Sexual harassment at Benares Hindu University erupted into protests leading to the Vice Chancellor being sent on long leave Photo: via PTI
Sexual harassment at Benares Hindu University erupted into protests leading to the Vice Chancellor being sent on long leave Photo: via PTI

India’s social media has been a hotbed of angry debates these past 48 hours, after a young activist began curating a public list of men in academia who are allegedly known to be serial sexual harassers.

The list, created by 24-year-old Raya Sarkar, has accumulated 60 men already, including acclaimed names from Indian academia and universities. “If any one knows of academics who have sexually harassed/were sexually predatory to them or have seen it first hand PM me and I’ll add them to the list,” she wrote.

Sarkar’s initiative quickly gained support as women began writing names on the post and messaging her with their experiences. It also faced strong resistance. Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, warned women to consider the implications of such crowd-sourced lists.

“When women, frustrated by deeply entrenched impunity, demand instant vigilante justice or draconian punishments, many of us do, on a daily basis, counsel against such measures. We point out that civil liberties do matter to feminism, and there simply are no short cuts, and that some measures that feel satisfying may have dangerous political consequences,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Similarly, a group of 14 feminists published a statement in the Indian publication Kafila expressing “dismay” at “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 delegitimize 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,” it said. Noted human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover was one of the signatories on the statement.

The creation of this list is a reaction to the frustration women feel at the failure of Indian institutions to address sexual harassment. However, many women who have worked against sexual harassment are alarmed that the lack of due process can be weaponized against innocent people as well. While they support the naming and shaming of perpetrators, they are stressing on the need for a due process so that sexual harassment can be prosecuted effectively.

Meanwhile, activist Inji Pennu, who is collaborating with Sarkar, has claimed the list was, “put together as first-person accounts when women are coming forward to talk… ScreenShots of chats, Whatsapp messages, emails, call recordings are all collected in a folder for complete anonymity.”

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A follow-up post by Raya Sarkar

Sarkar’s Facebook post came shortly after an article by professor Christine Fair, titled “#HimToo: A Reckoning” appeared on Huffington Post. In the article, Fair named several academics, including a Nobel prize winner and a famous Indian professor, who harassed her in the course of her work. The article was eventually taken down and is now available on her blog.

Culture of silence vs ‘unsubstantiated accusations’

Even as debate continues on the moral jeopardy posed by Sarkar’s post, many believe it is a direct repercussion of India’s general culture of silence.

For many Indian women retaliation and victim-shaming are a real consequence of reporting sexual harassment, case in point being the recent events at the Banaras Hindu University, where a group of students protesting against rampant sexual harassment in the campus were thrashed by cane-wielding police.

A lackadaisical implementation of laws against sexual harassment does not help either.

In 2013, India’s Supreme Court laid down guidelines for every employer to mandatorily provide a mechanism to redress workplace sexual harassment complaints. These guidelines, known as Vishaka guidelines, were enacted to enforce working women’s right to gender equality. Yet, between 2014 and 2015, sexual harassment within offices rose by 100%, according to the country’s Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

More recently, a survey conducted by the Indian National Bar Association between April and October 2016, showed 38% respondents faced sexual harassment at their workplace, while 69% of them did not complain to the management.

Respondents recounted how internal committees did not deal with their complaint fairly, and how they were treated unfairly by peers and colleagues during the period of inquiry. Fifty percent of the victims left the organization after their case was closed, the survey found.

The data finds credence in a barrage of #MeToo posts from last week, and many high-profile cases from recent years.

In 2013, a law intern accused a retired Supreme Court judge of assaulting her in a her hotel room. In an interview with Legally India, the intern said she had managed to reach two more women who were harassed by the same judge, but neither were willing to come forward in public, mostly out of fear. “They don’t really want to jeopordise their careers,” she said, “he’s a Supreme Court judge. If it’s going to be his word against our word, he’s got more credibility, so to speak, of his words.”

