Seven years ago, a controversy erupted in the national capital over the allegation of rape against a well-known social activist by another fellow activist who happened to be a Manipuri. Just as the allegation and counter allegation played out on social media, later on television as well, the controversy took a tragic turn. The man jumped to his death from the third floor of his residence at Vasant Kunj in South Delhi. Following this terrible turn of event, his supporters and social activists blamed “media trial” for his death. As the controversy raged over social media and outside, some also began to cast aspersions on the character of the young woman. This act of questioning the character of the complainant not only had sexist and misogynous overtones but also racial and racist inflections; Northeast girls as sexually “promiscuous” or “fast” began to lurk behind the counter allegations. It was a sad but not an unexpected turn of events. It only affirmed what one already knew about the nature of prejudice, particularly in relation to gender and race.
Not surprisingly, there was a simmering resentment amongst some of the students from the region, including Manipur, against the said vilification of the young woman as well as the racist insinuations. Moreover, they felt that even the progressive forces in their campuses were either not ready to take note of these reactionary moves or they themselves indulged in the malicious slandering of the complainant. Some of these students approached me and expressed their desire to organize a public meeting on the issue and also wanted me to be part of the panel. When I expressed the need to invite others speakers from the region, particularly Manipur, they informed me about the unwillingness on the part of some of those people.
I could understand the situation, and the reluctance that some might have to publicly take a stance and speak up. It was indeed a delicate issue; here was a case involving a well-known and a genuinely admired social activist, someone who was well connected with many activists and academics. Besides, it was also said that he was a mentor to some activists from the region, facilitating project funding etc. for them. Not only was the allegation a serious one, that of sexual assault, a criminal offence, there was also a political angle. Some of his supporters alleged that the allegation against the activist was politically motivated as he was a known critic of a man who incidentally went on to become the Prime Minister of the country. Incidentally, a former colleague from an institute where I used to work before joining JNU, a vocal supporter of the then Prime Ministerial candidate, was accused by supporters of the deceased activist for starting what they termed “media trial” without even filling a police complaint, pillorying the man and abetting the suicide. Finally, the students managed to get some more panelists, including two colleagues from JNU, one a well-known feminist scholar-activist, and a public meeting was held with a broad theme on racism, sexual assault and marginalization of India’s Northeast.
One of the issues that came up during the deliberation, beside racism, gender and sexuality, was the question of “media trial”, particularly related to social media. Incidentally, scholars and researchers have drawn up parallel between mob violence, such as mob lynching that ostensibly seek and/or deliver “instant justice”, and online trolls pillorying people on social media. The similarities are both in terms of forms and the underlying psychology of these phenomena.
Coincidentally, barely two months after this public meeting in Delhi, I had the privilege of delivering an invited lecture in Imphal to mark the first anniversary of the Manipur High Court, and the topic that the organizers wanted me to speak on was, “Mob Justice and Media Trial”, a title chosen by the organizers.
Fifth Estate: “Media Trial” and Rule of Law
Mob violence in the form of lynching or destroying (private) property of people or forcing people to get married (“kanya katpa”) by performing mock marriage rituals etc are familiar realities in the state. These are the reciprocal social realities of the subversion of rule of law or lawfulness from the above (political class and state) that we have seen in the state over the years. In other words, legal fiction like Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act subverts the internationally accepted norms of criminal jurisprudence such as “assumption of innocence” and “fair trial” by allowing soldiers to be prosecutor, jury and executioner to kill people merely on the basis of “suspicion” of acts, including those which have not been committed. In a similar fashion, the so-called “media trial”, especially augmented by trolls, on social media challenges these established principles and practices of (criminal) jurisprudence.
Here, we must take note of the changing nature of society, especially in the context of the emerging and ever expanding technology and its impacts. Social media is one crucial aspect of that which exerts far reaching impacts on society as a network of communication. It has brought about not only the way society functions in general but also how individuals experienced their own selves, including their sexuality. It is this aspect that forces us to think about our old forms of social life and regulations.
In this context, it is instructive to look at the debates and controversies around “MeToo movements”, particularly after Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano joined the same in 2017. And it generated heat in india after a list of names of men as sexual harasser was issued on social media by a law student at the time. This movement adopted a strategy to “name and shame” those people who have allegedly sexually harassed women.
