The Patriarchal Burden of Indian Liberalism

A moment of introspection about its self-contradictory nature

Carole Pateman made it clear long ago that the Lockean-Rousseauian social contract, which ostensibly advocated equality, was in essence whitewashing of patriarchy.

In other words, it subjugated womanhood. Unsurprisingly, it is not an unusual act for many Lockeans and Rousseauists to judge sexual predation through the lens of political spectrum.

A major case in Kashmir, in early 1990s, was censured and forgotten. And what happened to Thangjam Manorama was discredited. It is perhaps for this very reason that Tarun Tejpal, Mahmood Farooqui, Khurshid Anwar and Vinod Dua have always had a run of good luck.

However, much to the chagrin of his apologists, M J Akbar case was a defining moment. It at least secured safe space, sans intimidatory ploys masquerading as defamation laws, to narrate, and fight against, sexual contract. The philosophy here is simple, as Fernando Coronil advised: be all ears.

A case in point

“These so-called liberal spaces are not at all different from other spaces or institutions that we may consider as patriarchal. Ashoka did everything in its capacity to protect the perpetrator. One may think a university in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh may act in this manner, not some place like Ashoka which had the famed public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta as the VC during my complaint,” this is an excerpt from the previously unpublished interview of the survivor in Ashoka University Sexual Harassment case.

And there is a timeline. Complaint, filed at another university in Delhi in April 2017, is forwarded with the recommendation of the Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) to the Ashoka University. According to this CASH Report, the relationship between the survivor and the defendant involved “manipulative consent on the part of defendant with the abuse of patriarchal power in professional sphere centred around the workplace,” and also that the defendant engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour given his position vis-à-vis the complainant”.

On December 18 the same year, an unsigned report is given to the survivor by the Ashoka University, following deposition on November 6: “In light of the prima facie evidence that there has been gross misconduct on the part of the defendant, but without expressing a final opinion on the guilt of the defendant regarding the incident of February 2017 detailed in the complaint, and in light of the obligation placed upon the University by Section 19 of the Act, CASH deems it necessary to recommend that the Vice-Chancellor take appropriate measures to inquire as to whether the defendant is guilty of misconduct as per the service rules of the University and as to what action should be taken.”

Now, this finding is further repealed, and the survivor deposes before a three-membered Disciplinary Committee constituted by the Board of Management of Ashoka University. “There should be a student rep. on these committees which the erstwhile GSCASH in JNU had. Ashoka on paper has provisions for a student rep., but there was none when I went to depose. But to be honest, I cannot really say about what the composition should be since I have lost all faith in the system. There were ‘well-known’ feminists in the committee and yet I was subject to insensitivity and hostility during my deposition. I deposed twice in Ashoka to two different committees. Despite having to relive my trauma repeatedly, yet no justice was given to me. The accused continues to socialise with the very same committee members. One of the members was, in fact, someone Baruah called as his ‘mentor’ for years... These are feminists who go around India lecturing about desire and sexuality and what not but when it came to empathising with a survivor, all I received was hostility and the zeal to cover-up for one of their ‘own’ and protect him,” the survivor later recounted.

The Disciplinary Committee, in a report given to the survivor on April 18, 2018, finds the conduct of the defendant “unbecoming of faculty member of Ashoka university and in violation of the norms of adherence to the highest academic standards" and "ideals of Ashoka University". The defendant is found “guilty of misconduct according to all ethical norms of professional conduct and conduct at the workplace". "Committee is of the view that legal advice should be taken by Ashoka University on the consequences of professional misconduct," it is observed. But the Committee agrees with the findings of the ad hoc committee set up by the CASH Committee that actions of defendant “would not fall under the ambit of sexual harassment at the workplace".

Survivor replies, expressing her dissatisfaction. Survivor writes multiple mails. She receives a call from a member of the Disciplinary Committee that action has been taken without telling in what form and substance. On July 6, Vice-Chancellor informs the Members of the Ashoka University Community, through an email, that the case has been “decided and final outcome was communicated to the parties concerned.” V-C did not forget to write about “baseless public speculation that does not seem to have any regard for due process or justice”.

