The last one week was very difficult, for many of you and also for us. Even as I tried to avoid phone and internet, I could not help reading and re-reading several old messages, revisiting old telephonic conversations and every now and then break into tears. I found myself in the midst of several accusations, with no one ready to listen to my side with an open mind. A bigger question however was, where did I go wrong? I kept thinking, over and over. There were several questions and some answers occupying my mind, but could not muster the courage to write anything in the social media. I am trying to write it today.
It was in the last week of December 2020 when I received the first call from someone to tell me about Varun and then there was another call in January and one in the last week of February. The calls were similar. I was asked if I knew Varun who worked with us at Trolley Times. On replying, yes, I was told that he was predator who exploited women. One of the callers said that though she herself did not suffer abuse at the hands of Varun, she knew about this. The other two shared that they had been approached by others to convey this to me. I listened to each one of them patiently and did not doubt even one of them. I am a political person and a woman. I understand that in such situations that I neither have the right to demand that a survivor’s identity be revealed till the survivor wishes to, nor is the responsibility to prove the abuse on the survivor. Hence, I did not ask for any evidence or did I ever demand that the survivor’s identity by revealed to me. I requested all three that if you or those who have asked you to convey this to me, share something in writing (without sharing name). Just message the complaint or email the same without revealing identity. No complaint came. Yet, it was not as if I remained silent in the absence of the complaint.
Trolley times is a voluntary collective initiative that we started during the farmers’ movement in December 2020. Many of us did not know each other before December. In fact, in the starting period, among the 8-9 active people, no one knew Varun. A woman activist from a student’s organisation at Singhu Border had shared my number with Varun. He came, met me at the Tikri morcha, asked me what needed to be done and like many others, he slowly started becoming a part of several activities and work happening at the front. He also befriend many people there and established an emotional connect with even my family members who have been present at the morcha from the first day. He used to refer to himself as my elder brother, even though I have never been in the favour of establishing brother-sister relationships in these kind of circles. But I also felt, that if anyone else has these emotions, they can surely keep them and I will respect them as long as they do not interfere in my life in any way.
In midst of all this, when the first call came, Varun had gone to visit his home. The members of the Trolley Times work from different fronts and a few work online from their homes. When the call came, I shared this with the three members present at the Tikri front and discussed this with them. This itself took 2-3 days. For all of us this has been the first experience of running such a collective. We decided that till a written complaint comes to us, instead of waiting we will talk to Varun. Our sole purpose of asking for written complaint was that on the basis of the complaint itself we could expel him and begin the subsequent process. Our intention was not to wait for the inquiry to finish and expel him only once the report is made. None of us had any friendship with him and he was older than all of us. In this association of less than a month, there was a slight hesitation especially given that not of all of us were from an organisational background. In the work we did, no one was senior, no one was junior. We were just working together in an informal structure. Despite this, many overcame this hesitation and talked to him once he returned from home. We told him about the phone call and asked him what he had to say about it. From what he told us, apparently someone was seeking revenge from him. We did not believe. He said, ok, show me the complaint, investigate and I will present my defence. We decided that as soon as the complaint comes, we will expel him. Till then we did not have authority to do much. The complaint did not come. Another call came in January and yet no written complaint. None of the callers claimed that they were the survivors or what had exactly happened. The only thing I was told was that he was a predator who abused women. This in itself was extremely serious, and yet no third person also wrote this and give it to us which is the minimum requirement in such matters (I hope that even thekaurmovement would have needed some anonymous message or email or even a social media post, to speak on this). Till that time there was no social media post also on the basis of which we could have taken an action.
With time, certain responsibilities started getting fixed in the collective. Gurdeep used to see design, Jasdeep, Mukesh and I saw the editorial and Ajay took care of the logistics. Because of the call I had received, we kept Varun out of the core committee and any decision making process. His task was to ensure that the paper reaches different fronts and he himself asked and took the responsibility for Instagram, on which also there were heated debates. However, the debates got stuck at a point that the complaint is still not coming and hence how to expel him. As a woman, I know that several times we remain in a dilemma about the abuser. The mind remains confused about so many things, what is true, what isn’t, especially when the abuser is known or someone close. It is difficult to believe that this person could be wrong. This time there were those who were in a similar dilemma about co-worker or rather a fellow protestor. However, my thoughts and feeling about Varun were very different from the other men whom I had seen having tremendous respect for him. I was able to see several problems in his behaviour pertaining to gender which I have seen in nearly 95% men around me. He used to call himself a member of progressive circle and hence it use to disturb me even more. Several young men present at the front use to intentionally-unintentionally validate him daily. Several among them even put up posts defending him and after women came out against Varun, they apologised and relieved themselves of any further responsibility. In a way I am happy for them that they were not personally targeted like me because they don’t claim to be feminists and perhaps because of this it is not their responsibility to contribute towards the making of an egalitarian society.
