THE “SEXUAL HARASSMENT” DISCOURSE: A BAHUJAN WOMAN’S PERSPECTIVE[i]
Recently, a furious debate about ‘sexual harassment’ was initiated on social media, after a Dalit woman student brought out a list on Facebook accusing many powerful Indian male academics, many of them Brahmin, for being sexual harassers. Soon, certain upper caste feminists came forward with a statement that opposed the list, asking the anonymous complainants to pull it down and follow the ‘due process’ in dealing with sexual harassment. There was a huge uproar against this statement and younger women reproached the older feminists for espousing a Savarna feminism that sought to protect (Brahmin) men. Things have tempered down now after the appearance of a second list (this time posted from an anonymous Facebook account) in which many Bahujan scholars and student leaders of Bahujan movements were named as sexual harassers. This list too, it was claimed, was created by Dalit Bahujan women.
Given all this, we can see that there is a renewed interest in the category of ‘sexual harassment.’ As many Bahujan women were in the forefront making these lists and supporting it, the issue is also being hailed and celebrated as an exemplar case of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi women’s successful opposition against Brahmin male power in the academia. However, there are certain historical and social concerns, which we need to foreground, before we move forward with this conclusion. In fact, we need to look into the nature of the “sexual harassment” discourse itself to bring out the ways in which it has always tilted towards the interests of elite, upper caste women.
It was the brutal gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, an OBC woman from the lower caste Kumhar (potter) community, which led to the formation of the Vishaka Guidelines that heralded the category of ‘sexual harassment’ in relation to the violence that women face in their workplaces. Bhanwari Devi worked as a saathin or volunteer in a government scheme for the prevention of child marriages in Rajasthan. On 22 September 1992, while working in the field with her husband, a gang of 5 higher caste men (who also beat her husband unconscious) raped Bhanwari Devi for her attempts to intervene in child marriages in the village, as part of her job. Bhanwari Devi started fighting for justice against this brutal violence. Soon women’s groups in Rajasthan and an NGO called Vishaka, which was associated with them, took up her cause. This led to a series of events that resulted in the landmark Vishaka and others V State of Rajasthan Supreme Court judgment (1997). It was this judgment that formulated the Vishaka Guidelines that put forward a set of parameters to be used in cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2013, the parliament replaced this with the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. Bhanwari Devi, however, has yet to get justice in her case against the men who raped her, even after two decades!
When the Vishaka Guidelines came into being, it was celebrated as a victory for Indian feminism and for all Indian women. However, in hindsight we can see that the feminist mobilizations around Bhanwari Devi’s brutal gang rape, worked only to formulate a caste-blind gender discourse based on the Savarna women’s need for protection in elite workplaces.
Here we have to remember that the category of ‘sexual harassment” in the workplace is brought down to postcolonial nations through gender discourses that originate in the West. However, unlike in the West, the majority of women in India, especially those who belong to the lower castes, are located in the informal sector, which is a highly exploitative and extremely unregulated arena for both men and women. Here, Bahujan women’s oppression is closely tied to the informal and unorganized nature of the workplace itself. The sexual attacks that they face in the workplace, (often of a very serious nature, including rape, forced sexual acts and assault) especially from their superiors and from male colleagues, who are often from higher castes, are closely tied to the vulnerability of their workplace and their own caste-gender location. This is the only way for instance, that we can understand the violence against women like Bhanwari Devi, or recently Chithralekha, the Dalit woman auto rickshaw driver who was denied her right to work by her fellow OBC male workers in Kerala, and whose means to livelihood – her auto rickshaw – was burned.
However, without giving a thought to the caste/class composition of the women that constitutes the majority in India, the provisions of the Vishaka Guidelines were formulated in such a way that it places the entire responsibility for the prevention of sexual harassment on the employer/institution. And thus, as Maitreyi Krishnan and Ponnu Arasu points out, the Vishaka Guidelines came to apply “only to an organized office set-up, and not to the unorganized sector where the employer-employee relationship is not fixed.” Therefore, the very moment that the Vishaka Guidelines were framed, it also worked to push out women like Bhanwari Devi from its ambit.
Moreover, though born out of a lower caste woman’s experience of brutal rape, the Vishaka Guidelines and the Parliament Act that followed did not formulate the category of sexual harassment in terms of rape, sexual assault and violent sexual harassment. Instead, it was less violent forms such as “physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography” etc. that now acquired centre stage in the discourse about sexual harassment in the workplace. In this scenario, more heinous offences like rape and sexual assault, which are a part of the Bahujan women’s experience of the workplace, are still tried as part of the criminal procedure of the IPC. For instance, a recent study that revisits the sexual harassment laws in the country has this to say about the 2013 Parliament Act and how it would apply in the case of Bhanwari Devi:
Under the Act, Bhanwari Devi would be the “aggrieved woman”, employed as a saathin in the “workplace” under Rajasthan’s Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD). The Act classifies “sexual harassment” to include, among other acts, “any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature”. Thus, she has the option of reporting the incident to the DWCD’s internal complaints committee (ICC). Given the ambit of the relief the ICC is authorised to provide under the Act, coupled with the serious charges levied against the perpetrators, it appears ludicrous to refer such a complaint to the ICC. Therefore, Bhanwari Devi will have no other option but to file a criminal complaint.
Thus the very definition of ‘sexual harassment’ in India unfolds with a brutal negation of the altogether different reality of Bhanwari Devi, whose radical moment of caste-gender oppression/resistance was transmuted to a gender rights framework fit only for elite workplaces.
