PUCL Bulletin, December 2002

Assault on right to education
Education, Campuses, and Violence

-- By Kalpana Kannabiran

This article will explore the dilemmas that teaching law from the common ground created by the intersection of law, social sciences, women's studies and feminism throws up. It will also attempt in the process to trace the boundaries of pedagogy, rather the rigid confines within which pedagogic practice is forced to locate itself today, in institutions of formal education in general, and the ways in which this confinement can undermine in very direct ways in which this confinement can undermine in very direct ways the teaching of law itself. In other words, it will look at the classroom, campus (and different "internal" spaces therein), and society as territories that although contiguous and overlapping, are territories nevertheless, each with its own parameters of "integrity" and normative order and its own rules and constitutions.

As a first observation, it is important to state that each of these territories at every level is gendered and structured by power, hierarchy and hegemony; moving inwards in a sense from the dynamic of society to the smaller spaces that constitute it - the family, the campus, the hostel, the classroom, each of these spaces constructed as "internal" spaces, analogous to the family. An understanding of this shifting definition of "the private" and the use of the familial analogy is important if we are to understand the troubling reality of violence on campuses and our inability to deal with it.

As a result of persistent campaigning by the women's movement over two decades, the issue of sexual harassment and heterosexual violence has entered the mainstream discourse in different ways. Yet, masculinity and femininity continue to be constructed in strictly regimented ways with very little space for women students particularly to raise questions of discrimination, harassment or derogatory/obscene representation. This is and must remain a dialogue between male students, and the resolution must also happen between them with women on both sides being passive spectators. I will return to this point a little later.

Logically, then, it would follow that there has not been any significant decrease in violence and sexual harassment on campuses; in fact, the violence has become increasingly strident, an instance being cited of a campus on the subcontinent where the hundredth rape on the campus was celebrated! The positive side of this is that there is protest and resistance and persistent campaigning by women's groups and small groups of men and women - teachers and students - on campuses, in Delhi and Rajasthan for example.

To come now to the troubling question of masculinity. This dialogue between male students, whether about women, or about the right of senior students to services and obeisance from juniors, or about a general policing, is by definition violent and involves extreme physical abuse. And masculinity is constructed around the ability to bear pain, the ability to be an active spectator, the capacity for silence, a firm belief in the patriarchies of age and gender and an utter contempt for any recourse to legitimate redress.

The heroes are those that bear all these characteristics. In other words, there is a complete normalisation of violence in institutions of education, and while we are able to address some, such as heterosexual violence, there are others, same sex violence for instance, especially battery, that remain invisible, unspoken about and give cause for serious concern. As a law student I once met said to me, "Yeh to boys hostel mein hotaa hi hai", and asserted that these were not matters that the authorities ought to mess around with because they would get resolved within the hostel. And I am sure students of other disciplines would not speak differently.
How does one process this reality as a teacher of sociology in a law school and as a feminist? Processes of discrimination, hierarchy, power, patterns in the use of violence, the criminalisation of some forms of violence and the exclusion of other forms from the definition of violence itself, as also the continuities in these practices and processes across seemingly dissimilar social spaces, are best understood from the standpoint of sociology.

But that is not enough. The feminist slogan, "the personal is political" opened up the family for public scrutiny in the face of increasing violence against women within marriage three decades ago. Despite stiff resistance to any "interference in family matters", domestic violence has systematically been forced into public view - the courtroom, legislative bodies and curricula in family law. The fact that there cannot be a derogation of rights - to life, to dignity and bodily integrity, to the freedom of expression, to the freedom of association - even within "private spaces" is one that must be appreciated through the lens of "the personal is the political" slogan. When even the family is no longer a private space, how can a campus or worse still a hostel be one? Legal education cannot be confined to the classroom, but must encompass the entire space that teachers and students inhabit, in order for it to make sense.

Women students in elite institutions have resisted quotas for women in the unions, and non-dalits students (men and women), have generally opposed quotas for Dalits as well. I have not yet heard of an instance where Dalit students, on being offered a quota in unions have refused it. The argument of the women students in at least one instance that has come to my notice was that they were a sizeable number - a little over half in that institution - and that they would get into the union "on their own steam". And yet when the elections took place, 85 per cent of the seats went to the men. This experience outside the classroom ties in with the teaching of the equality provisions in constitutional law and the questions raised in equality jurisprudence: the distinction between formal equality and substantive equality, the wisdom and indispensability of affirmative action, and the fact that the right to equality binds all historically discriminated against groups. Reservation was not only for "Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes" but was necessary for women too.

Violence is both the subject of law and its context. And violence is always embedded in a social context ridden with unequal power and privilege. Witness the constant threat of sexual violence that women are confronted with and the inoperability of the law when it comes to sexual offences.

Or even the ease with which it is possible for men to speak publicly in extremely derogatory sexual terms about women students and teachers - the opposite rarely being the case. The patriarchy of gender takes precedence over that of age! Silence is often the only recourse. Even this will pass. What happens in the courtroom is mirrored in the classroom, the campus, public spaces and the family. Clearly, the IPC cannot teach us why. Sociology cannot either on its own. Only feminist sociology can help make sense of this.

This point of this exploratory exercise has been twofold. First, it is an attempt to underscore the indispensability of a through grounding in feminist sociology and a commitment to human rights to pedagogical practice in law. Second and more important, it points to the necessity for teachers in undergraduate institutions particularly to break out of the confines of a rigidly circumscribed job, opening up a conversation with young adults on the connections between violence, dignity and learning; drawing these connections for them both within and outside the classroom.

Home | Index