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The Instigator: A Portrait of Nivedita Menon

The Instigator: A Portrait of Nivedita Menon

How this JNU professor became a powerful figure of dissent against the Hindu right
Neha Dixit

Ten years after Bela finished her BA from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, she wanted to get in touch with one of her teachers. It was the late 1990s, and Bela had to wade through several telephone directories in order to get in touch with her former batch mates and the college administration before she could finally get through to her teacher.  After reintroducing herself, she said, “You used to say that we should explore different ways of living. I am happily married, I have a child, but I am still not happy.” The teacher advised her former student to get out and learn something new. It could be computers, or anything she liked. “Above all, do something that is only for yourself,” she told her. Bela said she would. The teacher didn’t hear from her again.
At a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party has made the valorisation of Mother India – and, by extension, maternity –  the touchstone of national belonging, the teacher’s advice to a young woman to look beyond the role of motherhood sounds strangely subversive.

If the task of a teacher is to open the minds of her students to new ideas and ways of thinking, Nivedita Menon has been on the job for nearly three decades now.
On March 12, Saurabh Sharma, a leader of the BJP’s student wing and joint secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU), filed a complaint at the Vasant Kunj police station in New Delhi against her. Now a professor at the university, Menon was accused of making ‘anti-national’ remarks by the Hindu right after an edited recording of a lecture she delivered on campus was circulated on social media.

These remarks were part of a series of lectures on nationalism organised by JNU faculty and students, where Menon delivered the fifth lecture on February 22. In her lecture, she had questioned the Indian state for its role in human rights excesses in conflict areas like Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland.

The day I met Nivedita, known as ‘Nivi’ to most of her students and peers, she was in the middle of attending a public hearing on the investigation process on the anti-India sloganeering during an event held on the JNU campus on February 9. This had led to the arrests of several students, including that of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar.

Dressed in a short purple kurta and salwar, petite and stylish, with the striking self-assuredness of a public intellectual, it wasn’t difficult to zero in on this 50-something teacher in the crowd. She couldn’t concentrate on the hearing, since a stream of well-wishers, including students, faculty, and former students turned friends kept enquiring about the status of the complaint against her. After struggling to find a quiet corner in JNU, we finally settled down on the dusty staircase of the atrium of a building with a bunch of young men playing cricket in the adjacent corridor. She sat down, her legs folded in the embrace of her arms.
Nivedita has been a teacher for 29 years. She currently teaches at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory at the International Studies School in JNU. Before this, she has taught at the Lady Shri Ram College (LSR), the Political Science Department of Delhi University.

I ask her how many students she may have taught. “I don’t know, I haven’t done this before. Let’s calculate,” she says, breaking into an impromptu back-of-the-envelope calculation, “80 students per batch for 15 years at LSR, 150 students per batch for seven years in Political Science Department in DU and 100 students per batch for another seven years in JNU.” Using mental math and her cellphone calculator, she arrives at an approximate figure, “Roughly 2,950 students. That’s not too many!”

In all these years of teaching politics, Nivedita says her attempt has always been to expose students to different kinds of views. “There is no objective position. When I teach them about resistance, I ask them to read Ambedkar, Kant and Savarkar so that they can think critically and come up with independent views. The idea is to bring the students out from their elite comfort and apply common sense to their thinking.”

It is this permissiveness to think independently that M.S. Golwalkar, the second ‘supreme leader’ of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh criticised in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, published in 1966:
“In simple words, “permissiveness” means, the individual is left free to indulge in whatever way he chooses to enjoy himself. There is no restraint of any kind on him. It is unbridled licentious behaviour… This is also reflected in their talk, writing and thinking as well. Will this type of “permissiveness” be conducive to the real happiness of man? The first and foremost effect of this trend would be the destruction of social fabric…The entity called the “society” will then disrupt and dissipate.”

Sharma, who filed the police complain against Nivedita, is a member of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the RSS. Over the phone, I asked him what he thought the role of a teacher was. “A teacher’s role is to give the right direction to students,” he said.“Instead of helping the students meet their professional goals, traitors like her are creating a war within the country by instigating people to think against it. Is this what they get their salaries for?”

There is an ideological chasm between people who want a clearly defined political line and those want to be enabled to define their own.