So if feminist mobilizations have formulated the category of ‘sexual harassment’ by excluding the lives and concerns of women like Bhanwari Devi who form the majority of women in this country, they have done nothing more than procuring a gender right for the protection of elite women. This fact cannot be separated from the way in which upper caste women are offered extreme protection (and control) within the caste system as opposed to the lower caste women whose bodies are made easily available to all. In fact, most Bahujan women’s understanding of gender and sexuality, in India, begins by recognizing this basic difference between upper caste women and ‘other’ women.
For instance, the Alisamma Women’s Collective of Hyderabad Central University, which was one of the pioneering attempts “to put forward a Dalit feminist challenge to the caste blind perspectives of upper-caste feminism” foregrounds this very difference in a statement brought out on the Women’s Day in 2002:
We want you to acknowledge the political importance of ‘difference,’ i.e. heterogeneity that exists among Indian female community. That you are made whereas we are mutilated. You are put on a pedestal, whereas we are thrown into fields to work day and night. You were made Satis, we were made harlots.
The sexual harassment discourse, as it has evolved in the Indian context, does nothing but reproduce this difference. It only appropriates the caste-gender oppression and resistance of a lower class Bahujan woman towards procuring rights and protection for elite/upper caste women.
At this point, one might argue that the academia is an elite space, unlike the usual informal, workplaces of Bahujan women and therefore, here, a feminist discourse on sexual harassment is important and viable for the Bahujan women who are part of it. However, just as in the informal workplace, the issue of caste colours the Bahujan woman’s experience of the academia too. Seen from the perspective of Bahujan scholars who often enter the academia from a completely different knowledge-world, made of “other” icons, value systems and expertise, the academia is a highly elitist space, which maintains its power by sustaining a Brahminical epistemology along with ideas of merit and capability that are intrinsically anti-Bahujan.
In fact, it is here that we must think about this: would a list like this about “caste harassment” in the academia become the same sensation that the sexual harasser’s list has become in the mainstream? Surely it would not, as we still don’t have any guidelines to highlight “caste harassment” in the academia or the workplace. Even the recommendations towards tackling caste discrimination in academic spaces, which were framed by the Sukhadeo Thorat committee Report that looked into the discrimination faced by SC/ST students in AIIMS, Delhi, has not been implemented yet.
In such a scenario, the Bahujan woman occupies an extremely marginal presence in the academia where she faces a number of problems regarding pedagogy, classroom practices, knowledge production, etc. Elite women, on the other hand, is actually a beneficiary of the Brahminical knowledge/power structure of the Indian academic space, as they have established parallel spaces for feminist research and development, which today complements and is supported by the academia itself. However, the Bahujan woman often finds herself outside the frameworks and categories that even such gendered spaces generate. Thus she comes to inhabit an academic field, where both her caste and gender concerns are seldom addressed. So a discourse that brings sole focus to the “sexual” harassment that women face might be valid and important for elite upper caste women, but it is a complete negation of the reality of caste-gender issues in the academia, which many Bahujan women grapple with, and which is often central to their experiences there, even when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment.
Indeed, as Primayvada Gopal, a feminist academic based in the West, rightly points out in a recent Facebook post, “the extent of the networking, arse-kissing, patronage, genuflecting and sycophancy which lubricates” the academia is huge and “professional feminists have done very little to challenge this culture.” However, in India, this situation is further inflected by caste. Here such a culture of power and dominance also creates Brahminical figureheads who enjoy absolute impunity and compliance while almost all corrective mechanisms are targeted at Bahujan faculty and scholars. It is such a culture that also allows many Brahmin male serial offenders (not just in matters related to sexual harassment but in many other issues too) to thrive without ever being brought to book, even as young Bahujan teachers and scholars are violently punished even for a single error, be it regarding sexual harassment or any other issue.
In fact, we need to remember that “sexual harassment” has always been one of the greatest tools used to manage Bahujan men. For instance, think of the infamous Chunduru case, where 13 Dalit men were murdered by upper-caste Reddies. Here, a Dalit man was falsely accused of sexually harassing Reddy women in order to instigate violence and justify mass murder.[ii] Similarly many informal accounts tell us that a large number of the cases that come up in the sexual harassment committees are against SC/ST/OBC men. In Delhi University, for instance, very recently, a man in a reserved post from an extremely marginalized location lost his job, after being tried for sexual harassment by the ICC of his college. However, he was not allowed a chance to state his case in front of the enquiry committee and he was so tortured and frightened by the extremely unfair procedures that he resigned his university job in utter despair. Today he is unemployed.
Thus, regenerating the feminist narrative of ‘sexual harassment’ without engaging with any of these issues will only re-produce the existing caste-blind discourse on sexual harassment. This eventually will do very little to harm the powerful Brahmin men who have always enjoyed a certain impunity in the academic space, and will only further victimize Bahujan men; even as it renders invisible the concerns and life experiences of Bahujan women.
In short, it is highly problematic to generate a debate that only nominally foregrounds Bahujan women with regard to the issue of “sexual” harassment.” What Bahujan women in the academia need is a theoretical space that will enable them to rethink such feminist categories that have evolved out of the concerns of elite women. This alone will drastically question and de-center the elite, epistemological frameworks that marginalize the issues of a huge majority of Bahujan women, both within the academia and outside it.
[i] Bahujan is used here to include SC/ST/OBC and Muslim communities together as a large category, against the Brahmin and other twice-born Hindu communities, in the way Kanshi Ram had envisioned it. Differences among them are specified, when and where necessary. Terms like Dalit Bahujan, which are more commonly used today, are also given, when used by the others mentioned.
[ii] Samata Sanghatana, “Upper Caste Violence: Study of Chunduru Carnage,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 36 (Sep. 7, 1991), pp. 2079-2084