Thursday, August 01, 2013

Spectacles of dissent

Happenings, Aug '13
Aniruddha Dutta reports on Kolkata’s anti-rape protests as a flashpoint for contrasting, even clashing, forms of politics

Kolkata, June 2013: June 14 was a hot and humid afternoon in North Kolkata, when various groups converged in protest around College Square. A week earlier (on June 7), a young woman had been brutally raped and murdered at Kamduni, a village near Barasat to the north of Kolkata, prompting a series of protests to break out across the city and the state. And just a day earlier, representatives of the women’s rights network Maitree had been picked up and detained by the police for staging a peaceful dharna near the Chief Minister’s residence, after they attempted to present a charter of demands to ensure the rights and security of women in the state.

However, at College Square, it was precisely this sense of political consensus – a common set of demands – that was missing. Proceeding towards College Square, I was interrupted by a procession of mostly men led by Maulana Siddiqullah Chowdhury of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), crying out how the shomman (respect or honour) of their mothers and sisters was being desecrated, and demanding the death penalty for rapists. Predictably, the AIUDF promised better protection for women and Muslims, should it be brought to power. On another side of the square, at the other end of the political spectrum, a small procession by a major Hindu-right party decried the rape in communal terms, highlighting how Muslim men had violated a Hindu girl.

Meanwhile, the gatherings inside College Square consciously distanced themselves from these political parties. A speaker at a meeting organised by the civil rights group Friends of Democracy diagnosed the recent spate of rapes as another symptom of a general fractiousness and violence among common people, divided among themselves by religion, caste and gender – divisions that both resulted from and disguised an underlying ‘conspiracy’ to loot their livelihood and natural resources within the current capitalist regime.

At a parallel gathering among college students, a fiery young man spoke of the need to build an unrelenting mass struggle against the state and its complicity in violence against women, only to be interrupted by a female activist – yes, we will always oppose the state as an institution, but here the ‘prime task’ was gender sensitization within the broader social order. An old fracture thus re-emerged between a leftist emphasis on mass struggle against the state, and a feminist emphasis on tackling gender issues within that very ‘mass’.

Several women also highlighted the need to protest the continuous commodification of women as sexual objects in pornography, newspapers and even Facebook ads. Maitri Das, a representative of Ardhek Akash, an inter-collegiate group present at the gathering, later clarified their stance further: “We don’t think that the solution can emerge through legal means, as this is a social problem . . . instead of focusing on legal redress, we emphasize that one has to understand the situation as a whole – how women are being commodified and exploited within patriarchy as a system.”

Of course, feminism in itself is far from being a united front. Cut to South Kolkata, about a week before the College Square protest. On the very day of the Kamduni rape, participants in the '2nd Kolkata SlutWalk' sought to reclaim the freedom of sexual self-expression and resist the shaming of female bodies as inviting violence – here, the female body emerged as a political actor through its defiant sexualization as ‘slut’, rather than as an object of sexual commodification by the system. This difference perhaps indicated divisions of language and class – who has the privilege of claiming such unfettered sexuality?

At the end point of the College Square to Esplanade
rally on June 21, 2013. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

“The kind of people who come to SlutWalk will not come here,” a participant at the College Square gathering told me; the former being largely English-speaking, upper middle class, the latter not so much. Eventually, on June 21, a huge rally called by public figures like poet Sankha Ghosh, writer Mahasweta Devi and actor Soumitra Chatterjee seemed to subsume all these differences, both subtle and profound. Everyone was there, it seemed – from people demanding death penalty against rapists to those who opposed quick-fix legal solutions in favour of deeper social change; from male-to-female transgender activists who sought to visibilize trans persons as victims of sexual violence to reporters who leered at the very same trans people; from activists who opposed the state and army as a key perpetrator of violence against women to public figures close to the erstwhile Left Front government of West Bengal.

In such a display of the great Indian democratic game, all differences were apparently accommodated, for the sheer spectacle of peoples’ protest seemed to subsume its messages.

Aniruddha Dutta is an assistant professor in Gender Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Iowa, USA.

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