A Facebook page called I Stand with Nivedita Menon, which emerged after Sharma’s complaint, is full of posts from her former and current students and admirers, expressing gratitude to her for instilling in them a ‘lifetime of critical thinking.’ One of her former students, Manju Ramachandran writes, “Nivi was teaching at LSR when I was a student there. It was the year of the Mandal Commission protests, and I was the student’s union president. Nivi’s advice to me was to look at the situation from as many perspectives as possible, identify what I thought was the right thing to do and then stand up for it, no matter what the pressures were from the many different factions.”  The Mandal Commission protests were against reservation for the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Other Backward Castes in government jobs and educational institutions. Nivedita Menon’s public position has always been pro-reservation.

The making of a feminist academic
In 1978, when Nivedita joined LSR for an undergraduate course in Delhi, the Indian feminist movement had picked up momentum on two prominent issues, both related to crimes against women – dowry deaths and rape.

While the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was in place, there were sustained demands in the late seventies to further strengthen the law and to stop offences of cruelty by the husband or his relatives against the wife.

Then there was the Mathura rape case. Mathura, a young tribal girl, was raped by two policemen in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra in 1974. The Supreme Court held that Mathura had raised no alarm and that there were no visible marks of injury on her body to indicate struggle against rape. The judge noted, “Because she was used to sex, she might have incited the cops (they were drunk on duty) to have intercourse with her.” On this basis, the court did not find the accused guilty.
This judgment had gone largely unnoticed till professors Upendra Baxi, Raghunath Kelkar and Lotika Sarkar of Delhi University and Vasudha Dhagamwar of Pune wrote an open letter to the Supreme Court, protesting the concept of consent enumerated in the judgment on the Mathura rape case in September 1979. This led to spontaneous widespread protests by women’s organisations who demanded a review of judgment, which received extensive media coverage.

In 1983, new additions were made to the Indian criminal law to prevent dowry deaths. Amendments were also made to the rape law, mandating that the court should presume no consent to sexual intercourse if the rape victim says that there was none.

Nivedita grew up in an upper caste, middle-class family in different parts of India including Mumbai and Kolkata before her father, a bureaucrat, finally settled in Delhi. Her sister, Pramada Menon, is a queer activist, a stand-up performer and a documentary filmmaker, and her brother Dilip Menon is a historian in the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.  While the siblings were growing up, Nivedita says, “…my brother was always allowed more liberties than the sisters.”

The emerging Indian feminist movements mentioned above, and the global feminist texts she was exposed to in college helped Nivedita evolve a new self-consciousness, both in sexuality and politics. She says, “They theorised and legitimised my deepest instincts about something being wrong with the world for women.”

While Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique spoke of women finding personal fulfilment outside of traditionally defined roles, The Female Eunuch, the book by Australian-born feminist Germaine Greer, argued that women ‘are forced to take up submissive roles in society to fulfil male fantasies of what being a woman entails’ and called for ‘women’s liberation by asserting differences’ instead of aiming for ‘equality with men.’

Gloria Steinem’s ‘If Men Could Menstruate’ argued that menstruation would not be seen as unnatural and dirty if men did it. Instead, men would have bragged about it, and sanitary supplies would be state funded. New independent voices, like that of Lech Walesa who helped form and lead communist Poland’s first independent trade union, were additional lessons in understanding the need for global solidarities. “These voices pushed us to develop the ability to take fundamental criticism and come out with our own point of view,” says Nivedita, pointing the corridor cricketers to the ball that had rolled behind the bushes.

While in college at LSR, Nivedita was the treasurer of the students’ union. In that decade, there were sporadic protests against beauty contests in colleges at DU. Madhu Kishwar, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, today a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wrote in Manushi – a Journal about Women and Society, about such a contest, Miss Miranda, in Miranda House, a leading women’s college at DU: “Beauty contest was a mere symbol of nasty elitism which enveloped all aspects of student life. In order to be part of that charmed circle you had to have a taste for Western music, see Western films, read only Western literature…Not that everyone who tried to be part of this in group all came from thoroughly westernised homes.” Miss Miranda was discontinued in 1971.

For Nivedita and other members of the LSR students’ union, beauty contests trivialised and limited women’s identities to a mere vanity show. She says, “The contest reduced the women to their bodies and looks. We changed Miss LSR to Freshers’ Talent Contest as a judging of talent, intelligence and accomplishment.”

Thanks to small feminist interventions like these, memberships in various women’s study circles, and further studies in JNU, Nivedita gradually became convinced that her true calling was in academia.

