Gyandev Ahuja, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Ramgarh in Rajasthan, has become a laughing stock since he dramatically announced some statistics about Jawaharlal Nehru University. According to Ahuja, more than 10,000 cigarette butts and 4,000 beedis are recovered daily from the campus. Further, 50,000 big and small bones are left behind by the meat-eating anti-nationals, apart from 2,000 packets of chips and namkeen.
But the piece de resistance of Ahuja’s campus findings was this: 3,000 used condoms and 500 contraceptive injections. These condoms, he thundered, were the result of the misdeeds the JNU students commit with “our sisters and daughters” (This last statement suggests that the “they” being referred to were all presumed male, and that the sexual encounters producing the said condoms were all heterosexual.)
The internet exploded with memes and ridicule for the “condom counting” MLA. In these dark times, any possibility of laughter must be seized with open hands. But let’s stop laughing for a moment to think about why Ahuja’s comments are more than simply ridiculous. They are indicative of a deeply entrenched sexism and misogyny that spurns the idea of women as sexual agents.
There have been numerous precedents of this nature. Sample this February 13 tweet from Jawahar Yadav, former Officer on Special Duty to the Chief Minister of Haryana: “Prostitutes are better than the women students who shouted anti-national slogans at JNU” (translation).
On February 12, Suraj village in Mehsana district of Gujarat has banned the use of mobile phones by unmarried women.
Going back a few years, in January 2013, just a month after the gang-rape and murder of the young physiotherapy student in Delhi, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, suggested that rape is not prevalent in villages that embody the spirit of “Bharat”, but rather in urban areas where the poison of Western culture has seeped into “India”.
In 2014, Sudin Dhavalikar, a minister in Goa’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government suggested that bikinis should be disallowed on the state’s beaches, concluding that our sisters and daughters are getting spoilt (note the return of the behen-beti script).
In Mumbai, in the wake of the Shakti Mills gang-rape, then police commissioner Satyapal Singh suggested that “moral policing” was necessary to ensure the safety of women who would otherwise be harmed by a “promiscuous culture”. Singh is currently a BJP MP from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh,
These sexist and misogynistic statements that promote the culture of a rape abound across political parties and ideologies. And they are not restricted to politicians or sadly even to men.
The point is that the anxiety about these “thousands” of condoms being used on the JNU campus reflects the long-held fear about the education of women, especially in co-educational institutions. Unfortunately, these anxieties are often shared by parents of these women.
These anxieties also demonstrate the inability to see relationships between women and men outside of the sexual. It seems inconceivable that two people of the opposite sex could share platonic relationships as friends or colleagues – a vision underlined by West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, who in 2012 was quoted as saying that rape takes place because women and men interact freely. It is this anxiety that underlies the sometimes ridiculous curfews in women’s hostels.
JNU is among few educational institutions in the country that has an open campus, facilitating the mobility of its adult students both within and outside the campus at will. This openness exacerbates the fear that women will be consenting parties to the use of these condoms – whether two or 3,000; that women will share these condoms with unsuitable men, or even perhaps share consent with women. Ahuja’s shrill recounting of these figures shouts out the fear that these university women are now completely out of control.
In the last two weeks, many JNU alumnae across class, caste and regions have written or been recorded on camera speaking with gratitude about the space provided for them to wander and loiter, especially at night. It is this freedom that makes not just the likes of Ahuja, but also apparently more liberal politicians like former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit very nervous (remember her comment in the wake of journalist Soumya Viswanathan’s murder that women should not be too adventurous).
These are the women who threaten the bland homogenised version of Indian culture, which has at its heart the docile Bharatiya nari. These slogan shouting women who dare to protest on the streets of Delhi, who are part of the Occupy UGC movement, of the Pinjra Tod movement and now the defence of JNU, dismantle this ideal by their apparent hypervisibility in public.
Tags are attached to men, too. The Indian Institute of Technology in Madras has a late-night bus that plies on its huge campus, a saviour for those without vehicles. There is one proviso: only women can use the bus. Men are expected to walk.
This kind of protectionist stance serves to cast men as only predators and is as disturbingly problematic as the victim-blaming of women. It is also tragically the reason why rape is far more comprehensible and therefore less worthy of concern than women making choices about their sexuality and bodies.
Going back to JNU, the anxiety is that “misdeeds” are committed upon our “sisters and daughters”, ergo, our sisters and daughters are innocent, seduced or coerced victims of male lust. This is the only palatable explanation because the other possibility, that women are consenting pleasured and pleasuring participants in sexual acts, is insupportable.
While one encounters patriarchal ideologies across the political spectrum, they are particularly marked among the right-wing for whom women are first the property of men, and therefore have no right to make choices. By this logic, those of us who do claim the right to the public as citizens, to choices in regard to our own bodies, and who might choose to consent, cannot be good Indian women, and must therefore be anti-national prostitutes.