By Maya Indira Ganesh
“Every beginning is only a sequel after all, and the book of events is always open half way through.” Wiszlawa Symborzska
It was when the champagne popped that I realised they were breaking up, and this time it was for real. There was something loose about the day: like a Sunday on a Wednesday afternoon. The room was filled with lots of women talking fast and loudly, drinking, sitting wherever they could find space, spilling off windowsills and chairs. Such victory and celebration was unfamiliar; here was a group of people so used to fighting, losing, raising flags and throwing down gauntlets that this win felt like the moment before a punchline. I think it was this, not cheap champagne at 4pm, that got to our heads.
The noise and clamour was the perfect cover for them to communicate with each other so that no one else could notice; except for me of course. I’d find my eyes straying to them constantly, and not just today. I was 22 and had just started working for both of them and was a little dazzled, a little in love with them.
I saw them both slip out through the door that swung open unless you bolted it shut. You had to be sitting at a certain angle to see through the narrow aperture it afforded. They faced each other in the hot, airless little stairwell. They weren’t talking, they were just looking at each other silently.
J already had her sunglasses and car keys in her hand, set down the glass of champagne untouched, and stormed off, her mouth folded into a single line. N just stood there a while, turning one heel around this way and then the other the other way as if she were stretching and flexing. She stared at the floor, took a foot out of her slipper and began to slowly rub the edge of her toe against the floor. It looked like she was trying to rub a hole into the cement with the side of her toe. Then she stopped, put her foot back into her shoe, a smile back on her face and came inside to celebrate her big victory. Outside, Delhi snarled, spat, manipulated and heaved, as it always does, in a break between monsoon showers.
* * *
When politics and activism start becoming central to your life, social relationships take on the properties of matter. Your social world shrinks even as you become part of a movement and ideology; there’s unproductive friction with people who don’t think like you do and you start to evaluate family and friendships through the lens of your new-found perspectives. Looking at the world critically and politically is to recognise the power geometries that prop up the world; you come to see how power works, how it shapeshifts into the form of your mother, your favourite school-teacher, your sweet first love; how individual bodies are colonized by institutions. You find yourself becoming close to people you may not necessarily consider your ‘type’. You find that you share a sense of purpose with them. In the context of women’s rights organising and activism, this is particularly potent because many people come to this work with histories of abuse, violence and separation from family. These connections are difficult to describe because they aren’t based on shared interests but on shared beliefs. Romance tends to set the template for how we understand what intimacy means, what a relationship is; this was intense too, but in a different way. This was companionship, camaraderie and friendship; there is fun, passion and discovery. Your friends from another life wonder what has happened to you.
The organisation N and J created was my introduction to feminist activism and women’s rights. I started working for them when I was 21 years old, and did for five years more. Along with their partners and collaborators they set in motion ideas and practices that have come to bear on our present, now, in India. This is why I write about them now, and to tell my own story. It is complicated, however, to write about people who are known and whose identities are thinly veiled in this memoir; they are still present and active in this area of work. But how else should I tell it? If I change their names (as I did in the first draft: Rayna & Kiri), the 25 people who read this and know who I’m talking about will smirk at my fecklessness. If I use their full, real names, it will be akin to violating some social convention. So I’ve found a sort-of compromise between the two: N and J. And the same 25 people will know exactly who I am talking about.
* * *
When I knew them, N was a firecracker with a short fuse: easy to anger and quick to cool down, quick to laugh and at herself too. She was like a ferris wheel that afforded you majestic views and thrills but also, inevitably, brought you down; predictable. J was more like a dark house set on a forested island, heavily curtained and with a mysterious light emanating from the top floor. It was more complicated to get access to her, but once you were in, you were not allowed to leave. I worked with N but was friends with J. Eventually, I would cast my fortunes with the latter, leaving N confused and upset. I always felt that N was terrible at reading the signs, just like me.
