There’s a certain kind of ‘woke’ person very commonly found on the interwebs — upper-caste men who rail about gender and caste inequities while retaining their innumerable privileges. Yes, I’m included in that list. Even when we sporadically speak up for DBA (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi) people — usually when they’ve been victims of horrific caste-based violence — we occupy those roles as white knights with ease. It’s a perspective we’ve easily inherited like family heirlooms from the likes of Gandhi and Ram Mohan Roy.
Ever since Raya Sarkar put out her crowdsourced list of sexual predators in academia, the rhetoric around it has grown more and more divisive by the day. And while the arguments rage on within the feminist movement, most of the men on the list have maintained a studied silence. Its time to shift the focus back to the men on the list; to acknowledge how we, as upper-caste men, are complicit in this silence and to understand why we desperately need to break it.
We are quiet because the list makes us deeply uncomfortable. We may not know them personally, but the list indicts men like us — men who occupy certain caste and socio-economic spaces; men who are well-educated, cultured, and can speak about systemic privilege at the drop of a hat. We present ourselves as allies, as empathetic and self-aware, as the good guys. But when our resolve is tested by iconoclasts like Sarkar who cause disarray to our checkered view of justice, we shut up or worse, gaslight them.
It’s understandable that some of us are concerned about Sarkar’s methods. But if actual trials haven’t stripped some of these men of their institutional power, it’s unlikely that media trials will achieve the same.
The fact that so many women shared their stories of sexual harassment with Sarkar is an indictment of our institutions which are still largely exclusionary cocoons of male Brahminical privilege. As Gopal Guru mentioned in his seminal paper How Egalitarian are the Social Sciences in India?, there is a cultural hierarchy in academia with theoretical Brahmins who are allowed to declare proclamations and empirical shudras who are always burdened with providing facts and figures.
Sarkar's list reverses the caste gaze on to us, something we are unaccustomed to. This position of vulnerability is rare for us men of privilege. Unlike DBA women, we occupy and traverse university social structures with ease. We possess the kind of caste and class capital that allows us to bond with professors based on shared cultural backgrounds. Straddling the line between professional and personal relationships comes easy because the door is always open to us.
It is disingenuous for us to not recognise our role in contributing to these power differentials that allow professors to prey on vulnerable female students. The kind of caste deference that these men command is directly responsible for the impunity that they enjoy. Till we choose to throw our personal relationships under the bus to support these women, gender and caste injustice will remain topics we engage with on a purely superficial level.
Sarkar's list is a call to action. It shouldn't take something as big as institutionalised sexual harassment for us to speak up. We must help dismantle the everyday micro-aggressions that make all women, particularly those who are DBA, feel uncomfortable and unsafe in university campuses.
Brave women like Raya Sarkar should not have to shoulder the burden of speaking up against sexual harassment all alone. At the same time, let’s stop assuming that DBA women can’t speak for themselves or lead this movement. Using feminist rhetoric to critique the movement isn't our job. As allies, our role is simply to amplify the voices of the many intersectional feminists who are spearheading the movement.
Let’s support Sarkar by taking on the stressful job of engaging with and educating men who question the list or their tactics. Let’s keep tweeting and posting on Facebook about it. Let's start conversations with the men accused in our classrooms and hold our universities responsible by demanding that they investigate the people mentioned in the list.
Above all, it’s time for us to introspect and shift away from our roles as enablers of abuse. By raising questions about due process or the legitimacy of the survivors’ claims, we are shifting the burden of proof on to the survivors. Let’s give up claims of respectability politics when the caste system whose benefits still accrue to us is built on violence and exploitation.
We need to be cognisant that due process has rarely worked for savarna women, let alone DBA women. It’s unlikely that many of the brave women who have shared their accounts with Sarkar will formalise it by filing police complaints or referring it to internal sexual harassment committees, but by supporting them, that just might become a reality. Let’s use our savarna male privilege as a shield for the women who are speaking up.
The only appropriate way to end this seems to be an Eve Ensler quote: “I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren’t you standing with us? Why aren’t you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us?”
Contact Karthik Shankar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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