On a Wednesday afternoon, two of us women journalists with The Quint proceeded to Delhi University’s North Campus for a story on the ambiguity of sexual consent, and how sometimes ‘yes’ doesn’t mean yes. What we didn’t know was that it would land us up in a police thana.
The story we were pursuing was for a campaign The Quint has spearheaded, called #MakeOutInIndia – an open celebration of sex and sexuality, without any euphemisms attached.
We went out with a set of questions like: “If your partner is drunk and says yes to sex, but then passes out while you’re about to have sex – is it okay to proceed to have sex with them?”
We set up our video recording equipment on an open sidewalk next to the Arts Faculty and approached students who seemed willing to talk. Two students agreed to come on camera to answer our questions, once they heard what the video was about.
All was going well, when suddenly a bystander started sidling up to our cameraman, peering into the recording. Our cameraman kept telling him that he was getting disturbed, but then he proudly declared that he was a DUSU member and that we couldn’t be shooting there without his permission.
We clearly maintained that this was a public road of an open campus, and hence the Delhi University Student’s Union had no authority over the area. Piqued by our refusal to ask him for permission, the young man furiously started making phone calls, telling us that we’d pay for our irreverence. Before we knew it, a group of five men arrived on the spot and formed a circle around us.
“I’m the DUSU President,” one of the new arrivals declared; he had a sash around his neck that said ABVP. This was Satender Awana, whose campaign slogans included the gem “Fortuner me rawana Satender Awana”.
What started as an argument about space suddenly became an argument about morality. The guy who first questioned us told his friends that we were asking immoral, “sex-waale” questions to “innocent bystanders”. “Arey, ek ladki toh mooh chhupake bhaag gayi (One girl hid her face in shame and ran away),” he added.
The DUSU president then hurled a number of imprecations at us, which amounted to one thing – that we were asking girls, who were “someone’s sister, and daughter”, to talk about their sex lives.
“If these recordings are played in public, imagine how these girls’ future would be affected!” they argued, “Their marriage would break off and their relatives would disown them.”
Our questionnaire was shown to him. It was about ambiguous sexual consent, and not about anybody’s personal sex lives. We also told him that both participants had been told about the nature of the questions before they came on camera, and that they’d willingly participated. How else would we get answers out of them?
They snatched our questionnaire, and roughed up our cameraman, threateningly circling us. At this point, we were called a variety of names – ranging from “corrupt” to people who clearly had sex freely, and were trying to talk about it “khulle mein” (openly).
As regressive as their arguments were, we realised that the best thing would be for us to just leave. But by now the number of DUSU members surrounding us had increased to about 20. They threatened to break our camera. “Sex karne ka bahut shouq hai na tumhe (You love having sex, don’t you),” they told us. We frantically called our office for help and were advised to leave, but they stopped us, again. “We’ve called the Station House Officer (SHO). You can’t leave.”
While all of this was going on, one of the five men suddenly hit jackpot when he declared, “We haven’t called the girls! Let’s bring them down here” – clearly indicating that the women ‘dignitaries’ of DUSU were also being called to be the women-against-women tool. In came Anjali Rana, the DUSU treasurer, and Priya Sharma, another DU student. By this time, a police van arrived and a bunch of cops surrounded us.
Sharma claimed that she was “coerced” into answering our questions. “Mujhe toh itni sharam aa rahi thi inke sawaal dekhke (I felt really ashamed when they asked me those questions)”, she whimpered. “I didn’t want to answer, but they told me I was an adult and must answer their questions.”
We had never seen these women before, leave alone quizzed them on sexual consent.
Feeling hapless, we requested a senior cop to take us to a quiet spot where we could tell him our version. He refused.
Each time we’d open our mouths, a barrage of abuses, led by “Shut up”, “you’re making stories”, “how dare you ask such filth on OUR streets” kept flooding the air.
Here are the questions for you to take a call on whether we did corrupt DU:
- If they say maybe they want to have sex, but then later change their mind. Can you still change their mind back and make them have sex?
- If you’ve been touchy-feely before and they’ve always been okay with it but are backing out today. Should you try to have sex with them?
- If they said ‘no’ firmly. Can you still change their mind back and make them have sex?
- If they say ‘no’ but are smiling while they say it. Is it okay to have sex?
SHO Arti Sharma was a godsend – not only for the speedy help, but also for her stand on the matter. She calmly seated us in a cop car and took us safely to the police station, telling us all the way that we had nothing to fear. “I’m well aware of the issues these guys raise”, she added.
When we reached the thana, the whole bunch of DUSU boys (and the two girls) were waiting, ready to continue the baseless, groundless fight.
Once we entered SHO Sharma’s cabin, she shut the rowdy bunch up immediately, reminding them that we live in the 21st century where we have the right to talk about sex.
The girl who had falsely accused us on the sidewalk, now started with her trumped-up charges. She continued with her “Mujhe unke sawaal dekhke sharam aa gayi” track – an incredible feat for a woman who wasn’t even present when the ‘sharamnaak’ (shameful) questions were asked.
“But aap manaa kar dete jawaab dene se (But you could have just refused to answer),” the SHO with foresight probed.
In the meantime, two teachers from Miranda House, Deepika Tandon and Saswati Sengupta (they’d taught colleagues at our office when they were students) arrived at the police station and valiantly took our side.
Their help was sorely needed since they knew the DU laws better than we did, and could counter every baseless argument.
“They didn’t take our permission,” the DUSU President said.
“They don’t have to, it’s an open campus, and no by-law gives you the right to stop them,” the teachers retorted.
“They can’t ask such dirty inappropriate questions on the road,” he roared.
“Who are you to decide what is appropriate and what’s not,” the teachers countered, stating that the people questioned were all adults.
Every word uttered by the DUSU President was priceless – “I have sisters in every college – these women cannot ask my sisters such questions.”
SHO Sharma shot down each of these ludicrous statements. “They all have the freedom of speech. So why can’t students decide for themselves whether they want to answer questions about sex?”
These were questions that needed to be asked, she said, in the light of rape incidents increasing in India. “Aap log picture-ein nahi dekhte? (Don’t you watch films?)” she joked. “Akhri kaunsi film dekhi hai tumne jismein sex nahi dikhaya, ya micro-mini mein actress nahi dikhai (Which was the last film you watched which did not depict any form of sex, or an actress in a micro-mini?)!”
One even answered, “Ma’am, Drishyam!” Obviously, such logic and light of reason were lost on these fine souls.
They were hell-bent on filing a complaint against us for tarnishing the honour of Priya Sharma (who continued to embellish her fairy-tale with each passing moment) by asking her sexual questions in front of a male cameraperson.
Once this banal exchange was over, we headed out of the room on SHO Sharma’s suggestion, who somehow managed to pacify them and end this matter.
While we waited at the thana for our cab, the DUSU bunch stood across the gate, sending us death stares.
This incident is exactly why we need a campaign like #MakeOutInIndia – which highlights that questions on sex are not shameful, but necessary. Where a few who believe they are the jagirdaars of morality can’t dictate terms. And where women talking about sex aren’t somebody’s “sisters and daughters”, whose marriage prospects are at stake, but brave and free-thinking individuals.