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JNU and the ‘sex scandal’: Aprajita Sarcar

February 16, 2011

This is a guest post by APRAJITA SARCAR

As a former JNU student, it is a pity that I have to write this post in order to draw attention to a crisis that needs urgent attention: the inability to talk about intimacy.  I say intimacy, as against sex, as against scandal, as against molestation, as against the “professionally shot” footage that made it to the front pages of newspapers.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has a crisis to face that has been imminent for a while, and it comes from the inability to talk intimately, about intimacies. Because intimacies are distinct from rhetoric. With the Student’s Union made ‘unconstitutional’, students’ politics now, more than ever, has been using the vocabulary which has been made the norm by the various political wings. Any incident that sparks off some disagreement is followed by parchas that the parties or independent students bring out and paste on the walls of the hostels, libraries and schools. But the parchas are unable to induce conversations, honest conversations  in which we are required to acknowledge all the voices in our heads.

The general body meetings that follow are restricted to some marked names brandishing their ability to pull through rhetoric with no space for intimacy. And so, when CDs or pendrives circulated footage of a couple having sex in a room in a hostel everyone knew and passed by a number of times, and when the footage was circulated, even in the main library for a few days, what followed was a stilted silence, in the conversations deemed public. But in the intimate spaces of the hostels, over hoarded-up cigarettes and alcohol (since both are banned on campus), followed the intimate conversations.  In which, worry and the inability to comprehend what had happened, were the most common expressions.

For every JNU student today, the question is not how the incident took place, but whether they will be able to acknowledge the kind of questions that the video clip has sparked in them: Who are these students? How could he have made such a CD? Where is the girl? What happened to her? How could he shoot her without her consent? How could he shoot it in the first place? And the most important questions that follow:  Am I a voyeur when I watch it? Am I to feel guilty for watching it? Did I play a role in it?

Strangely, everyone is looking at the ‘administration’ to do something. Their moves to change hostel mess timings, and restricting girls’ entry into boys’ wings were pre-empted.  Its almost as if the administration’s moves were making space for SOME kind of public conversations to follow. But in the protests which follow the restrictions imposed, I am still looking for a space for intimacy, for a space to acknowledge the inability to understand consensual sex and the way the incident has informed my understanding of intimacies on campus.

This same inability surfaces every time cases of sexual harassment surface on campus:  Who harassed whom? Why did the girl take so long to come to the Committee against Sexual Harassment? Why was she seen with the boy after filing the case? As a friend of the girl, being a girl, how could you even talk to the alleged harasser? I have lost friends, intimate ones, to the polemical shape which arguments around sexual relationships, take on campus, wherein, to stand by the victim is to slander the accused. But mud-slinging and retribution cannot take the place of real conversations. And the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University needs to take the ‘semi-legal’, private conversations in the hostels and dhabas seriously enough for them to take place in a publicly intimate context, something the parchas fail to do.

I am not disrespecting the conviction needed to walk with cellotape and gum in hand, sticking these posters on the walls and gates around the huge campus.  I am just asking for the deepening of those discussions, so that the parchas not just be read silently, while going back to the rooms where what I really make of the topic at hand is aired out. Although this post is aimed at the campus itself, but what is under attack, is the larger inability of talking about sexual intimacies and the fact of them being recorded on camera. Reminiscent of the MMS of the students of Delhi Public School (DPS), which made to the headlines four years back, the questions of ‘How could they?’ need to be supplemented by what does it mean to record intimacy on camera. And what does it mean to watch them. Especially since these clips cannot be deemed “porn” directly (at least in my head). There are philosophical questions at stake here, about how I see myself, and of what it means for me to be performing an intimate act on camera, and then distributing it? It is because this question haunts me that I write about it.

I hesitate to take the stance of reprimanding any such acts, simply because I understand the pleasure involved in seeing the clips. Repremanding and holding someone guilty for voyeurism stubs out conversation about pleasure and guilt-ridden pleasure at that. As of now, posting it on line, here. But what we need is more talk, more forthright acceptance of the parts of us, that disturb us.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. voyeur permalink
    February 16, 2011 3:35 PM

    Good article. Raises a lot of important questions. When I started reading it I subconsciously thought it would give me readymade answers (I watch too much of Arnab Goswami and am used having opinions stuffed down my throat). Why do you say you can’t call it porn? What is the nature of this video? Can someone tell me where I can find this video?

    On a more serious note, while it might be true that JNU is at a crisis today, please start off saying JNU has a much more liberal environment than most other univs in the country. Engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu (I’m sure this happens in other colleges in other places but most colleges I’ve seen fall into this category) prohibit conversation with persons from the other gender. They have separate sections in the classroom and separate staircases for boys and girls. From persons coming from this sort of environment it is really hard to figure out whats going on here. It is hard to imagine the need for a more free or intimate conversation where any meaningful conversation about such an incident at all would be hard to come by.

