VIEWPOINT

The latest Indian intellectual to find herself in the crosshairs of the Indian right wing is Professor Nivedita Menon. For those of her who know her through her work, Prof. Menon is a small woman with a big personality, possessing an intellect that races faster than most in an audience. As students at Lady Shri Ram College, our first initiation into feminism was not through the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, but through the work of Prof. Menon. She has over time authored several books that deal with the gender specific situation in India. In her work, female Indian academics have found succor and hope, even while the work broadly describes a gendered hopelessness of a magnitude not seen in any country, with the exception of China.

She coined the term ‘femicide of foetuses’ in her book Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law to focus on how the killing of girl babies in India was taking epic proportions that could be likened to a genocide. She has asked generations of students, both male and female, to go beyond the traditional constrains of patriarchy and really challenge a structure that militates against women. Her edited volume Gender and Politics in India, possesses a collection of essays that range from the burning of Roop Kanwar in the last recorded incident of Sati to ecofeminism.

So what exactly about Prof. Menon has bothered the right wing? In the most recent set of events to shake the Indian media and public sphere, Prof. Menon stood by students of Jawaharlal Nehru University that have been accused of sedition and made a statement on Kashmir. In this statement she called out the Indian state on its illegal military ‘occupation’ of Kashmir and in doing so put herself in the newly constructed category of the Indian ‘anti-national’. i.e., a left-leaning, somewhat communist sympathizer that was a threat to Indian cultural and nationalist identity.

With regard to Kashmir, Prof. Menon’s analysis is not incorrect. As a researcher, who has now been looking at counterinsurgency in Kashmir for two years, the statistics that have emerged from Kashmir through the work of non-profit organisations, are staggering even to a casual observer. Let me share some of these statistics. Last year, a report was released by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). This report titled “Structures of violence: The Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir”, categorically states that the Indian state has been successful in creating an “architecture of oppression” and it is with this architecture that Kashmiris live on an everyday basis. The report exposes the “institutionalised impunity” that exists in Kashmir. It documents 333 cases of torture, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence and enforced disappearances and identifies 972 alleged perpetrators in uniform or working at the behest of those in uniform. 

Similarly, the same data collection enterprise motivated by Khurram Pervez and Advocate Pervez Imroz, is trying to document the existence of unmarked graves in Kashmir. In their report titled, “Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian Administered Kashmir”, they identify about 2700 unmarked graves. In 2014, Khurram Pervez spoke candidly and said that there were many others that they had been unable to locate as yet.

Based on these statistics alone, even if someone does not believe the reports, there is reasonable cause to try to probe the actions of the Indian army in Kashmir further. Someone like Nivedita Menon does not make an argument for the sake of rhetoric. There is some fact and truth to what she said and one measure of this ‘illegal occupation’ is to closely investigate and document human rights abuses in Kashmir and to reflect on the call for ‘azadi’ in Kashmir through the lens of the practice of counterinsurgency.

However, the current project of the Indian government is worried about such critical inquiry into such matters. The best strategy then is to discredit, bully and intimidate such thinkers and writers. This is precisely what is happening to Prof. Menon. She is not anti-national. She is making an assertion about Kashmir based on statistics that are freely available in the public domain for whoever bothers to read them and interpret them. Perhaps if the statistics did not exist, one could make the argument that Prof. Menon was talking through her head. However, and very sadly, the statistics speak louder in favor of Kashmiri ‘azadi’, than any intellectual in independent India.

Making an assertion based on facts is not dissent; It is what academics are trained to do. However, Prof. Menon’s case also reveals that some of the strongest voices against the Indian state’s cultural turn have come from women. From historian Romila Thapar, to Ayesha Kidwai to Nivedita Menon, Indian women who are highly educated, and openly talk about gender are turning into the first line of defence against a cultural takeover of the public sphere. After the arrest of JNU’s student body president, Kanhaiya Kumar, the protest was kept alive by JNU students, but the person in charge was a Kashmiri woman Shehla Rashid, who held the protest together. Perhaps, the push back from feminists is hardest because women have the most to lose if a cultural project of Hindutva should succeed.

Prof. Menon’s work has often described how gender unity falls apart in India because it intersects with caste, class, and religion. So individual rights of women become inferior to community based group rights. This has been the hardest pill to swallow for the Indian women’s movement as one cannot talk about women’s equality and empowerment without also addressing the particularities of the Indian context.

The targeting of Prof. Menon is an act of cowardice. It exposes a deep-rooted fear in the minds of the right-wing about an empowered an educated woman. The patriarchal project in India rests on blind obedience to the males in a woman’s life. People like Prof. Menon not only challenge that rule, they become role models for scores of other women through their writing and their teaching.

Any Indian female writer, journalist, artist or thinker when she expresses a contrary opinion to the dominant public understanding is increasingly being targeted by trolls on online platforms, who use the most abusive language against the individual. Every single female journalist or academic that writes in the public domain that I know has at some point faced this, including myself.

Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Washington DC.

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