Some of us at Raiot have always been interested in the seemingly small and marginal. So when a student organization that upholds Maoism – the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) at JNU – had a sort of an implosion over sexism within the revolutionary circles, we were curious. The following essay (a bit long perhaps and sprinkled radically with JNU Speak) presents a critique of perspectives on gender and patriarchy of the revolutionary movement in India which comprises numerous mass organizations across the country that follow a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. This critique is presented by 11 ex-members of Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) who resigned from the organization in November 2015 stating that the perspectives upheld by the revolutionary movement on gender is feudal, moralist and reactionary, albeit being couched in Marxist jargon.
While resigning they said that they “were forced to take this step after three long years of arduous struggle to raise certain pertinent questions and serious criticisms of the perspective on gender and patriarchy of the revolutionary movement”. DSU is a constituent part of Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF) and according to the resigning members, “the responsible people of RDF instead of letting them put forth these criticisms and concerns had instead scuttled all democratic debates, tried to isolate and witch-hunt the people who raised these questions, indulged in vicious personal slander and in the last recourse, they even tried to liquidate the student organization.” This criticism is based upon published and documented positions of RDF and its other constituent organizations like Nari Mukti Sangh.
Women’s emancipation and class struggle
In 2004, in the face of mounting critique from women’s organizations and activists regarding the space for the women’s question in the revolutionary agenda, there was an initiative from the revolutionary movement to have a dialogue (EPW November 6, 2004). One of the two banners at the venue declared “there can be no women’s liberation without the liberation of the working class”. Simplified it would read “no woman’s liberation without revolution”. The second banner read “no revolution without women”. On apparent glance one may overlook the subtle change of words but the slogans should in actuality read “No revolution without the liberation of women”&“No liberation of women without revolution.” Any one slogan does not make sense without the other. Revolution is a process in which the fight against patriarchy and oppressive gender relations is integral to revolutionary social transformation. However, on this question, the approach of the revolutionary movement has inverted the Marxist-Leninist understanding of historical processes. Here the revolution has become a goal in itself, which once achieved, will automatically lead to the liberation of women. On the contrary, it is in the process of the revolution that patriarchy, or for instance caste system has to be fought and it is through such struggles that the fate of the revolution would be decided. But, when one says “no woman’s liberation without revolution”&“no revolution without women”, what it ends up implying is that patriarchy is a question that can be addressed only when a certain revolution is achieved. And till that happens, women cadres are expected to play an instrumental role towards making this revolution a success, instead of raising questions about the oppression they face as women as if that would be a distraction, a diversion from the need of the hour. Such an approach towards the idea of revolution indicates a disjunction between struggles, as if the struggle against patriarchy is not integral to the struggle for revolutionary social transformation.
This false disjunction – between everyday struggles and the larger question of revolution – has created a situation where it seems many questions raised for decades by women’s movement and activists regarding violence, marriage, divorce, sexuality, etc will only be addressed once the revolution is accomplished. It is precisely this disjunction of the women’s question being relegated to the background, from the larger question of revolution that we have been questioning in the last three years. What we contended with is a feudal-moralist patriarchal understanding that only serves to patronize women instead of addressing the varied questions that women’s movements have thrown up over the decades. Far from the sense of revolution as a process, far from a sense of history as it has been shaped by various struggles, what we find is an instrumentalist approach towards this question that draws heavily from the prevalent common-sense steeped in feudal morality. We had outlined in our resignation notification some of the crucial aspects of the differences we had with such an understanding. The attempt here would be to elaborate and substantiate some of these aspects.