    • February 17, 2011 3:10 PM

      Voyeur, you live up to your name by asking to see the clip :) I have not seen it myself. I have left the campus after finishing my Masters last May, and keep going back to those who are still studying. Owning or showing it inside campus will get the person suspended and thrown out of the university. The post comes as a response to the way they have been affected by the circulation of the clip, and how their movement around campus will be affected by the new rules laid down. I agree with you that JNU has a lot more space for frank discussions and debates around, well, everything. At one in the night, I can vouch for walking along the ring road inside without a single smirk, catcall or question being asked ( I dont have to draw parallel with the rest of the city to state my case). In a way, this post craves to maintain that kind of space.

      As far as calling it porn is concerned, a discussion that followed this post with another responder has got me thinking about it. I believe I was mistaken in my understanding of porn as something ‘distant’: as something I could watch, orgasm on, and forget about. I didnt want to classify the clip as porn, because of the violation of the intimacy that the girl shared, that Ammu Abraham, another responder has already mentioned. I thought such a violation is rendered invisible, once the clip is labeled porn. But I maybe wrong: one could be watching the clip, and getting upset by the breach of trust involved, in the act of circulating it. One could also be angered at the complete silence around the girl at the moment, even as the guy walked around campus freely. (He has been suspended now.)

  2. Manash Bhattachrajee permalink
    February 16, 2011 3:40 PM

    Dear Aprajita,

    I am frankly surprised by the honest brilliance of your post. JNU has been a repressed campus for long, and even some young “feminists” on campus have indulged in moral policing about sexual matters, where questions of infidelity versus monogamous relationships have been bizarrely conflated, blurred and abused. The question of “intimacy” was most often been addressed in very conventional and even contractual language of understanding of sexual relations. The question of power equations in turn became crudely seen as cunning men exploiting naive women. People living in their world of repressed fantasies violated the complexities of troubled relationships by taking over the responsibility of such issues, passing moral judgements, and mercilessly taking away the agency of those concerned, even as they fought the case on the same principle. This smacked of a high degree of what I would call protective politics, which conveniently disallowed any larger debate on these issues, but allowed themselves the wisdom and right to play absolute arbitrators. The question about elite, sexual sensibilities among women as much as among men, and their repressed aversion towards non-monogamous relations (or individuals) even as they espoused it publicly, remained. This did not help anybody’s cause. But the word “intimacy” and the question of desire have always been suppressed in the moral policing of these events. This criminalised the notion of love to an alarming degree. The very valid question of power in sexual relations was turned into a discourse of discipline and punish, where motives and intentions were dug out of the psyche and meanings hounded out of people’s confused closets. A false order of victimhood was invented. Instead of trying to address power relations by making people comfortable enough to speak their desires, the moral guardians made their own conclusions and proved their own theories over others. In fact the whole question of desire and intimacy was deliberately subverted because in complex matters, desire was merely seen as foul play by one person against another. I think even school children have a better understanding of this mess, without having heard of Marx, Beauvoir or Foucault.
    The recent context of the MMS is of course another issue. You are right in trying to take the debate away from the morality aspect. It is indeed a more complex phenomenon, where handy tools are being used to violently solve equally violent social pressures and systems. The use of technology in the use of pleasure is bound to create new forms of delights and oppressions. Evereyone is at risk. And one should not forget a growing industry taking advantage of that risk in surreptitious ways. I think the question of guilt-ridden pleasure, which you have rightly raised, has to be also interrogated in all its private and public manifestations.
    I hope your sensitive piece makes people throw away their conclusions and start discussing the issues anew.

  3. Ammu Abraham permalink
    February 16, 2011 5:05 PM

    There is an implicit element of ‘intimacy’ that you have not mentioned. That is, trust. If ‘intimacy’ was merely about sexual pleasure. you do not need another word for it. In the instance under discussion, it seems to me that trust was violated, it was misplaced. The intimacy the girl felt, turned out to be untrue.
    Those who derive pleasure from seeing those clips, are surely violating her right to privacy, and her trust in all of you to respect her intimacy. Such pleasure knows nothing of intimcay

  4. February 17, 2011 9:27 PM

    Adding to what Ammu is saying, I think it’s crucial for us to know the facts of the case, which we don’t and which the ‘administration’ doesn’t seem to be interested in either. While Aprajita’s brilliant post raises very important questions, I’m with Ammu that the question of trust is also to be wondered about. It’s shameful, firstly, that news reports have almost identified the girl, even mentioning that she is now married – potentially affecting her marriage. But the investigators and the JNU administration don’t seem to want to ask her about it. They’re clearly coming from a morality that wants all the ambiguities shoved aside and two students jailed.

