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In Conversation with Kavita Krishnan

Kavita Krishnan is the Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a member of the CPI (ML) politburo. This interview was conducted by Mukta Joshi (Batch of 2019), Ashwin Pantula (Batch of 2019) and Nupur Raut (Batch of 2017). 

Q : How did you get into the feminist movement, especially in college?

KK : I was in St. Xavier’s College, Bombay for my B.A. and I wasn’t really part of any organized movement at that point, but that was 1990-93, the time when the right wing Hindutva groups were ascendant in Bombay. You had the Bombay riots and all of that. At that time, I remember feeling very agitated about the violence against minorities and also against the increasingly shrill and aggressive messages being given out by those groups to women, especially Hindu women about how a ‘good bharatiya naari’ should behave. So that was something that was on my mind.

After that, when I came to JNU for my M.A., there was a sharp contention on campus between the Hindu right wing groups and Leftist organizations and I was attracted to the All India Students Association that had a lot of women leaders in it. It also was, at that time, one of the Leftist organizations that was quite openly feminist in its articulation. At that time, other Leftist groups didn’t define themselves in those terms. That was my entry point.

Q : In our college, women are sometimes criticized for calling out sexist comments publicly. What are your views on calling out sexist comments and jokes made in private? (One defence that people usually use is that you cannot call out their sexist comment because they made it in the course of a private conversation)

KK : It’s such a strange thing, isn’t it. The whole issue about things you can do in private that shouldn’t be  brought into scrutiny, is something that’s not just said about sexist comments. It’s said about every single thing that the women’s movement has ever raised. Everything from cruelty as defined under dowry law, or domestic violence law, it was said that, ‘Well, it’s in the private domain, it’s between us, it’s in the family and you’re not supposed to call it out.’ ‘Who the hell are you to call it out?’ ‘Parivaar todte ho’, you’re breaking the family.

I think this is an extension of that, but it’s happening by people who wouldn’t like to think of themselves as conservative people. Right now, I would say very gently to anyone who does that: Look, it always hurts to be called out and nobody wants to be shown that mirror and say “I’m that sexist guy.” No one wants to do that. It happens to women also. You have women shaming other women using stuff about their character or their sexual conduct or behaviour. I’ve seen it happen even in women’s groups. When that is called out, or pointed out, people don’t like it. They say ‘lightly bola’ or something like that.

I think it is high time we do gently say that, look people aren’t going to shut up and suck it up. And they are going to call it out because we know by now what the content of jokes are. Sure, jokes are light hearted things. Nobody is trying to ban anything but the point is that jokes are political and what we laugh at, and why, tells a lot about who we are and what we believe in. So if we are laughing at people for the way their bodies are, or if we are laughing at people based on their community’s characteristics, or we are laughing at women, or making stereotypes about gender and so on, that is saying something about our real beliefs. Which is why we are laughing. So the real and the joke are related. They are joined at the hip! Nobody’s asking anybody to be solemn, the point is that there can be feminist jokes, surely. Why is it that you might not find a feminist joke that funny, right? Somebody who finds a sexist joke funny might not find a feminist joke particularly funny, which is at their expense.

The idea is that we’re calling you out, not to say you can’t say that or we won’t let you say it but to say that it says something about what you are. And we have the right to do that. It’s then up to you to think, well, if I don’t want to be that person, then I should stop making that kind of a comment.

Q : What do you think about other communities, like men, trans people etc. within feminism?

KK : I think this shouldn’t be a matter of debate at all. Absolutely, they are part of the feminist movement and the movement should have them. It’s not like we are the owners of the feminist movement and we can decide who we let in the door or don’t. Basically anyone who is oppressed by patriarchy, fighting it and critiquing it, should be part of the feminist movement. In fact, even where straight, heterosexual men are concerned, even they can feel the burden of patriarchy. Even though they enjoy certain privileges, they can also be critics of patriarchy. They can also realize that with the privilege also comes things that demean them in a way because they are asked to be custodians of an extremely repressive regime of patriarchy. Therefore, they can be part of the feminist movement.

Having said that, the need for specific women’s groups, for specific trans groups, groups where people with specific identities can talk to each other is there. But I don’t think there’s a problem with saying that the feminist movement is not only comprised of women’s groups.

Q : Feminist movements are often accused of causing polarization between men and women. What do you think about that?

