Exposing sexual harassers in Indian academia, and why due process isn’t enough

The debate has shifted to whether ‘that list’ is right or wrong, sidestepping the main problem – sexual predators are roaming around Indian campuses with no accountability.
Exposing sexual harassers in Indian academia, and why due process isn’t enough
Exposing sexual harassers in Indian academia, and why due process isn’t enough
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The crowdsourced list of alleged sexual harassers in academia, primarily in Indian educational institutions, that attorney Raya Sarkar has put up on Facebook has created a furore. On the one hand, several women have reportedly come forward to name their harassers anonymously. On the other hand, many find the practice of anonymous accusations to be "problematic" and have requested that the victims go through "due process."

Even if one may cast aspersions on the veracity of the list, what the exercise has once again revealed is how widely prevalent sexual harassment is in educational institutions. And how it's allowed to continue with institutional support. The debate has shifted to whether ‘that list’ is right or wrong, sidestepping the main problem – sexual predators are roaming around Indian campuses with no accountability.

Several reactions to the list have been questioning the method, asking why the women did not file an official complaint, why they did not ‘fight back’ or why are they now using a process of publicly listing names without due process which is prone to abuse.

Interviews with survivors of sexual harassment in Indian campuses show that not only is ‘fighting back’ often not effective due to the entrenched power dynamics of the professor and the student, but it can often invite a backlash, affecting the complainants’ career or education.

Confronting the harasser and ineffective ‘due process’

It's been three decades since senior journalist Sonal Kellogg was allegedly molested by a powerful man who was then at the Centre for Development Communication (CCD) at the Gujarat University.

Sonal, who was a student at the Centre in 1986-88, says that the then Director, Dhiren Avashia, would "grab" at her and try to kiss her. "He used to tell some funny story that his wife had severe thyroid issues and that he was unable to sleep with her. He'd say that he was desperate. It happened to me at least 3-4 times."

However, it was not until 2016 that Sonal finally decided to file a complaint against him. "How it triggered off was that there is a WhatsApp group for ex-students of CCD and one of the women brought this up. She spoke about how Dhiren molested her and how she'd complained to the coordinator at that time."

Dhiren Avashia later went on to become the Director of Electronic Media under the Gujarat government.

"I felt like I had to speak up when she said this," says Sonal. "You've kept quiet for so long and there's a time when you feel like you simply need to speak up."

Sonal and the other survivor wrote a complaint letter dated March 31, 2016, to the Governor of Gujarat - who is the Chancellor - and the Vice Chancellor of the Gujarat University. Although they received an acknowledgment from the office of the secretary of the Governor, informing them that they would forward the complaint to the Secretary of Education, Sonal says that nothing came out of it. The promised 'needful action' never came.

By this time, Dhiren Avashia was no longer with the University, but Sonal says that nobody got in touch with her to even find out what had happened. "I'm sure he's still getting his retirement benefits," she alleges.

Even though Dhiren Avashia has retired, Sonal says that she has sent his name to Raya Sarkar because she believes it's important for what happened to be on record. Further, as a survivor of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) who is looking to help others, Sonal understands that victims are often confused about how to respond to such situations. 

The discomfort with the list, many point out, stems from the fact that the people on it are “people like us.” Hence the hesitation in naming and shaming.

Kunjila Mascillamani, a student of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), Kolkata, has been fighting hostility from her institution ever since she and five others complained to the Internal Complaints Committee for Sexual Harassment in December 2015. In July this year, Kunjila even attempted suicide, calling SRFTI a “sexual harassment zoo”.

Kunjila feels that the insistence on “due process” only “reeks of elitism and classism.”

She says, “Whenever a woman complains, all hell breaks loose. Everybody gangs up with the perpetrator especially if it is a person who holds power. The same enthusiasm is shown in shaming the accused if it is a marginalised person. Don't you remember the time when Govindachami became a metaphor for all rapists (in the Soumya case)? It's not like rapes had never happened before. It is a politics of convenience. As long as it is not your colleague or friend or guide or husband or father, you will condemn sexual harassment in the harshest words.”

At SRFTI, Kunjila says that though she didn’t want a court case and wanted the ICC to address the issue, the institute sent her complaint to the police without her permission.

Apart from having to endure insensitivity from the police, Kunjila also had to undergo a medical examination. “The one in which they check if my hymen is intact or not. Even though the rape had happened more than a year ago. My vagina was pulled and stretched so much that I shrieked in pain and ran out of the room. They made me sign a paper that said that I was unwilling to appear for medical examination,” she alleges.

Kunjila does not doubt the usefulness of such a ‘Name and Shame’ list, even if it is crowdsourced and anonymous.

