This piece attempts to highlight the root of mass sexual harassment that occurred at Gargi College’s fest, Reverie.
The evening of 6 February was supposed to be a memorable one for the students of Gargi College. It was the last day of their annual fest Reverie, with a concert from the singer Jubin Nautiyal lined up to end the proceedings of the day. Instead of a good time, what the young women of Gargi experienced was horror and outrage. As the evening progressed, a large number of men were able to enter the campus. The safeguards to ensure the safety of the students broke down. Mobs of men entered the campus. There were reports after reports of women being harassed – groping, cat-calling, teasing, stalking, manhandling and even being masturbated at. Reverie 2020 ended with Gargi students being not just sexually harassed en masse by mobs of unruly men but were also overwhelmed and exhausted by anger, anxiety, and trauma as they scrambled to save themselves from the oncoming onslaught.
Reports of women facing sexual harassment by a group of men are, unfortunately, are not uncommon news in the country. However, the campus invasion at Gargi College represents a particularly heinous manifestation of such crimes. A large number of men, invading a women’s college for the sole purpose of sexual harassment without any pretext, represents the abject failure of both the state and society to ensure the safety of women. The state authority has either been incapable or unwilling to wield power to protect women. At the level of society, a culture of impunity has been looking the other way by downplaying issues of space and consent. Lack of accountability has become the common feature binding the two.
Abdication of Responsibility
Arrangements that are supposed to ensure the safety of the students, especially women, were either incapable or complicit. College administration did not take action. No authority figure stuck his or her neck out in saving the students. The Rapid Action Force, often seen at the forefront when cracking down violently on peaceful protests across the country, was mostly an audience to this spectacle of fellow men, some in their middle ages, molesting young, college-going women. The principal, as per many reports, victim-blamed the students, arguing that if the fest feels unsafe then they should not have come to the college fest at all. All governmental slogans about women empowerment and education were exposed for what they are – hollow words, backed by no will or capability. The Gargi students were left to fend for themselves, forced to confront physical and emotional distress that entails saving oneself from the unimpeded mob.
Indian Men and the Social Rot
The seriousness of the mass sexual harassment at Gargi College becomes clear when understood through the idea of space violation. Firstly, the campus as a safe space for women was violated by the gangs of men that used mob pressure to enter the campus. Secondly, the personal space of each of the Gargi students itself was violated when the mob of men went ahead and sexually assaulted them. Some serious questions arise about the kind of social contexts that create a molester mob. Why are so many men still not able to grasp the question of consent? Almost every heinous televised rape often sparks off conversations about women’s security but this is often limited to the punishment of rapists only, rather than the mindset which leads to it. Why are there still so many men that show no signs that they understand the importance of space and consent in women’s safety? These questions are for the men to ask themselves.
The men who molested the women of Gargi didn’t come from outer space. To use arguments such as “they were from outside”, “they were from ABC caste or XYZ state” is a reflection on the general attitudes around women and women’s spaces that abound in a large segment of men. The molestation at Gargi arose out of nowhere. Everyday sexism about women and their sexuality played a huge enabling role. The spade must be called a spade. Those men intruded because they interpreted a college fest, where students want to partake in all sorts of curricular and extracurricular activities or simply enjoy themselves as an invitation to harass. The patriarchal mindset that has multiple excuses to harass women also condones women’s spaces to the same fate. There were enough men on that evening who thought of Gargi in a similar way, as a place to hunt down and sexually harass women. There were enough men that evening who cooperated with each other in this collective display of toxic masculinity that would put any civilized society to shame.
The Need For Accountability
One of the biggest reasons that mass molestation of this magnitude could happen is the utter lack of accountability at every level. At the topmost level, being defensive and being in denial has become the ruling norm. As an issue of law and order in the capital, the Central Government is responsible if the police fail to respond credibly to a mob whose purpose of sexual harassment is plainly visible. This lack of response is not unique to Gargi College and is not unique to the issue of women’s safety exclusively. Over the last few months, the ruling party has demonized universities in general for different reasons and their allied media has been actively encouraging this discourse as well. This discourse is laden with aggressive slogans that draw on toxic masculinity and has often dubbed women’s colleges as places that are “too feminist” (the implication being that feminism is bad). The manifestation of this discourse, done every day in high decibels on TV news shows every day has been that mobs have attacked college campuses, and simply gotten away with it – no FIRs, no complaints and more importantly, no uncomfortable questions.
It has been argued that an unnecessary politicization of Gargi College will hinder the issue of women’s safety. In the context of turning this into a party political issue, the point is understandable. Men have been molesting, raping, assaulting women in this country across different party rules, so to turn this into a party issue is hollow. However, this understanding of “politicization” is a shallow interpretation. Accountability in its very essence is extremely political. If the government of the day keeps undermining the safety of college spaces, it creates a precedent and a culture of impunity. The direction of questions must be upwards – towards the people in power. Until there is a political atmosphere that permits the citizenry to ask questions without the fear of trolling, rape threats and abuses, those in power will continue to evade questions, whether is the issue is women’s safety, higher education, the economy or even national security.
Accountability is also needed for every day. Men must hold fellow men accountable for holding regressive stereotypes, for using language that objectifies and dehumanizes women. The understanding of space and consent is extremely important. It is high time to stop being dismissive of women’s lived experiences on the pretext of being “too emotional” if the interplay between consent and space has to be understood. As the feminist scholar, Carol Hanisch said – “the Personal is Political”. Men being able to violate the geographical and personal spaces of women in this country repeatedly, time and time again, isn’t an isolated problem. It is embedded in the society that produces them. It is not the responsibility of the students of Gargi, angry and frustrated already, to keep this issue neatly contained into packages that feel acceptable to a broad audience. If they question the actors that set the stage for this to happen, so be it.
Featured Image Credits: Sanyukta Singh