The character of patriarchy in the Indian subcontinent has been determined by its historical specificities and mode of production. Its foundation continues to be deeply seated on the bulwark of brahmanical feudalism which in turn is further bolstered by its nexus with imperialist big capital. Even a cursory understanding of the crucial significance of the control over women and women’s sexuality in maintaining the caste structure,shows how the question of patriarchy cannot be located outside the realms of dominant semi-feudal social relations determining the unequal power relations between the genders. And therefore if the fight against semi-feudal land relations is rightly considered to be part of class struggle, then similarly, the fight for the liberation of women and the fight for the annihilation of caste, must be considered very much integral to class struggle. History is witness to the fact that the structures of caste or patriarchy have never existed without challenges to the same.Marxism teaches us to look at society in motion. Moribund capital, that is capital in the age of imperialism, only promotes inverted ideas and values of freedom or choice through market. At this stage, capital has lost its progressive and democratic character and exists in alliance with feudalism. But, as Marxist-Leninists, it is important for us to make a conceptual distinction between bourgeois values/morality promoted by moribund capital and the progressive democratic values/morality emerging from democratic struggles against the structures of caste or patriarchy. It is important for us to recognize that in our context, our consciousness is not simply shaped by the cocktail of feudal and bourgeois values/morality alone, but also by the democratic and progressive values carved out through various struggles –from the Tebhaga and Telangana revolts to the Naxalite movement, various working class struggles, women’s movement, dalit movements, the LGBTIQ movement, nationality struggles, struggles of various individuals and so on. Several demands that were unthinkable some decades ago have come up as a result of the space that these movements have carved out. However, there is a persistent reluctance on the part of the revolutionary movement to recognize these developments over a period of history on the question of gender and patriarchy and engage with them which is reflective of ahistorical and a top down approach.
Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement – Lenin. But this lack of a sense of history and social relations in understanding gender, has made the revolutionary movement ill-equipped and rather ill-prepared on the questions of sexual violence and patriarchal oppression, to intervene or carve out its own space. Let us look at some of the writings and documented positions of various organizations that uphold MLM and revolutionary politics. In a booklet titled “Revolutionary Women’s Movement in India” which summarizes the experiences of the Nari Mukti Sangh and how they have fought various problems faced by women; after briefly elaborating the history of the struggles of adivasi women in Jharkhand and NMS’s interventions on various other issues, its analysis on the question of sexual violence starts with the following lines – “Sexual harassment and rape incidents have come down in NMS areas. When a rape incident occurs NMS conducts a Jan Adalat. They enquire and if they find the boy is from a poor family and has come under the influence of imperialist culture of TV, cinemas and if he accepts his crime, he is warned severely and let off.” (Revolutionary Women’s Movement in India, New Vistas Publications, p. 31). Once again, the reasons for sexual violence are seen in the “realms of consciousness” determined by “imperialist culture of TV and cinemas” (something repeated ad-nauseum in various writings). It not only leads to perpetrators of rape being let off just with a “severe warning”, but more fundamentally it is reflective of a complete distortion of the causes of sexual violence. This vociferous critique of imperialist culture in fact comes dangerously close to a reactionary understanding that an alien evil (in this case imperialist culture) is corrupting an otherwise homogenous and idyllic society and thereby giving rise to sexual violence.
When it comes to the urban context, the notion of “imperialist culture” leading to violence against women gets an even greater emphasis, as its effects are perceived to be greater among petty-bourgeois sections. Consider for example, a statement in Hindi brought out by RDF in October 2013 on the case of a journalist who faced sexual assault by TarunTejpal. The statement after initial condemnations comes down to the following analysis – “Globalization and neo-liberalism has fast developed a model in which we can see the nexus of corporates, executives/legislatures, media and the imperialist forces. One of the main objects of this alliance is to showcase women in the market as ‘sex objects.’ This is imperialist culture which…has allied with the feudal brahminical culture. The rush for profit and incessant greed to amass wealth and power by the owners and editors of the various media houses, in the garb of journalism, democracy, culture, modernity, lifestyles etc, is in reality presenting this same imperialist culture, which in turn is creating a frightening situation for women and the rest of the society alike.” (http://hashiya.blogspot.in/2013/11/blog-post_5127.html) Sexual violence rather than being seen as a crime of power is here only reduced to sex and lust. While those who see sexual violence as a crime of power embedded in unequal social relations would demand the democratization of all spaces from the home to the work place, this kind of analysis ends up promoting male protectionism and victim blaming. Therefore, going by the logic of their analysis women who because of their “false consciousness” adhere to what is being propagated in the garb of “life styles/culture/modernity/democracy” and are working in the “corporate media houses” are in a way also made responsible for the violence they have faced. In placing the above criticism we are not calling for a celebration of the culture or consumerism promoted by imperialism, but pointing out that it becomes problematic when evoked crudely to explain the causes of sexual violence.