“Ask the power holding people to disprove. Naming them itself is a job,” she asserts.

No process, no fighting back

Despite the Vishaka Guidelines (1997) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013) that replaced it, women often feel helpless when confronted with sexual harassment in educational institutions.

Swetha Shankar, who currently works at PCVC (International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care), recalls her HoD's harassment when she was a Masters' student at a Coimbatore college in 2010-12.

"He was my HoD and professor and he started targeting me because I wasn't wearing a dupatta...or not wearing it the 'right' way. So, he would make comments in class, on the corridors, in front of other people and it got progressively worse. He'd say things like, 'It's not enough if you study, you should have ozhukkam (discipline/morals).' Once, before a lot of juniors, he told me, 'There's no point wearing a dupatta if you don't cover what you are supposed to cover.' It was constant targeting," she says.

However, the professor's behaviour did not stop with such comments – what followed is an illustration of why women often don’t want to complain.

"At the end of my second year, he was assigned as my thesis adviser. So, while other people were doing their literature review and sending their first drafts, my topic wasn't even approved,” she says.

Finally, Swetha was forced to work on a topic given by the professor but he harassed her all through the process. By the end of it, Swetha managed to submit her thesis but he wouldn’t accept it.

"He sent it back. He said I hadn't done the questionnaires...that I'd just made up data. He made me redo the data. I think I submitted 2-3 weeks after my classmates did after repeatedly going and standing outside his office, rechecking my numbers. On his recommendation, I had to hire a professional SPSS person who ran the numbers and had to say they were right before he accepted it," she adds.

However, Swetha says that she never thought of complaining to anyone.

"I didn't know that I could complain. He was the HoD. Who was I supposed to complain to?" she asks. "Only my friends knew about it."

If there was a list online in those days, would she have put his name on it anonymously?

“Yes,” she says.

Now a counsellor, Swetha shares that she has encountered innumerable cases used for further harassment of women in educational institutions and at workplaces.

"Due process can actually be a re-victimising process. In many cases, it doesn't even exist on paper. But even if it does, you are often intimidated out of registering complaints. We've had cases where young women have been sat down and groomed by 4-5 professors who've told them to think about their future and to not make a big deal out of it. They say we'll pass you in this paper and so on. To just throw 'due process' out there without understanding the kind of challenges women face in these institutions is not helping anybody and it will not help women come forward and complain. And the impunity continues. Nobody gets called out for anything," she says.

Dr Uma Vangal, Visiting Professor of Film at Kenyon College, Ohio, concurs.

Pointing out that the victim and her family often balk at drawing attention to sexual harassment, for fear of careers or degrees being jeopardised, Dr Uma says, “HoDs and senior faculty who are PhD guides especially get away with all forms of harassment because some of the women students need the stipends and degrees so badly and cannot have adverse reports or delays in finishing the requirements. Attending conferences and seminars is a nightmare for some with the overnight stays making them vulnerable.”

Commenting on the much-debated list, Dr Uma says that it is right to finally put the onus on these senior academics to clear their names. “Several instances of their academic or liberal reputations coming in the way of complaints being taken seriously, make it important to tear away these facades that give them impunity and protection from accusers.”

The politics of ‘due process’

Speaking to TNM, Thenmozhi Soundarajan of Equality Labs says that the statement issued by several prominent feminists on Kafila, an online platform, asking for the list to be removed, is “tone deaf to the lived reality of dalit-bahujan-adivasi bodies under caste apartheid.” She further adds that this is one of the reasons why dalit-bahujan-adivasi feminists are organising more “radical solutions”.

Thenmozhi notes that caste is clearly linked to institutionalised sexual violence. She also strongly believes that #MeToo is “an intersectional movement and needs to be led by the most vulnerable in their context.”

“What students do you think have the least power on campus and therefore are the targets of such violence from their professors, fellow graduate students, etc?” she asks. “Imagine the layers of impunity in an academic environment. Your professor can shut down your career progress, their colleagues are part of the boards that have to oversee your complaint, and if you fail, your complaint follows you everywhere you try to move on. Moreover, you go to a prominent savarna feminist lawyer or activist collective, and you find out they are colleagues with your perpetrator. Then what?”

Calling this a “culture of impunity”, Thenmozhi says that the processes that may work for savarna women who are colleagues of these men and who have structural access to power through their networks of privilege will not be the same for others.

She goes on to point out that Indian academic campuses in recent times have been in the news for how “deadly” they have been for dalit, bahujan and adivasi students.

“These same campuses which branded Rohith Vemula an anti-national, made Najeeb disappear are now the same campuses where we are supposed to get justice around sexual violence?” she questions.

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