Institutional Patriarchy

From Jadavpur to Columbia

Pratik Deb

The recent incident of Jadavpur University, though expanded into a separate phenomenon of students' dissent altogether, essentially began as a protest against the entrenched patriarchy in the field of academia. From an outsider's point of view, the academic centres of excellence often appear to be institutes devoted to pristine form of knowledge and wisdom devoid of the burden of hegemonies of mundane outside world. In fact the prevailing conception of academia as the paragon of equity and fairness is, something, which seemed to have stood the test of time. How this pre-conception, or rather a false construct, was built is a different discussion altogether, but suffice it to say that moments like this when one of the most renowned university of the nation blatantly disregard the law of the land (Vishaka guidelines) while forming committee to investigate a sexual harassment incident, it becomes evident how much of male-chauvinistic values (along with other vices of the society) have spilled into the sphere of academic excellence and spread its appendages far and wide.

The Jadavpur incident is not merely an Indian phenomenon or a third world phenomenon. The most progressive institutes in the world also grapple with these issues in their own way. The campus of Columbia University was taken by storm in the form of a raging students' movement named as 'carry that burden' last month. At the focus of the movement was a brave senior (4th year undergraduate) student Emma Sulkowicz who was 'allegedly' raped in her own bed by a fellow student and even after several rounds of going through the regulatory process of the institute, she could not get the justice she deserved. The tardy criminal justice system is still going on with its operation, putting the first hearing of the case after nine months by which the survivor will be graduating and probably will leave the city, hence putting the onus upon the survivor. The alleged perpetrator had two other accusations of crime related to sexual offence pending against him from his fellow students; and yet there seems to be no grave actions taken against him.

In order to avail justice which seemed unattainable, Emma did something remarkable. She started to carry her mattress in her class and in the campus as a symbol of her violation and the grave injustice done to her. Steadily a movement grew around her and more and more women in campus started speaking against the institutionalised patriarchy in the sphere of academia that go past unnoticed and unchallenged. The incident culminated in the form of several peaceful gatherings and its upshot is still underway.

Columbia University is not alone in this. In fact, it is but showing the symptoms of very well-known problem of deeply ingrained patriarchal values in academia. Yes, even the academia of United States that had birthed several waves of feminist movements and emerged in the past as the harbinger of emancipation movement of women, is still reeling with age-old male-chauvinism and bureaucracy.

The difference of Columbia from Jadavpur, however, lies somewhere else; it lies in how the struggles and strident voice of the students are interpreted by the state. The responses are not only diametrically opposite, but it is what tells the complete story.

President Obama did address the issue in a public service announcement and launched "It's on us" campaign, thereby addressing the problem of innumerable occasions in the recent past when the university and college authorities were accused of being too indulgent and exculpatory towards the sexual offenders at campus, mostly because the system is incentivised in a way that letting the news out does a lot of disservice to the reputation and ranking of a college than good. The administration that 'keeps things quiet' the most, is deemed as the most successful ones. The system, in itself, is so direly faulty that it was up to the state who needed to be involved in the matter and it did, in spite of the right wing sniggering and contempt in the country, towards any cause related to gender equity.

Why is it that a struggle against an evidently evil hierarchy can educe such a progressive measure from the US government (in spite of the generally right-ward shifted in political discourse of the country) while it hardly draws out any reaction from the Indian state? It can be partially attributed to the so-called semi-feudal nature of the Indian state or the way the corporate capitalism has embraced certain aspects of the feminist resistance. But beyond the class character of the state, beyond the stage of economic development of two nations, it can be said that the fundamental difference lies in how differently the relation between the state and its citizen is conceived.

In United States, the idea that the relation between the state and the citizen can never enter the realm of tyranny, that there is no place for the state for totalitarian dictation upon its own people is constituted into the public psyche from both extremes of political spectrum. And hence even with the militarisation of police force and overt activity of criminal-justice system, a certain space for dialogue between the citizenry and the state remains unviolated. For Indians that space is yet to be curved. While the democracy continues to grapple with its failing structure and failing promises, the citizens of the nation have a task of their own.

Vol. 47, No. 19, Nov 16 - 22, 2014