Wednesday, August 6, 2014

an unusually happy election post.

For the longest time, we didn't hear of the possibility of a woman becoming the Student Bar Council President in NALSAR. It was an unthinkable. Our first election, we heard that the men were being made to conduct internal elections in the 'Boys' Hostel' so we tried to do the same in our own hostel. It failed miserably because several of us felt that this curtailed students' right to contest elections, and nobody was really making us do it. So we didn't, and felt rather pleased that a principled stance won over the clearly politically expedient one. The next morning, we went in for the elections; the men came in with their candidates fixed (and their proxy candidates fixed too), and we spoke of fair democracy. Needless to say, all the eight representatives we had that year were men. This was, we were told, expected. Seniors I respected told me to stay out of politics in NALSAR: it's dirty, and there is no way you can make a headway into Boys' Hostel politics.  

Why were the men in our batch pushed, in this incredibly organised manner, into selecting candidates and voting purely on the basis of gender? Why did anybody have such hold over them? And why was this not the case (thank goodness it was not the case) with the women? Why did men replicate the model they themselves had found oppressive the year before? And why, when stories of assault, threats of harm to come, slander, harassment were an open secret, was the administration (then) absolutely uninterested?

The first thing I figured was that the administration, an evidently patriarchal one, was not uninterested, it was deeply interested in keeping status quo going. That meant permitting elections to be rigged so you had a SBC that was in your pocket. It's easier to be letting a university run down to the dogs when its students don't protest against it, isn't it? 

The second epiphany happened as I noticed the manner in which first year students greet seniors differently, based on gender: there is always a "hello bhaiya" from men to men, there is no such system with women. This is a hierarchy that is built into the manner in which men are accepted into the fold in NALSAR. It is a hierarchy that plays an incredibly important role in elections conducted two weeks after students get to NALSAR, especially where any other measure of candidates is absent. 

The model was replicated year after year, albeit with some inclusion of women at the committee level as the number of women students increased (thereby increasing the risks involved with women running internal elections, as the class of 2013 did, once), for the simple reason that it worked for those it served -- there was deal making (and breaking) amongst men (even if the subject of the deal was a woman candidate), it was easy to rig, and figuring out the way 40 voters would vote (and threatening them with violence if they did not vote according to what was asked of them) was a whole lot easier than actually running a campaign on a manifesto. Running an underhand smear campaign against rival candidates, in the cosy comfort of hostel rooms, in situations where the probability of the rival doing the same to you were minimal (especially if they were of a different gender) was simpler than discussing ideology or policy inclinations. 

Things came to a head with the last elections, with men muscle-flexing and openly threatening juniors while elections were being conducted, and with defamatory statements being made with pride, in the electoral college. It was, frankly, a depressing election, personally and for the institution. The University needed to decide for itself -- was it going to tell those who were effectively being rendered voiceless by the system that they should just learn to play the dominant set at their own game, knowing all the while that the game in question is premised on coercion (for junior students) and horsetrading? Or were we going to rework the manner in which elections happen in NALSAR?

A committee was set up to review the Constitution (elected committee, open to everybody's candidature, etc.) and draft a new one. We did that, and then opened it up for debate. Parts of the debate were truly insulting, parts were saddening, but what it did do is throw open the question of representational equity for the entire student body to consider, publicly. If women were viewed as equal political beings in NALSAR, then why was there only two women who'd ever held any position in the Executive Council in the SBC? Were there other prejudices at play? Caste? Region? Religion? What exactly the CRC's draft constitution said is a subject of another post, but these conversations I think, were integral to the manner in which these elections worked out.

For these elections, a transitory Constitution was put in place. It had direct elections for the President, indirect elections for all other Executive positions, and it introduced the concept of manifestos. The Executive was expanded to include a President, a Vice-President, a Treasurer, two General Secretaries (one male and one female) and two Joint Secretaries (following the same formula). As a Constitution, one has several problems with it, especially the fact that it (incomprehensibly) has four secretaries and three other Executive Council members, but it was definitely a change for the better.

Several things mark these elections out as being different from those held in the recent past. First, they were preceded by three days of debates on electoral politics in NALSAR, where all students were welcome and so first year students did not enter a system entirely devoid of context. Second, the question of representational equity was on lots of people's minds, especially women who wanted to create their own systems which aren't oppressive but can still bring in results. Third, the elections happened a good month after college re-opened, giving first year students ample time to settle down and find their bearings. This facilitated an open election where you could discuss candidature with first year students and things weren't carried out in a clandestine manner through one night in a Boys' Hostel common room. This is not to say that attempts weren't made, of course, but that there were a critical mass of students within the batch who resisted this coercion. Fourth, the election of the President was direct, candidature needed to be declared in advance, and rigging the entire system to get a President of your choice was no longer an option. Slandering the other side and her friends could only get you so far, and possibly could backfire (as I think it did). Politics was out in the open, and boy was it refreshing! Manifestos had an impact on people's choices. There was a Presidential campaign that was put together by a large number of small groups of students and was based on what the person stood for, not who she was standing against. People were discussing politics openly, even jovially. It felt empowering, if nothing else.

If excited comments and pings from seniors from college are anything to go by, women have spent years in NALSAR feeling frustrated by the system. This is very clearly a moment of celebration, not only because we have a woman President (YAY!) and women won other gender neutral positions (like that of treasurer), but also because the terms of reference are no longer traditional Boys' Hostel politicking. Alternative are no longer unthinkable! But the desire to treat this victory like a paradigmatic shift must be resisted. The University needs to get a functional Constitution in place; it needs to seriously consider questions of representation, and methods of election. We have opened up, a great deal, to women's participation in politics, but it is still possible to malign a person in this space for being an assertive woman; it is still a legitimate campaign against a candidate (it was against this year's President) that she is a "Gender and Sexuality Forum" candidate; principled stances are still seen as unrealistic; several identities still attract prejudice. I live in the hope that, someday, I'll find a Facebook post by my juniors talking about a firebrand feminist winning a position of power. Now, wouldn't that be nice? 

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