Friday, March 20, 2015

Campus Gender Politics: Students at the universities demand better gender sensitisation

Universities are often seen as relatively safe spaces for students from all genders to interact more freely than they would be able to off campus. Many students get together to imagine a more equal society, one that does not tolerate discrimination, by organising demonstrations, awareness programmes, or social events. But recent cases of sexual violence against women on university campuses have raised questions regarding the safety of the university space and revealed the pressing need for gender sensitisation through active and efficient Gender Sensitization Committees Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH).

In recent months, the molestation and rape of female students on the grounds of Jadavpur University (JU) in Kolkata, English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi have led to student protests demanding better mechanisms to appropriately address such cases at universities. In JU, a female student reported to the university and police that she was assaulted, dragged to the boy’s hostel and molested by a group of male students during an annual festival organized by the Arts Faculty Students Union and that her male companion was also beaten up (on 28 August 2014). At EFLU, a female student was reportedly gang-raped in the Men’s Hostel after going to the hostel to visit a friend (on 31 October 2014). And at JNU, a PhD student reported that she was sexually assaulted by a research scholar and blackmailed to hide the incident (12 November 2014). While these cases are not the first incidents of sexual violence on campus, they have drawn attention to the fact that university administrations are ill equipped to appropriately address gender violence. 

Reactions to each of the cases differed. Jadavpur University launched an internal investigation but authorities were slow to respond and did not take immediate action against the perpetrators. Instead, female representatives of the university paid the girl an unauthorized visit to question her presence near a boy’s hostel on the night of the incident and to ask her what she was wearing and whether she was drunk – thereby violating the Vishakha Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at Workplace which condemns the use of external pressure on the victim or the accused during the investigation period. The police had started an investigation but also did not take immediate actions against the perpetrators based on the victim’s identification. Students were enraged by the university’s slow and inappropriate actions and called for a fast-track independent investigative committee that would look into the incident and make all its proceedings public. They also staged protests demanding a public statement from the Vice Chancellor (VC) as to why a proper investigation was not taking place. When the VC ignored the protests, students began to stage an indefinite sit-in in front of his office. In the early hours of 17 September, police and unidentified men in civilian dress, forcefully broke up the protests, injuring several students and arresting over 35. Reportedly, few female police officers were present and students, male and female, were beaten and molested by male officers and the other men in plain clothes. This only enraged students more and they organised further protests to demand the VC’s resignation. Eventually, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited the JU campus on 12 January 2015 to announce to the students that the VC would resign.

At EFLU the university decided to form a separate taskforce, specifically for dealing with the reported rape incident, instead of reviving the GSCASH which had been dissolved in 2012 as university authorities reportedly did not make enough efforts to sustain the committee. Students protested to highlight that the GSCASH has been lying defunct for some time, without any elected student representative, as is stipulated. The accused rapists did not expect the victim to take recourse to the law. Instead, they thought they could “handle the situation” and “talk it out” with the girl. The assumption that they would be able to get away with it seems to underlie their statements; perhaps they felt more confident as the girl had been drinking and gone to the Men’s Hostel, therefore not fitting the idea of an ‘innocent’ victim. Notions of women’s complicity in cases where victims did not conform to ‘norms’ of dress and behaviour, unfortunately, also prevail on campus. For these reasons, some students fear that universities, under the guise of a ‘taskforce’ for gender sensitization want to prevent cases from becoming public by internally dealing with the issue, potentially letting rapists get away with just a suspension.

Following the incident and protests, stricter rules and curfew hours were enforced at EFLU, mostly for female students, supposedly to protect them. The university’s way of dealing with the problem and the imposed gender segregation enraged students. With the support of student bodies and various committees, the students began to protest. They demanded that a defunct GSCASH be reactivated with elected representatives from all sections of the campus community. For the students, gender segregation and moral policing were not the right solution to gender violence. Indeed, by forcibly keeping men and women apart and reinforcing the idea that men are constantly trying to rape vulnerable women, the authorities are strengthening a culture of segregation rather than one of sensitisation.

