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Trigger Warning: Violence
Posted by Bhargabi Das
On 4th August 2020, the Principal of Guwahati College released a notification to its students to submit filled out examination forms and fees, physically, in the College premises’ counters on or before 11th August 2020. While students enquired about the risk that such a situation can put them at, the administration replied back saying “only god can help you in this situation.” As expected with a motley of a student-crowd gathering on 11th August, two students have tested positive for Corona, and now several hundred others have been exposed to critical health risk.
This particular blunder of an incident is important to be underlined because this very same Principal in an interview to The Telegraph (24-08-2012) had vouched for women’s ‘safety’ by imposing a ban on leggings for women students in the campus along with a plethora of other extremely misogynist dress codes. The juxtaposition of the two incidents can help us understand how ‘safety’ as a narrative is fathomed and propagated in educational spaces in Assam, and how it works to further upper-caste, sexist and racist aspirations and desires.
Principal Pranab Sandilya had gone on record to say that the introduction of dress-codes such as ban on ‘flimsy’ chunni/dupatta, short kurtis, jewellery, mandatory appliance of hair oil, etc. (which still applies for women students on campus) is for womens’ “security issues”. Interestingly, casual everyday sexism is not hard to be discovered in other educational institutions where more often than not, the woman’s body and its security is used as a trope to promote and justify sexism and sexist narratives. ‘Safety’ is never understood as opposed to a health risk, but more as opposed to dominant patriarchal power structures at risk. Sociologists and writers have analysed extensively how women’s bodies were sites of honour and power struggle and were used in maligning ‘the other’/ ‘the enemy’ during the country’s Partition in 1947.
Assam, which is celebrated as a society that is far ahead in gender equality and often shows disgust at the ‘mainland’ India’s patriarchal tendencies, is, in reality, reeling with toxic, everyday sexism. However, one should particularly pay attention to Sandilya’s comment in that same interview, “Children here are imitating people from the hill areas and this creates problems sometimes. We should remember that our Assamese culture is different from that of the hill people. Our students should not get influenced by others.”
If one delves deeper into sexism in Assam, one can locate the casteist-racist undertones that play equal partners here. There is a widespread tendency of upper caste, Hindu Assamese to racialise the body of a tribal/adivasi/lower caste woman.
The notion that Guwahati as a city is not just demographically changing, with the migration of young men and women from neighboring North-eastern states particularly from Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland in search of employment or higher studies, but also in the process, becoming ‘morally corrupt’, is very rampant among upper-caste Hindu, upper/upper-middle class Assamese households. The disgust is particularly towards their food habits and dressing.
The popular opinion is that, through their ‘western and exposed’ dressing sense, the ‘other’ or ‘hill’ women in Sandilya’s terms are corrupting ‘our’ women. By ‘our’ though, caste Hindu Assamese men are only concerned about the upper-caste Hindu Assamese women; for the bodies of ‘janajatiya’, adivasi or lower caste women are again looked down upon and sexualized.
The incident of Adivasi woman Lakshmi Orang in the winter of November 24, 2007, when she was stripped naked and made to flee on open streets by local public of Guwahati in broad daylight while several stood silently, should send chilling reminders to us. The incident happened when locals in Beltola, Guwahati attacked a demonstration by Adivasi tea tribe workers and students who were demanding ST status and better wages for them in the state.
That the tea tribal community, particularly women have been both sexually and economically exploited by caste Hindu Assamese managers and bosses is not a hidden fact and hence, to see them asserting their rights and demanding justice on streets of Guwahati was a threat to such patriarchal, exploitative history. The attack again on the body of a woman from the ‘others’ is a statement by caste Hindu Assamese men to malign their ‘honour’ and show them their rightful position.
It was upper castes in India for whom their womens’ honour was to be ‘protected’ by the men. Hence, their movement was restricted, norms imposed on their interaction with other men, marriage rules became more endogamous and their bodies started to be covered. In my own upper caste Assamese village, no women till date goes out to the fields to do any agricultural work, while in the neighboring lower caste village women actively participate not just in their own field’s agricultural work, but also rent out their labour to the fields of my village.
This notion of shame and honour attached to women’s bodies is hence an extremely upper caste mentality. Noted sociologist M N Srinivas understood Sanskritization as a process when castes lower down in the hierarchy seeks to move up by imitating the lifestyles and ideologies of the upper-caste. Restriction of women’s movement and introducing new dressing codes to them, feature primarily when a lower caste people aspire to be within upper caste spaces and circles to access various economic and livelihood opportunities.
Besides, with the British taking over various parts of the North-east India, this notion of shame that is attached to women’s bodies and how women’s bodies become sites of civilisation projects. According to the colonisers, the tribal women’s bodies and their dressing habits that exposed the body at ‘wrong’ places needed salvage from barbarism and showed the light of ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’. The upper caste Hindu Assamese men who quickly came under their influence, inherited such sentiments and learning, and in turn celebrated their own strong moral holdings on their own women’s bodies. This marked them ‘superior’, ‘cultured’ and ‘civilised’, not just from the lower caste but also the tribal population.
The Guwahati College Principal’s comment only points to the fact how even today such moral standards for women that are premised on colonial exploitation and reeks of casteism and racism find popular support in Assam. The disturbing fact is, this is openly propagated in spaces which are supposed to be spaces of critical voices and transformation. Even more alerting is that, such a misogynist, casteist and racist position-holder of an educational institute continues to be in that position, almost eight years after going on record to say such sexist-casteist-racist things.
The regional media, civil society, academicians and politicians did not bat an eyelid and failed to highlight this toxicity enough. One primary reason can also be that this network of regional media, civil society, academicians and politicians are again mostly caste Hindu Assamese men, who in varied capacities believe in such casteist- racist-sexist ideologies, as shown by Sandilya themselves or are benefiting from such ideologies.
Also read: Where Does Ageism And Sexism Meet In India?
Consequently, leave alone disturb, they will gang up to promote such ideologies publicly. Hence, to vociferously criticise such disturbing misogyny and sexism is paramount because through this one can expose the workings of casteism and racism in Assam, and the nexus of spaces that institutionalises and normalises such intersectional workings of sexism, racism and casteism in our everyday lives.
Bhargabi is a PhD Research Scholar at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth working on the imagination of the state in riverine ecologies of Assam. You can find her on Facebook.