This attack on Nivedita Menon

The malicious campaign against the JNU professor is not about expressing dissent, but about bullying and intimidation. It creates a situation where the laws of the land are seen as irrelevant

March 16, 2016 02:02 am | Updated September 18, 2016 12:25 pm IST

“We are outraged not by the fact that people want to question Nivedita Menon's views, but by the mode in which they are choosing to do so.” File photo shows the professor speaking at a public meeting in Delhi University

“We are outraged not by the fact that people want to question Nivedita Menon's views, but by the mode in which they are choosing to do so.” File photo shows the professor speaking at a public meeting in Delhi University

A notable feature of the >university protests that have rocked the nation in recent times is the prominent presence of women. Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika was hounded by the media, and her personal life vilified in the attempt to prove that Rohith was not a Dalit. The faculty members from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who came to the Patiala House courts for JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s bail hearing and were attacked by irate ‘patriotic lawyers’ were mostly women. In Allahabad, > the first woman president of the Allahabad University Students’ Union, Richa Singh , has faced physical intimidation from her political opponents who are now seeking other ways to oust her from the university. The latest in this series is JNU professor Nivedita Menon against whom a concerted campaign seems to have been launched, including media attacks and >malicious police complaints .

One of the events that JNU teachers conducted in solidarity with students in the course of the campaign against JNU as a supposed den of anti-nationals was a series of lectures on nationalism. Professor Menon delivered a lecture in Hindi called “Nation, a daily plebiscite” in which she made the argument that the formation of one nation does not automatically end all nationalist aspirations. Drawing attention to histories of nation formation as crucial to understanding present-day conflicts, she also discussed Kashmir’s complicated history of accession to India.

These lectures are available on YouTube, and some days afterwards, a TV channel started a campaign, continuously playing video clips taken out of context (including a clip from a speech at a political event in 2014), calling Prof. Menon anti-national, and creating an atmosphere of threat, intimidation and incitement to mob violence. In addition, according to media reports, two police complaints have been filed against her in Delhi by organisations linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party, and a complaint lodged against her in a court in Kanpur. The complaints against her are, in effect, part of a right-wing offensive to lay claim to nationalism by attacking any mode of dissent as anti-national.

Does this mean that men are ‘patriots’ and women ‘dissenters’? Any such claim is immediately demolished, of course, by the powerful presence of militant right-wing women like Uma Bharti and generations of ‘sadhvis’ known for their incendiary demagoguery, from Rithambhara to Prachi. So there are plenty of women ‘patriots’. The real distinction is that it is those women who lay claim to the legacy of feminism who are being singled out as ‘dissenters’. Why is this happening? Why are feminist scholars like Prof. Menon being targeted? What exactly is Indian feminism and what are the forms of dissent that feminists in India have adopted? How have feminists become leaders in the present struggles over democracy in India and why is this being perceived as dangerous?

Feminism in India First and foremost, feminism in India, going back to the nineteenth century, has never had the luxury to simply be about women. This is because the struggles over women’s wrongs and rights in the Indian context have always been tied to larger issues — to the histories of colonialism and nationalism before Independence; to the meanings of development after 1947; and to the conflicts over democracy today. Feminists have been demonstrating how the hierarchies of gender in India are intertwined with those of caste; how the promises of national development remained unfulfilled for the vast majority of women; and how families have often turned into sites of the worst violence against their very own women.

Second, we as feminists have had to learn over and over again that our movements can only grow if we do not claim immunity from our own tools of critique and dissent. Some of the fiercest debates witnessed in the Indian women’s movement have therefore been internal ones, addressed to each other. Prominent examples of such debates include those over a uniform civil code; over the need and direction for reserved seats for women in Parliament and legislatures; and over how best to combat the scourge of female foeticide.

It is therefore particularly shameful, but also revealing, that sections of the electronic media and countless vicious trolls on social media have tried to instil fear by singling out Prof. Menon among other teachers as an alleged ‘anti-national’. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with her writings should know better. Prof. Menon has drawn from prior scholarship (both in India and abroad) to lay out why, in fact, simple universal theories of women’s subordination will not work in contexts like India. By tracing the effects of colonial rule and the many responses to it, she has demonstrated how both community rights and individual rights have played themselves out in our history, and continue to have a massive impact on women’s equality and freedom to this very day. Some of her finest work takes issue with other feminists in offering a dissenting interpretation of the problems women face. Will a blanket demand for one-third reservation of seats actually be the best strategy for the women’s movement, or should we ‘call the bluff’ of those who demanded a sub-quota? Equally provocatively, might the sheer demand to combat sexual violence against women rebound against the basic freedom from violence that the women’s movement seeks to protect? Such examples could be multiplied. Lest anyone be misled, these are all feminist arguments that work through a form of dissent that simultaneously upholds feminist ways of seeing and feminist forms of struggle.

Does this mean that everything that a scholar like Prof. Menon writes or believes should demand our assent? Not at all. I cannot think of anyone who is more open to disagreement and welcoming of constructive dissent, and who, in fact, encourages this attitude from students and colleagues alike.

An undemocratic mindset That is precisely why we are outraged not by the fact that people disagree with Prof. Menon or want to question her views, but by the mode in which they are choosing to do so. The malicious campaign we have witnessed in recent days is not about expressing dissent; it is about bullying and intimidation. It reveals a deeply undemocratic mindset that offers no arguments of its own, but tries to capture public attention by repeated, sensationalised attacks that work by twisting statements and taking them out of their context. What is truly worrisome is that it does not just stop at this; this campaign goes far beyond the limits of public debate to make opponents fear for their lives by whipping up a frenzy and creating a situation where the laws of the land are seen as irrelevant. These are acts of cowardice, not bravery, least of all acts of heroism in the service of Mother India.

Such campaigns are also revealing because they inadvertently recognise the transformational potential of feminism in India today. For feminism believes that genuine gender equality can only come about where fundamental freedoms are guaranteed for all, and where no other forms of oppression can flourish. This is the legacy that feminists in India have been striving for so long to bring to fruition, and which is therefore perceived as being so dangerous. This is also the tradition that Prof. Menon has embodied with integrity and force. And if there are those who would attack such a feminism, they should at least have the courage to attack us all.

(Mary E. John is with the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi. E-mail:

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