These incidents led to protests on campuses across the country, where students were dissatisfied, enraged even, about the fact many universities still fall short when it comes to basic requirements for gender sensitisation and complaints procedures. The University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines urges universities to establish GSCASH on campuses to take necessary action to prevent any form of violence within university premises:
The students are entitled to protection from sexual harassment by complaining to the Gender Sensitization Committees against Sexual Harassment. It is mandatory for each college/university to constitute and publicize this committee as per the Guidelines and norms laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

In response to the brutal Delhi assault and gang rape of a medical intern in a bus in 2012, the UGC created a task force which drafted the Saksham report to “review the measures for ensuring safety and security of women in campuses and programmes for gender sensitization”. The report states:
A major finding and deep concern for the Task Force has been that the weakest aspect of our institutions of higher education is their lack of gender sensitivity. This is evident from the mode in which the questionnaires were answered as well as the Open Forums. This means that there is a widespread culture of not speaking out on issues, one which affects the more socially and institutionally vulnerable students the most. 
The report recommends that the focus should be on confidentiality and fair enquiries, not coercion, and that gender sensitisation should be required in all colleges and universities, for students as well as faculty, teaching, administrative and other staff.  
Campaign slogans and posters
for student elections at
Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Universities have urged that GSCASH be established everywhere in line with the UGC recommendations. The GSCASH is to be an autonomous body constituting of elected representative members from each section of the university community – students, teachers, and non-teaching staff. The function of the committee is not just to take down complaints of gender violence and set up enquiry probes; one of the primary functions of the GSCASH is to bring about gender sensitisation within the university space.

JNU was one of the first universities to implement GSCASH in compliance with UGC directions. JNU has had a history of gender violence on the campus and students and teachers have been seen turning to GSCASH to take appropriate action. At JNU, students and the university authorities, across party lines, are now proclaiming “zero tolerance” with regards to sexual harassment. On JU campus, posters for upcoming students' elections mention the need for active GSCASH at the university. EFLU and other universities, such as Aligarh Muslim University, followed JNU and also implemented GSCASH. However, as reactions to the recent incidents at Jadavpur University and EFLU show, students, teachers and the university authorities do not always understand the importance of GSCASH as opposed to merely an internal complaints committee.

What the recent cases reveal is that sensitisation without segregation is needed more than ever. Boys and girls must be provided greater access to spaces within the university where they can meet and hang out as equals. This might be one of the early steps towards building a more egalitarian campus. A central university like EFLU has students from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds. There is no need to create more dividing lines than there already are. The university has the power to influence students and define the way they think and understand the world, so why not teach them a sensitive way of interacting with other genders? 

My article on the need for Gender Sensitisation in University campuses published in Himal Southasian

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book review: When She Smiled

Name: When She Smiled
Author: Ritoban Chakrabarti
Publisher: Notion Press
Year: 2015
Price: Rs. 215

Ritoban Chakrabarti’s When She Smiled is what can be called a romance-youth fiction, dealing with young love. Set in the idyllic settings of Shimla the Himalayas provide the perfect backdrop to suddenly fade into when the narrative slows down or decides to take a rest. There are nostalgic descriptions of the sleepy Himalaya town, which for most of us is nothing but the famous tourist destination. There are descriptions of quaint winding roads and the long walks along them with the white wafts cloud that suddenly engulf you. It was quite easy to imagine, given that I am familiar with the terrain and its peculiarities, strictly in a touristy fashion.
The story starts with Roy, a Bengali, a misfit right from the day he was born, having gotten stuck with a name like Mrityunjoy, which only another Bengali can understand the plight of; especially when finds oneself in the middle of a crowd of non-Bengalees completely unfamiliar with the Bengali’s knack for bombastic long winded complicated and difficult to pronounce and spell names. It is enough already that they are long, it is worse when you try teaching your peers how to pronounce and in the process almost endanger them to losing some teeth. However, Roy with the short term memory of 150 plus IQ handles his first day in a new high school with quite panache. If nothing else, the author sure does let Roy give quite a show of saving the situation when it came to Bengalis with difficult names having to introduce themselves AND saving face in front of a room full of late high school kids out to get you. He is returning to his old school, which he left for two years of Sainik School, with dreams of eventually joining the National Defense Academy. However, a freak accident crushed all such dreams and the readers join him on that day when he woke up at 6 on that spring morning to rejoin his old school.
As the dedication on the first page shows, the book is the author’s tribute to Shimla, which is evident in him often going for trips down his memory lane. The story is this one year from Roy’s life that proves quite educative and enlightening for him. As always the journey to knowledge is never an easy one and Roy goes through his trials and tribulations, heart break and loss, until he discovers the light that shows him the right path of life.
Roy has a fairly typical middle class family with a father who is bordering on abusive and only interested in seeing his children excel in studies. He believes in a frugal living so as to strive for a better future. He has a massive temper, which he often unleashes on Roy and his older brother Siddarth through cruel beatings; one of which ended up with Sid having to be hospitalized with a broken thigh bone. His sister Ashima was the oldest of the three siblings and was the apple of their parents’ eye – beautiful, talented and loving; ‘was’ because Roy loses his beloved sister in an accident when the bus she was traveling from Delhi to Shimla overturned and fell down a sleep cavern. Their mother is shown doing nothing much other than the thankless job of doing everything to keep the household running smoothly. They were not a loving couple, which is evident in the few words of the author – They never shared their personal problems with us. All we heard were voices through the walls. But that they were enough to disorient the child Roy is evident in his description of Ashima holding his hands and taking him for long walks, talking to him soothing him to overcome the trauma of seeing his mother and father fight.
The major part of the story is about Roy falling for a pretty girl in his batch, Akansha, pursuing her, falling for her, offering his friendship and company only with the hope of taking that one big leap. He leaps, only to fall face flat. He loses Akansha and when he tries too hard to get her back, he realizes that the forces of nature was against him – that he was destined to go through this pai to learn the lesson of life, that is, to move on.
There are certain moments in the story where the author seems to be building up for a certain burst of action or shock, only to leave the readers waiting and it eventually never comes. The language is crisp but fails to offer much to a reader who might be expecting more, especially in terms language doing justice to the physical beauty of the place. He seems to lack the patience that is needed to capture the beauty of nature; sometimes it does pass off as the impatience of youth when one tries to see it coming from Roy. The author does touch on social everyday issues that those of us growing up in the 90s are familiar with. This strikes a note of nostalgia somewhere among the readers.

