On the night of October 24, the silence surrounding sexual violence in Indian academia was broken on the internet. When the moment finally arrived, it was on the heels of a huge exposé about the serial abusive actions of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, echoed by millions of #MeToo posts on social media from women who had suffered sexual harassment and assault. Patience with predatory men, particularly those in positions of power, was wearing incredibly thin.
The debate in India began with a Google spreadsheet created by a law student in the US named Raya Sarkar that accused at least 72 men in academia, from both Indian and foreign universities, of actions ranging from internet and emotional abuse to rape.
Soon after the list became public, a statement on Tuesday by Indian lawyers, activists, academics and writers appeared on the progressive website Kafila, expressing dismay the crowd-sourced justice the spreadsheet was attempting to secure for women.
“One or two names of men who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process, are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations,” the statement read. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability. Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilise.”
It added: “We too know the process is harsh and often tilted against the complainant. We remain committed to strengthening these processes. At the same time, abiding by the principles of natural justice, we remain committed to due process, which is fair and just.”
This added another perspective to the debate. But more urgent than the existence of the spreadsheet or the response on Kafila is the very reason that such a public document was drawn up in the first place – women from Kolkata to Kochi would rather trust a law student some of them know of only from the internet than opt for “due process” through institutional inquiries.
What exactly is due process? Indian universities, under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act of 2013, are covered by the Vishakha Guidelines and are mandated to have an Internal Complaints Committee for the redressal of sexual harassment complaints. While the fairness of such internal committees has frequently been called into question at workplaces, at universities, things can get even more complicated because a single professor or supervisor is often responsible for a student’s academic future.
Ravinder Kaur, Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, said she agreed in spirit with the statement shared by Kafila – but that it would still be a while before students feel completely empowered to report to Internal Complaints Committees.
“It is true that complaints committees in academia, unless they have very strong women members who have great clarity on issues of harassment, tend to soft-pedal incidents,” she said. “In technological institutes, faculty are greatly concerned with the reputation of the institute and try to deal with incidents of harassment (and suicides) without these gaining too much publicity. It is also tougher to deal with cases involving faculty as it can affect their employment and careers and they eventually take cases to court, making the process very long drawn out for the complainant often without any satisfactory resolution.”
Kaur added that while naming and shaming without due process could ruin reputations, such a campaign might also make abuse harder to get away with.
The understanding of what a due process entails varies greatly on campuses across the country. A 20-year-old nursing student from Bhopal, Swati Kumari, said the female students on her campus had never been told of any complaints committee, but had on one afternoon, been given a lesson in self defence by a Bollywood actor.
At Benaras Hindu University, students say they are tired of filing applications about harassment to the Women’s Grievance Cell. As a result of this frustration, a case of sexual harassment at the end of September prompted students to hold protests on the streets. The police lathi-charged them and then filed First Information Reports against 1,000 students.
“They openly tell us that filing complaints will yield no results, that we should dress more conservatively, or get married instead,” said a Mridula, a recent graduate of the political science department.
When one of her batchmates made a complaint about a faculty member, Mridula said the cell held an inquiry but ultimately took no action at all. The professor was not dismissed and continued to stalk the student who had complained against him. “Recently someone said we should celebrate BHU finally getting a female proctor,” she said, laughing on the phone. “It was the ex-head of that same Women’s Grievance Cell!”
Mridula added: “It’s good in a way that professors are worried. We’re always the ones worrying when we enter their rooms. But I don’t think this Google document will amount to much. If you tell anyone, even a friend or parent that you were molested, the first thing everyone wants is proof. The document offers no proof. So it has to fail.”
At Bengaluru’s Srishti College of Arts and Technology, which also features on the name and shame list, students said they were unaware of any internal complaints committee, even though the insitution’s website declares that it has one. They did however know of the Wellness Group, composed mainly of counsellors, which had been appointed by the administration to engage with students on non-academic concerns.
When a young woman named Divya (who asked for her real identity not to be revealed) made a complaint against a faculty member four years ago, she said the the Wellness Group and her friends were extremely supportive: the teacher was fired soon after she spoke of his misconduct.
“No one ever made me feel like the shame was mine,” she said. But after she graduated, when a co-worker harassed her at her office, she found her bosses far less forthcoming. “I’m learning the hard way how difficult it really is to get people to believe you when you are harassed,” Divya said.
Kawalpreet Kaur, a law student at Delhi University, said she had been confused and upset since she heard about the list. Several professors from her faculty were on the list. As a survivor of sexual abuse, her empathy lay with the women; as a lawyer-in-training, she was worried that internet justice would do little to support complainants through the long haul of trauma counselling.
“Women should feel empowered about making a complaint and see it as their right to do so,” she said. “Justice is not something that is won through subterfuge. You can name and shame, but it’s not as if having a [publically accessible] sex registry [of convicted offenders] has ended child sexual abuse in the US.”
Kaur acknowledged Sarkar’s intentions, but said: “The document shows a pessimism that things will never change. This is not true – they are already changing.”
This Friday, Kaur said, students from Delhi University, Banaras Hindu University and Kolkata’s Jadavpur University will march to the University Grants Commission’s office in New Delhi to demand redressal committees like Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. “We want one in every college in India,” she said. “That’s how the abuse will end, not just for a select few, but for everyone.”
Calling out culture
Unlike the Google spreadsheet that called out New York’s Shitty Media Men post-Weinstein, only Sarkar can edit India’s Sexual Violence Hall of Shame.
As Sarkar told Buzzfeed, she was spurred into action by researcher C Cristine Fair’s account on the internet, in which Fair named several men that had sexually assaulted her through the course of her life. Fair’s account was removed from Huffpost soon after, and as of last night, Sarkar has been barred by Facebook from making new posts on the platform for a week.
For the spreadsheet, Sarkar said she solicited and assessed evidence provided by complainants and on a few occasions, by people who were friends of the complainants. As Sarkar told Buzzfeed, she has in her possession, screenshots, recordings, emails and a folder of testimonies from women.
Women have always quietly warned each other of predatory men. For those in favour of this document: this is the same thing, collated in an online spreadsheet.
The name and shame campaign has allowed women to reclaim some of the power that abuse and silencing robbed them of. But it has also given a group of anonymous people the power to tar and feather anyone that they and Sarkar decide is a sexual predator.
Call-out culture is the internet’s version of crowd-sourced justice. It is swifter and more gratifying than the slow, creaking legal system, but it denies space for rigorous discourse or genuine engagement and thrives on easy binaries. Internet-spawned shame doesn’t stick the way a charge of assault does. Warning other women will keep them out of the paths of powerful, abusive men. But it will not remove those men from the positions of power that grant them impunity in the first place.