The movement elicited mixed responses from a wide range of people. In fact, even the feminists were divided on the issue. Some feminists hailed this move as an “extra-juridical step”, a “social move”, a liberating moment of exposing not merely the harassers but also the extent of the problem and inadequacy of law etc. While some other feminists expressed their displeasure with the move calling it a potential subversion of the achievement of women’s movement over decades, if not more than a century, “due process” and potential for violence on people etc.
Incidentally, to those from the legal studies or those students of social sciences who are familiar with an area of work called “Law and society” or sociology of law knows very well that laws and social issues and attitudes are intertwined. Indeed, scholars, including those feminists, who have come from the tradition of Critical Legal Theory and/or Critical Race Theory have talked about the gender and racial bias in law (not merely in terms of institutional practices) for decades. Thus, merely insisting that for gender discrimination, one must resort to law must be a qualified one. Besides, there has been a viewpoint, especially amongst political scientists and philosophers that not everything, more so politics, should be reduced to law. Feminist articulations are not blind to these concerns.
Thus, the controversy or the different positions on the “MeToo movement”, raises fundamental questions: For instance, is the movement merely a “social effort” to expose social structure which is detrimental to women’s life with dignity? If so, what implications does it have for the “rule of law”? Is it an “extra-juridical step”, a necessary violence to initiate a new order, to transform the language and practice of law itself by instituting another set or forms of law? In other words, is it merely exposing the limits or inadequacy of law or altogether asking for doing away with (rule of) law?
These questions ring a familiar bell for us in the state, albeit vis-à-vis the issue of AFSPA. Is AFSPA a necessary violence to deal with an issue which cannot be dealt with by the existing “ordinary” laws? Military officials, bureaucrats and politicians have been arguing that they need “special laws” as “terrorists” or “insurgents” can get away easily with the existing ordinary laws. For that matter, even encouraged and justified violence as “extra-judicial step” to counter violence to sustain an existing “order” with the idea of “hattradi yararoi” (won’t work unless killed”) or “must be eliminated”!
Here, it may be instructive to note that right to self-defense is both a sovereign right as well those of the individual citizens. Rights of free speech and right to protect and seek legal remedies against defamation are interrelated aspects of right of the person to live with dignity (as a different from honour; that is, dignity and honour are two different concepts; the former is a right based concept while the latter is a status bound concept).
In that, the issue before us is also about whether one should justify violence, not necessarily physical kinds but acts, including slandering or humiliations, which infringe upon the dignity of people without any semblance of “due process” on social media as a means to counter another form of violence by citing the inadequacy of existing laws and institutional mechanism?
These are critical questions that we cannot escape. But one thing is for sure, without any semblance of rule of law, society will not be possible. A situation of free for all, accusing and slandering people without context and/or without any prospect of accountability and/or solely to humiliate fellow citizens cannot be a norm to lead a civilized life. Given the nature of online trolls, whose purpose is not to seek deliberation but to provoke and humiliate and harm people, one must be very cautious of any attempt to conduct trial on media – fourth or fifth estate. This does not mean that we should not use medium (social media) to counter balance any oppressive aspect of existing system or order. Indeed, it’s worthwhile to note that ultimately even those cases which have been flagged off on social media, including that of Alyssa Milton, came to a closure (in the legal sense of the term) in a court of law.
Sexuality and Gender Relations
One inescapable fact of life is that all of us come through this world through a relationship between a woman and a man, or to be precise, if you may, because a woman and a man have had sex. If they had not, neither I nor you would be here, one writing and one reading these words. And it is this sexual relation (and correspondingly the ways of experiencing and expressing our sexuality) is that which shapes much of the social institutions (thereby meaning organized forms of life and network of repeated human relations). You need not know Freud to know this truth. In fact, some sociologists have pushed to understand society (or social) in terms of sex/sexuality; they called it “sexualizing the social”. It is sex that marks our idea of marriage and family, for that matter state. Take for instance, family is, at one critical level, an arrangement of “who can have sex with whom”. Or the marriage rules such as “endogamy” or “exogamy” is nothing but with whom one is allowed to have sex or not. In fact, some scholars, including women scholars who are leading proponent of this, argues that that even our “ethnic boundary” coincides with “sexual boundary” (i.e., with whom one is allowed to have sex or not). If we go by well known French thinker Michel Foucault, sex is a site wherein modern form of power (“bio-power”) acts upon or through. Leave alone the issue of this worldly world, in some school of thoughts (e.g., Tantric tradition), sex is a path to nirvana or ultimate truth!