In 1984, as an M.Phil student, she was travelling on a train with a group of women from Delhi for a conference in Trivandrum. A boy climbed into a second-class compartment. “He was a small boy,” she tells me raising her hand to about three feet from the ground. He was selling peanuts to the passengers when a policeman handcuffed him and tried to take him away. Sehba Hussain, an activist from the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) who was travelling with this group, stood up and held the policeman’s hand and warned him. The women gathered around and got the boy released. “The immediate action by Sehba and the other activists spoke to me about the way in which I think about the world now – to be able to distinguish between talking and actually doing something about it. To take responsibility for others’ integrity.”

Nivedita Menon, the teacher
When she began teaching at LSR in 1987, her unabashed persona freed many other young women to open themselves too. “When other professors would move around in their starched, handloom, cotton sarees, Nivi would roam around in T-Shirt and salwar,” a former student told me. “She was the one who would object to random increases in the cost of the chai in the college canteen from Rs. 2 to Rs. 4 because it would affect students, while other teachers would ask her to let it go.”
This struck a chord not just with her own students but other students in the college as well. Shipra Nigam, an economist, who was at LSR when Nivedita taught there, says, “She was the one who would take us out of an elite space like our college to protest marches and rallies. It taught us the difference between being politically correct, and actual politics.”

Other students said they were floored by her incessant attempts to break down hierarchies. One of them told me, “When out for dinner with students, she would go dutch with the bill. This was an icebreaker. It immediately democratised the student-teacher relationship and let everyone feel entitled to say what they want. And we always knew that she was there if we needed money or any other kind of support.”

Nivedita says that her encouragement of students to question social conventions and explore their identity beyond traditional roles for women often made it “worse for them at home.” “I ask them, ‘Why don’t you stop doing it? Maybe because it appeals to you,’” she tells me.

Students often come and tell her, “Ma’am, my family is different. My parents would never agree (to let me study further). They want me to get married as soon as possible.”

Nivedita says she explains to them that she identifies with their struggles, having made the same journey with her parents. “Parents change,” she says she tells her students. “They are elastic. I ask the students, ‘Have you talked to your mother who is a housewife? Is this all she wanted to do in life?’ Some students do ask those questions at home, and perspectives change.

The Menons are traditionally a matrilineal community in Kerala. “Even that seems unreal to North Indian patriarchy. They think people cannot live in any other way,”  she says. It is this homogenisation of Indian culture, propagated by the Hindu right-wing, that Nivedita encourages students to debate in class.

She places some blame on rigid and limiting CBSE model of education at the school level. “It discourages you to question. Several students do not read social sciences after class X, and this destablises their connection with social realities.” “Education is meant to socialise you,” she adds.

Debating nationalism
On March 16, Waris Pathan, AIMIM MLA from Maharashtra, refused to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (‘Victory to Mother India’). He was suspended from the state assembly.  Baba Ramdev, a yoga guru and a Modi supporter said that had there been no rule of law, those refusing to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ would have been beheaded. BJP president  Amit Shah backed Ramdev in a TV interview, “I want to know from those who talk of free speech, does it not apply to Baba Ramdev?”

Historian DN Jha recently pointed out that the image of the Bharat Mata is less than 100 years old, and that it was ‘Bharat varsh’ that was used in Puranas to describe India. The slogan ‘Vande Mataram’ (which again translates to ‘Victory to Mother India’) was part of the 1882 novel Anandamath by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay set in the backdrop of the Sanyasi rebellion, in which Muslims were portrayed as the enemy.

In the political theory classes that Nivedita teaches, the significance of slogans like ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ are often brought up in the context of the ongoing debate on nationalism. “To common people, they seem like simple unmasked statements without any context. To Muslims, who do not believe in idol worship, the image of Bharat Mata becomes more problematic. But to students who want everyone to uniformly believe in this image, I ask only one thing: would they also chant ‘Allah hu Akbar’ since it literally means God is the greatest?”

Nivedita says that nuances, and varying viewpoints are lost in Hindu right-wing projections of ‘Indian culture’ and Hindu symbols. “Celebrities uphold them, and these symbols become further concretised in the social psyche. When people dissent, force is used to quell it,” she says.

“Teaching has radicalised me,” Nivedita says. As a feminist scholar, she has authored two seminal books, Seeing Like a Feminist (2012) and Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (2004), as well as several other publications on the subject.

