Four months after a crowd-sourced list published on Facebook alleged rampant sexual harassment in India’s academia, a law professor in New Delhi has been found guilty by an internal inquiry – and asked to step down from his administrative post.
A committee set up at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) found that Professor Lawrence Liang, dean of its School of Law, Governance and Citizenship sexually harassed a woman who is a student pursuing a PhD with another university in Delhi.
A final inquiry report dated February 20, 2018, recommended penal action against Liang and that he relinquish any administrative duties. It also recommended that the university issue “a warning letter” saying he would face serious consequences including “suspension from service” if there were any more complaints. The probe noted that Liang was in a position with “a large number of students and faculty under his care.” A copy of the report is available with Asia Times.
In a detailed complaint filed on October 10, seen by Asia Times, the complainant formally asked Ambedkar University to investigate and take action against Liang. India passed a law five years ago – ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 – which mandates detailed investigations into any such complaint.
Debate about sexual harassment in academia erupted last October after scholar and author C Christine Fair published a scathing piece, naming fellow academics who had harassed her. In the same month, several women in India crowd-sourced a list of names from Indian universities, alleging that many professors had harassed women.
Liang – a well-known lawyer from Bengaluru (Bangalore) whose career highlights are detailed by Wikipedia – was named on that list, but no proof was offered against him at that time. He is a co-founder of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) and the author of two books – Sex, Laws and Videotape: The Public is Watching and Guide to Open Content Licenses, both published by the influential Piet Zwart Institute in The Netherlands.
Multiple incidents alleged
The Ambedkar University committee’s final report on harassment in this particular case details a number of instances when Liang allegedly crossed the line.
The first incident, recorded in the committee’s final report occurred on April 8 or 9 in 2015. The complainant met Liang, who was visiting Delhi for a conference. During their meeting, she alleged that Liang “forcibly kissed her, despite her asking him to stop more than once”. Liang did not deny that they had met or kissed. His defense was that “there was a physical ease between them” and although they “kissed for the briefest moment”, once she asked him “let us not do this again,” he stopped. He also told the committee that he “apologized” and the complainant told him “not to be embarrassed”.
The complainant said he harassed her again on the same trip. After the conference, when she went to pick him up from the University’s guest room for an “after party”, he “kissed and groped” her again. After, she said Liang sent her flirtatious texts.
The second incident occurred in February 2016 when Liang visited Delhi to deliver a lecture when the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student union, Kanhiya Kumar, was arrested for sedition. On the morning of the 27th he met her and “hugged and kissed her in a way which was unwelcome”.
In September 2017, the woman heard of similar incidents involving Liang and decided to file the complaint – on October 10 with Ambedkar University. On October 27, four days after the list of Indian academics was published on Facebook, Ambedkar University accepted her complaint and began inquiry proceedings.
The witness alleged that Liang “had a reputation of behaving similarly” and that two cases occurred when he was associated with the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), a progressive lawyers collective in Bengaluru.
In his defense, Liang said “he was forgoing the right to question the jurisdiction of the Inquiry Committee to hear the case in the larger interests of Ambedkar University Delhi and the responsibility owed due to the position of leadership.”
In their response, the committee said that it “disagrees” with Liang “that the unwanted kisses did not constitute sexual harassment…”
The committee went a step further to examine two other cases involving interns who had worked with Liang when he was with the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru. It examined the testimony made available to them and arrived at an unambiguous conclusion. Liang argued that as ALF was a “small organization of 18 people” and there was some ambiguity on what constituted sexual harassment.
But the IC’s conclusion differed. “Sexual violence or unwanted sexual overtures define sexual harassment in University spaces, as well as outside it. Therefore the incident with the intern… that of an unwelcome kiss constitutes sexual harassment even if it occurred in a non-University space.”
Prof Geetha Venkataraman, chairperson of Ambedkar University’s 20-member Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment, responded to detailed questions sent by Asia Times. “Due to confidentiality clauses in the above policy, I cannot discuss details of any case that [the inquiry committee] may have investigated.” However, she did not deny any of the facts mentioned in the email.
In a response to a detailed questionnaire sent by Professor Liang after the publication of the story, stated:
“The Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment (CPSH) at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) has conducted proceedings in which I was the defendant. The CPSH has given a report and made certain recommendations. This is only one part of the process provided by the CPSH rules. Those rules provide that both/either party can appeal the recommendations. I informed the CPSH and AUD of my intention to appeal immediately on receipt of the report. I have not commented so far on the matter because of CPSH confidentiality rules. I can, and must, however, say this – I dispute the report in its entirety, its findings and recommendations included. Some persons have initiated selective leaks. These persons know that I have signed confidentiality rules and cannot respond. Selective leaks demonize, cause a media trial, and proclaim guilt in advance. I am passionately committed to AUD, and have worked hard to build the School that I am a part of, and I intend to exhaust every channel open to me to clear my name.”
Complaints about review set-up
Meanwhile, a student member of the university’s Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment, who spoke to Asia Times on a strict condition of anonymity, voiced unhappiness about the manner in which the inquiry was conducted. “It is the norm that any inquiry committee must have a student representative. However, in this case they did not include any student representative.”
The student said the university’s Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment has seven student members and seven teachers. The other six are nominees, non-teaching staff and external members.
“The student representatives … are quite upset that they weren’t included,” the committee member said. “So we have written to the faculty representatives to convene a meeting to discuss the issue.” According to this member, the fact that University authorities had still not acted upon the recommendations of the inquiry committee – two weeks after they were issued – had created a suspicion that the faculty was trying to favor Liang.
“From my experience, it seems that the rules are designed to protect the abuser rather than the victims,” the complainant told Asia Times. Her identity is being withheld to protect her as well as the fact that the law prohibits disclosure of her identity unless she agrees to it.
She feared that a person stepping down from an administrative post may not solve the issue. “He is in a position of power, even as a teacher. So how can they allow such a person to continue teaching?”
Meanwhile, although the law allows for monetary compensation and an apology to a complainant, no recommendation was made in either regard. The complainant is currently undergoing therapy for trauma and distress caused by these incidents. “However, it is up to Ambedkar University Delhi to ensure that the harasser pays for her treatment,” a member of the Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment told Asia Times.
(The story has been updated to include the comments from Prof Lawrence Liang)