This understanding also creeps in the writings of the senior revolutionary leader late Comrade Anuradha Ghandhy. When asked in an interview, about the nature of oppression faced by urban women she replies that amongst other problems, “...the influence of imperialist culture is very great on urban women. Urban people are not only influenced by consumerism but are also victims of it, giving more importance to fashion and beauty products rather than human values. As a result of this imperialist culture, there is an environment of insecurity due to the atrocities and sexual abuse in urban areas.”(Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, p. 276).Right wing ideologues and leaders of parliamentary parties of all hues have often blamed the rise in sexual violence to the culture of TV, cinemas, fashion, beauty products, etc but when a movement fighting for a complete transformation of the present social order makes similar analysis it is a cause for great concern and alarm. When such questions were raised, what we heard in return was that we have no right to question or criticize someone of the stature of Anuradha Ghandhy. The question is why? What is it that prevents us to raise certain concerns, certain criticisms even internally? What frowns back at such questions is nothing but dogmatism. Marxist praxis has always evolved, through criticisms & counter-criticisms. Anuradha Ghandhy herself was one of the handful who began raising questions vis-à-vis a dogmatic understanding on the question of caste which at long last sharpened the MLM understanding on the same. It is rather ironical, that when we raise questions on some of her ideas regarding gender and patriarchy, some say we ought to be “purged”.
In last three years, all that we have demanded is a debate on these problematic understandings, but all that we faced were nothing but repeated efforts to delegitimize us in order to delegitimize the questions we raised. In the face of such brazen authoritarianism, finally on 21st November we were forced to tender our resignation (ironically) despite having a majority in both the Executive Committee & the General Body of the organization. After eight days when the so called EC of DSU finally brought out a response to our resignation, instead of addressing any of the political questions and criticisms raised by us, quite expectedly it was a concoction of high rhetoric and heightened slander. If the idea was indeed to shield someone as they have claimed, then it would have been easier for us to do so by staying in the organization with an overwhelming majority. We resigned because we realized that there was no space anymore to constructively take this debate forward by staying within the organization. We publicly resigned knowing fully well that by doing so we were opening ourselves to a vicious backlash and malicious slander. And if the actions of the so-called EC of DSU and people in responsible positions in the past one week are anything to go by have only vindicated us. Any debate on gender and patriarchy that seeks to question and challenge status quoist regressive understandings in the end is always reduced to personalized attacks, and slander is the chosen weapons in the hands of the patriarchal society and reactionary forces to delegitimize those raising questions. And, in this case it clearly dovetails the feudal-moralist understanding of the movement on the question of gender and patriarchy. But all the cacophony, high rhetoric, the whisper campaigns, the slanders and character assassination cannot bury the questions that we have raised. And we still hope that at long last the revolutionary movement would address these crucial questions that are so integrally linked to the cause of revolutionary social transformation and democratization of the society.
Gender relations and feudal morality
Marx identified class struggle as the moving force of history. His extensive study of the capitalist mode of production, led him to believe that contrary to other revolutions in human history (for instance, the bourgeois democratic revolution) the socialist revolution led by the proletariat, who have nothing to lose but their chains, would emancipate not only the proletariat but the humanity as a whole. But Marx also demonstrated that class struggle is a highly complex process, which has manifested itself differently in different social formations over the course of history. Every concrete situation thereby demands a concrete analysis of class struggle. In Western Europe, the development of capitalism played a progressive role in dismantling feudal social relations and in establishing bourgeois democracy based on the principles of formal equality and freedom. While acknowledging its progressive character Marx exposed the limitations of bourgeois freedom and equality. He explained how the inherent contradiction of the system would in turn create conditions for proletariat to lead the socialist revolution to end all kinds of exploitation and establish real freedom and democracy. But when capital entered the Indian subcontinent during colonialism it did not play the same progressive role, which it had played in Western Europe. Instead of dismantling feudalism, capital rather collaborated with it, reinventing it as semi-feudal relations. Although colonialism formally ended in 1947, the masses continued to be oppressed by feudal forces, imperialism & comprador big bourgeoisie such as Ambani, Tata and Birla.
In this complex semi-feudal semi-colonial context, any mechanical understanding and application of class struggle is bound to fail as the fate of revisionist parliamentary Left has made it amply clear. The revolutionary movement in India, over the years, has challenged the mechanical and crude understanding of class struggle championed by the revisionist left. It reflects in revolutionary movement’s understanding on working class struggles, role of peasantry in new democratic revolution, anti-caste struggle, the minority question or the struggle for national self-determination. But, when it comes to the equally crucial question of struggle against patriarchy, we see an instrumentalist crude class analysis overpowers the revolutionary movement’s understanding, which confines the fight against patriarchy to the domain of “participation” of women for the “larger” revolutionary task. While glorifying the role of women in anti-liquor movement, anti-displacement, anti-Salwa-Judum or anti-AFSPA struggles, the revolutionary movement’s theoretical understanding relegates the gender question to the backdrop. And not only that, it in fact treats (conspiratorially) the various questions brought to the fore by women’s movements over the decades to be diversionary from the “real” revolutionary class struggle.