The combination of the two worked well. They put together two very important legal cases related to violence against women in India, one on sexual harassment at the workplace, and the other about child sexual abuse.
The present petition has been brought as a class action by certain social activists and NGOs with the aim of focussing attention towards this societal aberration, and assisting in finding suitable methods for realisation of the true concept of ‘gender equality’; and to prevent sexual harassment of working women in all work places through judicial process, to fill the vacuum in existing legislation. The immediate cause for the filing of this writ petition is an incident of alleged brutal gang rape of social worker in a village of Rajasthan (1997).
On August 13, 1997, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment in a case called Vishakha & Ors v State of Rajasthan & Ors. It was landmark for a few reasons. For one, they didn’t actually pass a law; they passed ‘guidelines’, which meant it did not have to be ratified by Parliament, which was usually the first step to getting anything progressive stalled. Every Parliament season was marked by the Women’s Reservation Bill being stalled. Eventually in 2010, the Vishakha Guidelines were passed into law. Up until that point, Indian law did not formally recognise sexual harassment at the workplace.
Vishakha is the name of a network of women’s rights organisations in Rajasthan and Delhi that took up the case of Bhanwari Devi who was employed by Rajasthan’s Sathin programme to be a local “change agent” in the area around where she lived, a village called Bhateri near Jaipur. One of the things she did was to educate people about the illegality of child marriage. Her work angered an ‘upper’ caste family that was organising the wedding of a nine-month old baby; they could not stand having a ‘lower’ caste woman telling them what to do. A group of males from the family beat up Bhanwari’s husband and then gang-raped her in front of him.
The district sessions court judge was disbelieving: an ‘upper’ caste man could never rape a ‘lower’ caste woman, he said, horrified, and that too not in the presence of his sons and nephews. And a husband, beaten or not, could never possibly sit around and watch his wife being raped by other men, the judge went on. Bhanwari’s medical examination was a disaster since she reached a hospital in Jaipur more than two days after the rape. It was virtually impossible to preserve the evidence. The verdict: Bhanwari lied.
The Vishakha network decided to file a case against the Government of Rajasthan for their inaction and lack of support for her, considering it was her employer. This was a clear-cut case of sexual harassment at the workplace, or a form of it. In the course of her job, a woman was raped and her employer did nothing to protect her from it or equip her to deal with it, knowing that her job was in fact putting her at risk from resistance from the community she was working with. This is how the Vishakha Guidelines were born, the same guidelines, by now a law, applied in the Tehelka case in which Tarun Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, was accused of sexually assaulting a colleague.
* * *
When N first explained the Vishakha case to me I was immediately taken with how progressive the construction of sexual harassment was within it. It wasn’t cast as a crime to the body or person but as the responsibility of the employer to create a safe workplace environment. It wasn’t about the space of the body, but about the space of the workplace. What sort of space was it for an individual to work in: welcoming, safe, friendly, hostile? A number of things would make the workplace hostile or a difficult place to work in went into the Guidelines – sexually coloured remarks or offensive sexual humour; quid pro quo sexual harassment – pressure for sex in exchange for workplace benefits or manipulation of workplace power-dynamics, the most common scenario we equate with sexual harassment at the workplace. The emphasis was on directing employers to prevent harassment and if there was an incident, the guidelines outlined how a complaints management committee was to be constituted and function. Importantly, the case was founded on the intention to make equality tangible within women’s Constitutional rights to dignity and equality. Crucially, ‘equality’ is about respecting the differences between men and women, rather than the commonly-held notion that equality implies similarity or sameness. Women, the case argued, require a workplace environment that is different, and that has to be respected and accommodated by the employer.
