is crucial to giving them a long life are identified as obstacles on the road to freedom and democracy, control over sexuality and relationships of intimacy becomes as important a terrain for political struggle as the land question. This understanding should impact the clarity of the movement’s ideas on what and why to fight, how to fight, and what would be the social relationships and structures and processes of authority that emerge among those who agree on what, why and how to fight.
Clearly, then, the discourse on class, caste and patriarchy in resistance against feudal authority is not of concern only to students and other educated urban people. In fact, it helps us assess whether the revolutionary practice based on understanding Indian society and the State as semi-feudal and semi-colonial has become a matter of routine rather than part of a dialectical process of developing the understanding further, in the light of the plurality of resistance on the ground and in the realm of ideas that have emerged in the decades since the 1960s, in India and elsewhere in the world.
The critique from JNU identifies the clear and present danger of a “semi-feudal, patriarchal” Right exercising power through systems of authority within the radical Left, and the threat is recognised by engaging with the Left’s approach to control of sexuality, in words and in deed. It forces us to ask how these attitudes have persisted despite a clear position and sustained struggles on the equally key, and closely related, land question. Specifically, what role does the sway of Brahminism even on radical activists and leaders play in this? And have the “democratic centralist” systems of authority enhanced the democratic dimension in how the movement deals with such a crucial question over which there are bound to be serious differences, more so because the “adversary” here is within, not outside, the system of authority itself?
The touchstone of democracy, as Yippie! activist and practitioner extraordinaire of guerrila theatre in the US, Abbie Hoffman, put it, is “the freedom it gives to dissidents, not the freedom it gives to its assimilated conformists.” But how can one freely discuss such questions if there is even the slightest hesitation in putting to scrutiny what, say, Lenin had said early in the last century?
Indeed, the heavy weight of the “Communist tradition” of cult figures such as Marx, Lenin and Mao makes it an act of blasphemy to venture into the kind of out-of-the-box free thinking required to address what many critics over the years since the Communists first took power in Russia (1917) have been pointing out as a fundamental flaw in communist organisational principles. As long as this hesitation is not dumped in the trash can of history, the organisation is bound to lead the movement only into an endless spiral to nowhere.
Every turning point in the working-class movement was the outcome of questions concerning vision and direction that emerged from the experience of class war. They were the result of the efforts of those who raised questions and stood their ground against the predominant political attitudes at the top of the Communist party hierarchy. The dissenters drew their intellectual strength not from the discourse inside any one formal movement or organisation, but from ideas and actions of resistance against every mechanism through which authority is exercised in the undemocratic social milieu based on a primarily agrarian economy tied to Empire, and in the context of the dominant culture rooted in the Brahminical ideology of caste.
So, land came to be seen as the basic terrain for emancipatory politics of the most oppressed fighting for a democratic transformation. Subsequent developments in the Dalit, women’s and student movements, and movements for self-determination of nationalities and indigenous people (especially struggles against the neoliberal invasion of Adivasi territory and military occupation elsewhere) have brought more key questions to the fore, including the question of patriarchy and misogyny in the understanding of agency and exploitation in intimate relationships, irrespective of how the dominant strands of the unfree and undemocratic culture label a particular kind of relationship.
The dissenters from JNU argue that the sting in the fear of sexuality seen within radical Left organisations comes from the unacknowledged influence of feudal morality, rooted in the very semi-feudal, semi-colonial system they are fighting. Moreover, the fight over morality is not just about one way of thinking versus another, but about how to deal with the most powerful mechanism of the semi-feudal system to perpetuate itself through the Brahminical ideology of caste – control of sexuality (especially female sexuality) and, through it, maintenance of boundaries between social groups based on birth and family, organised around myths of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’.
Absolutely basic to understanding gendered oppression anywhere, but more so in the context of a caste-based semi-feudal system, is the idea that sexual violence of all kinds and other forms of violence in intimate relationships are all about power, not desire or “lust”. Violence – in intimate relationships as in land acquisition for ‘development’ profiteering – is impossible to address without the idea of consent, a contribution of the women’s movement that the Right-eously Left dismisses as a “bourgeios” concept.
Indeed, Brahminical sexual morality afflicts the entire range of social movements in India – from Gandhian to radical Left – and leads to diktats similar to those that are intrinsic to Hindutva ideology. Maybe this suggests that the dominance of the feudal over the “capitalist-democratic” runs so deep (even subliminally) that it would be politically misleading to trace it only in the realm of ideas. The fight belongs equally in the realm of the body. We, after all, are living beings whose bodies are a terrain of struggle against those who try to exercise power over what uses the body can be put to and what is taboo.
That is how the trope of “capitalist development” weakens the fight against patriarchy. Those who try to engage with capital as something apart from the social relations mediated by caste ideology, based essentially on control over land and sexuality, could well be taking the global anti-capitalist movement backward, without realising it.
The “state of war”, which, as India’s most-loved class-struggle anarchist Bhagat Singh had said, would exist “so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites”, continues to exist. But in the crosshairs of the radical activists are not just “purely British capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian (parasites who) may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through mixed or even purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus”, but also those who refuse to see how battles over control of sexuality, too, are key to the class struggle in Brahminical India.
Though the critique is entirely within the Marxist framework of thought and practice, the issues being discussed should be of interest to anyone who dreams of a world free of oppression.