In Indian sub-continent, the fight against patriarchy and caste system is internal to class struggle. The semi-feudal social relation, which, in collaboration with big capital, oppresses and exploits the vast majority of people, is constitutive of, just as it is simultaneously being constituted by, caste system and patriarchy. Historicizing the institutions of family and marriage, Engels demonstrated that the control over women as sexual body through monogamous marriage was a decisive historical moment in institutionalizing private property and male domination. In our context, however, the control over women’s sexuality is pivotal not only for ensuring control over resources but also for maintaining and perpetuating caste system. In other words, the perpetuation of caste system and the semi-feudal control of land and labour are heavily dependent on patriarchal control over women and their sexuality through the social arrangement of endogamy. The appropriation of labour of women and of oppressed castes through extra-economic coercion and control over women’s sexuality is thereby central to the reproduction of semi-feudal relation in the Indian subcontinent. And therefore if the fight against semi-feudal land relations is rightly considered to be part of class struggle, then similarly, the fight for the liberation of women and the fight for the annihilation of caste, must be considered very much internal to class struggle. Instead of addressing, engaging or radicalizing the issues of sexual violence, marriage, divorce and intimacy emerging out of the women’s movement, the revolutionary movement dismisses these questions as concerns of ‘elite’ women, emerging under the influence of imperialist culture.
One of the worst manifestations of this is the branding of feminists and women activists, who have raised concerns regarding sexual violence, marriage, divorce and intimacy, as advocates of “free sex theory”. The movement accuses feminists of promoting “free sex theory” as a part of imperialist onslaught. What is most worrying is that it has been stated as a matter of fact without any explanation. We would want to ask – what exactly does the revolutionary movement mean by “free sex theory”? By using such bogus terms, is the revolutionary movement, here not behaving akin to reactionary forces who also attack feminists and women activists for raising the issues of sexual violence and patriarchal control and for being critical of the institutions of family and marriage in very much the same language? (read Subramaniam Swamy’s comment describing JNU as the hub of “free sex naxalites and jihadis”). Several of these concerns have been raised for decades by the women’s movement and feminists of all hues. It is indeed true that many of them have a limited agenda, and feminism itself is a very heterogeneous camp. But in a semi-feudal semi colonial context, when the stage of the revolution is still new democratic, every such strand of struggle that targets or challenges the oppressive social relations and institutions are to be considered as allies rather than as enemies. The role of a revolutionary party or the revolutionary movement is to pick these questions up in a holistic manner and expand their frontiers by connecting it with other anti-feudal anti-imperialist struggles. However, on this count, what we find in both the documented positions as well as in practice is that the questions themselves are projected as diversionary, reflective of elite concerns determined by the class positions of those raising them and worse still part of an ‘imperialist conspiracy’! Such an approach of rejection and branding reeks of nothing but self-righteousness and arrogance. It is true that the ruling classes always try to co-opt all kinds of democratic movements and their leaders. It may also be true that the women’s movement too got partially co-opted by the ruling classes. Does that mean the issues and concerns raised by the movement become irrelevant or less important? There have been several instances of co-option of communist movements/parties by the ruling classes – be it in the former Soviet Union or China; the latest example being the Maoist party of Nepal. But it would be ironical to conclude that the struggle for socialist revolution or the new democratic revolution has become irrelevant. So, the point is, whether co-opted or not, the revolutionary movement must take issues and concern raised by the women’s movement or for that matter anti-caste struggle seriously, for they are internal to the f revolutionary social transformation of our society.
