Saturday, September 13, 2014

Reap the Tokenism

The horrors visited on the student from Sikkim at the Vishwa Bharati University in Shantiniketan are shocking and disturbing, but not necessarily rare. Criminality, especially offences against women, is more pervasive than accepted and unfortunately less prosecuted than is necessary for women to be made safe in this off-balance society. The criminally-inclined will commit excesses, that is a tendency they have been allowed to nurture and get away with, and every time they are ‘saved’ from the punishment that is due to them and the victim refused the justice that the society owes to her, the perpetrators are emboldened and the victim further smothered into silence to avoid double victimization. Where ‘punishment’ is seen essentially as a deterrent to discourage repeating of crimes, in cases like the one experienced by the girl student at Vishwa Bharati it serves only as a reiteration of the general distrust that people, and specially victims, hold the establishment and its institutions in. The victim in latest case was put through all the expected failures of the institution – from token assurances of relief to overt threats to brow-beating to ridicule to rejection. She has displayed exceptional courage in refusing to be suppressed by an establishment at its domineering best. Her perseverance has emboldened another student to speak out against her tormenters and has united students at institutions beyond her own to take to the streets to protest not just the crime but also the disconcerting frivolity with which the institution which should have looked out for her responded to her complaint.
There should, however, not be any surprises in how the university and its various agencies handled the ‘situation’. Institutions in our country are geared to instinctively stamp out all criticism or potential “embarrassments”. And this attitude, when coupled with the patriarchal reflexes and male-centric allowances that most people make subconsciously, makes for a dangerous mix in which gender sensitivity becomes a stillborn pursuit. The Shantiniketan incident fleshes out all that is wrong with efforts to make public spaces and institutions safe for women. And it is clearly in recognition of these societal failures that special institutions and committees have been established by law to address excesses which most people tend to ignore as “routine”, or even, in offensive displays of insensitivity, as somehow “invited upon” oneself. But when these institutions are introduced without the society at large having accepted the problem they seek to address as such, one stares at tokenism which makes addressing the challenge even more difficult. So most organizations now have gender-sensitivity committees and committees to look into complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace, but these are in place primarily because new laws require their setting up, not because the organizations in question recognize that there is a problem at hand or accept that complainants need stronger representation and more nuanced handling. What such groups then end up becoming are closed committees whose first response is to play mediators and somehow make the “problem” [the complaint] go away. Given the nexus of connections which most institutions and organizations, even societies at large have become, the priorities are often misplaced and reprehensive responses unleashed on victims. These problems and limitations, compromises rather, cannot be corrected with more rules and more laws – what is required is wider sensitivity and a clear checklist of due processes. Since individuals are routinely failing in what is expected of them, the institution should be made such that there is a prescribed code and a transparent process which needs to be followed whenever a complaint is lodged or an incident comes to light. Personal prejudices, and we are a nation which is deeply prejudiced on all issues, need to be snuffed out, and this will happen only when guidelines are detailed and digressions deeply penalized. Until that happens, in the present circumstances, tokenism will continue throwing up more horrors because initiatives, when they require to be mandated instead of realized and felt, will continue to be insensitive.

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