When a friend called me during the last week of February, I was absolutely clear in my mind that I had to do something about this. For a whole week or rather till the time when I stopped receiving any response from the person, I kept messaging and calling the friend. I told her very clearly that we don’t want you to reveal the name of the survivor or share any evidence, we just need a written complaint in about four lines and even an anonymous one will do. We received nothing. We kept debating among ourselves that we must do something but in a collective what does one do when there is no complaint. We tried to maintain distance from him but since he had access to Trolley Times Instagram handle, it gave people the impression that he is the main person in Trolley Times. At every step there was a self doubt that am I doing the right thing and is this sufficient? I also talked 2-3 feminist activists. We had already started distancing him, but their suggestion was that in absence of a complaint a formal step is difficult. Even if someone writes anything in the public domain, that can also be considered, but no one was willing to take this responsibility. Hence, it pains when I read people’s social media posts. Today as one after another are posting on this, they refused to send even four lines in writing and remember I am not talking about the survivors. The friend who called in February, I asked her that you tell me what I should do in this situation. She said expel Varun. I asked, “in absence of any complaint, on what basis do we expel him?” She replied that this is the thing, you have to believe the survivor. I told her that I am not disbelieving the survivors. I completely believed them. Just give us four lines in complaint. She said that you will have to bypass all formal structures. It is just that which we did not do because to expel him in itself was a part of the formal structure.
Several people have tagged me saying that do not I feel ashamed for calling myself a feminist and siding with a predator? I did not side, not even for a moment. Yes, but I could not do somethings for which there are several reasons. People called, but none took any responsibility. People who are now writing on social media knew of this much before me. And as far my being a feminist is concerned, the feminism that I have known till date, has taught me stand and fight for societal and political transformation. I have done that and will continue doing that, within the organisation and collectives and in the society as well.
I am aware that to be able to open up about one’s abuse in the society is an important step towards gender justice and also a very difficult one. Hence, I salute the survivors who have come out with so much courage. It takes a lot of courage to share violent experiences of one’s individual and private life. The #MeToo movement that started a few years back created an opportunity for thousands of women came out in public, who perhaps had never had the opportunity before to share that they had been abused. We were able to realise how commonplace and widespread this is and also that it is important to call out the abusers. But there are problems if it just stays till here. Like the @thekaurmovement shared in one of their posts that calling out perhaps enables several survivors to arrive at a closure and find courage to move ahead in life. Absolutely. But as feminists, the rotten anti-women system which we aim at completely transform, do we leave it just like that? We will need to form structures for it and ensure that these structures work.
I don’t feel that my feminism is wrong or false. It is that in my imagination of the future, my feminist perspective may be slightly different but in that I am not alone. I am not questioning anyone’s right to write in the social media in order to call out an abuser, but we will have to take the responsibility to carry this struggle further. Every organisation and collective will have to ensure that structures to redress abuse are created and assume responsibility that these structures function correctly. If we do not talk about structures and the need for them to function effectively, then there may not be redressal mechanisms for a large section of women in the society who are away from the social media. They will be left with no way to raise their voice against their abusers. We need to fight for all and taking all.
In these times of difficulties we all need to learn from the social media debates. I am also trying to. This call out encouraged many women to come out and many like me are still trying to. Each of us has the right to take out time. In fact, it is our collective responsibility to ensure such an environment where women can speak openly without fear.
The Trolley Times has learnt a lot as a team in the last 3-4 months. As a lone female member in the team, I witnessed my other team members begin to understand gender, during the several debates we had on the issue and become more gender sensitive. I believe that feminism is also a journey ahead in which we learn something new everyday. We are also a part of this journey. In the several heated discussion we had in Trolley Times over this, members who earlier would tell me that I panic on issues of gender, today themselves said that you write your experience without any hesitation, and also share when we did not listen to you and made mistakes. Call us out where you think we were wrong. The other members of Trolley Times have accepted that the responsibility to make a space gender just is not the responsibility of women alone. Perhaps this is why I am able to share with you all, some of the things from the several questions and answers going in my mind.