  5. Anirban Bandyopadhyay permalink
    February 18, 2011 2:33 PM

    A very thoughful and provocative piece which is at the same time very honest. The question of trust raised by Ammu Abraham and seconded by Shivam Vij vring up another very important issue to be openly debated about. The whole question I think boils down to a more careful examination of the various means and moments of making the private public. What it means to make a private act, even if consensual, public needs to be honsetly discussed and debated. What kinds of act, in other words, are permisible to be made public and to what end? Who holds the moral right to make a private act public? When does one violate a trust in a publicly acceptable manner? I think the larger issue of what constitute legitimate public interest too have to be debated afresh. I do not mean for even a moment that voyeurism and public interest have to be conflated. But frankly, for a people long accustomed to newspapers and TV channels flashing images of skimpily clad women gyrating in parties day in and day out, this had to be seen as not entirely accidental. It is here that these questions of what is legitimately permissible as public spectacle needs to be explored. By public spectacle I do not mean only staged spactacles before a large number of people assembling at a given space on a given time but also a spectacle being made avaiable at a public space for everyone to see individually in private, which is what the internet is all about. This is not endorsing any protective politics but calling ourselves to be honest about what we enjoy in privately guised public spaces and deny ever having done so in public assemblies.

  6. Anubha Yadav permalink
    February 23, 2011 6:58 PM

    Some points that I wish add -

    These cases should also enable an understanding of what New Media and the various technology’s’ that come with it embody for us as we negotiate everyday life. Just tomorrow an ‘intimate’ g-chat ‘you/I’ have had with a friend/husband/could be pasted on facebook for all to read!

    Today we choose to put our most ‘intimate’ selves (e.g family photographs) on Facebook (which even half a decade back would perhaps be shared only with a select few family members). Reality shows, 24×7 news (urban intrusion) have put a premium on ‘privacy’, it is a commodity, it is for sale -if you have the GOODS! So if a person shares his/her life on contract on a television channel does that person make a differentiation as to how much of ‘his/her private self’ he allows as takeaway- Does that mean we need to further categorize privacy?Could it have levels- the ‘private’, ‘the super private’ and ‘hyper private’!

    As people what are we doing when we watch Aarushi Talwar case and read her legitimately circulated smss? (institutionalized violation of her ‘privacy’). What are we doing when we sit over chai and discuss if the father killed the daughter, hoping for a closure by the time our cup of tea reaches its last few sips?

    Is it a paranoid over reading if connections are drawn between – someone finding it ‘enjoyable’ or ‘normal’ or ‘legitimate’ to record & circulate visuals of two students having consensual sex at JNU with invasive 24 -hr news reportage (that violates privacy in the most commonplace manner) and reality television (that commodifies privacy to titillate us)?

    What is this Frankenstein capable of ? WELCOME TO a world where ms/mr privacy changes its dressy meaning and pupil colour every-time a new camera-phone comes in the market. We need to be curiously aware of this change as we interrogate and explore these shifting boundaries and borders of public and private -in the real and virtual. We should ask how we essentially and initially defined appropriate behavior for a certain ‘physical space’ (and today for ‘virtual space’ ie web cams and their use) and then how we over time institutionalize that behavior forever as right or wrong.

    Today due to new media I can choose my privacy settings. As I do that I create a society that actively negotiates, seeks and avails of this privilege called privacy. Thus ‘privacy’ be-comes for oneself- plural and individually well defined but perhaps sufficiently ill-defined for urban realities and society.

    We need to ask – What are the collaterals of this movement when ‘privacy’ -an institutionally defined absolute is becoming a plural individually defined idiom?

  7. Iqbal Abhimanyu permalink
    March 1, 2011 1:26 PM

    I as a current student of the university, frankly don’t know how to respond.. maybe I don’t have the necessary vocabulary to say what I want to. I haven’t watched the clip, although had heard about it some months back, but had dismissed it as a stupid rumor.
    I’m constantly fighting inner demons in the campus thinking about various issues, and the subject of sexual harassment and the subsequent punishments and the response of the students and organizations… One Ganga Sahay Meena case comes into my mind immediately. I don’t know the details of that case and therefore refrain from commenting on it, but it surely divided the campus .
    The author’s point that there’s not enough space for discussion among people is true, On the Periyar mess table, the debates range from Cricket to Cricket. Classrooms are dull, dhabas are for gossip. I admit making hugely stupid and politically incorrect-insensitive remarks in company of my friends, just in order to be ‘cool’, and it reflects my own inner rot.
    All in all a sad state of affairs, and maybe I’m just a highbrow wannabe psuedo, but coming from the now infamous School of Languages, I see the dance parties becoming increasingly unsafe for girls, drunk brawls increasing and the lingo changing into a semi-urban semi-feudal rant. And I have done nothing about it except burying my head in sand and have stopped attending the parties which I never liked anyway…
    The SSS and SIS people can blame it into Undergrads, but I, till the last year was one of the undergrads, so How can i do that?

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