Choli ke Peechhe Kya Hai : Who’s Afraid Of Cross-Dressing?
A young man, in his early twenties, wore women’s undergarments in public and was caught on camera about ten days back in a protest demonstration, organized by the students of Presidency University in Kolkata. A couple of days later police visited his home in another part of the city. The mainstream print and audio-visual media has shifted its focus in the past week to the ‘breaking news’ unfolding of a gruesome murder story, but only after destroying the everyday life of the protesting young man and his family.
The much-maligned social media kept alive expressions of anger, disgust, and concern regarding the ‘underwear event’ – duly christened by one of the most influential media houses in West Bengal – until the Presidency movement reappeared in the Op-Ed pages of the mainstream print media in the last couple of days. A close friend (who, like me, is a teacher in an Indian university) first informed me of the ‘event’ and we laughed together cheering the ingenuous modes of protest invented by students. None of us had any clue about the specific context of cross-dressing except the student movement. We contextualized it in a different framework than the details that emerged later, but such differences did not hinder our appreciation of the act of protest. It is impossible for anyone to be unaware of the sexual violence against women in the province and the protest act of a man in women’s underwear signaled, to us, inclusion of gendered violence in the Presidency mobilisation. It did not strike us as ‘perversion’ and ‘utter disrespect’ to the intellectual heritage of Presidency simply because student movements offer the larger space to register voices against various repressive issues beyond the explicit demands of a particular mobilisation. If a student chose to bring in the issue of sexual violence within the Presidency mobilisation in August 2015, we had thought, he was well within the ambit of contemporary protest movements. However, we realized that we were not too far off the mark in framing the event when it came out from the discussion of activists that the vice-chancellor of Presidency University allegedly asked women students, who had been molested by the police, to show the exact marks of molestation on their bodies.
As I watched the exaggerated, repeated news coverage of the ‘underwear event’ on television on 24th August, I was far more troubled by the ‘breaking news’ that roll past at the bottom of the screen incessantly than the image of the cross-dresser. Even though the image was continuously being circled in red and the camera kept on zooming to the face of the cross-dressing protester, I must admit that the general vilification of the protester, apparently representing the spontaneous reactions of the Bengali public, demanded more attention. Such spontaneous reactions included branding the protester as pervert, as drug-addict, as ‘asobhyo’ (it is difficult to capture the wide-ranging meanings of the Bengali word that contains references to uncouth, obscene, and amoral), decried a ‘new low’ among the youth, and lamented Presidency’s fall from grace.
Surely the image was provocative, and provocative in terms of initiating debates around the demands of students, of their desperation regarding the role of state in deciding the institutional function of higher education – of which the mode of protest forms only a related concern. The cross-dressing protester drew the limelight, of course, but not as an individual. The reactions focused only on the individual and turned the event into a salacious gossip. The news reports also listed other ‘offensive’ acts of student protesters like sitting on the table of the vice-chancellor, shouting slogans inside and outside the vice-chancellor’s chamber, and smoking tobacco outside the vice-chancellor’s chamber.
The vitriolic reactions continued for days. The regular talk-shows in mainstream media spent hours denouncing the ‘act’ and miles of newsprint were spent in discrediting the student mobilisation in Presidency. Presidency student participants in several talk-shows apologized for the cross-dressing ‘event’ and requested the public to support their movement for their demands. The denunciations, however, were relentless. Famous, well-known, and not-so-well-known ex-students of Presidency joined the public hysteria of piling on all the mal-content of ‘today’s generation’ to a single individual. The movement itself, by extension, came to signify the haughty rudeness of a small group of privileged students. The police visit to the home of this individual possibly vindicated all those opinions, which declared the demise of the sacred intellectual tradition of Bengal through this single act of cross-dressing.
There was no other context available in the mainstream media. The space of social media, in the wake of such reactions, became the field of debate between supporters and critics. Several comrades of the concerned student provided the context of cross-dressing. In short, these posts revealed that the cross-dresser was part of another protest march in support of the FTII students. He and a few of his comrades had planned a protest ‘act’ in front of the BJP office in Kolkata. The protest act included disrobing rolls of films from the body of the activist, finally unveiling the underwear with Khuli Khidki written on the brassiere. Undoubtedly it is a clever act of protest against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the director of FTII. As he had rushed to Presidency immediately after that protest demonstration he did not have the time to change into a more conventional set of clothes. Whether he was right in entering Presidency premises in women’s underwear became the agenda of debate. While it is a much easier decision to condemn the mainstream media for vilifying the cross-dresser, it became a far more intense internal critique when people sharing similar political beliefs entered into debate on the justification of the protest act inside Presidency. In the last few days a couple of Op-Ed articles have come out in the mainstream newspapers which support the student mobilisation in Presidency despite the event of cross-dressing.
