In the beginning of my third year at St. Stephen’s College (about two weeks ago), I ran for the presidential post of the college’s Students’ Union Society (SUS). Since our college has no affiliation with the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU), this is basically as politically engaged as we get, in terms of elections. This, compadre is the story of my electoral campaign.
St. Stephen’s College is often described as a stronghold of liberal and progressive values, a temple of learning, and most often, as a place of “excellence”. But what is this excellence? On Valentine’s Day, the boys of the hostel called Allnut North Gentlemen’s Association (ANGA) take an oath where, among other things, they “solemnly resolve to promote among them [the gentlemen of ANGA] all misogyny”. They defend it as a joke. When hit with protest and the stench of controversy, they deleted the line I just quoted, as if that’s tantamount to erasing both the history of the oath, as well as the fact that it derives legitimacy from the institution and its exclusionary “traditions”, besides still perpetuating problematic notions (“social, sexual, and sentimental justice”?!
What does that even mean?). Is that excellence? Chandan Mitra, the Editor of the Pioneer, writes an article on our alumni website where he says that male Stephania fought against women entering college because that would “rob them of their mystique”; because having women in your classroom was as “dissonant” as “visualizing your girlfriend brushing her teeth”.
Nowhere in that article is there an apology for these dangerously regressive notions, or for the entitled attitude that these men still wear as a badge of honour. When Mitra looks back on those days, he finds his fraternity’s behaviour “rather hilarious.” Nowhere amidst the fond chuckles littered throughout the article can we find even a line acknowledging and apologising for the animosity and revilement that shaped the college experience of that first group of female Stephanians.
Bet it was totally hilarious to these women, how they entered India’s premier educational institution to see its brilliant male students doing the verbal equivalent of pissing on their territory. Fun times. Bet they shook their heads indulgently and said, with tinkling laughs and a flourish of their chunaris, “ah, boys will be boys.” Yep, I just bet that they teared up a little, batted their eyelids, and whispered their thanks when these men clapped them on the back and bestowed upon them the Highest of Compliments in the Kingdom of Brotarctica: that “they’d almost become one of the boys.” Gotta love me some good old Stephanian excellence.
It was thanks to the concerted efforts of many teachers, administrators, students, and opinion-holders in the public realm that women were admitted into this college from 1975 onwards. There exist many Stephanians today, both junior members and senior members, who fight for the oppression-free existence of non-male Stephanians. We must keep in mind, however, that St. Stephen’s has a long and colourful history of making women feel unwelcome—let’s not forget that this is the place where “chick charts”, charts rating the 10 top ‘chicks’ in college on the basis of their physical attributes, would be compiled and publicly circulated by the male students, “all in good fun”.
Let’s not forget that this practice, once outlawed on campus, continued on social media until the Facebook page involved was shut down last year. Is all that excellence? Women’s and queer people’s experience of campus life here is less rich, less free, and more insecure than that of men. I’m talking about gender discrimination in residence, the moral policing by the wardens that female students have to go through, the lack of an open campus post 10 PM, and the lack of bathroom rights for trans people in college, among so much else. Is that excellence? It was considerations like these, first aired during classroom discussions in our first year of college with a beloved former professor, that impelled a couple of my classmates and me two years later, to run a presidential campaign with me as the face of it.
The legacy of an institution endures, long after the people who’ve created that legacy walk through its halls no more. We’re in college for just three years, but its legacy is tied to us for a lifetime. Why is St. Stephen’s College still such a big deal for great alumni like Shashi Tharoor and Ramachandra Guha, whose nostalgia the college cherishes? It’s because of how deeply they enjoyed college, and how good college was to them. How they breezed through life here, knowing that this was truly their space. St. Stephen’s is a great college, but it’s surviving on the legacy of being an old boys’ club. Because of that, St. Stephen’s today is a male-dominated space in ways that we haven’t even begun to unravel. Sure, there are more women in college today than men. They’re finally in residence, and active in college life. But I’m not talking about our numerical strength or our merit. I’m talking about the place held by women, non-binary, and trans people in this college.
During the admissions procedure, your gender doesn’t matter. It only starts defining you once you enter these halls. I’m having a great time here, but I’m not going to leave with the same lived experience as my male counterparts. And I’ve been a day scholar throughout! I can only imagine how much more profound this statement would’ve been coming from a woman in residence. St. Stephen’s College is never going to belong to me the way it belonged to men like Dr Shashi Tharoor, precisely because we still have senior members like the highly respected Dr David Baker, block tutor of ANGA, who said in an interview published in 2018’s yearbook that he’s completely against women being a majority in college. He is “still a little wary of the girls in college because everywhere I go, there are women screaming.” (sic. SIC)
This is not what St. Stephen’s College should look like, not in 2018. Since women entered college in 1975, we’ve had only 2 female presidents, just one of whom (the first) was actually elected to office. Maya John became our first woman president in 2005, and had a pretty successful term: she was vindicated by the equalization of hostels between male and female students. However, she stood onstage during Open Court to the sound of rape threats, and her candidature saw posters being put up asking her to “go back to the kitchen”.
