Originally published on Round Table India
The recent documentary “India’s Daughter” on the 2012 New Delhi gang-rape case by Israeli born filmmaker Leslee Udwin has come under criticism from certain leftist feminists for being ‘Western racist’ and the likes. A particularly trending article in these circles is one by Kavita Krishnan, who is a central committee member of CPI (ML) – Liberation. Comrade Krishnan is pained that Udwin has shown “India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women, that inspires both shock and pity, but also call for a rap on the knuckles from the “civilised world” for its “brutal attitudes”.” She laments that there is a “racist profiling of Indian men” that informs this documentary. And so on and so on.
To start with, yes, Leslee Udwin’s documentary is problematic because it is not well informed. It picked a most brutal gang-rape that caught worldwide attention and tried to show some light on violence against women in India – but it failed to adequately pay attention to the systematic most brutal forms of rape and sexual violence that millions of Dalit, adivasi and lower caste women endure on a daily basis. The problem with the documentary is not that it demonizes Indians and India’s (Hindu) misogynistic culture. The real problem is that it has NOT demonized them enough!
Yes Comrade Krishnan, brutality is an Indian cultural problem, Indian backwardness is a problem, and Indian mentality is a problem. The problem is structural, embedded in India, in the idea of India, in the way this idea was imagined, in the discourse of India, by the people who create that discourse, who accept it and who defend it. I am not saying anything new. I am only repeating what Periyar has said in the past.
But what ethical rights does a Western person have to make a documentary on Indian women?
“I was in Hyderabad recently and was seriously appalled to hear that Arundhati’s piece is apparently being construed by some as being demeaning of Ambedkar and ‘devoting more space to Gandhi’. If this is indeed the nature of the criticism that is being made the pretext for the denial of permission, it is a travesty of reason and a deliberate, mischievous misreading of her article, not much unlike the Hindutvavadi’s misreading of Doniger.”
The above are Comrade Krishnan’s own words, based on nothing but rumour.
So let us twist it slightly and say:
“I was in recently in New Delhi and was seriously appalled to hear that Leslie Udwin’s piece is apparently being construed by some as being demeaning of Indians and racist. If this is indeed the nature of the criticism that is being made the pretext for the denial of permission, it is a travesty of reason and a deliberate, mischievous misreading of the documentary, not much unlike the BJP’s rationale to censor it.”
One logic for Roy and another for a White person. If a Roy can write a (theoretically shallow) preface to Ambedkar to highlight Dalit issues to the West, why cannot a Westerner make a documentary to highlight India’s rape crisis to the West? Between the two, Leslee Udwin was at least honest to admit her shortcomings. Roy and comrades on the other hand said this and more. While the documentary has been wholeheartedly welcomed by other women activists, Roy’s preface came under massive critical condemnation from Dalit activists, thinkers and writers – which were dismissed off by the privileged leftist intellectuals without any just engagement.
Comrade Krishnan challenges Westerners to recognize “the “brutal attitudes” that abound in our own comfort zone, our own “culture”.” What she should do is to challenge Brahminists, the leftist ones especially, to challenge their brutal intellectual attitudes, the comfort zones that they inhabit, the academic spaces that they occupy, the political culture of their politburos, the voices they silence and marginalize. What she should do is ask how many Dalits and OBCs – the people who actually form the working class – are there in decision making levels of the various communist parties in India. But of course, anti-Westernism is “radical”. Anti-Brahminism is “identity politics”.
This is not meant to be an individual attack on Comrade Krishnan, but rather an attempt to offer an insight into a pernicious trend that is dominating political discourse in the name of “anti-Westernism” “postcolonialism” and so on. In fact, Krishnan’s response to the documentary is much in the line of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where the latter argues against White men saving brown women from brown men. But in condemning western universality, who gave these members of an ultra-elite closed group the right to condemn in the name of all brown women and men? If it was not for the intervention of “white imperialist capitalist patriarchy” women of a particular low caste in Tamil Nadu would not be allowed to cover their breasts. It was British colonialist legislation that put an end to the barbaric practice of temple prostitution in the state. All these moves were also fought for and welcomed by the women of the concerned castes. The subaltern actually spoke. Spivak did not care to listen.
