sexual harassment

Universities respond to Raya Sarkar’s list of alleged sexual predators: Mostly silence, some denials

Six institutions said there were no official complaints against their teachers. Three declined to confirm or deny.

For over a week, a list of alleged sexual predators in Indian universities has circulated widely on the internet, creating a storm of debate. Published on Facebook on October 24, the list was compiled by law student Raya Sarkar who claimed to have gathered the names directly from students with the intention of warning other young women about sexual harassers. Later, another blogger Inji Pennu created a Google spreadsheet, inviting others to add names with some more details such as a description of the complaint and the number of complainants. The alleged crimes listed against the professors ranged from verbal abuse to molestation and rape.

The list and the spreadsheet are no longer public. Scroll.in accessed the spreadsheet on October 28, when it featured the names of 58 academics from 29 Indian colleges, research centres and universities.

Scroll.in wrote to all 29 institutions, asking if formal complaints had ever been made against the academics identified on the list. Only nine institutions replied to the email. Six said no complaint had been filed against the professors. Three said they could not confirm or deny whether complaints had been filed and inquiries conducted.

In the absence of specific details, many have questioned the veracity of the list. One of the academics featured on the list, Partha Chatterjee, asked for his name to be removed. “There has never been a single complaint of sexual harassment made against me,” he wrote in a statement to The Wire.

But in the case of two institutions, which did not respond to Scroll.in’s emails, faculty members speaking on the condition of anonymity said their colleagues who were named on the list had faced inquiries. They continue to teach at the institutions, although in one case, the teacher named was barred from joining or chairing certain committees.

Many said the list shines much-needed spotlight on a problem that is rarely discussed on Indian campuses. It is because “due process” for seeking redress against sexual harassment in universities does not work that women students name and shame predators anonymously on the internet.

University authorities, however, claimed the list presents a unique dilemma: the allegations are public but there is little they can do about them without official complaints. Members of several internal complaints committees, mandated to inquire into sexual harassment complaints, said they are inclined to ignore the list. As a member of the committee in Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, said, the formal system cannot take action on “things being said in informal mode”. For them, a public list violates the sanctity of a confidential inquiry, denies the accused a hearing and does not consider the context in which the alleged act took place – important because the nature of actions that may be construed as harassment can vary very widely.

“We cannot register a complaint on the basis of this list,” said a member of Delhi University’s internal complaints committee. Suo moto cognizance or taking note on their own is “not allowed”, according to one expert, “because that will become an easy way of moral policing”.

Raya Sarkar, who compiled the list, told Buzzfeed that she had evidence in the form of screenshots, emails and testimonies. Asked if she was willing to share this evidence with the universities, she told Scroll.in: “I do not want to share any evidence against the consent of the victims, including their testimonies. Consent is most important. However if the victims consent to investigations then they themselves will send in the evidence.”

Complaints and inquiries

The 29 institutions mentioned in the list, where the incidents of harassment allegedly took place, are spread all over India and include a wide variety of institutions. It features St John’s Medical College, Bangalore; film institutes like Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata and Film and Television Institute of India, Pune; general public universities such as Delhi University, Calicut University, Ambedkar University, Delhi and Jadavpur University, Kolkata; the National Law School of India University; private institutions such as Ashoka University; and research centres such as the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Kolkata. The only institution for technical education to be included is the National Institute of Technology, Calicut.

The nine institutions that responded to the emails all said they had internal complaints committees.

The six institutions that replied saying there was no complaint or inquiry against the professors named were TERI University in Delhi; English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad; Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Tuljapur; LV Prasad Film Academy, Thiruvananthapuram; Hindu College, Delhi; and St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.

Most simply stated that no complaints had been filed against their teachers. However, Bina Paul, regional director of LV Prasad Film Academy, stating that the allegation against teacher was “totally unsubstantiated”, added that the complaint “refers to a period before the campus was established [in 2014] and...before his employment”.

The director of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, with two names on the list, did write back but said they could not answer specific questions about the two academics “since the same will amount to contravention of the provisions of Section 16 and will attract the penal provisions of Section 17 of the [Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal)Act, 2013]”. These sections pertain to the disclosure of the identities of the complainant or the accused or proceedings of the inquiry.