* * *
The day I moved to Delhi, they discovered poor Naina Sahni, shot and then chopped up by her husband and stuffed in a tandoor. That grisly story haunted me for days and I tried not to let it cast a shadow on all the things I had come to Delhi for: to have experiences, study, grow up, see Art, be a Writer, become worldly wise and then go to America to get a PhD. Delhi was unglamorous and hard. The weather was unbelievably bad. There was the foreign-ness and novelty of living in the resolutely Punjabi ghetto of Bhogal. For the first time I found people asking me, fairly casually, whatisyourcaste?
There is a constellation of factors that made it possible for me to arrive in Delhi at the age of 20 and find it within myself to gaze back at violence: class, personality, the fact that I was interning at a women’s rights organisation, the books I read, lots of questions, a desire to experience the city on my own terms.
* * *
Bhanwari’s case was central to Vishakha. A woman was raped because of and in the course of her job and it was her employer’s responsibility to offer redress. Moreover, Bhanwari’s case challenged the perception that ‘the workplace’ was an office or that sexual harassment was only of the quid pro quo kind made popular by Hollywood films like Disclosure. By starting with a situation in which a poor, illiterate woman was raped in her workplace, which was a village, the Guidelines embodied the spirit of inclusion and breadth. It exploded notions of what an office or workplace looked like.
Fali Nariman, the lawyer representing the petitioners, Vishakha, felt there had to be more evidence to show that sexual harassment at the workplace was not only an issue of a rural woman change agent working on social justice. What about the more traditional scenario of a woman in an office? Was this an issue of women across different types of workplaces?
I remember N coming out of that meeting and saying, “We need some research… who can do some questionnaires?” I jumped at it. We knew someone who worked at one of Delhi’s then-new-and-emerging media production companies. I was instructed to design a questionnaire and get 50 or so women to fill it in, analyse the findings and use that in the case.
Fresh from research methodology courses at university, I volunteered that 50 questionnaires from a media company’s office in south Delhi was hardly representative of a country the size of India and that we should be spending three months coordinating with partners in other cities to get 50 of the same questionnaires filled in. Instead of 50 we could have even 300 filled. N was withering; obviously I did not understand how the law worked and how urgent this moment was. So it was decided there would be 50 questionnaires from women working in a media company in south Delhi.
Eventually, I did my 50 questionnaires; the analysis: of course the women at the media company had experienced sexual harassment at the workplace! It was filed in court but there is no way of knowing how and if this influenced anyone or anything.
* * *
For over two years before the Vishakha ruling, the organisation had had to deal with another case, Sakshi v Union of India, that would go on to have a range of important implications. Sixteen years later, Vishakha and Sakshi would come together in a strange way, but it was impossible to know this at the time. Sakshi v Union of India tried to do for rape what had worked with Vishakha: to ground sexual violence within women’s right to equality; to move the focus away from sexual violence as a technical criminal misdemeanour defined by ‘non-consensual penetration’, to an issue of women’s rights.
The main question which requires consideration is whether by a process of judicial interpretation the provisions of Section 375 IPC can be so altered so as to include all forms of penetration such as penile/vaginal penetration, penile/oral penetration, penile/anal penetration, finger/vagina and finger/anal penetration and object/vaginal penetration within its ambit. Section 375 uses the expression “sexual intercourse” but the said expression has not been defined. The dictionary meaning of the word “sexual intercourse” is hetrosexual intercourse involving penetration of the vagina by the penis. The Indian Penal Code was drafted by the First Indian Law Commission of which Lord Mecaulay was the President. It was presented to the Legislative Council in 1856 and was passed on October 6, 1860. The Penal Code has undergone very few changes in the last more than 140 years.
KC Jhaku was a joint secretary in a government ministry. He and four of his colleagues would have afternoons off in a Connaught Place hotel drinking, getting high, watching pornography, having sex and on some of these afternoons, he brought his five-year-old daughter along. The little girl eventually broke and told one of her two elder sisters what was going on. The law said that penile penetration without consent was rape. The law said that sexual intercourse with a woman under the age of 16 was statutory rape. The law was silent on what to call it when your father and his friends penetrate you with beer bottles. The law, especially when it was written by Victorians in 1860, could not talk about sex. There is something rotten that needs fixing when a case like this “technically” isn’t rape, according to the law, and is charged under Section 354 of the Penal Code, also known as ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’.
