Campus politics in Kerala and its deep gender bias

J Devika | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 15, 2019

Mental bloc: SFI’s women members have been known to heckle other women who are marked ‘enemies’ by their male comrades   -  THE HINDU/SK MOHAN

Women’s empowerment is a mere slogan in the student organisations of the Left parties in Kerala

Watching the ongoing discussion in Kerala about the violence perpetrated on campuses by members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), what puzzled me was this: Why were young women keen to justify and even participate in the indefensible violence of their male peers? This is not new. In several incidents earlier, we found young women students actively abetting violence against other women who were marked ‘enemies’ by their male comrades. They bore false witness against them and joined in the heckling and harassment, both offline and online. One wonders why, after so many years of talk of empowerment, women in the Left mass organisations still cannot counter the hubris among their male counterparts.

Women student leaders of the Left are a relatively recent phenomenon. Their success in metamorphosing into politicians is mixed. In recent times, women student leaders have been rewarded more for representing particular caste-communities than for their commitment or organisational abilities. That makes their participation in male violence all the more intriguing.

The most recent episode unfolded in the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, where some senior male leaders decided to “discipline” a fellow member through violent means. The extent of harm the young student suffered triggered a debate on the SFI’s blatant violation of democracy on campuses. It also stirred memories of a girl’s suicide attempt from a few months ago. She alleged that she was unable to focus on her studies because of the time she was forced to spend on the activities of the organisation.

This forces us to revisit the very framework of women’s empowerment, the dangerously superficial and simplistic form in which it was absorbed here. When it entered the discourse of development in the ’90s, in the wake of the global neoliberal policy revolution, the idea of empowerment was sundered from its beginnings in Afro-American feminist thought. In this school of thought, ‘empowerment’ was often primarily involved with garnering inner strength, or ‘power within’. And this was inevitably associated with the ability to think critically about the challenge of sharing power in patriarchal institutions in ways that could dismantle it.

In contrast, the ‘empowerment’ that we encountered in the said decade was all about ‘power to’ and ‘power over’, with the assumption that it would automatically lead women to ‘power with’ and ‘power within’. This is still true, though the Hindutva school of thought has, over the years, added subtle if important shades to the continuing discourse of ‘empowerment’. It produces and encourages sanskari empowerment talk, which flows unwaveringly towards the domesticated Hindu feminine ideal. This appears more and more frequently in current governmental discourse — such as Nirmala Sitharaman’s “nari tu narayani” reference in her Budget speech.

Kerala is a region where ‘women’s empowerment’ has had a longer, more pervasive presence. It unfolded in a context in which the dominant Left showed interest in meeting the neoliberal policy juggernaut half-way. It gave rise to a network of new institutions at the local level where women did share power and gain access to resources. However, in recent years, the ruling party’s interest in democratic decentralisation has been waning — in practice, if not in letter. Mission empowerment, unsurprisingly, is now reduced to a mere slogan meant to mobilise women for either self-help (thereby reducing the state’s welfare burdens) or the performance of ‘governmental labour’ (taking on the many tasks of local government ranging from preparation of lists of eligible beneficiaries for welfare programmes to keeping accounts of the self-help groups).

It is also too obvious that both ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ for women in elected government councils and development work at the local level is strictly limited. It is also evident that most of it is reserved for men, and is largely to be found in the statewide realm of ‘high politics’. The assertion of dominance by aggressive student organisations forms an important aspect of ‘high politics’, and colleges are spaces in which this happens most frequently. Given that Kerala’s colleges today have more women than men as students, perhaps this is to be expected. This seems more plausible because the networks with which women’s empowerment is commonly associated is largely utilised by the older generation — not by young college-going women, who are among the most disempowered social groups in Kerala.

Clearly, if ‘empowerment’ unfolding in the context of a shrinking democracy points towards a closed and narrowed horizon, empowerment in an ethical vacuum generated by the self-destruction of the Left seems equally noxious.


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on August 15, 2019
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