There are too many stories left untold in this book, while telling the story of Roy alone. 

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Wordshot: newspaper guy

The rickety bicycle stood perched on its singular side stand. The handlebar overloaded with stacks of newspapers; different ones, fresh from the press, waiting to be delivered. With extreme dexterity, the man gets off the bicycle, swiftly pulls out a newspaper from the stack and rolls it up into a neat longish baton-like shape. He looks up at the second floor balcony where the rolled up newspaper baton in his hand has to be delivered. A yellow taxi stands in the background. The last few morning walkers making their way back. The man lifts his arm, leans back and the next moment the newspaper baton was flying on its way up to its destination. It cuts through the morning air and lands on the desired balcony. The man’s eyes followed the missile till it vanishes into the balcony. He hops back on his bicycle and rides off. He has more missiles to launch and see through their mission till they land. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Her AND story

She was sitting at her desk in her old room. In less than a month, she will no more be able to call this her own in the same way as she can now. In less than a month, she will be married off into another household where she has to start this journey of growing relationships all over again. The past roots will slowly fade away while the newer ones will drop anchor. She thought the former was impossible. But time proved her wrong. In less than a month, the custom-made single bed, just like the way she wanted, will no more be enough. She will have to finally walk out of the safety of the room and embark upon a journey that was unknown and made her feel giddy in the head.
He was a good ten years or older than her. He was the only son who has lost his mother at an early age. His father was getting old; he needed someone to take care of the household. He did not know whether he needed a wife, but he knew that he needed a homemaker – someone who will nourish the family, keep the engines of the family well oiled so that everything functioned smoothly without any hiccups.
She loved to sing; had a lovely voice. Music was something that had been her companion all her life till then. Music had stood by her in good stead. She reveled in the whole experience of being able to lose oneself in the intricacies of a melody. But everything changed. Music never left her. She left music; was forced to abandon her longest companion. Many years later she would break down in tears when she would find her voice lost; the muscles no more having that flexibility that allowed her to sing. She failed to recognize her own voice when she sang.
She soon gave birth to a boy, which was quickly followed by a girl. She had her hands full. She immersed herself in ‘her family’, taking care of the children, the husband, the house. The rhythm of her life was defined by them. She could not continue to be the darling daughter that she was, the youngest of all her siblings. With each passing year the strings tying her to the family she was born into frayed while new strings were being tied in a new family. It drained her; weakened her. She forgot to question why could she not be strong and have both – the ties of the past intertwined with the new ones.
Her well oiled engine suddenly began to splutter and cough. Her husband was diagnosed with a killer disease with the doctor giving not much time. This time she refused to give up. This time she refused to make a choice and decided to be both. She became the provider for the family, while continuing to be the nurturer. She proved herself wrong. She proved those around her wrong. Most of all, she proved him wrong. She realized that she did not know her true self – while she made a choice between the two, deep down she did not want to choose. She wanted to be the daughter and the wife and the mother and the boss and...