Some of the feminists have had a problem with the documentary being named “India’s Daughter”. But in their zeal to defend the image of India, they are behaving like dutiful Indian daughters in ensuring that the name of their mother country is not besmirched by a ‘colonialist Western foreigner’. Gayatri, Kavita, Pragya, Rithambara… sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
While Asian women who live ‘western lifestyles’ are slut-shamed on the streets, the academese counterpart of it is to criticize them for conforming to ‘capitalist delusions’. Like this gibberish which argues that Muslim women who conform to tradition are more liberated than Muslim women who supposedly conform to capitalism. By this article, the old Muslim lady who suspects love-marriages is a proto-feminist. I suppose then the Muslim man who slaughters his female relative for entering into a love relationship with someone he doesnt like is a fervent anti-colonialist. The Hindu Right must take note of these arguments; now, the Khap Panchayats can legitimately claim that their expecting Hindu women to conform to pure traditional lifestyles is actually a resistance to Western capitalism! I mean, if old Muslim women were liberated in their purdahs, I am sure old Brahmin and Rajput women are also quite liberated in their caste communities. And kindly dont expect Jats to conform to your liberal white western lifestyles please!
As objectifying as capitalism may be, the liberal Muslim women whom this author hates with a blind fury have the liberty to walk out of an abusive relationship, marry someone else, remain single, or go lesbian. The Islamist mothers and grandmothers whom the author glorifies, however, never had this choice.Liberal western feminism has many problems. Not conforming to Islamic feudal values, however, is definitely not one of them. And if there were a choice between the two, I will gladly go with the former.
The first party at your house in New Delhi. You asked me “Karthick, why is your glass empty?”
The glass is full today Sir. But where are you?
I know that you didn’t like me calling you ‘Sir’. You said that it was a legacy of colonialism. You wanted me to call you just Pandian. As a friend. As a comrade. But sorry Sir, I am just too much a product of a colonial mentality. You will always be ‘Sir’ to me.
As you will be ‘Sir’ to my good friend Kalai. I knew you as a mentor and a great teacher. He knew you as a father figure. But today, both of us are alone. Sir, Kalai called me from Cambodia where he had gone for a conference a few days back. He is doing very well. He told me how much I still had to learn from Pandian Sir. He told me to re-read your writings on Periyar and the Dravidian movement. You had so much confidence and faith in him. He was your prodigal son. He was with you in your last hours. How could you leave him? How could you leave us? Where are you?
You have inspired countless students. You have left your indelible mark in the academia. You are, without doubt, the foremost among Tamil intellectuals. You have stuck to your principles. You defended Periyar and that great old man’s principles in a context when a horde was out to unjustly defame him. You were tooth and nail opposed to all forms of casteism and exposed how it operates both at the level of the political and the personal. You have always stood by the cause of the oppressed. At a time when several Tamil intellectuals behaved in a most unprincipled manner, you said in the middle of a class in JNU that you supported the LTTE’s cause. You supported Kashmir even before it became popular in Tamil Nadu. You, the eternal iconoclast, took on several icons and brought them down. Can I talk of certain really subversive acts that you did during your tenure in JNU? Or maybe that is strictly between us? You have been a great family man to your wife and your daughter. You have been a great human being. What have we lost? What has the world of the South Asian oppressed lost? A Sartre? A Fanon? A Gramsci? I know that you would say that I am being too emotional here. Go ahead and say it Sir, with that affectionate laughter that accompanies whenever you chide me. But where are you?
You taught me to re-evaluate my political understanding. You taught me to challenge everything I thought I knew. You introduced Zizek, Schmitt, Sontag and Agamben to me. You re-introduced Periyar to me. You helped shape my PhD proposal. You gave me academic references. You gave me invaluable feedback on my chapters even though you were pressed for time. But there was so much still left for you to teach me. But where are you?
You dropped several words of wisdom to me in your lighter moments. “Karthick, cook for the one you love.” “Karthick, don’t take yourself too seriously.” “Karthick, at times, letting go can be as important as holding on.” “Karthick, there is fine difference between a pamphleteer and an academic.” “Karthick, understand the line between being and acting.” Have I grasped them all? I need you to tell me. But where are you?
I know that I could not push my intellectual horizons as much as you wished me to. I know that you were disappointed that I could never transcend the nationalist paradigm. You thought it was your failure. No Sir, it was mine. Maybe this is what I am meant to be, what I need to be. This might be our eternal disagreement. More than anything else, I would love to debate with you just to hear you prove me wrong. But where are you?
In our last conversation a few days back on gchat I told you “you were the best teacher I had. but I am still structurally unable to transcend the ‘alternative nationalism’ paradigm.”
You replied, “Get rid of the thesis. We will have a long long conversation. That is a promise. Bye, brother. :)”
I will be done with my thesis soon. I will come to Chennai soon. The glasses will be full again soon. There will be a long, long conversation soon. But where is your promise? Where are you?
Maybe you are still here. Maybe you always will be.
Friend. Comrade. Guide.