Why a Facebook list of alleged sexual predators in academia has spooked vocal Indian feminists

There seems to be an underlining presumption that only a certain kind of men are capable of committing rape/sexual harassment.

 |  6-minute read |   25-10-2017
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On October 11, senior journalist Barkha Dutt issued a clarion call to her fellow liberals, asking them to break the silence surrounding, what she referred to as, “native Weinsteins”. “When liberals become complicit in the conspiracy of silence that shrouds such cases, we only come out looking like weak and hypocritical frauds”, she wrote in her column, with no inkling of what would follow in the weeks to come.

On October 24, US-based academic Raya Sarkar, who describes herself as “an attorney interested in prisoner’s rights, reproductive rights and anti-caste jurisprudence” answered that call. Sarkar posted an explosive list on Facebook (that she continues to update) containing the names of Indian academics who have allegedly exhibited predatory behaviour and/or have sexually harassed women.

The list

Sarkar’s list, which she has crowd-sourced from various alleged victims of sexual harassment, names (at the time this was published) 60 people, including some personalities as Partha Chatterjee, Prasanta Chakravarty, Lawrence Liang and others from various academic institutions across India, from prestigious universities such as JNU, Jadavpur University, FTII, Ambedkar University Delhi and Delhi University. Prima facie it seems no academic institution is free from sexual violence of one kind or another in India.

rape-protest_102517071529.jpgPhoto: Reuters

Sarkar begins her post with “One sexual harasser is Dipesh Chakrabarty, the other is Kanak Sarkar, professor teaching political science at Jadavpur University. If anyone knows of academics who have sexually harassed/were sexually predatory to them or have seen it firsthand, PM [private message] me and I’ll add them to the list.”

What triggered this post? Possibly a HuffPo piece, written by author and academic C Christine Fair, which was later taken down without an explanation. The piece titled “#HimToo: A Reckoning”, is an open letter from the senior academic to some of the men who abused, assaulted, or harassed her. In her piece, Fair called out Dipesh Chakrabarty and how he abused his position of power to make her feel uncomfortable by asking her: “Are you looking for sexual pleasure?”

The divide

Sadly, a list as explosive as this, one that should be a clear sign of the rampant culture of silence around sexual abuse across the country, has divided liberal Indians. Vocal feminists such as Vrinda Grover, Kavita Krishnan, Brinda Bose, Nandini Rao and others seem to disagree with, not the list itself, but the very idea of it.

In a Kafila statement signed by many, Nivedita Menon writes, “We are dismayed by the initiative on Facebook, in which men are being listed and named as sexual harassers with no context or explanation.”

“This manner of naming can delegitimise the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult. We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it, and if they wish to pursue complaints, to follow due process, and to be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice,” she adds.

rape_102517071558.jpgPhoto: AFP

It is perhaps worth noting here that, among the 60-odd people named is also Lawrence Liang. Liang, a co-founder of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), in Bangalore, is also a member of Kafila, an online portal for left-liberal commentary. Similarly, Brinda Bose and Prasanta Chakravarty have been colleagues for years, and have co-authored several papers published in various peer-reviewed academic journals, news dailies and other platforms.

Though it would be highly disingenuous to portray Kafila as a forum that condones predatory behaviour, it would also be wrong to not see this as a part of the bigger problem - the liberal hypocrisy of defending one of their own. 

Arguments can be made about the merits and demerits of a list of names against whom anonymous sexual harassment allegations have been compiled by a lawyer, Raya Sarkar, who lives outside of India. The Kafila statement for one raises a valid point: "Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilise."

At the same time, it's important to recognise the limits of institutionalised redressal mechanisms, such as anti-sexual harassment cells, Vishakha guidelines etc, because they require victims to risk their budding careers by coming out in the open and exposing people who hold powerful positions of authority. Within academia, this takes the form of not getting a tenured position, or a scholarship being denied, or delay in getting one's doctoral thesis approved by an external committee, and even absolute ostracisation.

In fact, when institutional redressal mehanisms fail to serve, movements like #MeToo are born. Women recently took to social media en masse to express mutual solidarity, empathy as well as made a show of just how pervasive the problem of sexual harassment happens to be. One must remember, for every #MeToo, there are multiple instances of #HimToo as well that have to be called out.

It also begs the question: Why self-proclaimed progressive women who vehemently supported the #MeToo movement are now looking towards "due diligence" and "institutional mechanisms" when it hit home?

Why should the list be seen as undermining "due diligence" and institutional support structures and not, in fact, adding to it? Why can't the list also be the beginning of due process? Why can't academic institutions come forward and assure victims complete support and anonymity (if they so wish) in order to start a process of redressal and justice?  

'Name and shame'

In a comment to her own post, Raya Sarkar said, "Most, if not all, are first-person accounts of people who were molested/sexually harassed by the people who have been put on this list. Rest are a friend [sic] they [the victims] have chosen to specifically contact me as they fear their identity being disclosed. In fact, since there is a disturbing amount of rape apologia and victim-blaming, the victims have gone out of their way to show me screenshots of them being harassed and abused by the people they have named."

In another Facebook post, Sarkar says, “This list is for students, the most vulnerable ones who they harass in a calculative fashion. May there not be more victims, and that is what this list is trying to achieve.”

Stand-up comic Aditi Mittal, in a series of tweets, tried to explain why Sarkar is right in making this list.

And finally author Priyamvada Gopal, in a Facebook post, summed up quite succinctly why naming men who have allegedly behaved in a predatory manner is the right way to go:

The lists in circulation will soon be dismissed either by threats or rebuttals, the claimants dismissed as bitter harpies with an axe to grind. And, yes, lists are not the sharpest, fairest kind of weapon but nothing in any of these miserable situations is fair and people are resorting to the only weapons they have.

But something will have been accomplished if we can at long last begin a conversation on heterosexual male sexual entitlement in academia and beyond, the extent to which sexual cultures are tied up with predatory behaviour that passes as smooth seduction, disgraceful age gaps which pass as beautiful love crossing the barriers of time and indeed, the actual consensual ways in which we love and engage, but which are not the less problematic for being consensual.

Academic hypocrisy

That the Kafila statement by "vocal feminists" asks Sarkar and the women who have confessed to her to "withdraw the list", is telling about the hypocrisy that dogs the elite upper caste, upper middle class in India in general, and the left-liberal academia in particular. As was evidenced in the case of Suranya Aiyar defending Mahmood Farooqui being acquitted for rape even though the judges thought that a woman's "feeble no" wasn't much of a "no", here is a case of elite women defending men and hiding behind process.

While these women academics and activists must be credited for making these institutional redressal mechanisms available for fellow women (and men), there seems to be an underlining presumption that only a certain kind of men are capable of committing rape/sexual harassment, and those kind of men aren't the ones these feminists fraternise with. This is why perhaps they see this list as a betrayal that's "delegitimising [their] long struggle against sexual harassment", and not another way of addressing the systemic power play that plagues the hallowed institutions such as our universities.  

As Gopal says, "Feminists are feminists until you come for our mates. Then we'll show you." 

Also read - Are Indians hard-wired to apathy? What the Visakhapatnam rape exposes

Writer

Pathikrit Sanyal Pathikrit Sanyal @bucketheadcase

The author is a culture writer who likes talking about the internet, memes, privacy and all things pop culture.

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