Despite this all pervasive, if you may — omnipresent, omniscience and omnipotent, nature of sex (and sexuality) in life, it remains a taboo. But it is not for nothing, that is, the silence or rather silencing of sex alludes to the centrality and regulatory nature of sex in our life. It is this regulatory nature, and the concomitant ideas and practices, which the feminists sought to call out and unpack in their struggle against existing (dominant) social structure called patriarchy. They argue out that majority of the hitherto existing social order and human experiences to the understanding of the same, suffer from male bias which make women and their world, including their “subjectivity” and “desire” — by no means these expressions can be unproblematically deployed in singular forms though — (misrepresented and) “invisible”. It is this understanding that informs feminist’s reservation about law precisely because its “language” is structured by male vantage point or patriarchy.
Indeed, the understanding is not merely the language of law but language itself. It is through language that we experience our life, and language is not merely a tool of communication but regulation (to control and discipline). Not only our view of the world but our subjectivity itself (meaning, at the risk of over simplifying, our experience, the way one feels, thinks and does) is structured by language. For instance, rape as “izzat manghanba” (loss of honour) and “pop the cherry” are languages rooted in a worldview that configures (female) sexuality to sustain and reproduce subjugation of women (under patriarchy). In fact, making women invisible is that many young women grow up more or less completely oblivious of their own genitals or negative views of the same. Drawing from his clinical practice, well-known psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar talks of women who did not know the word (in one’s mother tongue) for their own genital! In fact, if you ask women (particularly non-western such as Manipuris) to name their genital or sexual intercourse in their own mother tongue, most likely they will cringe or experience a kinesthetic sensation signaling discomfort. This, as Kakar points out, indicates the presence of “culture” in our inner world (psyche). That’s how language becomes a tool of regulating our world within and without by shaping our ways of knowing and experiencing.
That negative meanings get associated with women genitals or natural phenomenon like menstruation are parts of the same culture that seeks to regulate and subjugate women. Nothing illustrate this better than the expression “have some balls (meaning, testicles)” as have gut or courage despite the fact that testicles are the most delicate/vulnerable parts of male body. In fact, as some women and feminists would insist that it should be “have some vagina” (because not only vagina gives birth, the pain associated with it and can take “pounding”, some might take it as a trivial or laughable (precisely an experience driven by the language of patriarchy). But it is indicative of an effort to change the language with/through which we constitute, understand and experience world within and without.
Thus, when feminist and women activists and scholars insist that rape is an issue of dignity, not honour or that there is nothing to “pop” (breaking the myths around hymen), they are seeking to reconfigure the language to reconstitute the order. Saying that women are more than their vaginas (that they have a life beyond those associated with it and that they cannot be reduced to their vaginas, and thus one doesn’t have to kill oneself simply because one has been sexually assaulted) or that “reproduction” is not “ahistorical” but “historical” (emphasizing that it is a matter of human choice) are part of seeking to reconfigure the way we understand life and social order (and our experiences in it).
Notwithstanding these historically significant efforts, which have come to inform many sectors of our life — academia (social science, for instance, is invariably gendered now both in its theoretical and methodological orientations), legal practices etc., it does not mean that it has generated homogeneous ideology or worldviews or practices or relationship between women and men has come to be of one kind.
For instance, take the following hypothetical conversation amongst three girls which alludes to the multiplicity of experience that mark the relationship between women and men:
Girl 1: My ex was a jerk!
Girl 2: All men are like that!
Girl 1: He almost made me a psychiatric case!
Girl 3: I know, had it not been yambung Langamba…
Girl 2: Who yambung Langamba?
Girl 3: Clinical psychologist
Girl 2: Ah…So? What he has to do with him?
Girl 1: I went to him for counselling…
Girl 2: That bad?
Girl 1: Yeah!
Girl 2: That’s why I don’t like men!
Girl 3: It can happen, my aunt tried to commit suicide because of my uncle!
Girl 2: Men are jerks!
Girl 1: But James is different. He is not like other men; he understands me like no one else
Girl 3: Oh look at it…someone is in love! So sweet
Girl 1: Yeah, I am…(blushes), what about you? The way you croon about da …
Girl 3: Just kidding! I mean the way you say reminds me of my parents; my mother too says, no one understands her like my father
Girl 2: That’s false consciousness! No men can understand women, our lived experience!
