Recent events surrounding the allegations of sexual and mental abuse by Kumar Sundaram of India Resists are the epitome of glorification and overvaluation of men regardless of the actions they do. On Wednesday, 5th April, 2017, Kumar Sundaram was publicly accused of sexual and mental abuse. The allegations were of grave nature, detailing how Sundaram blackmailed the survivor into ‘living’ with him and when she refused to comply to his demands, he sent her parents private photos of the couple, after which the survivor now says she has a strained relationship with her family. He was also accused of blocking the survivor from the website of India Resists as a result of a personal altercation, and was accused of threatening to slap the survivor as well. The survivor has had to deal with a lot of mental trauma as a result of the mistreatment shown to her.
Kumar Sundaram initially made a statement on his Facebook page denying the allegations and said that he was dealing with depression.
However, one day later, he confessed to his guilt in doing the things that he was accused of, and said that he would accept the punishment the survivor decides for him.
The reactions of activists, friends, coworkers and the public on this admission was appallingly positive, for he was lauded for his “bravery” in coming out with these statements publicly.
As a society we are ready to defend men who abuse their dominative power under pretense of good and protect them at all costs. Our ignorance leads to shift of the blame on the perpetrator to the victim, even as progressive liberals, simply because on the face of it an act of admission seems like bravery.
Heba Ahmed delves into how toxic masculinity can pervade into progressive spaces. India Resists is an organization known for urging younger generations in India to question all the authoritative structures and rules imposed on them and whether they are the right principles to abide by. Kumar Sundaram was one such progressive-liberal: a male feminist standing up for the rights of other minorities who faced gendered problems. As stated in different opinions on social media, it is “hard” to believe that he did what he did simply because of his feminist advocacy and the fact that he works in a “progressive” space.
But what is progressive, really? Being progressive may have us questioning all the moral standards forced onto us by society but the consciousness of our actions is an ideal that may not be achieved simply by identifying as feminist. What we stand for could be clear to us, but when faced with situations requiring the application of the same ideals, we may fall short of the expectations. Jhuma writes, “All self avowed ‘feminist’ men should first start practicing feminism in their lives. You can’t manipulate and abuse in private, gaslight your way into her sanity, and wear a feminist hat in your Facebook activism and the ‘intellectual’ life you inhabit.”
There is a public sphere and a private sphere that we fail to acknowledge when preaching feminism. Believing in feminist ideals publicly needs to entail practicing them in private lives while interacting with marginalized genders, for without that the change that feminism seeks to bring is futile and invalidated. It is this ignorance of the private sphere of activity, which ends up in us coddling the perpetrators of gender-based violence and making up excuses for them or justifying their actions.
The initial denial of allegations and the usage of ‘depression’ by Kumar led to many people on his timeline frantically rushing to his rescue, providing empathy for being a poor victim of “false claims”. These empathy-providers are much like Kumar himself, for they embody the same “feminist” ideals as he does, which requires them to exude a false sense of morality and try to seem objective in their understanding of gender-based violence. Except, standards of objectivity can be hugely problematic when neutrality towards someone’s experiences can lead to sympathy towards the oppressor. While it may be “politically correct” for one to wait for more evidence before drawing a conclusion, many people forget the meaning of neutrality. Rushing to an accused’s aid is not what neutrality entails, rather, being an objective observer of events requires one to believe neither party, thereby making sure that the victim does not feel disbelieved and demotivated to stand up for themselves.
One of the primary reasons sexual abuse victims often don’t speak up about their troubles and seek justice is because they believe that people will not believe their story. And they’re not wrong – whether it’s been Kumar Sundaram, TVF’s Arunabh Kumar, Vikas Bahl who directed the feminist movie Queen, R.K. Pachauri of TERI, or Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka, a pattern of disbelieving allegations against these powerful men has been created, and can be enough of a reason for a victim of abuse to be disincentivised to speak up. It’s also common that all of these men come from so-called modernistic spaces. Take the case of Vikas Bahl, who opened doors toward feminist mainstream cinemas but fell short while applying the same in real life. When R.K. Pachauri was accused of sexual assault, the nature of the complaints were the same as that against Sundaram – both men misused their power-positions to blackmail women and cause them harm without facing proportionate consequences.
This also ties down to our larger problem – how much do we value women who are survivors at the hands of perpetrators? Should we value the perpetrators as well, or at all? The answer lies in understanding that sexual violence of any kind, perpetuated by whoever is inexcusable and unforgivable. When Sundaram admitted the truth in the allegations made against him, the immediate reaction was to laud him for admitting all that he did and to validate him as a human despite his “mistakes”. This ridiculous amount of coddling is a pernicious reality. Women are made to feel grateful for men rising above their egos and admission of guilt in violating them, which plays into the toxic narrative that no one would believe them otherwise. Men in positions like Sundaram’s hold more power than any allegers can fight. It is the validation of these men as feminists, which makes people rush to defend character.
An overvaluation of ideals in public life leads to us devaluing any actions that we hear of in “private life” because it’s not society’s burden to handle the problems. But this convenient distinction between private and public life ceases to exist when it’s seen that all the consequences of the incident are affecting all aspects of the victim’s private and public life, and that gender-based violence is a potential threat to all women and not just the affected party. It’s important to note distinction here between ideals and actions, and to realize that actions follow ideals. How legitimate are the concerns and opinions of men like Sundaram when in private everything that they have done are completely against the same? We need to question whether we are holding empty, hollow ideals at a pedestal and undervaluing real problems.
Lalita Ramdas, Chairperson at Greenpeace International, urged people to respond with “compassion” and “maturity” when Sundaram admitted his culpability in the allegations against him. The standard that she defines in reacting to the entire incident are highly problematic, for not only does she heavily trivialize the legitimate problems raised by people, saying that “There are far more important things to care for in life”, she also “salutes” him for his bravery in admitting his guilt. Lalita and many others fail to realize that admitting his guilt in violating someone was the least, most basic thing he could do in proportion to the havoc he has created in the affected party’s life. Admission of guilt also means that the perpetrator committed the crime and violation in question, and so there is no cause for celebration of the same.
While it may be shocking to some, power differentials can still exist in spaces that claim to be equal and open workspaces for all genders. Feminism creates enough space for men to be able to facilitate the dismantling of the structures that oppress non-male genders and themselves, but at the same time it must be emphasized that the role men play in achieving feminist ideals for society cannot be misused and abused by them. It’s unfortunate that we end up revering perpetrators of violence under the garb of remaining neutral, and to be feminist we need to be able to exercise feminism in all public and private spheres of our lives.