Culture

What Aspect of Sandeep Kumar’s Behaviour Was ‘Objectionable’?

The real questions surrounding the ‘sex scandal’ have little to do with who sacked whom and a lot to do with the way in which we think that sex itself is a morally objectionable act.

Sandeep Kumar. Credit: PTI

Sandeep Kumar. Credit: PTI

What exactly did Sandeep Kumar do to lose his post as Delhi’s minister for women and children? The vague facts of the case seem to be that chief minister Arvind Kejriwal received a CD containing a video showing Kumar in a ‘compromising’ position with two women. Within 30 minutes of that, Kumar was out of a job and Twitter was raging about the impropriety of the video or the lack of legal reasoning in Kumar’s dismissal. Although recent reports say that Kumar resigned of his own accord while Kejriwal’s government still claims responsibility for firing him, the real questions surrounding the ‘sex scandal’ have little to do with who sacked whom and a lot to do with what we as a society think is acceptable behaviour from politicians and if we think that sex itself between two consenting adults is a morally objectionable act.

[September 4, 2016 update: A woman has now filed a police complaint saying she is the person in the tape and that she had been drugged. The police have filed charges of rape and arrested Kumar]

As comedian Tanmay Bhatt mused on Twitter and, others have pointed out, after reading about Kumar’s sex-related expulsion from AAP and his ministerial post, he was still unclear about what exactly the man did wrong.

All we know for sure is that Kejriwal received a CD from an anonymous sender and the disc contained a video of Kumar with a woman in a bedroom, engaging in what Kejriwal called “objectionable behaviour” – by which he presumably meant sex.

Kumar doesn’t seem to have exchanged political favours or otherwise compromised the Delhi government by sleeping with the woman in the video, or used official premises. Nor is he accused of sexually assaulting or engaging in violent behaviour towards the woman. If he engaged in consensual sex, the question many are asking is how his post as the minister for women and children compromised by an undated video of him having sex?

People seem to be outraged at the idea of Kumar leveraging his political clout to ‘use’ women and garner sexual favours from them. The implicit assumption seems to be that the woman in the video was there against her will or under some form of coercion. Then again, no one has actually made that accusation. The idea that the woman might have chosen to sleep with Kumar of her own accord seems somehow unfathomable. After all in what world does an Indian woman get to exercise her autonomy when it comes to sex. Kumar here is pitched as the man who is gaining something from the woman at her expense – how could the minister for women and children ‘exploit’ the very women whose welfare he is in charge of? The certainty here is that a woman has nothing to gain from sex and everything to lose.

If the video was made after he got married (and some have suggested this might not be the case) one could argue that Kumar has committed the personal crime of adultery by sleeping with a woman other than his wife. Ordinarily this would be a complaint for the private sphere, something for Kumar, his wife and his family to deal with. However, thanks to the British, the Indian statute book actually declares adultery a crime. The best part, though, is that the absurd law is still inapplicable to Kumar. The law allows a man to accuse his wife of adultery if she has sex with another man of her own volition, but does not allow a woman to use the same law against a cheating husband.  The law highlights the often diagnosed yet inadequately addressed problem of women’s rights in India.  A woman can’t use this law because the law was formed at a time when women were not really considered full political actors or citizens in the way men were and still continue to be.

Even if we set aside the tumultuous world of gender politics, other charges levelled against Kumar also raise a lot of questions. He has been accused of ‘corruption’ and of breaking AAP’s standards of ‘public propriety’. The little hitch in these claims is that Kumar’s actions in the video were never meant for public consumption and clearly released without his consent. They may even have been filmed without his permission or knowledge. So does intentionally private behaviour, now made public without the person’s consent really qualify as ‘public’? Kejriwal and others certainly seem to think so.  But that is to say that a public figure has no right to a private life. It would have been different if the video showed Kumar engaging in illegal acts, which would be improper and constitute grounds for dismissal regardless of whether they took place publicly or privately. But that does not seem to apply here.

Some people are simply tired of seeing Kumar’s private pictures all over their computer and phone screens. Some even highlighted the ridiculousness of a scandal over Kumar’s innocuous private life.

Interestingly, Kumar’s own defence is based on denying that it is him in the video and also claiming that he has been targeted in this way because he is a poor Dalit. Kumar, whose Twitter bio now reads “Ex Minister for Women and Children” is not questioning the validity of the contents of the video as cause for dismissing him from his post. In fact, his defence is building on the assumption that the video is indeed ethically and, consequently politically, incriminating.

The unfortunate affair, which is bound is to die a ignominious death as Twitter moves onto a new topic of outrage, still raises important questions on what we expect of our politicians as individuals and not just their performance in public office. Saying Kumar is guilty of ‘corruption’ for having sex and being filmed while doing so is a dubious claim, especially if it cannot be connected to Kumar gaining anything personally from leveraging his ministerial position. Indeed, accusing Kumar of ‘objectionable behaviour’ merely for having consensual sex does not speak well for public and political attitudes in the country.