For some, relationship is satisfying, for some, it is not. Some seem to feel that men in their life understand them, while some do not. In fact, some men give them so much trouble that they become psychiatric case. Some might feel that these so-called satisfying relationship could be a byproduct of “false consciousness”, may be they have “adjusted” successfully by performing culturally articulated and understood roles and hence happy. While some might feel that some are unhappy precisely because, they refused to “adjust”, and hence unhappy, and even might go “mad” (It may be instructive to recall feminist’s take on hysteria as “nothing but the medicalization of basic discontent of women under patriarchy”).
Similarly, some might feel that men can understand women (just as clinical psychologists can claim to understand another fellow being or as we understand people in our everyday life) while some feel that men cannot understand women (this later claim is not an uncontested position; on the other hand, some parroted this position by citing feminist authors, seemingly without fully aware of the debates within feminists on the issue; e.g., essentialist ontological claim vs analytical or tactical positioning to unpack patriarchy). In short, the relationship, and experiences thereof, between women and men are multiple. Women may not be a singular entity; As feminists scholars have pointed out, “intersectionality” marks women’s experience (including that of oppression).
Various dimensions of the intersectional world must remind us that these discourses are not coming from indigenous experiences or contexts. These women and feminist efforts and movements are historically and culturally specific experiences. This is not to rule out the presence of these discourses in our own world. In fact, this presence must be acknowledged, otherwise one might very well end up with some kind of “feminism in traditional” society, a formulation that might have its sets of issues and problems. We are in a global village, even as the entirety of our lived experience is not covered by it, we must not rule out its incursions. For instance, right discourse as we understand is quite obviously coming from western liberal ideology or ideologies.
This brings us to the world of internet. Not only new forms of ideas but experiences have been shaped by the same. In the academic world, these experiences have come to inform new areas of studies and works. Sexuality and gender relations are ones of those crucial concerns. Sex and sexuality have imploded under the impact of this new technological world. From songs to advertisements, soaps to pornographic materials to cyber-sex – new forms of experiences have come to impinge on the way we experience society, sex and self. Even in the west, it has thrown up new challenges to the hitherto existing notions of individuality, morality, privacy, consent, laws, desire, pleasure, etc. It is still unfolding. And one cannot hope to fully capture or deal with these developments with our traditional worldviews on sex and gender relations.
After all, expressions that refer to female sexuality such as “nangna pambadu p-eege” (I will give what you want) or “mamal yamkhraba pottubu manghanliba” (why are you spoiling or careless about such a precious thing), and referring womanhood as “nupidi tangjaba urini (women are like creepers), or “natung engjage” (will follow you) — all are still evocative expressions in popular culture and people’s lived world. Or wondering whether expressing and sharing sexual experiences would diminish my honour (izaat or will he respect me etc) or mindset that puts up videos and pictures, especially of the girls with whom they had shared intimate moments are not unheard of in the state. Clearly, these are indicative of the kind of traditional worldviews that the society has on sexuality and gender.
In fact, as a part of an ongoing study, I am struck by the fact that Manipur has one of the highest transgender in India’s Northeast. At one level, one might assure oneself that it has something to do with our cultural heritage, and might even be proud of the fact that Manipur is able to accept sexuality beyond man-woman binary. And on the other hand, it has also be found that the number of home-made or secretly filmed sexually explicit materials found online from Manipur is far greater than states like Nagaland or Mizoram. It alludes to an unsettling state of the way people experience sexuality in the state, especially in the light of cultural diffusions and advent of technology. It might also have to do with the decade old violence and normalized lawlessness in the state. These unsettling effects need to be dealt with in an informed manner rather than being prudish about these issues.
Unsettling and challenging as these might be, one unquestionable premise to start that effort is to accept, particularly amongst men, that women are also born, like all human beings, with unalienable rights. Our young girls must also be taught to experience their sexuality without guilt and as a matter of their individuality and rights. No harangue and noises should undermine that premise. To end this, I might as well add, however painful or confusing or vulnerable we, particularly men, feel or experience, these efforts must be made. Only then we could hope for better society wherein both women, men or all other locations in the spectrum of gender could live with dignity and well-being.
The author is a social and political psychologist who teaches social psychology and sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi