The Weinstein saga, it seems, is taking a hop around the world after becoming a global tornado. The Hollywood movie mogul’s chronicle of sexual aggressions is reminiscent of ancient Rome during its decline and fall. Yet it is not out of character in a profession known for its notorious “casting couch”.
Following the Weinstein drama, the #MeToo campaign of thousands of women telling their stories on Twitter has felled many other film personalities. Actors Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), film-maker Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) and the legendary Dustin Hoffman — the gallery of fallen icons is expanding. And the long arm of the law, once aroused, is flailing fast; in the UK, the Metropolitan Police have initiated five rape/sexual harassment cases against Weinstein, dating from the 1980’s.
But the urge of victims to out the truth is spreading to a more sequestered domain, the academia, and that too in India. The now-famous Facebook post by Raya Sarkar, a law student from the University of California, naming 61 Indian academics as sexual harassers of their students, has thrown a serious challenge to them.
The post has been taken down, but the threat lingers that the list would soon reappear with more details. For the professors, though, the damage is done as copies of the list are in express circulation. So the question to ask is, why don’t they strike back with a defamation suit? Sarkar’s non-Indian nationality is beside the point as some of the alleged harassers are themselves celebrities in Ivy League institutes, so locus standi is not an issue. It looks like a battle of nerves is on. Are the people behind the “list” taking a breather?
Will it be a guerrilla war on social media, resurfacing on some other platform if Facebook remains unresponsive? The concerned professors haven’t blinked, barring a stupid reconciliation offer from a Jadavpur faculty member, and a genteel appeal by political scientist and historian Partha Chatterjee for details of the complaint against him.
But all those who’ve been named and shamed must have got a strategy. If they haven’t, the mud will stick. If there is any truth in what Sarkar has claimed to be the targeted savants’ offer for their pupils’ silence — the road to Oxford — then rattled they obviously are.
Sarkar has made no secret of being spurred by the Weinstein disclosures, and the march of the #MeToo hashtag. It is a strategic move as the world of higher education is clearly marked by an asymmetric balance of power, with the key to career of students firmly in the teacher’s hand. And teachers are almost all male, with only 1.4 per cent of professor level posts in the country being held by women.
At the higher tiers of academic life, success depends on peer review of thesis papers where the expert retains a large share of discretionary power. Evaluation of viva in PhD examinations is entirely subjective. The Supreme Court ordered the share of viva to be capped at 15 per cent but most universities still stick to 30 per cent.
What women students object to, now and before, is the practice of their guru, mostly aging, using sexual favour from the young and lissom research scholars as a currency of exchange. In an earlier article in Huffpost (taken down since then), C Christine Fair, Associate Professor at Georgetown University, had named, among her harassers, renowned Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who is Lawrence A Kimpton distinguished Service professor of South Asian history at Chicago University. Fair alleged that Chakrabarty had asked her if she was “looking for sexual favours”.
Sarkar’s list, though cosmopolitan, has a Bengali/Indian bias with just university in Kolkata, Jadavpur, having nine entries. It seems her sources are mostly planted in India. If so, she is using the spreadsheet as a trigger for larger crowdsourcing of sexual predation charges against academics.
But the issue now is not the extent to which an unproved and unaccounted (though not entirely untrue) list can terrorise the academic community. The issue is that female student are not satisfied with the Internal Complaints Committees in place, after the Vishakha Guidelines and also after the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013.
Students complain that they do not have proportionate representation on the committees, which have larger than fair share of the very men who’d grope them in the seclusion of their chambers. Besides, for a university student, to approach the committee amounts to committing hara-kiri career-wise.
However, despite the recent legislative changes, gender equity remains an elusive goal in many workplaces — be it the media, judiciary, banks, aviation and even the security forces. The media is particularly ripe for a #MeToo outbreak; nor is the Tarun Tejpal case one of a kind.
In the uniformed services, the Rupan Deol Bajaj V KPS Gill, or the "butt slapping case" was just a beginning but no statutory mechanism is in place (like mandatory CCTV coverage in police stations) to protect female police employees, 6.11 per cent of the constabulary in 2014, from sexual harassment in the workplace. And, for a country of India’s size, only 500-plus sexual harassment complaints being filed testifies that the “due process” does not work.