KK : I find that an amusing accusation because it’s exactly like those who say that caste based reservation is causing casteism. You have to say that that stuff has happened before we were born! The fact that women are treated like women, you know most women would love to be not reminded of their gender at every turn.  You can barely take a breath free from the gender identity that is shoved in your face and forced on you in a dozen ways every day. The point is that it is in those circumstances that women speak up and fight against discrimination. I don’t see how that speaking up and demanding equality is being called a pull for polarization. Asking for equality and parity is the opposite of polarization. The whole point is that polarization exists because all the entitlement and privilege lies on one pole and all the ‘remember your place’ happens at the other pole. So I think that to fight that is to do the very opposite of polarizing. Why should anybody feel that it is polarizing, unless they also feel invested in patriarchy? Because one is fighting patriarchy, one is not fighting men! Feminist historians like Gerda Lerner have actually mapped this out: that patriarchy has survived not only because men have imposed it on women, but also because patriarchy has managed to make women bear some of the burdens of keeping the patriarchy going by handing out partial rewards. There’s a scheme of rewards and punishments that is happening. We all know that and we’re fighting against that all the time. We fight against that in ourselves as women all the time. Therefore, it’s a fight against patriarchy, we can all do it together and nobody needs to be polarized against anybody except against the patriarchy.

Q : What do you think of sexism amongst leftists, and men who identify as feminists but behave like misogynists?

KK : (laughs) The bro-cialists! They require to be called out really ruthlessly because your progressive position of politics means that you have to be vocal and articulate about feminist issues. But if you think that means explaining to everyone else what feminism is supposed to be and not really respecting the fact that those who don’t bear the privileges that you do might actually have a better sense of what it means to be a feminist. That kind of patronizing or mansplaining needs to be called out. That doesn’t mean that men have to shut up around women, that’s not the point anyone of us is making. The point is that the double standards that you hold if you’re unable to be democratic in your functioning, and unable to critique your own privilege then all that feminism and leftism is only  window-dressing; it’s not going deep enough if you’re not able to recognize your own privilege and recognize that you shouldn’t be speaking for others and imposing your ideas on others or, and much worse than all this, actually doing in your life what you critique publicly.

Q : How do you deal with online trolls?

KK : All of us have our own separate methods. One inevitably ignores a lot of them but, on the other hand, I don’t really believe in always being silent about it, so I look for the ones I think of as the ‘useful’ ones, the ones who are really quite brilliantly exposing what they stand for – their ‘mann ki baat’ is right up there. So when they are obviously defending the Prime Minister or the BJP or RSS or men’s rights their words on social media are so revealing of what their real thoughts are. For instance, I’ll tell you, I can’t resist sharing this with the wide world, when somebody used some kind of 1950s-60s kind of vocabulary and says ‘kaali kaluti’ to me, and I’m like : Do people really think that? That it’s acceptable to tell the world that you think it’s bad to be black or dark. Okay, let’s have a good laugh at your expense. Or even that you think, continuously harping on about people’s bodies…  it seems a little, you know, Freudian revelations of frustrations. So, some of those you should share, have a good laugh over, and also expose what the person is doing.

I don’t generally go to the police and all except in very rare circumstances and my experience with that has not been good. One has only so much energy in life.  There’s a common question I’m asked every time I out a troll publicly, asking me why I haven’t gone to the police – it’s almost aggressive. That’s even from friends. Then you have to say that if I were to go to the police for every troll I would be doing nothing else. It’s those many, in thousands. So not all women are going to go to the police, let them choose what they would like to do. I’m not saying everybody’s response would be like mine; there will be others who strictly won’t engage, won’t feed the troll and I respect that. 

Q : Any advice or tips for feminist movements on campus?

KK: I shouldn’t presume to advise like that, but I would just say that if you all meet regularly and think about what are the things you could take up beyond what is just happening at the campus, other stuff like talks and stuff that is going on or small campaigns that people undertake. Otherwise, frankly the smartest and best ideas are coming from young people on campuses that I would never have dreamt of. There are really, really interesting movements that people have waged, so I don’t feel like I’m in a position to advise you because you are likely to come up with better and smarter stuff. I would just say that sometimes what happens when you are in a campus situation (where you remain in a bubble, it happens to all of us when we’re in a campus because the arguments on campus tend to bound our vision a little bit) we don’t have to win all those arguments only.  You don’t have to organize to try and win that one argument whatever it is, like sexist jokes. Rather one can be a little broader, wider, talk about other things as well. Which is always good, because then other people for whom, that particular one issue may not have resonated with  then there may be lots of other stuff on which they’re willing to think over and come around.

Published in Catching Up With the Crème

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