Updated 7.30 pm: Please see ACJ’s public statement appended at the end of this story.
On Tuesday, a group of 30 activists, journalists and students submitted a petition seeking an inquiry into the sexual misconduct accusations against an adjunct faculty member at Chennai’s Asian College of Journalism.
In January 2018, a former student approached the Internal Complaints Committee of the institution, complaining about an incident of sexual misconduct by faculty member Sadanand Menon in 2012 at Spaces, an arts foundation in the city. But the members refused to investigate the matter, the petitioners alleged in their statement. “After three months of correspondence with the institution, she was told that the matter was time-barred since the said incident happened when she was no longer a student and at a location away from the college,” said the statement.
However, the chairman of Asian College of Journalism, Sashi Kumar, denied these allegations, stating that the committee had considered the complaint at length before communicating to her that the matter could not be investigated into since it did not fall under the committee’s jurisdiction.
Sadanand Menon did not respond to Scroll.in’s phone calls or text messages seeking comment.
The complainant, who had graduated from Asian College of Journalism in 2008, said that she had been working at Sadanand Menon’s cultural organisation when the incident took place in 2012. But it was only when she saw that Menon had been named on a crowd-sourced list of alleged sexual harassers that circulated on social media in October that she realised that she was not the only person to have faced sexual misconduct perpetrated by Menon. “I did not put his name on the list,” said the complainant. “So when I realised that there were at least two people who faced the same experience, I felt it was serious enough to respond to.” She also wrote a piece about her experience for The News Minute, though she did not identify Menon in it, referring to him as “a mentor”.
The complainant told Scroll.in that she was always keen not to make the issue about herself and Menon. “There is a much larger conversation to be had about these things,” she said. “The people who have been subjected to harassment have all been vulnerable persons with no one to turn to,” she said. “The shocking thing for me is that no one from ACJ said that there is more than one case here, there is a pattern to be looked into, so why make it about a single incident? What does it take to start an inquiry?”
Even before the complainant had contacted the Internal Complaints Committee of Asian College of Journalism, the students of the 2018 batch had sent an email to the committee asking for changes in the sexual harassment policies of the institution. “After the list came out, we went through our policies and saw that it was lacking in many ways,” said a student who asked to remain unidentified.
Students did not know about the Internal Complaints Committee in the college, she said. The students had asked for a gender-sensitisation workshop and changes to the existing policy to make it gender-neutral. They had also asked for a discussion about the fact that Menon was on the crowd-sourced list. “The back-and-forth happened for a bit, but they never directly addressed the complaint,” she said. “We found this very worrisome.” The students also said that Menon occasionally used the Spaces campus as his classroom, so in their minds it was an extension of the classroom.
Updated 10 pm: Prayag Arora-Desai on Wednesday published a Medium post that says it is endorsed by “a group of recent ACJ graduates who have been following the issue since October 2017” which says the Internal Complaints Committee at the college has “displayed in no uncertain terms an allegiance to those who are close to the institution, and a deep-seated apathy toward the issue of sexual harassment.” The post, which recounts the events of the last year from the students point of view, calls on alumni and others for support in pushing the college to better handle sexual harassment complaints.
Chairman of Asian College of Journalism Sashi Kumar said that Tuesday’s petition was “ill-informed and factually incorrect”.
He said that the committee had considered the complaint filed by the former student. “The committee was also willing to overlook the fact that this happened well beyond the time the complainant was a student of the college, since they are looking at the spirit of the matter,” he said. But the members of the committee had come to the conclusion that since the incident did not take place anywhere on the campus or in extra-curricular situations of the campus (like field trips), they could not act on the complaint.
In March, the students of the college had conducted a meeting with the faculty in a classroom, voicing their concerns about the complaints they had heard about Menon, he said. Sashi Kumar said that he felt that the meeting was unethical, and that the students should have held it in private with the committee members. “None of these incidents reported took place on the campus,” said Sashi Kumar. “If so, immediately the committee would have acted and we would have asked the professor to step down and not to teach. What if the professor filed a defamation case against the college for conducting such a meeting?”
Sashi Kumar said that while he was concerned about the safety of the students, he could not just “bay for somebody’s blood and stigmatise someone” without proof or jurisdiction. “What precedent will it set?” he asked. “Will the faculty be able to teach with any confidence?”
Sashi Kumar also said that the pressure put on the institution seemed like a punishment for being a liberal institution. “I can’t help thinking if there are unknown forces behind this and unwittingly some people are playing into their hands,” he said. “On the facts of the case, I can’t see how anybody can be asking us to do more than what we have done now.”
‘Informal inquiry needed’
Writer and publisher V Geetha, who had also signed the petition, said that while procedurally, the committee may not be able to do more, they should have at least conducted an informal inquiry with Menon.
“I have myself been in these Internal Complaints Committee’s of educational institutions,” she said. “There is a way in which you can, procedure notwithstanding, discuss these matters among committee members and send out responses to students to take them seriously. They may not be able to conduct a formal inquiry but they perhaps speak to those who have been accused. Finally, the discretion is with the institution, without it being a punitive action.”
Update: 7.30 pm
After this story was published at 5.46 pm, the ACJ has issued a public statement that we are reproducing here in full.
May 9, 2018
The Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) notes with concern that ill-informed and vague allegations and assertions, most of them made anonymously and with scant regard for the facts and the law, have been published in a section of the online news media about how it handled a complaint of alleged sexual harassment made against Sadanand Menon, a well-known journalist and writer who has been teaching an elective at the College as an adjunct professor. The matter has also been commented on in the social media, mostly without regard to the facts and the law.
The ACJ wishes to reiterate that the alleged incident in 2011 at Spaces, a cultural centre in Chennai, had no connection with the College. The person who preferred the complaint in January 2018 to the Internal Complaints Committee, which had been duly constituted as per law and included a well-known woman lawyer, was not a student of the College at the time of the alleged incident and her work at Spaces had no connection with the College.
The Internal Complaints Committee rightly decided that as per law it had no jurisdiction in the matter and communicated its decision in writing to the complainant in clear terms. However, the issue has re-surfaced after the ACJ Convocation of May 3, 2018, with the publication of assertions made by some ex-students and others to the effect that the security of students was the issue here and that a moral rather than a procedural or legal approach to the matter should be taken by the College. The ACJ wishes to make it clear that on matters such as this, when unproven allegations that are not within its jurisdiction to investigate or enquire into, are made involving its faculty, whether full-time or adjunct, staff, and students, it has to stand firm on the ground laid down in the law of the land. It cannot make any subjective judgments based on speculation or rumour.
Meanwhile, Sadanand Menon has informed us that after taking into account the overall circumstances and in order to avoid any damage to the reputation of the ACJ, he has decided not to teach his elective course at the College for the coming academic year, and also that he is considering taking legal action against those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.
The ACJ wishes to make it clear that it has a policy of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment within its jurisdiction, that this policy is backed by appropriate internal institutional safeguards and arrangements as per law to hear and decide on complaints, and that as India’s, and the South Asian region’s, leading journalism school, it provides a secure and world class learning and teaching environment to all who come under its jurisdiction.