The Civil War in Indian Feminism – A Critical Glance

The last few days had been pretty harrowing for me because the events that ensued made me to re-think and re-consider many of my political stances that I had formed with regards to the position of Left-wing politics in India, feminism in India and the caste question. I am here referring to the publication of a crowd sourced list of sexual offenders in Indian academia compiled by Raya Sarkar, a law student based in California specialising in women’s rights and subaltern politics.

The publication of this list has indeed opened a can of worms that has caused a major ideological divide within the feminist movement in India. This divide is unprecedented to the extent that it has created a very real discursive chasm in Indian feminism, involving women to take up sides. It would not be wrong to say that this divide is pretty reminiscent of the ideological split between the CPI (M) and the AICCCR [All India Co-Ordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries, later forming the bulk of the then undivided Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)], during the Naxalbari Movement. The qualitatively difference between these two ruptures is that while the latter provided a basis for which one could know who was a revisionist and who was revolutionary, the former is full of nuanced arguments and it becomes pretty difficult to characterize the nature of the rupture, making it consequently difficult for women to identify with either trend in this civil war.

Before I proceed, I wish to make two things clear to my readers. The first is that I support, in principle, the list compiled by Raya – while recognizing inadequacies and places for improvement in the practical aspect. This post is not about the merits or demerits of the list, because that has been amply settled by the emergence of the list itself. It throws some important questions that I’d address by and by.

The second thing is that this article is written in the spirit of objective analysis and providing some kind of context in a battle where contextual arguments are somehow lacking. We on the revolutionary Left what we cal criticism and self-criticism, believing that by evaluating ourselves and our comrades, we can refine our ideological concepts and our practice. It is in this very spirit of criticism and self-criticism that I write this article.

We all know that class character of the Indian state and Indian society to be semi-colonial and semi-feudal in nature. This characterization has some important consequences, such as the presence of undemocratic features such as caste oppression and patriarchal oppression even when India is on a path of rapid urbanization and the penetration of capitalist relations even within the rural countryside. Consequently, it is obvious that even the most progressive sections of the intelligentsia would not be immune from these biases. There is no doubt that these immensely problematic aspects are present even within the politics of the Left-wing, be they revisionist or revolutionary.

However, fifty years ago, when Naxalbari happened, these contradictions suddenly made themselves apparent into the scene. Two things make these facts stand out: the fact that the revolutionaries educated and organized sharecroppers and landless peasants for the Agrarian Revolution, most of who were from the lower castes and scheduled tribes; and the fact that it was the arrow shot by Comrade Shanti Munda that sparked the first stage of the new democratic revolution. Many women left the confines of their traditional gender roles and joined their male comrades in the fight to overthrow the ruling classes and establish a more just society, through armed struggle. This contribution can’t be forgotten because they too suffered brutal reprisals wrought on by the Indian state, in a bid to crush the people’s struggle by any means possible. Sadly, when we talk of the Naxalbari path comes up, we may remember Comrades Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, but hardly Shanti Munda, or the eight women comrades killed by the indiscriminate firing by the Police at Bengal Jote or the thousands of imprisoned or martyred women comrades suffering sexual harassment and violence in their periods of captivity.

Because patriarchal oppression had hardly been addressed when drawing the roadmap to protracted armed struggle, especially with the increasing spate of State repression on the revolutionaries.

One of the important consequences of the Naaxalbari Movement was a marked shift in academic discourses concerning subaltern politics and the question of caste privilege and caste oppression. The presence of the Marxist-Leninist Dalit Panthers proved without reasonable doubt that the question of caste can’t be de-linked when one talks about revolutionary politics. But, given the grip of patriarchal entitlement into the fabric of middle-class morality and consciousness, the question of a feminist re-evaluation of the Naxalbari Movement or its aftermath did not appear. With the receding of armed struggle into the underground, it became more and more unlikely that a feminist representation of the politics of the Naxalbari path would come anytime soon. This inevitably maintained the existing structures of power in educational institutions, which perpetuated the status-quo of power hierarchies even in the seemingly progressive Indian academia. And it has been so for decades, up until now.

The list by Raya Sarkar therefore raises questions that were, deliberately or otherwise, ignored and silenced increasingly over the years. The problems of male entitlement and casteist bias stand exposed in the names of the people in the list. We can’t therefore afford to dismiss the urgent resolving of these problems within our revolutionary politics and its practice. Our Parties and Organizations are filled to the brim with such people who wouldn’t baulk an inch if they had the chance to sexually harass or rape a woman. Our sole obsession with class struggle has made us blatantly ignorant of the gender question. These are legitimate critiques which this list has raised and which we need to address.

However, what worries me that Raya Sarkar has used the leverage of her crowd sourced list to launch jibes and attacks against the Left. There’s a thin line between critiquing a legitimate concern and outright attacking and dismissing the politics of a certain ideology. Given the nature of Raya Sarkar’s philosophical outlook, it is easily discernable that her subaltern and feminist stances have been thoroughly influenced by postmodernist discourses and the notion of identity politics, without giving any sort of consideration for either dialectical analysis or for studying the material conditions through which oppressions are made to exist on the superstructure of any particular society. This is pretty indicative by her list, where the opposition has been garnered for those named in the list but without realising that patriarchy has no specific gender associated with it, as much as feminism having no gender associated with it. When we on the Left fail to deliver significant analysis on issues requiring immediate attention, the oppressed would obviously try to find ideologies and methodologies that might seem to help them but are actually traps through which the ruling classes would dilute the revolutionary nature of their struggles into those of sheer reformism. This has been the problem with mainstream Ambedkarite politics and it has emerged to be a phenomenon in the case of feminism today, where revolutionary liberation is sacrificed for reformism out of sheer disappointment and disillusionment with the supposed revolutionary vanguard of the oppressed and exploited.

And as these tirades against the Left continues and as the discourse around the list develops into an all out civil war involving epistemological nuances, the only faction that can reap benefits out of this rupture is actually the Right wing – especially the Hindu Right. As it is, the Left stands terribly disunited, and the absence of a Common Minimum Programme makes matters incredibly worse; but the appearance of the list is seemingly at a time when the Right holds enough cultural and political capital to destroy the Left as a viable alternative to their politics of bigotry, hatred, misogyny, casteism and of course, religious segregation. This civil war and Raya’s pronouncements against the Left further complicates an already complicated matter. Given how the Hindu Right has used divisions to successfully crush their opponents it is no wonder that this time too, the Left would be marginalized and it will face a tirade of hatred and obnoxious untruths if the Right could co-opt Raya’s arguments for their own benefit.

It is for us on the Left, chiefly the revolutionary Left, to fight three separate battles, each involving a different enemy and a different tactic. I don’t know how they would be tackled, especially by the revolutionary Left, but our inaction and silkence today on the issues the list brings forth would have disastrous consequences not only for us, but also for the Indian proletariat and peasantry.



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