Let’s take a look into the revolutionary movement’s documented positions on the questions of marriage, divorce and intimacy. The progressive sections of our society including the revolutionary movement stand in support of the individuals’ democratic right to freely choose their marriage partner. The recognition and acceptance of this right as well as the right to divorce are results of various progressive & democratic struggles, particularly women’s movement and anti-caste struggles. But the moment two persons consciously decide to live together without marriage it is immediately criminalized. The stated position of the revolutionary movement is: “To live together when they wish to get married and to separate when that need is felt no more amounts to irresponsibility and anarchy. …Therefore when members who like each other want to live together they will have to inform the concerned unit and obtain its permission for marriage. Pre-marital sex relations should be viewed seriously.” And “serious” they are. The seriousness on this front is so immense that any deviation from this, or any instance of pre-marital sex or live in relations, is considered an “alien class tendency”, “non-proletarian trend” and a “serious” breach. As far as the larger society is concerned, it opposes and criminalizes both these forms of conjugality because of their potential to disrupt the dominant semi-feudal social relation and morality. But why is the revolutionary movement standing on the wrong side of history? When an individual freely chooses her/his marriage partner, the revolutionary movement considers it individual’s democratic right; but when a person decides to live with someone without marriage, it criminalizes this relationship branding it as anarchist behavior, which is influenced by “poisonous imperialist culture” and alien class tendencies. This is not just an a-historical approach, but also one that is steeped in feudal morality about sex and sexuality. It only reeks of male protectionism and control over women and is built on the premise of an over-sexualized man and a passive woman who always fall prey. It is emanating from a deep seated anxiety regarding sexuality (particularly woman’s sexuality) and sexual intimacy that is looked as some kind of a natural urge which if not controlled might lead to “sexual anarchy”, chaos and “sexual weakness”. Sex is viewed as a tool (just like “religion, drugs and intoxicating drinks”) used by the exploitative classes to “divert” the youth away from revolution.
Divorce though being recognized, yet is not favourably looked at. The disgust to even recognize this democratic right goes to the extent of warning that women may “degenerate into prostitution” if they separate and remarry too many times! By this it reduces marriage only to sex, yet stripping the woman of any desire, emotion or will. At another place, it is argued in one of the most-commonsensical ways, that over-emphasis on sex is leading to a rise in sexual violence and divorce rates in the west! Once again, it is forgotten that the right to separation and divorce is a battle hard fought and won by women against exploitative relationships and marriages. It seems, for the revolutionary movement, the root of all problems lies in sex, the “úninhibtedness” of which once fought against, will lead to a ‘healthy’ society (Marx must be turning in his grave, and Gandhi certainly would be really proud). Even when spouses of martyrs are allowed to re-marry, it is only after a lonesome exile from companionship in for a year of recovering from the bereavement. And it is argued that otherwise, they will become a “laughing stock before the people and before fellow comrades.” Is it because there is a judgment involved regarding such a woman who might begin to like someone in say shorter than a year? Point being in six months or four years, it should be up to the woman. If one says such a restriction is imposed actually on behalf of the woman, to protect her from men, even then such protectionist understanding is certainly male dominated as the woman’s feelings and emotions do not find an iota of space in such a discourse. If there are improper ways and means in which she is being harassed, then the men responsible should be taken to task. But by restricting the woman, it ultimately amounts to nothing but controlling her which also amounts to a moral judgment on her if she does not comply. Are we not in progressive garb actually controlling women to preserve a certain “order” in the rank and file or in the society at large instead of politicizing them and taking any violation seriously?
When a revolutionary movement takes it up to be its moral responsibility to witch-hunt, brand or slander against those who might be living together without marriage, it comes from nowhere but a feudal moralist vantage point which the movement is propagating in the name of “communist values”. Our point here is not to discuss (or “hotly debate”) future forms of marriage, or its retention or eradication. No one can be in a position to comment or predict future forms and the holistic changes to be brought about class struggle (which must necessarily include the fight against patriarchy and caste – at both the material and ideological levels) are bound to open up possibilities hitherto unforeseen. When we argue for or enforce the retention of any institution as it is today, we’ll always end up doing so, not by keeping history as our vantage point, but with a moral frown of today’s morality. So, instead of wearing the moral lenses of what ought to be and what not, we should rather as Marxists believe that the only thing constant over history is change. The only thing expected of us as conscious political subjects is to move towards a change for the better by being more and more democratic today in every sphere including gender relations. It may even be the case, that a communist party working in areas where the democratization process has not advanced may adopt certain tactical positions on these questions (for instance, advising its cadres who might be living together to tactically project themselves as married). But when our tactical positions themselves become our strategic positions and become the corner stone of our political understanding, it shows the internalization of the very same feudal values that we claim to be fighting against.