A member of the Committee on Gender Sensitisation Against Sexual Harassment at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, said neither of the two academics from the centre identified in the list, have ever had a complaint of sexual harassment lodged against them with the committee. She requested not to be named.

A member of Jadavpur University’s internal complaints committee said no complaint had been filed against the eight academics named in the past 11 months, but other teachers from the campus who requested to remain anonymous confirmed that at least two of them have faced inquiries for sexual harassment before. Similarly, a complaints committee member at Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, said a colleague mentioned in the list had been investigated and even barred from joining or chairing certain committees for a period.

In the case of five other names on the list, there are media reports of complaints filed, court proceedings and even punitive action – in the case of one management institute, the director had been asked to leave – but the institutions themselves did not respond to queries from Scroll.in.

Due process

The earliest sexual harassment committees were formed in educational institutions based on Supreme Court guidelines framed as part of the case that led to the Vishakha judgement in 1997. Some of these were reconstituted and at most institutions, new internal complaints committees formed, after the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013.

Bound by regulations, committees require “proper procedure” even for registering complaints. They must be submitted in writing or a statement should be recorded and signed. There is no scope for an anonymous complaint registered without disclosing the identity of the complainant to the committee, the accused and witnesses.

Once a complaint is received, a sub-committee of about three-four members, within the larger complaints committee, inquires into it. The investigation is conducted within a specific time-period, typically three months and the recommendations for action are submitted to the appropriate authority. This depends on who the accused is. The executive council or board of governors may be asked to take action instead of the Vice Chancellor or director. Any action, even a warning or a written apology, is recorded in the service book of the accused.

The inquiry process is confidential. “We do not discuss cases even amongst ourselves,” said a member of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s internal complaints committee.

This is why the list has made several members of complaints committees uneasy. “Anyone can write anything on social media,” said one from Jadavpur University. Her counterparts at Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and JNU both argued that there are different types of harassment and a public list does not give the accused a hearing.

“Each complaint is also about how the complainant feels, because the same kind of action can have different reactions,” added the academic from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. “Further, there is context [to be considered] and the inquiry process gives the other party a chance [to explain] and also to the two parties to respond to each others’ statements.”

Partha Chatterjee, one of the few academics on the list who has publicly responded to the allegation, said frustration at the failure of institutional procedures for dealing with sexual harassment is understandable. “However, the proliferation of lists based on unverified allegations, instead of isolating genuine offenders and penalising them through steps that enjoy broad support on the campus, is only likely to discredit the cause and diminish the moral force of the unquestionably legitimate demand to transform our universities into a safer place for women,” he said.

The gaps in the system

But Maya John, member of Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College’s internal complaints committee argued the very existence of such a list calls for a serious examination of the failure of existing mechanisms. Committees based on the 2013 law are designed in a way that renders them weak, she said.

Members of most committees based on the 2013 law are nominated. “The administration enjoys a lot of power and may exercise pressure upon the committee,” said John. The complaints committee member at Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, agreed. “All depends on how the administration wants to handle it,” she said. Recalling the case of a colleague some years ago, she said his “case was dismissed after the student left and nothing was entered in the official record”. This colleague’s name is featured on the list. In other cases, she said, the accused have been transferred, even suspended.

However, the composition and process for selecting members may vary. The committee at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, set up in 2010, includes students, faculty, project staff and administrative staff and each group is free to decide how it selects its representatives. In case action is not taken, there are provisions for the committee to follow-up on this with the concerned authorities..

In institutions like JNU and Delhi University, the older election-based selection process was replaced with nomination for most members. This undermines due process, said John. In JNU, the change led to a court case in September this year and the office of the older Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment has been sealed ever since.

If the administration cannot be relied upon to wipe records clean, there are courts. John pointed out that action on complaints committee recommendations and even its proceedings are often stayed by High Courts, frustrating their efforts.

“Then, there are no regulations on the time for which they are supposed to maintain records of inquiries,” continued John. “Many do not even have offices. It is very hard to find records of complaints lodged 10 years ago.” Unless an inquiry led to action documented by the administration or in the service book, records of past complaints may not be available.

John said complaints committees should at least “step up and win the trust” of students. “We can keep discussing the ethics of making names public,” she said. “But since they are already out there, the committees could reach out to those who reported harassment on social media and encourage them to come forward with details.”

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