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Not a poem

Sudden spurts of creativity that come back to haunt you every other day. 
The afternoons are most vulnerable when the world seems to fall into a limbo. 
The sordid tales of those behind the walls slowly ferment. 
The smell can be caught from a distance. 
When a quick waft of breeze carries it along. 
Sometimes they wreak havoc with her hair - caught in their nettled mess. 
Something stirs. 
She lifts up her head. 
The sun Looks unfamiliar and brazen. 
She had always loved the moon

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Finding Fanny is not about the end but about the now

Goa – a bunch of dysfunctional characters put together – an old love letter – unrequited love and unfulfilled desires – a road trip. That is what you have in just under two hours of Finding Fanny, apart from the whole range of wit, quirkiness, satire and dark humour.
Ferdie the old retired postmaster is just like his Pocolim town – both are stuck in a time warp, until he finds his letter to the love of his life, undelivered. He has spent a good portion of his life waiting until this letter kindles that fire to go look for his beloved. And what better friend would he have than Angie, the virgin widow of the village whose husband died five minutes into their marriage, choking on their wedding cake. She lives an otherwise happy life with her mother-in-law who is uncontested as the Lady of the village. She becomes the muse for Pedro, the painter who comes to the village looking for inspiration. And finally, Savio, for in a road trip you need a car and someone who knows how to drive a car.

For the first time, a mainstream commercial film on Goa has done full justice to the place and its ethos. There is nothing new about the fact that Goa in itself is essentially not India – and by this I mean the Goa that is not frequented by holidaying tourists with large families and honeymooners. As in the beginning of the film the narrator states that it will be a futile effort to go looking for the village which is being shown in the story because it is so quaint that it is impossible to find. One may say this is another way of saying that the setting, along with the story, is as much fictitious as its characters, though the official disclaimer did state the aberration and pointed out the truth lay in the strangest of incidents. While the road trip gives the film its breezy feel, it is difficult to not notice the absence of any other character, human and non human, that does not fit into the main narrative of the film. So in a road trip all we see are cows, two processions, a kid, a bus full of incomprehensible passengers – a very difficult proposition in India, even if you are in Goa. 

One look at the Naseeruddin Shah as Ferdie (or Ferdinand to his friends and Fernando to his beloved) and for the entire duration of the film I simply could not get Marquez’s Florentino Ariza from Love in the Time of Cholera out of my mind. However, Ferdinand in this case has been drawn as a character less dramatic in colour – probably to suit the Indian taste of the lover and his unrequited love. Unlike Florentino, Ferdinand never manages to quite make a proposition of his love to his beloved “Fanny” (Stephanie) and the only letter that he writes to her gets lost in time, only to return to 46 years later. How and why, I am not to tell; it is revealed through the course of the film at various points in the story and I must say it is worth knowing at those very points of narrative time. This is not the first time Naseeruddin Shah delivers an immaculate performance; but this time he had others too sharing the screen space and demanding as much off of the audience as Naseer does. Pankaj Kapur. We tend to forget what a storehouse of talent he is as an actor and Finding Fanny reminds us just of that. Dimple Kapadia with her 20-kg prosthetic posterior gives the final touché to the ensemble that brings the entire character of the film to completion.

Arjun Kapoor and Deepika Padukone could not have asked for a better luck of working in a film that has Dimple Kapadia, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor all at the same time and who never manages to make a slip in a single shot. While Arjun Kapoor was just himself, in Deepika there was a sense of her trying to be in the skin of this character, whose essence lay in the very carefree attitude. I am yet to make up my mind whether to give full credit her effort or to simply draw the conclusion that she has been too sucked up into the whole Bollywood ethos that when it comes to portraying a character where she has to just let go, she can’t seem to be able to go the whole hog. That is where you feel that Hindi cinema is yet to cultivate itself. She is otherwise extremely comfortable in playing the role, though there are certain shots in the movie where a careful audience will notice that she seems to be physically present in the moment and yet she is not. This is not being said to add any amount of enigma to her or to the character that she was playing.

If Imtiaz Ali’s Highway whets our appetite for road movies at the beginning of this year, Finding Fanny keeps the hunger alive just when it was dying a natural death. Breathing a fresh breath of life to the cine-goers experience, Finding Fanny once again reminds us that a film can be enjoyed for its journey itself rather than a happy ending. If one is waiting for that at the end of the film, let me warn you beforehand that you will be mightily disappointed, ‘coz this film is definitely not about its culmination but about the entire process of characters coming together, serving their purpose, each experiencing their individual moments of anagnorisis to continue to live life with or without changes, as they choose.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sayeth not what you feeleth

You say not what you feel, for what you feel may not be righted by others. The others are more important and the you must subside for the you to survive.
You want not what you desire, for it may not be desired by others. And you must desire like the others.
You crave not for this loneliness to go away, for it will not. You are apparently born with it and must live it until the loneliness abandons you for another. You must know then that that is the end.