casteism feminism

When progressives shield regressive acts “for progress”

Nagraj Manjule is the director of the blockbuster Marathi movie ‘Sairat’ (Wikipedia). The movie has received praise from national and international audience for its scathing portrayal of caste entrenched in Indian society (Please read Our review of the movie for a clear context). The recent article by The Quint (‘Sairat’ Director’s Ex-Wife Tells Her Story of Abuse) has raked up heated debates among the progressive sections. Sunita, ex-wife of the director has raised serious questions about him being praised for his bold remarks on the status of women in Indian society. She alleged financial, emotional and physical abuse against Nagraj Manjule and sought to demystify her marital life with him. As the story spread around, many in the progressive circles responded in a mixed tone. While few outrightly condemned Nagraj’s acts as alleged by Sunita, few reverted to defend Nagraj from the allegations leveled saying that their “private differences” are being used as ammunition by the ones trying to distract the success enjoyed by the director.

On the other hand, consider a recent post in a tabloid titled “Time for a RE-THINK“. The author writes “No doubt Tejpal had committed a grave error” which refers to the allegations of rape leveled against Tarun Tejpal by a colleague. But then the tabloid also talks the need of defending Tejpal against the “relentless” media campaign that shredded the “darling of intelligentsia” image, as it gave “ammunition” to his detractors. Kalpana Sharma brilliantly retorted back at the tabloid on how the whole write up tried to project Tejpal as the victim, and how the power structures in the society function against the victim.

Both these cases have similar undertones. These are the usual cases of doubting the ‘victim’s intentions’ and blaming the victim for the ensuing debate over their allegations. These cases also deal with the intersections of caste, class and gender privilege. Both Nagraj Manjule and Tarun Tejpal are regarded as the best in their fields of works in the progressive circles. When allegations such as these come up to the front the progressive lot has problems with dealing the same. It becomes almost ‘impossible’ to hear anything classified as ‘vile’ against the icons we build upon, because they are just too perfect championing the progressive agenda.

As Sunil D’Monte perfectly describes this in one of the FTB article (Read the complete article here: Arguments From Analogy in Victim Blaming) :

Assumptive World Theory attempts to explain victims’ own responses to their victimisation. According to this theory, human beings see themselves and their world with three key assumptions – (1) they are safe/invulnerable; (2) the world is meaningful and comprehensible; and (3) they are good people. When we are victimised, it shatters this “assumptive world”, and our coping strategies are ways of restoring those assumptions. So amongst other things, it explains why victims often blamethemselves or are in denial about their victimisation.

When prejudice enters the mix – i.e. when there are “in-groups” and “out-groups” having different levels of power and status – then attributions become even more distorted. The article The Psychology of Prejudice explains some of the distortions which come into play – such as fundamental and ultimate attribution errors, outgroup homogeneity bias, ingroup favouritism and implicit bias. It is easy to see the compounding effect these phenomena would have in the blaming of a victim who belongs to a low-status group. System Justification Theory is another theory, which suggests that victims in low-status outgroups might preserve and justify the un-just status quo – which could lead them to blame members of their own group (e.g. women justifying men’s violence against themselves).

It is the social privileges in this kyriarchal power structured world which tip over the balance scale making the oppressor into a ‘victim’ and vice versa. Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women in India face ‘triple oppression’ in the form of class, caste and gender. They are often subjected to tortuous questionnaires when they allege abuse, sexual violence, street harassment or humiliation in the hands of savarna/dominant caste men or their own households. The goody-goody men accused of any violence are often shielded citing that they gloat over their success in their respective fields. Search operations are run to find out the “other side” of the story to make it more balanced. This very attitude has for long choked the voices of women abused and harassed among the ‘progressive’ sections. Be it households or workspaces, this has been the norm.

This is what Swati Kamble had to say in her personal narrative of surviving domestic abuse (Read the complete article: When Love is Brutal):

To the society that pretends it is a private matter, I want to say loud and clear that domestic abuse is real. It happens more frequently than we would like to believe. It happens across caste, class, religion and race. Education level of the abuser or the abused doesn’t have much impact on how badly you may be beaten up or how long you will stay in that relationship before you get out, if you are able to get out at all. The physical and mental trauma undoubtedly has a long-lasting impact. As survivors, we may feel weak and feeble. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves and should courageously voice out the injustice.