When we speak of Communist Values, it is important for us to understand that it cannot be a metaphysical concept that is over and above history. Such values do not drop from the sky and certainly they have not remained constant over the last two centuries. It has evolved through various struggles and a revolutionary party,equipped with Marxist-Leninist understanding, is expected to represent the most advanced consciousness in the society. It can’t afford to be behind the masses, at the same time it shouldn’t be ahead of them. It organizes working class and works among the most oppressed people striving to raise their consciousness to higher levels during struggles for radical social transformation. However, it’s not a one way process—from top to bottom—movement also learns from the people. It analyses its experiences gained during struggles in the light of the principles of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and arrives at better understanding—an ongoing process of from the masses to the masses. The day it ceases to do that, it runs the risk of getting fossilized in its understanding. It is one thing to say that moribund capital in the stage of imperialism gives rise to false notions of freedom and liberty. The revolutionary movement is required to evolve a thorough analysis of how such moribund capital in nexus with feudalism is perpetuating patriarchal oppression. But a short cut or instrumental (or should it be instrumentalist) approach to such complex questions will only lead to simplistic conclusions wherein all the gains, aspirations or demands emanating out of democratic struggles against patriarchy will in one stroke be painted as products of “poisonous” “vulgar” “imperialist culture”. And in doing so, we will end up falling back upon the dominant feudal-moralist commonsense and project them as “Communist Values” as is apparent in the documented positions of the revolutionary movement.
In 2004, during a dialogue, organised in Hyderabad, between women’s organizations and the representatives of the revolutionary movement, the issue of lack of women’s representation at the level of political and intellectual leadership in the revolutionary movement was raised by many activists (EPW November 6, 2004). They argued that although the participation of women in the movement had increased significantly over the last several decades their representation in the leadership was alarmingly insignificant. In response, the representatives of the movement candidly accepted the presence of ‘patriarchal orientations’ within the party, largely because the consciousness of members is shaped by the backgrounds from which they come. The other problem which they identified was women’s inability to transcend ‘family ideology’ preventing them from taking up the roles of political and intellectual leadership. They also stated that “it is easier to eliminate imperialism and feudalism than to eliminate patriarchy”. (EPW November 6, 2004) But why? Is patriarchy a spectre in our mind, which can only be exorcised but cannot be fought and defeated? Isn’t patriarchy a product of history, which, currently in our context, has been constituted by, just as it has simultaneously been constitutive of, imperialist and feudal forces? Assumption here is that women cannot be independent political agents capable of leading the revolutionary movement because the patriarchal ideology does not allow them to come out of their own immediacy. Let’s first discuss the contentious and complex question of human agency, particularly of women’s agency, before coming back to the issue of women’s representation in the leadership
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx writes, “people make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” History could not have progressed without people having agency. But the agency of people is always constrained and mediated by the ideological, political and material circumstances in which they live. Throughout history, people, collectively as well as in their individual capacity, have always resisted and fought against the exploitation and oppression of the ruling classes. These struggles, however, have always been complex and multi-layered because the ruling classes in every era have controlled not only the means of material production but also the means of ideological production. Thus, in every social formation, the dominant ideas, values and morality serve the interests of ruling classes by legitimizing existing oppressive and exploitative social relations by representing them as natural and therefore inevitable. Although violence or threat of violence constitute the ultimate means in the hands of ruling classes to maintain their control and domination, the stability and continuity of any social formation also depend on the internalization of dominant ideas, values and morality by the oppressed classes. Class struggles are always fought at both material and ideological level giving rise to a different set of values and morality which are always in contradiction with the ruling class ideology. Human agency is shaped not only by existing material circumstances but also by the conflicting ideas, values and morality of the contending classes. Human agency, therefore, is always a product of class struggles, or in other words of history.