Aina Singh won by default in 2015 after her opponents were disqualified due to low attendance. Having run a non-populist feminist campaign, she faced hate from many quarters and resigned in protest against administrative inaction regarding the theft and damage by some male resident students of a microwave from a women’s hostel. Due to the resultant logistical chaos when it came to the organizational work the SUS is responsible for, Aina Singh’s tenure has given all women running for office a bad name (in a typical patriarchal move).
However, I’ve had the privilege of studying alongside enough brilliant Stephanian women to know that women are not the problem here. We’re not, as a demographic, unworthy or incompetent. The problem is the patriarchal power dynamics in college and the male-dominated nature of the Students’ Union Society in particular.
In classrooms, we talk about radical things like liberalism, feminism, and Marxism. But the minute we step out of the classroom, those ideas are dead. I’m talking about blatant censorship by the Music Society of St. Stephen’s when deciding on the setlist for events, in the interest of “not offending the sensibilities of teachers in the audience”. I’m talking about the censorship SUS candidates have to undergo before they’re allowed to speak at Open Court (which, I hear, is a recent development.) I’m talking about how the SUS has such limited powers. The history of the SUS is such that great pride is taken in being “apolitical” (read: not affiliated with party politics, but constitutionally, the SUS is little more than an event-management society) and “civil” (read: sure, we can’t slander our opponents during Open Court, but I also had my campaign speech censored by the administration.)
Here’s a shocker: they censored the line “there is an atmosphere of fear that pervades college when it comes to speaking our minds” (the irony). The fact that the SUS is labelled as a society, and not a students’ union, is a testament to exactly how defanged we are, politically speaking.
We cannot claim to be educated or morally sound people if we allow such hypocrisy. I know that many people at Stephen’s do believe that everyone, regardless of their sex or gender, should have equal rights. But I also know that indifference plagues St. Stephen’s. My task during election season was not to convince the student body that there is a problem, but that it’s our job to fix it.
Keeping in mind both the shackles preventing the SUS from engendering real political change and our college’s misogynist legacy, I firmly believe that the mere optics of having a feminist woman as the SUS President merits playing the woman card. However, I am in no way saying that I represented the lived experience of every woman in this college. Negotiating with the privilege my socio-economic location affords me, as well as fielding cries of “you’re elite, therefore invalid” was a learning experience. Needless to say, I had a HUGE problem with the latter.
As one of my batchmates put it, a lot of people in college interpreted feminism to mean gagging the voices of female candidates because of their existing privilege in financial, social, and cultural spheres, and continuing to vote for “truly Indian” men who are, in reality, a) very rarely from deprived backgrounds and b) have said and done nothing to contradict the sexist legacy of the SUS. Yes, it’s extremely unfortunate that most women standing for the SUS elections share a similarly elite background. The goal is to one day have a diverse group of women, non-binary, and trans folks contesting elections. But when you have to choose from a bunch of sexist men, and one cishet savarna woman who is attempting to change the political status quo in her own limited way, cries of “but what about PRAXIS?!” ring hollow.
In this case, they led people to advocate a messed-up brand of gradualism (viz. “the voice of a benevolent patriarch who is a son of the soil is more valid than that of a feminist woman who’s elite”) and/or be rendered immobile, in political terms, by their over-reliance on texts of political theory. Understanding intersectionality cannot ever mean invalidating a woman’s lived experience, no matter how niche it may be, especially when the said woman doesn’t claim to speak for lives other than hers.
My aim was merely to start a conversation about gender justice, on the biggest platform the college could afford me. Due to both my own inexperience and the exit of certain (more experienced) members from my core team for reasons I’ve explained above, we ran a pretty unconventional campaign, and admittedly, not really accessible to different types of women, due to various logistical limitations. I agree with many aspects of the intersectional criticism and am very disappointed that we weren’t able to be as inclusive as possible.
Our determination to go ahead with a three-person team held us in some good stead, though. It’s traditional in SUS politics for every candidate to have a platoon of loud and frenzied supporters accompanying them when they campaign on campus. I campaigned with a team of two people. Open Court is an event held in the College Hall, usually a day before the election, when the student body gets to hear each candidate talk about their manifestos and tackle questions. During this event, it’s normal to have a whole army of supporters (dressed in a colour that represents your camp) standing in the aisles, roaring your name, and beating drums and tin packing cases at every breath you take.
Aside from the extremely militaristic show of power that this practice boils down to, I had a problem with how, in many cases, the army yells in support of the candidate regardless of what the candidate just said (defending rape jokes is A-OK, if your army has the loudest voices), and regardless of “civility”: they cheer after literally every line uttered, which serves to intimidate a lot of voters in the audience, especially the first-years, for whom it’s all very new.
