India ponders on how to deal with sexual criminals

Anonymously naming individuals publicly is not only an ethically sound act, but perhaps the only recourse

Srilata Sircar

Debating the ethical tensions of any act must be done within its particular sociopolitical context. Recent studies by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the British Council provide context to the debate. They have found that only 3% of vice chancellor posts and 1.5% of professorial positions in India are occupied by women. A cursory overview of the names of faculty members employed at various universities will reveal that this field is overwhelmingly dominated by upper caste men. Further, there is no comprehensive data available on the incidence of sexual harassment in universities or the extent of compliance of universities with the Vishaka guidelines (the UGC had sought this data in mid-2016).

However, reports of sexual harassment in academic spaces — by employees, visitors, students, and even the police (recently in Banaras Hindu University and Hyderabad Central University) — are rampant. Some of these reports make it to the headlines. Most remain confined to private conversations. In the past few months, the Delhi High Court, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and the vice chancellor of a prominent university have made cringeworthy statements on issues of sexual violence. With the #MeToo campaign, public frustration over the problem of sexual violence has reached a peak. Against this backdrop, what are the consequences of publicly but anonymously naming an alleged sexual harasser?

Not a formal complaint

The answer to this question is made evident by the reactions to the list published by Raya Sarkar, a student. Specifically, the consequences are next to none. Since the mere act of public naming is neither a formal complaint nor a verdict of law, there are no institutional consequences. So far, there are no reports of any universities taking cognisance of this list or initiating action of any kind. On the contrary, there is a widespread assumption that many (if not all) names on the list were unfairly added as acts of vengeance. Despite repeated clarifications that each name was personally reported by a survivor or trusted friend, these assumptions persist. In other words, as always, the alleged perpetrators have the benefit of the doubt. At least three of the named men have responded with outright denials, only to be faced with non-anonymous and detailed testimonials of harassment from one or multiple women (who may or may not have reported them to the list in the first place). Several other names have been met with a blasé “we knew it all along”. Thus, there is practically no shaming attached to this act of naming.

Making non-secrets public

On the question of anonymity, what else must survivors do when their testimonials can easily identify them to the alleged perpetrator, even while they must continue to study or work in his presence? Under such circumstances, anonymous public naming is not only an ethically sound act, but perhaps the only available recourse. One of the possible outcomes of this act is that it makes some poorly kept non-secrets public. I see no ethical price attached to this. In fact, it comes with the advantage of warning potential future victims. The other possible outcome is that it remains a public lie that plants doubts in the minds of its few believers about the character of the falsely accused. The ethical responsibility of that judgment lies on us, the consumers of the list, and not on the already traumatised survivors.

For ages, we have given primacy to the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty. But to hold that principle as a sword over the heads of survivors, who our systems have often failed, is tantamount to saying that we care about the appearance of justice more than the actual experience of injustice.

Srilata Sircar is a postdoctoral researcher in Geography at Lund University, Sweden

NO | GEETA RAMASESHAN
The list is a form of lynching, akin to what is happening in the world of khap panchayats and kangaroo courts

Geeta Ramaseshan

The list on social media that names prominent male academics without naming the survivors of sexual harassment is probably the first of its kind and may not be the last. The post sought women who had been harassed, or who had seen harassment of their friends and colleagues, to put out the names of harassers on Facebook without revealing their identity. As the complainants are anonymous, verification of the allegations have become impossible. The list is a who’s who of the Indian intellectual elite and has caused a furore. The makers of the list, while claiming that they will support any woman who comes forward to see the complaint to its conclusion, have defended the naming on the ground that future students are being warned about professors who are “sexual predators”. The secrecy attached to the list has given vent to the anger of women who have suffered harassment and made it easier for them to speak about it. There is a groundswell of support for the list.

A social media trial

In many ways, the naming and shaming campaign seems to be a pendulum that has swung to the other extreme in a climate where complaints of sexual harassment are not taken seriously despite laws prohibiting sexual harassment. But this swing is like asking for the death penalty without a trial — in this case, a social media trial.

The list has names of persons who have been indicted of sexual harassment as well as persons against whom vague charges have been made without any details by the complainants.

