• Poojil Tiwari

Caste, Not Patriarchy defeats India's MeToo

The last month has been monumental for the Indian feminist movement, with many terming it as the arrival of the #MeToo movement in India. The resurgence of the movement can largely be attributed to actor Tanushree Dutta’s September 26 interview, in which she accused actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing and assaulting her on the sets of Horn OK Please. As Ms. Dutta recounted the harrowing experience of the assault and the subsequent apathy of Indian Film Industry in dealing with the allegations, she struck a chord. The interview became a catalyst for the movement in India’s media circles, with prominent names being outed as perpetrators on social media. After years of suppression, women are sharing their stories of abuse, showing solidarity against a patriarchal system that reduces victim accounts to attempts at defamation.

MeToo is unique in that it is the juxtaposition of a singular ‘Me’ points with a unified resistance against the patriarchal power structures. But, to say that this is a unified resistance is a sign of savarna privilege, for the movement has only allowed for a handful of women to be the torchbearers of feminism and has actively distanced Dalit and Bahujan communities from itself. When there exists a wide discrepancy along caste lines in the constitution of ‘Me’, claims of a ‘unified resistance’ and a ‘singular enemy’ become attempts to gloss over a deeply privileged understanding of the power dynamics at play within the Feminist movement – atleast in India.

The Dalit Woman’s space in the MeToo movement

Last week Dalit Women Fight, an intersectional activist group released a statement in support of the MeToo movement, condemning the “anti-survivor statements across communities”. However, they spoke about the Savarna nature of the feminist movement in India.

“[As Dalit women] We have been wondering about the ‘me’ in #metooindia and have not been able to locate ourselves in this current framework. Our points of assertion in dealing with violence of various forms have always been based on our collective consciousness. A caste-stratified society has for long denuded our personhood and often considered our lives as mere data or a story.”

-statement by Dalit Women Fight

A 2018 study conducted by Martha Farrell Foundation of part time domestic workers in Gurgaon, Faridabad and South Delhi – the most affluent locales of millionaire Indians – found that 29% of women working as domestic help face sexual harassment at work, and 19% of them choose to ignore it. A 2012 survey by Oxfam India placed women working as labourers, domestic workers and small scale manufacturing unit workers at the highest risk of sexual harassment. As we continue to give credence to the movement and hail it as the pillar of feminism in the 21st century, we systematically exclude lakhs of women to whom this movement remains inaccessible. The very platform of the movement – Facebook and Twitter – rakes of its urban nature as it remains unavailable to almost each of the victims described above. Even if we were to keep the inaccessibility of social media aside, the very principle of calling out, something at the core of the MeToo movement, is impractical in marginalized sections, for the severe threats to life the women who choose to come out will face.

The Second Wave of India’s MeToo Movement

To term this resurgence of the movement as the “arrival of the MeToo movement in India”, would be a willful disregard to the contributions of Raya Sarkar, a Dalit Bahujan Activist. It would also be equivalent to being complicit in the erasure of hundreds of Dalit women who have long been fighting against caste and gender based oppression. In October 2017, Raya Sarkar released a list of sexual predators in Indian academia. Her list was met with severe backlash for the lack of accountability and trivialization of due process. A letter written by prominent Indian feminists such as Nivedita Menon, Kavita Krishnan and Brinda Bose (to name a few), criticized the ‘name and shame’ process adopted therein. The letter was symptomatic of one of the major problems that has plagued the Indian feminist movement: its Brahmanical nature. The fact that the letter was seen as the “feminists’ response” to the list is symptomatic of the upper caste urban woman who has come to define feminism in India. Today, when upper caste feminists like Rituparna Chatterjee create crowd sourced lists and whisper networks of their own, they reflect the reluctance of the Indian feminist movement to integrate the lower caste narrative, a dynamic that plays out in the accounts of the accusers as well.

The desire for a due process

The arguments against due process are many. It is not a hidden fact that due process has time and again failed the women of the country. To put it in perspective, the conviction rates for crimes against women in India is 19%, as opposed to the general rate of conviction which stands at 49%. Furthermore, the Indian legal system is not equipped in dealing with a movement of this nature. It has time and again demonstrated its inability to break the culture of victim shaming that prevents survivors from sharing their stories – something that MeToo actively tries to encourage. In India, defamation laws allow for the criminal prosecution of women (with a maximum jail term of two years) unable to prove their public accusations against their harassers.

The insistence on due process by the detractors of the movement betrays a privileged understanding of the accessibility and functioning of law and justice machinery in the country. The emphasis on due process fails to acknowledge the structural barriers that women in general, and especially those from minority communities face in availing it. It is also dismissive of bondages that the historical lack of education for women has created, both economic and social, that prevent them from reporting perpetrators who are often those on whom the woman’s survival depends. Furthermore, it dismisses the inherently biased nature of the Indian judiciary which has for long, been divided on the plank of caste and class. It places the burden of proof back on the oppressed and fails to acknowledge the power dynamics that already provide men with the impunity to get away with harassing and assaulting women.

Exposing the Indian Patriarch

Access to this movement can only come about with the acknowledgement of the savarna nature of the Indian patriarchy. The upper class’ desire to maintain character purity in the wake of #MeToo has been common across geographies. It is evinced in the defense of Avital Ronell by prominent feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, or Nivedita Menon’s letter in response to Raya Sarkar’s list. As a society, we have been inherently opposed to challenging our conception of the accused as belonging to a particular caste, class and/ or profession. One of the major reasons the movement continues to face backlash is our reluctance to admit the sexism in India’s intellectual spaces. In the last two weeks, prominent journalists such as K. R. Sreenivas (Times of India), Prashant Jha (Hindustan Times) and Vinod Dua (The Wire) have been accused under the movement. The exclusivity of the MeToo movement lies in its ability to highlight how widespread sexual harassment and abuse continues to be – challenging the savarna conception of sexual abuse.

In their aforementioned statement, activist group Dalit Women Fight call for the acknowledgement of “caste power” in creating structures of protection around the men who have been accused as a part of the movement. A reluctance to shame such abusers and an over insistence of due process only betrays a desire to maintain caste purity, further disenfranchising women from minority castes from the movement. Writing for The Wire in 2017 at the time of Raya Sarkar’s list, Vidhya Reveendranathan and Nitin Sinha asked an extremely pertinent question,

“...would a list of Uber drivers enrage us so bitterly?"

Perhaps not.

While it should not be forgotten that the movement rests on victim’s accounts, and the majority burden of this integration doesn’t lie on the survivors of abuse, the elitist nature of the movement as a whole cannot be denied. The movement is symptomatic of a society stratified along lines of caste, class and gender. If the MeToo movement in India seeks to be holistic in nature, an understanding of caste in construction of the perpetrator needs to be integrated into the movement.

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About the Author

Poojil Tiwari is pursuing Bachelors in English Literature from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Like most English students, Poojil has an affinity for reading. She is an avid debater, placing a lot of value in the ability to question and have constructive discussions. She is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, and regard dancing to be her true passion. Poojil has a keen interest in Gender and Cultural Studies and has worked with organizations such as Delhi Commission for Women and Teach for India.

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