In Indian sub-continent , the consciousness of people is shaped not only by the cocktail of feudal and imperialist values but also by the democratic values emerging out of various struggles such as Tebhaga, Telangana, Naxalbari movement, working class struggles, Dalit movement, women’s movement, struggles of oppressed nationalities, the LGBTIQ movements and numerous other quotidian struggles and movements. But in reality these conflicting sets of values and morality exist simultaneously in people influencing their actions and practices in significant ways. Moreover, the dominant values and morality exert powerful influence on the consciousness of the oppressed people, who somewhere also internalize the very logic of their own exploitation and oppression. The system of brahminical feudal patriarchy in India, which exists in active collaboration with big capital, is not different. In our context then how do we look at women’s agency? Do they really have any agency? Yes, women do have agency. They have different kinds of agencies, which are determined by the ideological, political and material circumstances in which they live. For the purpose of this pamphlet let’s conceptually divide women’s agencies into two different categories although in reality they do not exist separately. First, the ‘status quoist agency’, which, consciously or unconsciously, tends to accept the dominant feudal patriarchal structure. Although this kind of agency remains oppressed and exploited, it receives various kinds of token ‘reward’ by the patriarchal system and enjoys limited power & status such as “good or virtuous woman”, “sacrificing mother”, “devoted wife” etc. Second, the ‘progressive agency’, which consciously questions and fights against unequal gender relations and patriarchy. It invariably faces backlash from the dominant feudal and patriarchal forces. Violence or threat of violence against this kind of agency constitutes the overt manifestation of this backlash. However, the other covert and subtle, but equally violent manifestations of this backlash are often wilfully ignored or not taken seriously by left democratic and revolutionary movements. Women who raise their voice against patriarchy and demand equality and freedom or assert themselves are often branded as “loose” and “immoral” women facing worst kind of slander and gossip. It is important to understand that branding, slander and gossip against women and other oppressed genders, which vitiate their social space and affect their mobility and psychological well-being, are serious forms of sexual violence/harassment. However, what is most disconcerting is that these forms of violence are not the sole preserve of right wing forces, but it’s equally rampant in left democratic and revolutionary circles.
There is a tendency in the revolutionary movement to brand women, who raise questions against patriarchy, unequal gender relations, sexual violence, institutions of marriage and family, as ‘free sex theorists’ or ‘bourgeois feminists’, who by promoting imperialist culture consciously blunt class struggle. The bogus and obnoxious usage of the term ‘free sex theory’ in the documented perspectives of the movement, equips leaders (invariably male) and cadres to brand, slander and gossip against women activists who raise difficult questions. The responses that have come so far (by DSU-Bihar, Inquilabi Chatra Morcha-Allahabad University and Bhagat Singh Chatra Morcha-BHU) to our resignation aptly demonstrate this. Rather than even once quaintly attempting to engage with the questions that have been raised by us, we have been in turn branded of promoting ‘uninhibited love’, and ‘uninhibited sex’ that would lead to ‘sexual anarchy’. In our campus, the right wing unable to come to terms with the relative democratization because of the students’ movement often resorts to such branding, slander and gossip against progressive-democratic organisations, especially women activists. But why are DSU-Bihar, ICM and BCM prisoners of the same feudal-moralist anxieties? Consider, for example the following lines in ICM-BCM’s response – “Boys and girls who are not even allowed to look at each other in their homes, here they can roam around as well as live together. One of the consequences of this, amongst other things, is coming in the form of uninhibited sexual relations. And in many places this has become a big problem for organisations.”
(https://web.facebook.com/inqalabichhatra.morchaicm/posts/1701916596760293) And this monster, i.e., the possibility of two comrades being together, is condemned as unacceptable in more than one place! Our attempt to locate sexual violence in the unequal power relations between different genders rooted in feudal patriarchal structure and not in the false binary of pre-marital/marital relationship has made them accuse us of promoting ‘capitalist brothels’ (i.e. live in relations!) where women inevitably get exploited. They label ‘elite’ women as victims of their false consciousness, because according to ICM-BCM unlike women from middle and toiling classes ‘elite women’ do not see consensual pre-marital relationships as the exploitation of their “natural sexual desire by men”! All the questions that we have raised – of violence, control, moral policing and domination – have been branded as emanating from “our class positions” and “problems of our personal relationships” with “no relevance for the vast masses of toiling women” (unlike their male protectionist “proletarian/communist values”). It so often happens that any attempt to question the deeply entrenched patriarchy and the power relations behind gender oppression stokes up amongst conservative forces such apocalyptic fears of ‘sexual anarchy’. Feminists, for raising questions regarding violence, marriage, divorce, sexuality, etc., have often faced such backlash and branding from reactionary forces. But the irony becomes far too blatant when those calling themselves progressive and even revolutionary resort to the same tactics. In the usage of these terms by DSU-Bihar, ICM and BCM, the insinuations and the misogynist and patriarchal branding of those raising these questions are not too difficult to ignore. This branding has the effect of not only side-tracking difficult questions, but also simultaneously isolating those raising them, especially women activists by portraying them as depraved, degenerate, loose women and “bourgeois feminists promoting free sex theory”! Activists in any organisation come with several societal baggages, but the revolutionary movement is supposed to make them shed and unlearn these problematic traits. But on this question, the movement not only fortifies commonsensical notions but actively emboldens leaders and cadres to slander, brand, gossip and resort to character-assassination or moral policing and thereby isolate those who raise these questions. Such a patriarchal undemocratic understanding in theory can only spawn a male protectionist & anti-woman approach in practice. And particularly when this understanding masquerades as MLM with Marxist jargons & rhetoric, then such blatant & obnoxious instances of branding and slander far from being even identified as anti-woman are much rather in fact encouraged.