The approach of this campaign is nothing to cheer about. While women who have sent their complaints would have done so out of genuine frustration of a flawed system that does not address their concerns, the campaign has been highly irresponsible in naming people without giving them an opportunity to respond to the allegations and defend themselves. It is a form of lynching on social media, akin to what is happening in the real world of khap panchayats and kangaroo courts. By creating a registry of harassers without the complaints being substantiated, the list campaigners have become the prosecutors and the judges. A statement by feminists saying that the list has not followed due process has been virulently attacked, with the campaigners dismissing them as “Savarna feminists” and in a single stroke belittling all the work done by them over the years.

Understanding due process

By dismissing any form of dissent, the campaigners have shown little understanding of due process. Due process is not restricted to issues against the state or in a complaint mechanism or litigation. It involves a process that respects the rights of persons. And chief among them is that all persons have a right to know the accusation against them with a right to defend themselves — not merely in a court of law or inquiry but in any public sphere.

The slew of cases filed by various governments in the country against persons using social media on charges of sedition and other provisions of the Indian Penal Code indicates that social media is extremely powerful. It has the power to make or break an individual. In this case, the list has caused irreparable damage to the reputation of these individuals.

The list can also have a potential backlash. Complaints or charges of sexual harassment are difficult to prove. The survivor undergoes a lot of agony during the process and, very often, in-house committee members do not believe her version. So, a carefully crafted strategy is required. Just putting out names at random, including of persons who are not alive, only reinforces the myth that women come up with false complaints.

Geeta Ramaseshan is a senior advocate in the Madras High Court

IT’S COMPLICATED | BARKHA DUTT
In a hostile system, the insistence on due process is absurd. But it’s only fair that women provide more details

Barkha Dutt

There’s no getting away from one fact: this is a disruptive and decisive moment for Indian feminism. The list, a crowdsourced online chronicle of alleged sexual predators in academia, has wrenched open the liberal consensus to expose differences of class, caste, generations, ways of thinking. Curated by Raya Sarkar, a California-based law student, it’s effectively a spreadsheet of sexism, with men accused by anonymous complainants of being the perpetrators. The debate has polarised feminists, pushing them on either side of the trenches.

Addressing criticisms

The most unconvincing criticism of the list has been the insistence by the venerable old guard on “due process”. We all know that women have been repeatedly betrayed by the hierarchal and hostile nature of power in their organisations. Many of us remain silent precisely because there is a repercussion — either we are vilified, or our careers take a hit, or the process takes years out of our lives instead of the offenders carrying the cross. The unraveling of Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey is not because his victim registered a police complaint or filed a court case or because he complained to the Actors Guild. He simply told his story to an online portal — and he was believed. Isn’tbelieving victims and survivors of abuse the cornerstone of the feminist movement? Harvey Weinstein was not undone by “due process”, but exposed by a newspaper. To insist on legality and officialdom as a measure of truth, knowing how the decks are stacked, is grossly unfair.

It’s healthy that the list challenges cosyness built around wider ideological affiliations and automatic allegiances. Because Tehelka was a media mascot for liberals, Tarun Tejpal, a rape accused, continues to have social acceptance and support. Similarly, when the High Court overturned the rape conviction of Peepli Live director Mahmood Farooqui (because apparently no is not always no), the outrage meter did not go through the roof partially because of other liberal convergences. There is a need to protect ‘people like us’ social elites even among liberal feminists because their other politics gets in the way.

All of us used the #MeToo campaign to underscore how widespread sexual abuse is. I did not hear any protestations at the time about procedures, protocols and institutions. That social media moment was embraced by the same feminists who have trashed the list. So there has been an absence of consistency in the arguments against social media as vigilantism.

Need for elaboration

But I do have one serious problem with the list: there is an opacity to the complaints that is disquieting. I agree with the right of the complainants to remain anonymous; they are up against men of influence. But while it is their prerogative to decide how much they are comfortable sharing, it is only fair to provide some more information. Not because we don’t believe you, but because we want to know the nature of the complaints, whether all the men should be clubbed together, and whether their universities, students and peers should be calling for internal inquiries. Historian Partha Chatterjee, for example, has asked to know the nature of the allegation against him. This seems reasonable. Not because of any insinuation that the women who named him are lying but because elaboration, as professor Christine Fair did in a blog post, makes it easier for others to demand accountability, even if the complainants opt not to.

But even if you disagree with the list, this implosion — the mocking of ‘Savarna’ feminism by Dalit writers, the push for us to examine our own privilege, the millennial pushback against feminists of my generation — is good. None of us are the final arbiters of truth and justice and this inflection point will compel us to find a more inclusive language in which to talk to each other.

Barkha Dutt is a Delhi-based journalist

The Hindu

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