I find it crucial to focus on the mildly embarrassed manner in which the event is referred in articles that largely support students’ demands and their right to organize protest movements against institutional authorities. It is embarrassing because it does not follow the set script of protest activism. It could be permissible if the act was limited within the FTII protest demonstration only because it had a direct reference to the agenda of protest in that context. It seems, it is far more relieving to keep the innovations in the art of activism confined within a space designated for performing arts. Since the act of cross-dressing spilled into the more ‘regular’ space of protest, it successfully dug out the morass of prejudices that lie under the surface of the routinized discourse of resistance.
The efforts to contain this disturbing act of protest have stimulated two different positions of response. It is perhaps not too arbitrary that both have one theme in common: elitism. Even though the responses regarding the alleged elitism of Presidency as an educational institution are diametrically opposite, it is undeniable that both are troubled by the ‘elite’ nature of the institution, its students, and the student protest. If the public responses, which were represented in the mainstream media immediately after the event, resoundingly denounced the act of cross-dressing as unbecoming for the elite intellectual heritage of the institution; the more radical intelligentsia branded it as eccentric and elitist.
Let me first consider the responses in mainstream media. Krishna Basu, in her response to the student movements wrote in Anandabazar Patrika on 3rd September that the rot in student politics began in the 1960s with the Naxalbari movement and it gradually festered into politicizing all student organisations according to established Party-lines. Basu has argued for depoliticizing educational institutions to maintain the sacred heritage of elite institutions like Presidency. On the same day and in the same news-daily, Ashim Chatterjee, the renowned Naxalite leader in 1960s and ’70s wrote in support of the protesting students of Presidency. He has touched on the event of cross-dressing and concluded that students were correct in allowing every protest-act in their mobilisation. Arunava Ghosh in Ei Samay has expressed a similar opinion on 4th September with a more minimal reference to the event.
While the call for depoliticisation of educational institutions refuses to reflect on the long history of student politics in West Bengal depending on a facile charge of corruption, the articles by Chatterjee and Ghosh legitimize the Presidency mobilisation in exact terms of the script prepared by the student movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which were, as per public memory, led by the brilliant students of elite institutions and eventually plunged into the horrors of violence because of the misguided path the activists chose to follow. Elitism, in all three responses, connotes positive values of high intellectual capabilities, noble but naïve belief in resistance, and the quality of leadership in guiding the general student population. Considering the act of cross-dressing as a political act is uncontainable in these responses because it destabilizes the very notion of political activism and wrenches the meaning of politics from the set paradigms of either politics as corruption or politics as straitlaced resistance.
Elitism, however, becomes a disqualification in the more radical discourse of resistance. In a recent article on contemporary student movements in West Bengal in the news-supplement Ebela on 3rd September, Garga Chatterjee reiterates the charge of privilege against the students of ‘elite’ institutions like Presidency, Jadavpur, JNU, and FTII. Chatterjee accuses the elite students of abandoning the sufferers of political violence in mofussil colleges, of not exercising their presence in English language social media in support of the ‘uncool’ mofussil students. Chatterjee is quite correct in underlining the lacunae in student movements, but his tone is of rebuke and derision. He forecloses any possibility of looking for the reason behind this lack of unity beyond making ‘elite’ as the root of evil that divides students into oppositional groups of victims and self-seeking social climbers. Chatterjee’s views are echoed in various ‘posts’ in social media. Since social media offers a less inhibiting space for expression, the act of cross-dressing has been branded as foolishly eccentric, typical of elite students of elite institutions, often in quite rude language. Those who share Garga Chatterjee’s opinion have argued that such an act alienates the general body of students who are enrolled in non-metropolitan educational institutions.
While I completely agree with the absence of a larger coalition among student activists in the city of Kolkata and mofussil colleges and universities, I must admit that the simplistic equation between elitism and a provocative act of protest is troubling. It reminds one of the unfortunate debates that pushed gender out of the agenda of resistance in the 1960s and 1970s, and the great unease still felt among the activist groups regarding issues of sexuality. Several critics of the ‘underwear event’ are well versed in gender politics and trained in high philosophical traditions in theorizing gender, and yet they stop short of making this act of protest a part of the regular space of resistance politics. Their argument that it should have been confined within a particular context where it ‘made sense’ bypasses the larger critique of pushing sexuality under the carpet whenever it threatened to uncover the asymmetry of relations of power within the activist ‘we’.
The complaint against ‘elitism’ strengthens the binary of powerful and powerless as it mystifies multiple networks of privilege in search of an absolute victim. Personally, I would like to congratulate the student who performed the cross-dressing as part of public protest and register my support for all his comrades who have been unceasingly writing explanations, rebuttals, and thought-provoking pieces on the language of protest. I would also like to remind ourselves that the long and rich tradition of drag is not exclusive to queer politics and it is definitely not ‘merely cultural’.
– Posted on Facebook by:
Mallarika Sinha Roy