“I am still grappling with the trauma. I have issues such as anxiety and depression. Which are the direct outcomes of the PTSD. I have lost many work hours and productivity. I have lost out on finances. I have lost out on friendships etc. Where did I receive any compensation for the trauma? Whereas the perpetrator did not as much even get a mere suspension despite being found guilty. He continues to teach in Ashoka in the midst of young girl students,” the survivor told this author. “The Ashoka administration, under the public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta, manipulated the narrative to the students and to the community in Ashoka including to their alumni association in such a way that the perpetrator was protected. The cost that I paid to get justice has been immense, but I still do not regret that I fought.”

A brief discussion

The reason, after mishandling harassment complaint, for his resignation, in 2020, was that P B Mehta wanted to "complete some long-standing academic tasks that I had set myself". In demonstrating his pragmatism and sensibility by publicly releasing the latest resignation letter, he dedicated good space, in this letter, to his driver; and when the V-C Mehta expressed angrily, "Our conduct as a society in the rape and murder case of an eight-year-old in Kathua has been so despicable that it can be said, without exaggeration, that India’s moral compass has been completely obliterated, carpet-bombed out of existence by the very custodians of law, morality and virtue who give daily sermons on national pride". As the CPR Chair, he had interpreted protests over Delhi rape case as "manifest contempt for the state”.

The question thus arises, what about non-intellectuals – illiterates who, though they lack the ability to construct prosaic mosaic, have enough sensibility to understand that sexual practice also involves a question of ethics?

It is also a fact that, in 2016, two Young India Fellowship team members and a Mathematics professor were forced to resign after signing a petition related to the Kashmir issue. Please note, Mehta became the V-C of the Ashoka University in 2017. How could he be unaware of this? But he has yet to condemn the illiberalism that this intrigue involved. The truth is that Mehta did not find it necessary to apply principles of social justice as an administrator in his own institution.

What, then, of self-contradiction emboldening the likes of Mehta to criticise other institutions? Perhaps, Russell has a perfect description of the limits of this cult of sensibility, that confutes Rousseauian la sensibilité: “The man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute peasant family, but would be cold to well-thought-out schemes for ameliorating the lot of peasants as a class.”

Russellian critique of Aristotle further provides two tools to examine the ethics of a philosopher: one that it should be self-consistent and with the remainder of views.

To put it bluntly, there is nothing great in revolutionary Aurobindo's mystical silence beyond a reasonable period. He mysteriously disappeared; he wrote, finally: "I am and will remain in Pondicherry. I left British India over a month before proceedings [Emperor v Aurobindo Ghosh & Ors] were taken against me and, as I had purposely retired here in order to pursue my Yogic sadhana undisturbed by political action or pursuit and had already severed connection with my political work, I did not feel called upon to surrender on the warrant for sedition, as might have been incumbent on me if I had remained in the political field." He refused to meet the leaders of the independence movement, including Gandhi. His integral yoga and writings condemn fear but motivations to join French India, by contrast, and continued reluctance reveal the stagnation of his philosophy.

No serious philosophers or institutional agents of progressivism, suggest readings on history, were dormant. Socrates is not primarily admired for mainstreaming contemplation; it, in fact, was his philosophical consistency — undying love for laws — that allowed him to happily embrace death (he could escape punishment). So, this new Aurobindo, fleeing persecution, was radically different from Barodian and Anushilanian Aurobindo, and the hypocritical aloofness to politics during the hottest decades of the nationalist movement will continue to be seen as a serious defect in his philosophy. He did not like Gandhian thought and action, but he also didn't contribute anything significant against that approach. Aurobindo reduced himself to armchair critiquing, whilst Gandhian mixture of idealism and realism successfully challenged his idea of mixed-method struggle.

This liberal defect needs introspection and resolution. When progressive forces, on a mission to speak truth to power, get paradoxically trapped between silos of hidden prejudices and postulates of unacknowledged precariousness, to somehow claim the right to public amnesia, they forget that their small delusional acts open the floodgates to millions more. Their infernal silences — what is this if not illiberal liberalism? — don’t only arrest social progress, they also silently encourage venomous forces of illiberalism to metastasize to whole society.

Ujjawal Krishnam is a journalist and researcher. Views personal.

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