Why Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi discomfited DU

Why Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi discomfited Delhi University

Stories like Draupadi force us to confront ugly realities of sexual violence and speak powerfully to casteism, state violence, and cultures of subaltern resistance

Mahasweta Devi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Almost a month ago, a friend who teaches English in a Delhi University college expressed apprehension of an imminent move by the Academic Council to remove Mahasweta Devi's landmark short story, 'Draupadi', from the undergraduate syllabus. Her fears came true on Tuesday, August 24, when the Council did indeed drop the story in its syllabus revamp drive,
which is part of the implementation of the 2020 National Education Policy.

The fact that 'Draupadi' has been part of the English undergraduate syllabus since 1999 makes one curious about the narrative surrounding the move. Taught to students for more than two decades, what was it about the story that suddenly fell out of favour with policymakers?

Whether you agree with her views or not, Mahasweta Devi is not an author to be taken lightly. Her work, deeply rooted in her association with Adivasi populations, has been the proverbial thorn in the side of governments of all ideological affiliations. Her stories and essays have turned the glare on structures of power promoting violence and injustice among those on the margins of social life.

Set against the Naxal upsurge of 1971, the story of 'Draupadi' (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) centres on Dopdi, a member of the Santhal tribe in the backyards of Bengal. Alongside her husband, Dhulna, Dopdi murders wealthy landlords to gain access to wells, the only water source in her parched, drought-stricken village. "No water anywhere, drought in Birbhum. Unlimited water at Surja Sahu's house, as clear as a crow's eye," she writes.

On the run, Dopdi is captured by government forces. Hoping that torture would force the captive to reveal other insurgents in the network, Mr Senanayak's (the officer in charge) men gangrape Dopdi through the night, at his bidding. In the morning, when she is summoned to the Burra sahib's tent, her rapists order she clothes herself when she refuses to.

The story ends with the powerful image and words of Dopdi, who tears up her clothes and walks naked toward Senanayak's tent. "Senanayak walks out surprised and sees 'Draupadi', naked, walking towards him in the bright sunlight with her head high." "There isn't a man here that I should be ashamed of. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do?" Dopdi asks in defiance.

The conclusion of the story brings to mind another evocative image—of 12 mothers from across Manipur, known as imas, in Meitei, taking off their clothes in protest outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in 2004. Their radical action expressed the mothers' collective outrage over the brutal killing of 32-year-old Manorama Thangjam by the Assam Rifles 17 years ago.

The Delhi University Academic Council's decision denying students an acquaintance with 'Draupadi', a story layered with aspects of the realities of everyday tribal life, is suspicious on many counts. What is it that Academic Council members (many of them did put in dissent notes since a vote was not allowed) want to keep away from students?

Beyond everyday violence on the fringes of urban centres, Devi's story is a dramatic representation of the custodial and gender violence endemic in Indian culture, exposing the edifice of structural violence against women and showing the ways in which women's bodies are turned into sites of violence. Much of this violence is perpetrated by those entrusted with stopping actions of violence.

Earlier this month, at an event of the National Legal Services Authority of India (NALSA), Chief Justice NV Ramana said: "The threat to human rights and bodily integrity are the highest in police stations." Coming from the highest judicial office, the Chief Justice's observation compels one to turn attention to the seriousness of the problem at hand. When enforcers of the law turn into its most blatant violators, where can citizens turn for justice?

It's the job of academic institutions to provoke students to think about such difficult issues. The problems don't disappear by simply removing texts from syllabi; nor can one pull the wool over students' eyes this way. Rather, exposure to the realities of Indian life, however unpleasant they may be, is crucial. By foregrounding the use of violence by institutions rooted in patriarchy, 'Draupadi' serves an important purpose in this regard.

On the one hand, the story hinges on structural injustices occurring along the axes of class and caste. The wells Dopdi and her husband fight to take out of Surja Sahu's control are described as "caste wells" in the story. On the other hand, the narrative places a tribal woman at its front and centre. The story revolves around her fearlessness in the face of unspeakable violence inflicted by custodians of law and order.

In the end, Dopti dares the main perpetrator, Senanayak, to look her in the eye, to confront her bruised, exposed body: "And for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid." A chilling fear strikes the powerful on realising their powerlessness, on realising their abuse and violence have produced the very opposite of what they intended. Torture renders its victims fearless.

What is it that made policymakers squeamish about the story? Was it Mahasweta Devi's powerful description of a dehumanised woman's body? Was it Dopdi's refusal to obey the order of the very men who had stripped her, to cover herself? Was it her defiance in the face of patriarchal authority? Was it conveying the sense of stepping out of the boundary of fear and becoming truly free?

It is disingenuous to treat rape narratives in feminist fiction, and not the prevalence of rape, as the real problem before us. Stories like 'Draupadi' not only force us to confront the ugly realities of sexual violence. They also speak powerfully to casteism, state violence, and cultures of subaltern resistance. On one level, then, the story's removal from the Delhi University syllabus is part of the wider culture of intolerance that is becoming increasingly common in India.

(Monobina Gupta is the author of 'Left Politics in Bengal' and 'Didi: A Political Biography')

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