It was plain mockery that during our relationship, in social forums we went together to speak as colleagues for Dalit women’s rights and in the private domain my rights were getting violated every day. We both led very contrasting lives. To the outer world I was a confident, outspoken young woman and he an introvert but equally diligent promoter of Dalit women’s rights. In my personal life I was oppressed and he was oppressing me. Who could have ever believed? For example, people were shocked to know he could do something like this to anyone. At the very same instance some told me to forget about it. Most of the people I spoke with gave well-meaning advice. They said you are out of it and that’s what matters. You have a better life ahead and he doesn’t deserve your attention. I saw that as much as people felt sad, shocked about partner abuse, they thought it to be normal. Something to be forgotten about and moved on.

Equating a person’s abuse with “ammunition” against someone’s acclaimed reputation is a misnomer and it comes out of sheer ignorance of the power structures pounding the victim. Taking a note out of personal case here. When one of my aunt finally spoke out against her abusive husband (taking support from women’s rights organisations), who is well known for his anti-caste and trade-unionist activism, she was publicly shamed as an ‘attention seeking woman of bad character’. My mother garnered strength from her firm resolve and started speaking out against the psychological and physical abuse she was facing. Both these narratives “threatened” their goody-goody image in their respective circles which they openly condemned as “household bitching”. The most important point was Bahujan women speaking up against the assumed progressive activists. I grew up watching and experiencing violence and their ‘balance tipping’ antics.

Before we go on to fawn over progressive icons, it is always better to watch out. It was days after I graffiti-ed John Lennon’s “Imagine” only to later being told by a friend about the amount of domestic violence he perpetrated. It was hard as a survivor of domestic violence to come out of the depressing reality. The intersections of caste and gender don’t necessarily obligate it to use them alone as a sacrificial agenda. That would completely sabotage the fight against the kyriarchal power structures or the fight for social justice. It would be completely unacceptable to be apathetic to these voices who have dared to speak out and voice out their oppression. We are living in times where a convicted rapist’s sentence is being knocked off to protect his “star athletic swimmer career” and his heinous act being called “20 minutes of action“. Let the voices speaking up against any kind of gendered violence be heard and not throttled and dismissed. Let’s not sacrifice abuse and violence to maintain the status quo of our “progressive” agendas.

DISCLAIMER: The experiences of abuse being discussed here are  straight up assaults and the perpetrators can be charged under criminal cases. The title in no way meant to trivialize such grave and dastardly  actions as mere “regressive acts”.

About the author

Shiva Sai Ram

I'm a student of Political Science at University of Hyderabad.


  • ‘Progressive ideas’ and ‘ progressive person’ are two different fields of discussion. A work of art (say, ‘sairat’) may be a great progressive idea but the personality behind it may not be ‘ progressive’ person. In fact, he may also be a ‘ regressive’ person in real life.
    While appreciating the progressive work and its positive social context, if the person behind the work has negative traits, the person should be condemned. Just as we appreciate Ashoka for his spreading message of peace and budhism, we also express our disappointment for his war on making a in which scores of people were killed. A human being has two sides –good and bad –at the same time.
    Nagraj Manjule has produced a great film showing caste and gender discrimination prevelant in society. His work must be appreciated. But some of his incidents in his life have come out into the public domain. They contradict his themes in films. They should be investigated and if he is found guilty, he should be condemned for his ‘ regressive’ attitude in real life. Nagraj as a person should be evaluated differently from nagraj as a director of a film.
    But it would be better if the persons preaching ‘ progressive’ ideas should ,at least, practice most of them. Otherwise, a wrong message goes out to the public that the persons advocating positive ideas are in fact, ‘ pseudo-progressives’ . Vempatapu Satyamurthy-, who worked with the adivasis in Srikakulam struggle, married an adivasi girl before preaching equality of adivasis. There should be a proximity between the ideas expressed in works and real life practice.

  • “These are the usual cases of doubting the ‘victim’s intentions’ and blaming the victim for the ensuing debate over their allegations”

    If it is quite clear that one side is victim then it should be equally clear that the other side is perpetrator. Then why do we need a debate at all?
    “Progressives”, if that word means any thing, must defend the victim and if necessary condemn the perpetrator, and should not waste time debating.
    It is not at all necessary to bring up the great works that the perpetrator did into discussion. Whatever they are, they don’t confer him the right to harm others.

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