The law’s inability to address this case became one of the reasons why legal activists could push for a new law on sexual assault; a version of this was speedily passed, many years later, after the Delhi Gang Rape. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 started out as a directive from the Law Commission after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sakshi; the Commission felt that the laws pertaining to sexual violence needed a complete overhaul. It was this law that conferred the judgment of rape on Tarun Tejpal. Through many rounds of consultation and drafting with other women’s rights groups, lawyers and activists in Delhi and elsewhere, an entirely new classification of violence was developed; from harassment to acid attacks to rape within marriage, all were included as different facets of violence. When the new law was passed in the months after the Delhi Gang Rape, the speed with which it happened didn’t prompt any curiosity. In a country like India, how did a law get drafted and passed so quickly? The truth is that discussions about this law had been going on for years, there were multiple rounds of drafting completed and it had sat with the law commission. When it was finally passed some clauses were removed, like the one on rape within marriage. As welcome as the new law is, N believes this isn’t what a progressive law on the equality mandate would look like. A progressive law would hold ministries accountable and demand budgetary allocations to address violence, for example. Focusing on ‘acts’ followed by ‘punishment’ is a rather myopic view, N thought. Rights is about holding people in power accountable for what they don’t do; it isn’t only about justice for victims.
* * *
The three Jhaku girls were shadows. They appeared silently in the office, usually with their mother, for preparation meetings to face their father in court. They’d come in and disappear up the stairs to the barsati, which had a quiet reading room lined with books and journals, and a counseling room with mats and bright cushions. In the summer the hum of water coolers and air-conditioners drowned out everything else. The eldest one was the responsible, stable one who could be counted on to make sure everyone showed up at court on time and had all the papers they needed and that her youngest sister was taken care of. She was 16 years old. The middle one was the unpredictable firecracker who was constantly prone to exploding and destroying the tenuous emotional balance that the counselors sought to create. I think it was this difficult middle child who actually kept a sense of anger, outrage and injustice simmering whilst others wanted calmness, fortitude, stability. She was also articulate about her emotional struggle: her father may be a monster but he was still her father and she loved him. The youngest sister was the girl who experienced the abuse. I never heard her say anything except for the time she asked me, out of the blue and after some years, why I smoked (there is no rational answer you can give in response that doesn’t make you look like a pathetic fool, and a child can see this). For years I’d see them traipse in, go into a meeting and come out. We were all haunted by them because they seemed to be in a state of permanent exile: home had become a monstrous thing.
The legal work in the Jhaku case was important because it not only wrestled with the silences within the law, but attempted to humanize it. Special petitions in the case asked the court to have a screen to protect the child from having to look at her abusers, for the child to take breaks during questioning, and for a list of questions to be submitted by the defense beforehand. This meant research and consultations with child psychologists and psychiatrists from NIMHANS to verify the effects of long-term sexual abuse on a child so this could be presented as expert testimony in court.
What happened to the Jhaku girls? The law did not give them any deliverance; the Court ruled that it was an outrage of modesty. For years they dragged themselves from one hearing to the next, reliving the story every time. They had to get on with school, college and earning a living but just couldn’t; there was no end in sight for them. I lost touch with the family after I moved on. Years later I got an invitation went to the eldest sister’s wedding. She married into a lovely, warm solidly Punjabi business family from Rajouri Garden. It was a grand reception; there were eight ‘food stations’, from chaat to Chinese and the bride was shimmering like a dream come true. The silent little abuse victim had blossomed into a smiling bridesmaid and the mother smiled through cracked teeth and pancake make-up, a forgotten woman looking in on other people’s happiness.
