All too often, to make an allegation of sexual abuse is to run a fool’s errand. Even if one is ultimately believed, the process of establishing one’s credibility can be torturous, the costs – both intangible and material – can be extraordinarily high, and the returns far too low for an abused person to choose to formally invoke the legal system.

This sense of injustice is perhaps what launched the online campaign to name and shame academics at Indian universities accused of sexually harassing or assaulting students. The campaign has sparked a furious debate, with some feminists calling for it to be withdrawn because “anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability”.

Support mechanisms for victims of abuse are all but non-existent. There is, these days, rarely a dearth of people to post a quick message of encouragement online signalling the wonders of their own politics, if not anything else. But despite the deluge of social media supporters, finding people who make, and honour, concrete commitments to support a victim through the process of formally addressing abuse is usually difficult. The difficulty tends to increase exponentially if the abuser in question is a well-placed man.

For women who have been abused, particularly by men not on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, this has often meant that they report nothing formally but rely on informal networks to share what ultimately become “open secrets” about men they have found abusive. The trouble with open secrets, of course, is that there are always people outside the informed group who would benefit from knowledge of the secret but who don’t know of it. Sometimes, they learn of it the hard way.

In such circumstances, creating an open, crowdsourced list of alleged abusers can seem to make sense. If it is accurate, such a list can potentially act as a warning to those who have not been abused by the men named. It can provide actual victims the satisfaction of having done something to retaliate against their abusers and help them regain some of the control the abusers likely stripped them of. And if the list does not name the accusers, it accords the victims these benefits without endangering their safety or jeopardising their career paths.

Question of credibility

The problem with such a list is that, at first glance, there is no way at all to determine its accuracy. It is ultimately the public collation of unverified gossip and, where the list contains only the names and professional affiliations of alleged abusers, it taints everyone named with the same brush. A casual reader of the list cannot know whether the people named have been legally defamed.

For that matter, it is unclear if a person compiling such a list based on purported victim testimonies can be certain of the veracity of the testimonies. Presumably, an individual would not have the resources to investigate each allegation for accuracy, so she would have to simply take the accusers at their word. In effect, the list would lack substantiation and, consequently, its credibility would be assailable.

Truth is a defence against claims of civil defamation and, coupled with a demonstration of public interest being served by the disclosure of information, it is a defence against complaints of criminal defamation. Other exceptions to defamation too could conceivably come into play. For example, the Ninth Exception in Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code states:

“It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.”  

That said, without the possibility of establishing the list’s accuracy, it remains deeply problematic. On one hand, there is no chance of actual abusers being brought to account on the basis of the list alone. On the other, there is no chance of people who may be wrongly named being able to definitively clear their names. In both cases, the problem is that the identities of accusers and the specific conduct they have complained of are not clear.

It would appear that the solution to all these concerns is to create mechanisms through which allegations of abuse can be fairly and impartially investigated. But our reality is that social structures are deeply inequitable, the legal system is difficult to navigate, and speaking out against well-placed men can be more formidable a challenge than many victims are able to face. Understandably then, vague assurances of support may not be enough to convince the victims to identify themselves. What is required are concrete commitments to see the victims through the process of formally addressing complaints of abuse. Thus far, such commitments do not appear to have been made.

Nandita Saikia is a media and technology lawyer in Delhi.