After the police complaint was filed against her, news channels which had earlier floated doctored videos of JNUSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar, from the February 9 event, dug out an earlier lecture by Nivedita where they claim she “disrespected” Indian culture by kissing a fellow speaker on the cheek. This was during a ‘Kiss of Love’ talk, where Nivedita was advocating the right to love.

‘Family-ists, not feminists’ 
As Mary E. John, a prominent feminist, points out in an article, the question remains: “How have feminists become leaders in the present struggles over democracy in India and why is this being perceived as dangerous?”

While I was visiting a training camp for pracharikas (full-timers) of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, a women-only affiliate group of the SanghParivar in December 2012, Pramila Tai, a pracharika told me, “We are family-ists, not feminists.”
The pracharikas are categorically told that the difference between the Rashtra Sevika Samiti and other women’s organisations is that unlike the latter, they do not fight for women’s rights. Instead, they fight to create a Hindu rashtra. With the ‘bhagwa’ (saffron) flag for their guru, the Samiti believes that the Indian women already enjoy equal rights in an egalitarian Hindu rashtra. The Samiti regards higher education and professional careers for women as desirable, even though they remain strictly conditional, depending upon parental consent. Similarly, a love marriage can only be allowed by one’s parents.

The Samiti counsels women facing marital discord. They are told that “after marriage, a girl will have many responsibilities in her new home. It is not advisable for her to bring disquiet by refusing to compromise. If ordained by her fate, her husband will permit her to study.”

When I asked another pracharika from Jabalpur in the same training camp, “What advice would you give to a victim of wife beating?” she answered, “Don’t parents admonish their children for misbehaviour? Just as a child must adjust to his/her parents, so must a wife act keeping in mind her husband’s moods and must avoid irritating him. Only this can keep the family together.” Divorce is not an option. She says, “Our task is to keep the family together, not (to) break it. We tell the women to adjust. Sometimes, we try to counsel the husband too.”

When Anupam Kher, an actor and BJP supporter, visited the JNU campus on March 18, he criticised JNUSU Kanhaiya Kumar’s statement “We want freedom in India, not from India.”

Equating the nation with the family, Kher said, “I always say that we should apply the same rules to the country as we apply to our families. But can we ever say that we don’t want freedom from the family but within the family? Can someone ever say that?”
It is this very idea of freedom in the family that Nivedita writes about in her book, Seeing Like a Feminist:
“In 1984, a judgement of the Delhi High Court said that the Fundamental Rights ensured to every Indian citizen by the Constitution were not applicable in the family: these rights have to stop at the door of the home. Letting fundamental rights into the family, said the judge, would be ‘like letting a bull into a china shop.’ The judge was, in fact, right. If you bring fundamental rights into a family, and if every individual in the family is treated as free and equal citizen, that family will collapse. Because the family, as it exists, is based on clearly established hierarchies of gender and age, with gender trumping age: that is, an adult male is generally more powerful than an older female.”

Feminism encourages the independence of women and the questioning of the family structure, in which women’s rights are curtailed by law, and reflexively compromised by custom. This gets in the way of the idea of the Hindu rashtra conceived by the Sangh Parivar. Nivedita says, “All independent women are not independent all the time, but they can take some independent decisions sometimes. Feminism is not always about happiness. It is about living with a greater degree of integrity.”
It is this that makes students like Bela turn to her regardless of the lifetimes that have passed since college.

Over the years, Nivedita’s students may have agreed or disagreed with what she taught but what they unanimously claim is her gift to them is their “critical consciousness.” Like Uttara Shahani writes on the Facebook page in support of Nivedita, “Even today, nearly 18 years later, I carry Nivi’s voice in my head, challenging me to question everything I read, do and say. Sometimes I think I may have arrived at positions Nivi would not agree with (she would not mind and have an argument instead), but I owe that constant internal struggle to her. It is very hard, very hard, never to be completely comfortable with what one is thinking, which is the challenge Nivi poses. Clearly, it is much easier for some to file a police complaint against her, than to engage with what she is actually saying.”

As the evening comes to an end, Nivedita signs off with her favourite quote by Romain Rolland, the French Nobel Prize-winning writer. “Where order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice,” she says before she disappears into the sea of students.

(Some names have been changed)

Published by the Wire on April 19, 2016.

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