* * *
Living in Delhi and working at this organisation, things began to happen to me. There was the daily t’ai chi of organising my body and clothing to prepare to enter the disorienting spiral of the city. I had little empathy for women who remained cocooned in fear despite their big cars and bigger daddies. I am a bit of a mean girl, I suppose. I frothed at the protectionism of older friends and parents of friends. Do you think I can’t handle it? I was constantly tense and on edge. Sometimes I even wanted to be confronted just so I could prove to myself and others that I could still fight back. I imagined awful scenarios and how I’d resist. Just try me, assholebastardbhenchodfucker.
I walked differently. I knew enough bad words to throw around and eventually lost my ‘Madrasi’ accent. It took three instances for me to learn something important: the attacker never expects to be challenged. This gave me immeasurable confidence. The more you talk back, the better you get at it. Sometimes I wore a dupatta across my chest; sometimes I knew I didn’t have to. Knowing the difference – when to, and when you didn’t have to – seemed to be a kind of unspoken holy grail. Still, I got harassed, felt up, groped, chased, leered at, like everyone else did. And every day it was possible to go into the safe space of my office and talk about it.
* * *
The universe is said to have a black sense of humour, but not a sense of justice. The case was won, but not for Bhanwari. She was relatively unimpressed at the time, but genuinely supportive, that her experience had inspired something so important. What she wanted was justice, but a progressive legal precedent did nothing for her as an individual. Her sense of justice came from telling her story and being believed by those closest to her, from regaining her lost izzat. She wanted to face her community again, and have her husband’s honour restored too. None of this really came to pass. Bhanwari’s case against the four rapists languished and dragged on. The state was not positively inclined to such a trouble-maker: the rapists were eventually acquitted.
* * *
In all our lives, fact and fiction collide to create memories that we want to live with. For many years I believed that after a short period of separation from my father, when we were finally reunited at Heathrow airport, he fell upon my baby sister, who was 2 months old at the time, rather than me, his beloved six-year-old first-born. The new baby was born in India while he was away in Britain and he had never seen her. I remembered the scene at the arrivals gate quite vividly. I was devastated, and held on to his leg. In my late 20s I narrated this memory to my mother, who was shocked and amused. The truth, it turns out, was that my father was more excited to see me again, his beloved best-friend first-born that he had been separated from. He was abroad when my sister was born, he didn’t know her, actually, and my mother had to physically nudge the new baby into his chest for him to notice her. For years I believed he loved me less than he loved her.
When you write about the past there is the inevitable judgment that your memory of events as they happened is flawed precisely because you were emotionally invested. In A Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes writes a story that complicates the idea that memory is honest, stable and sanguine. He says something that captures why and how I came to write this essay: “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”
A split is like a traffic accident: no one can look away. After J and N split, I found that I had some sort of terrible micro-celebrity status for a few months afterward. People in our world wanted the details. There were different approaches to their investigation. There was the feigned concern one: “Was it hard finding new work?”, “How are you doing, after everything…?” This could be couched within the pretense of being close enough to one or the other so as to make it sound like this was less a dig for information than comrades commiserating: “Isn’t it just awful what happened!” Then there was the efficient, ruthless probe at close range: “What happened, what’s the story?”
A few years later, early one misty morning in December somewhere on the road to Rishikesh and the mountains beyond, J and I were eating parathas. Between mouthfuls of paratha, J said to me, “Women in relationships with each other are like wheels within wheels, and interlocking wheels; thinking you can remove yourself is folly.” J was talking about women in love, but I think this is true for some friendships many of us make through our lives, too. N and J haven’t stopped being friends and collaborators, but in different ways. I would of course eventually leave, even if that meant wrenching hair, skin, nails on the wheels’ teeth. It was the end of my innocence, and the start of politics.
Maya Ganesh works at the intersection of activism, technology and human rights. She lives in Berlin, Germany. From 1997-1999 she worked with a women’s rights organisation described in this essay. This is a slightly fictionalised memoir.