A panel of serving Supreme Court judges eventually found him “guilty of unwelcome behavior and conduct of a sexual nature,” but did not recommend any action, “because the harassment took place after he had retired.”

Similar allegations were made by another intern against another top judge, who responded by suing newspapers who published them.

In 2015, a 29-year-old woman filed a complaint against the then chief of India’s Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), RK Pachauri, alleging criminal intimidation and sexual harassment. She filed a 33-page complaint listing numerous instances of harassment, and including evidence of physical advances in the form of WhatsApp messages and emails. Eventually she had to quit TERI.

Two other women have since levelled similar allegations against Pachauri; Delhi Police has filed a chargesheet saying there is “sufficient evidence” of harassment, stalking and threats, yet Pachauri remains out on anticipatory bail. He has been allowed to leave the country on one occasion and was even instated as the think-tank’s executive vice chairman, until he forced to step down amid extensive outrage. Pachauri was even accused of “influencing witnesses” and “hampering investigation.”

More recently, a young woman anonymously penned a post against Arunabh Kumar — the co-founder of The Viral Fever, a popular comedy collective. After her blog on Medium went viral, at least 50 other women reportedly made similar allegations against Kumar.

While TVF initially categorically refused all allegations and attempted to shame the anonymous writer, Kumar went on to say he “compliments” women for being “sexy”.

It took Kumar two months to step down from his position, and despite a formal police report being filed against him no concrete steps have followed.

Recently, more and more Indian women have chosen to publicly highlight sexual harassment at workplaces in the hope of legitimate action. Last week, while the #MeToo campaign was at its peak, a woman accused the owner of a bar named ‘High Spirits’ in Pune city of sexually harassing female patrons. Allegations ranged from groping to kissing them in public to wish them happy birthday. As more women came forward with their experiences, former female employees wrote of their own experiences with harassment. One woman recounted how the bar’s owner poured beer on her head after she complained about him to his wife.

Instead of launching an investigation, as directed by law, a spokesperson of the bar denied all the allegations, and said it was an attempt by people “with an agenda” to tarnish their reputation.

In light of a worryingly high number of such cases, women are arguing in favour of Sarkar’s move. “The implications of the form of the list is messy but one could argue, so is the extremely skewed power dynamics in the academic world,” read an article in The Ladies Finger.

“It is important to introspect why the onus is always on women to prove themselves as not guilty and over justify their allegations. The men mentioned in the list very well have the mechanism to defend themselves and come forward in case they are not guilty. It’s odd to note how ok we when our protest is armchair, how vocal we get when it’s to support a cause like #MeToo but don’t want to come forward when perpetrators are being held accountable for their actions. Instead of listening to the survivors we are quick to jump in telling them to do it the “right way”,” wrote another organization, KrantiKali, in support of Sarkar.

For those arguing that it is pertinent to allow the law to take its course, many pointed to the case of Mahmood Farooqui, who was cleared of rape charges by the Delhi High Court saying, “feeble no may mean yes”.

Sarkar has also claimed her post created such outrage because of an underlying caste bias — since she comes from the “lower-class” Dalit community and most of the academics named belong to the so-called “upper-class” Brahmin community.

In an issue layered with so many underlying problems facing Indian society there is now a concern about a possible solution.

“If you’re into law & ask for removal of anon, uncorroborated list of alleged harassers, perhaps also offer pro bono aid to alleged victims,” tweeted lawyer and Asia Times contributor Nandita Saikia. “The answer is to create support mechanisms through which abusers can be held accountable at law. Not just to have the allegedly abused shut up,” she wrote.

While Sarkar and her supporters ask “why must women always have to prove their innocence?” there is an equally strong argument that says public shaming doesn’t give the accused a chance to mount any defense. And lost between the two sides is a conversation on the need for India to find a solution to sexual harassment at workplaces that actually works.

(Asia Times reached out to Raya Sarkar for a statement but she did not respond. This article will be be updated if she responds.)