We have been rudely awakened to the continuing realities of hostile environments that have debilitating effects on women, with women from marginalised groups placed at risk of grave harms, and, as in the case of Dr D Preethi, or of Payal Tadvi before her, facing death as the only escape from public humiliation that results from discrimination.
In instances where, as in the case of Preethi and Payal, the alleged perpetrators are themselves either men from another marginalised group or are women from the dominant castes — both of whom are potential targets of discrimination in other majoritarian, masculinist contexts — the issue becomes particularly knotty.
In such cases, the fact of discrimination, humiliation bordering on violence, and the suffering of the victim is masked by rhetorical stereotypes of the community/gender of the alleged perpetrators. This unfortunately detracts from the issue of serious harms faced by classes that are protected under Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India and hampers the search for effective and enduring remedies: Non-discrimination on grounds of “religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth or any of them”.
Ragging & other forms of violence in educational institutions
Ragging, as I have long argued, is a euphemism for raw, unabashed, unapologetic, criminal violence normalised within institutions of education — and is used for acts ranging from mild banter to grave physical assault (as in the case of Aman Kachru who was killed in 2009 by his seniors) to sexual humiliation irrespective of gender, to suicide and abetment to suicide.
It is a demonstration of the power of life and death over new entrants who must be stripped of dignity, subjugated, and controlled. Irrespective of the gravity of the offence, it is aimed at public humiliation of persons placed at a lower rung in an institution structured on the privileges and powers of seniority — within faculty, between faculty and students, between students, and between academic and non-academic employees on a range of axes.
These privileges and powers intersect with the position occupied in the wider graded social order that in India draws its logic from caste — with arguments on merit used to justify discriminatory or humiliating treatment.
However, it is important to remember that ragging is one part of the violence in educational institutions, and not the only cause for gruesome deaths within campuses as we saw in the case of Rohith Vemula. It must be seen as one stop on a continuum of structural violence that institutions of education participate in and perpetuate.
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Dr Preethi’s suffering
It is important therefore to understand the problem of violence that Preethi succumbed to in all its complexity.
The uncontestable fact is that she felt targeted, distressed, and humiliated by the treatment meted out to her by a senior colleague in the institution. Her distress was aggravated by the lack of adequate institutional response in her support.
The fact that students from marginalised backgrounds face aggravated hostility in educational institutions, including professional education, is a well-documented fact. I will in this article speak specifically to the predicament of Dalit and Adivasi women, although every one of the arguments made here also apply in specific ways to men of marginalised communities, to persons belonging to sexual minorities and non-binary communities, and to Muslim women, all of which I have focused on at different points.
There is some disquiet and communal rhetoric around the senior colleague accused of harassment in Preethi’s case.
It is important for us to navigate our way through the minefields of identity politics while not losing sight of Preethi’s suffering, death and its root causes, nor sidestepping from the demand for firm action following due process. The demand for justice, however, cannot slide into hate speech, hate politics, or vigilante action either against the person accused or the social group he is seen as representing.
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The upper caste male gaze
Anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian in her book The Caste of Merit, uses the neologism ‘upper casteness’, to describe the consolidation and shifting contours of privilege against which Dalits and Adivasis fight everyday battles for life and dignity. In her words, “upper casteness has an incorporative logic that allows for the accommodation of non-ideal upper-caste subjects…”.
We also know that the logic of caste in India is not limited to Hindu savarnas alone, although they occupy the highest position in the ladder of legitimacy. In other words, one does not need to be upper caste to adopt ‘upper casteness’ as a way of belonging with privilege and in opposition to ‘lower casteness’.
This is particularly true of the society Dr BR Ambedkar described as one structured by “graded inequality”. It is reproduced through practices of discrimination, violence, and exclusion at every level and women are dis-privileged more as we move down the caste ladder, Dalit and Adivasi women disproportionately so. But across the board, women are surveilled by the upper caste male gaze that is at once life-threatening and dehumanising.
Hostile environments for women
The Supreme Court of India in the case of Vishakha vs. State of Rajasthan in 1997, used the concept of hostile environments in the context of sexual harassment at the workplace.
This is relevant especially to an understanding of gender-based discrimination. Simply put, hostile environments infringed on women’s right to work and imposed unfair conditions on women at work, targeting them in specific ways because they are women.
Eliminating hostile environments and setting the standards of non-discrimination is possible through the exercise of due diligence by state and institutional actors. Due diligence demands that state and institutional actors address not just manifestations of different forms of violence, but also its root causes embedded in entrenched social inequalities, economic marginalisation, structural oppressions, and sexual stigma.
Equally, it demands addressing the consequences of violence on individuals and communities, to heal, compensate, and reparate, securing them against recurrence of violence.
The focus on penal statutes and laws, citing legal provisions alone, reveals only a symptomatic engagement with manifestations of violence, rather than a transformatory agenda that addresses causes and consequences too. The enactment of laws, although necessary, says little about the system-wide challenges relating to access to justice.
We believed, as advocates of women’s rights, that laws would show the road to social change, to “notional change”, to use Dr Ambedkar’s words and that “[c]astes form a graded system of sovereignties, high and low…” and power is asserted through violence along the ladder of graded inequalities. Besides the fact that “caste is impregnable”, “the worst evil of this code of ordinances is that the laws it contains must be the same yesterday, today, and forever”.
Annihilation by caste
The true import of the words of anti-caste philosophers hits us more and more rudely with each passing day. With the annihilation of caste not happening, what we are witnessing, as I have argued countless times before, is annihilation by caste.
In a country ruled by caste in the constitutional era, annihilation by caste is a self-perpetuating patriarchal project that reinvents itself constantly, stalking the powerless and those that resist, blocking their flight from caste generation after generation. The creation and sustenance of hostile environments are the means through which an entire class of citizens are kept subjugated.
“The life of the law,” said America’s Justice Holmes, “has not been logic, it has been experience”. To turn these lines around to look at the experience of Dalit and Adivasi women and girls — who will take count of loss in terms of lives lost and a collective future facing annihilation through the violence of normal times?
For with every Preethi and Payal, we lose a generation of young women who have surmounted prejudice and confronted hostile environments, to claim their rightful place in building a just future for this country.
In individual actions lies a collective future. We believed that we fought, long and hard, to wrest more effective protections against violence and discrimination for women. A closer and more careful look, however, points to a stubborn persistence of aggravated, targeted discrimination that foreshortens women’s lives and spreads patriarchal terror.
On this International Women’s Day — 8 March, and our very own Women’s Day — 10 March (the 126th death anniversary of Savitribai Phule), we must ask ourselves: What have we achieved through all these decades of struggle? What is to be done?
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(This is the fourth article by Kalpana Kannabiran in this series titled ‘Knotty Views: Reflections on Law in the Everyday’. These are the personal views of the author)
(Kalpana Kannabiran is a sociologist and legal scholar based in Hyderabad. She is a recipient of the VKRV Rao Prize for Social Science Research (2003) and the Amartya Sen Award for Distinguished Social Scientists (2012), both awarded by the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) in recognition of her work in the field of law.
She has published widely on interdisciplinary law and gender studies, and has most recently edited and translated The Speaking Constitution: A Sisyphean Life in Law (2022) by KG Kannabiran)