Women’s agency and her place in revolutionary movement
In 2004, the leadership of the revolutionary movement accepted that patriarchal orientation also exists in the movement. Although the participation of women in the revolutionary movement has increased phenomenally in the last few decades, their representation in political and intellectual leadership still remains very insignificant. In that case, isn’t it possible that the manner in which the larger society tries to control and patronize women might also exist in the revolutionary movement? Isn’t it possible that the revolutionary movement, due to its commonsensical/feudal moralist understanding of patriarchy, provides space to only those women who agree with this perspective and accept subordinate positions? Isn’t it possible that the trickle that might make it to middle-rank or some level of prominence is made possible only at the cost of the fight against the deeply entrenched patriarchy? The leadership in communist movements, in the initial period, has always come from the petty bourgeois section. And we understand the historical necessity of it. However, in the last few decades thousands of women from petty bourgeois background have actively participated in the revolutionary movement. Why then they have not been able to rise up to the leadership position barring one or two exceptions? Is it because men form petty bourgeois background immediately ‘de-class’ themselves and become true communist revolutionaries while women are unable to transcend their ‘family ideology’? Or is it because most of these women become ‘free sex theorists’ and thereby ‘imperialist agents’? Or is it because the misogynist, feudal and patriarchal elements within the movement vitiates the space for those women, who raise questions against patriarchy and male domination, by indulging in worst kinds of branding, slander and gossip against them? Whether through the “purging” of those who raise questions or through the promotion of only those who remain silent,the ultimate casualty is the battle against patriarchy.
Justice is central to the process of real democratization. Patronization and control can never ensure real political participation of women and other oppressed genders in the revolutionary movement. The movement must treat women and other oppressed genders as political agents. The democratization of the revolutionary movement is a process, which is integrally linked with the larger struggles to democratize society in general. But then democratization does not happen on its own. Conscious efforts have to be made in this direction. In the context of fight against patriarchy within and outside, the revolutionary movement must first of all recognize branding, slander and gossip against women and other oppressed genders as serious forms of sexual violence/harassment for which those responsible should be taken to task. The real democratization of the revolutionary movement cannot be achieved simply through political education; justice should also be integral to this process. When women and other oppressed genders face sexual harassment/violence, blame should not simply be placed on imperialist culture, which can be rectified by political (read moral) education. Sexual harassment/violence is a crime of power embedded in exploitative and oppressive social relations and it should be addressed as such by ensuring justice.
So, what could be the correct approach towards fighting patriarchy and democratizing gender relations? We, have largely provided a critique of a serious lacuna in the revolutionary movement’s understanding of the same. In other words we have largely concentrated upon what is certainly not the correct approach. We have also stated why. We have emphasized for any meaningful engagement, it is imperative that we consider the fight against patriarchy not in isolation but as internal to class struggle. We have not, neither is it feasible for us to provide a comprehensive alternative perspective sitting in one university space. Rather, a recognition of the political differences and a democratic space for debate based on politics could have been a good beginning. But, far from engaging in any such debate, far from providing any space for difference of opinions, what we witnessed was a steady shrinking of that space and a virulent spate of slander, branding and witch-hunting which finally forced us to resign from DSU. Even in the responses till now that have attempted to respond to our questions, rather than any self-reflection or even an attempt at engagement, there has only been a hardening of the same feudal-moralist positions and a branding of the questions as well as those raising them. We have and we will continue to raise our political differences with the conviction that these are extremely important questions, which the revolutionary movement must sincerely deliberate upon. It must, because, with such a patriarchal, feudal-moralist, male-protectionist and patronizing understanding on the crucial question of gender and patrarichy, there can no democratization or revolutionary social transformation.
– Anirban, Anubhav, Aswathi, Banojyotsna, Gogol, Priya Dharshini, Reyaz, Rubina, Srirupa, Ufaque, Umar