In many cases, a candidate’s supporters try to speak over other candidates speaking/asking questions; they intimidate askers from the audience, and often yell out answers on behalf of their candidate. Fortunately, I received the audience’s support when I told them that I didn’t believe in having an army waiting for me in the aisles. This year during Open Court, the tables also kind of turned, luckily—a candidate with a sizeable and belligerent army of supporters was defending both his history of making rape jokes and rape jokes themselves, when the audience (and I, sitting next to the Principal onstage, as a candidate) started booing; one student even standing up to furiously yell at the candidate for attempting to paper over his problematic attitudes. That whole scene was frigging glorious — easily the highlight of Open Court, for many.
Coming back to the criticisms—it’s one thing to dismiss my campaign as ineffective, in material terms. It’s quite another to invalidate it. One opinion that was aired involved (I’m paraphrasing) how my candidature amounted to nothing more than a single tally mark scratched on a wall of fellow elite feminists; a wall that would actively alienate and intimidate some feminist woman candidate in the future who comes from a deprived background. Apparently, this was reason enough for me not to run at all. While I don’t deny the possible alienation, I disagree with the proposed solution. Thanks to my privilege, I have been able to make use of my Stephanian citizenship and run for office to make a point about things I am bothered by (which is one of the best gifts electoral politics gives you). This year, at the very least, there was no feminist non-man less elite than I was, who was able/willing to take the same opportunity.
In such a context especially, I’d say that my voice, the voice of a gadfly exposing certain flaws in SUS politics while fully copping to her own flaws, was important. There needs to be a diverse group of non-men running for elections, speaking in new voices, articulating new dreams. I am glad to have been brave enough to articulate my dream, on a platform like the SUS election, where such views have had little to no space over the years.
I’m hoping that any non-elite feminist woman who runs in the future would share at least some of the points I built my manifesto on things like condemning the locking up of women in residence as absolutely barbaric, while also bringing to light how the toxic attitude underlying this practice cannot be fixed by a mere policy decision, because it is sustained by a lot of women students’ family backgrounds. Things like the lack of conversations regarding LGBTQUIAP+ visibility and acceptance in college (seriously, there are people in Stephen’s who go “but there aren’t any transgenders in college, why bring up the rights of a class that doesn’t exist?”). Things like women deserving clean and safe toilets. Things like mental health, especially amongst women in residence, is an issue we need to start talking about and working on.
There were feminist critics who were fine with perpetuating the SUS’ legacy of sexist politics, rather than going for a marginal benefits approach. These folks remained stubbornly blind to the historically-vindicated notion of progress coming gradually. Many of the world’s most successful social justice movements have used elite minds and bodies as their launch-pads, for very real reasons, such as the unfair division of social and cultural capital and luxury; a division from which only the elite benefit. It’s absolutely warranted to criticize existing candidates for being not-unproblematic-enough. We should always aim to secure our ideals. However, we’re actually pretty privileged if we’re able to turn our noses up at marginal benefits because it means that we can afford to sit tight and unequivocally dismiss every candidate who doesn’t represent a cocktail of oppression that pleases us.
Ensuring material benefits like organizing a good annual fest and getting the college sweatshirts on time aren’t unimportant responsibilities. In fact, they are, traditionally, a big chunk of the SUS’ portfolio. What I have a problem with is how that’s pretty much all that electoral politics at St. Stephen’s has been reduced to. And it pains me to say that, as a student body, most of us are complicit in our own silencing. Trying to make college a better place, in our time, is our responsibility. Tangible material benefits are great, but they will only help us, and possibly those who come immediately after us. They won’t last long enough to help many future generations of Stephanians. All of us are individual bricks in the Stephanian legacy, which is being crafted every day. I no longer wanted to be part of a St. Stephen’s College where asking for our rights is seen as misbehaviour, where women are oppressed and asked to stay quiet about it, either because it’s just a joke, or because they should be grateful for being allowed into this temple of excellence in the first place.
I received 82 votes in all, while the other two candidates received votes in the 300s, and NOTA received votes in the 70s. My team and I treasure each and every one of those 82 votes because they represent little pockets of hope and solidarity in this otherwise hellish political scenario. My battle wasn’t electoral, really. It was ideological and political, in a more radical sense of the word. Everyone who supported us, as well as those who critiqued us from feminist standpoints, ultimately want to live in a world where the integrity of all women and other non-men shall be honoured and validated, in every aspect of Stephanian culture. I’m proud that we cared enough and were brave enough to run this campaign in service of this very aim, despite our many limitations. I’m proud that some people believed in us enough to vote for us, despite (or maybe because of?) how fringe-y our presence was, both numerically and ideologically.
People often said to me, over the course of the campaign, “if you’re a feminist, you must believe that the gender of the candidate shouldn’t matter more than the agenda.” Well, of course, ideally speaking! But St. Stephen’s isn’t at a point where fighting for the representation of women is unnecessary. There is no logical space here yet, for a politics of asking non-men’s questions, and of demanding non-men’s rights.
The SUS election is not a level playing field when it comes to lots of socio-political markers, but especially when it comes to gender differences. We ran this campaign so that on one glorious day, it will be. We did it so that one day, it becomes commonplace to have non-male presidents. That’s when the gender of the candidate will have truly stopped mattering. All I ask is that we keep the faith and that we keep the conversation going.