How far has the #MeToo movement come in India?

Raya Sarkar, Due Process and Academia’s ‘Harvey Effect

Earlier this year, during February’s first week, amongst notable names of men exposed as sexual predators, surfaced a name which shook the state’s contemporary poetry circle to its core. Shamir Reuben, a 24-year-old spoken word poet, was looked up to by an entire generation of Mumbai-based young poets before countless women led by Sakina Bootwala (a fellow poet) came forth and accused him of sexual coercion and harassment. Appallingly, the ages of the survivors he had harassed were anywhere between 14 to 21. With twiddling thumbs and rapid keystrokes, Twitteratis considered this as the eruption of the volcano known as India’s #MeToo movement, which rapidly gained momentum and soon gobbled up leading film stars, directors, and comedians.

Unlike popular knowledge, owing to Dalit erasure, the first wave of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign hit the nation’s shores in October 2017, with Raya Sarkar’s LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia). Sarkar, a Dalit law student of the University of California, compiled the infamous list which was later discredited and branded as a witch hunt. It began as an effort to collate names of sexual predators based upon first-hand experiences of women in order to ensure that other female students did not undergo a similar degree of harassment. The post which she curated on Facebook called out approximately 58 prominent Indian personalities in the academic space. All of them are associated with renowned institutions ranging from Jadavpur University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences to Christ University and Film and Television Institute of India.

When the numerous allegations slapped against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein broke the internet, the gut-wrenching accounts of rape, the display of solidarity at the Golden Globes, and the trending hashtag on Twitter seemed thousands and thousands of kilometers away.

Something like this won’t happen to me.

Even in the wake of the recent incidents, when some of my heroes turned out to be nothing but rapacious misogynists cowering behind their well-crafted feminist façades, the revelations stunned me but the tentacles of sexual harassment did not wrap themselves around me. I remained in this blissful bubble until I realized that predators aren’t just your typical-alcoholic-wife-beating-husbands or “bad” men, they can also be the “good” men and women — the wolves in sheep’s clothing. A predator could assume the form of the respected professor walking into your classroom to teach Chemistry or even the professor who is old enough to be your grandfather, whom you notice ogling at your legs in the middle of a lecture.

The moment this realization sunk in, the impossibility of sexual harassment suddenly transformed into a very real and tangible possibility. My university has a residential campus, which translates into a major proportion of the faculty and the entire student body sharing the premises throughout the day and the very thought of predators stalking our hallways was enough to send shivers down my spine.

Despite what is widely believed, sexual abuse has strong connotations attached to the notion of power rather than sex. Although the act is sexual in nature, more often than not, the motivation to harass, assault or rape stems from the perpetrator’s need to assert dominance or control. In sexual encounters, especially in the case of non-consensual ones, sex is casually used as a tool to gain or retain power over another person. The loud and clear message to the victim of abuse is — “You can’t touch a single hair on my body, I will do with you as I see fit”.

Usually, sexual violence is prominent within a one-way chain of command, wherein the abuser occupies a superior position in relation to the survivor. Even though the widespread movement outed predators lurking within women’s vicinities, who attest the power bestowed upon them by the mere virtue of them being men the current social media outcry has its spotlight focused upon famed figures, who have long misused the perks of their power to seduce and coerce. These scoundrels manipulate situations by dangling enticements with one hand and wielding threats with the other.

Guru-Shishya Tradition: What if the guru is an abuser?

While navigating through conversations revolving around power and abuse, our first instinct is to conjure up scenarios such as that of Nana Patekar and Tanushree Dutta, or Ashley Judd and Harvey Weinstein, or even Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. What is alarming is that hardly do we ever think of a lecherous professor preying upon a student; we fail to realize that sexual violence can lurk through the corridors of institutions whom we trust our children with. Across India, annually, college fees range from 5 lakhs to 10 lakhs, and in certain cases even more than that. Are parents willingly investing a 6–7 figure price tag into their children’s education just to thrust them into the hands of sexual predators?

The guru-shishya parampara is an ancient but strongly-embedded practice in our culture. As our civilization evolved, so did the framework of this tradition. In the modern-day hyper-competitive world of higher education, the asymmetrical power distribution has practical consequences; teachers have the upper hand, whereas students remain at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is generally viewed as the teacher’s word against the student’s: think of all times when a classmate of yours may have been ‘unfairly’ punished by a teacher. This has, as demonstrated by LoSHA, some very dangerous and damaging consequences.

Growing up, my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation looked up to their teachers as the providers of knowledge as well as guidance. Somewhere along the lines, particularly prominent amongst my cohort, some of these individuals realized that they could feed their perversion while conveniently being shielded by their accolades and distinction. Sexual harassment of students by their professors betrays the fundamental bond of a student-teacher relationship. It is simply wrong. Period.

The ongoing movement has devoted its resources to unmasking more and more- unsurprisingly male- academicians, who teach, participate in panel discussions, are felicitated for their outstanding achievements while being part-time harassers. Their disgusting deeds go beyond merely asking for sexual favors- they stalk, threaten, and pressurize female students to engage in carnal relations.

Professor Atul Kumar Johri, employed at the School of Life Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University is a classic example of exploitation of power within the confines of an educational institute. According to an article, which detailed his dismissal from the university, the female students of JNU had issued a statement accusing Johri of “often making sexually colored remarks, open demands for sex and commenting on the figure of almost every girl”. The charges of sexual assault have been slapped against him by as many as eight students!

A faculty member allegedly called a second-year student of Hidayatullah National Law University to his desk in the middle of a class and asked her to dance for him. Huffington Post reported that the man told the 19-year-old girl, “I have seen you dancing at parties. Why don’t you dance for me here?” He often called her to his room and revealed details about her whereabouts, which had her convinced that he was stalking her. The female professor that she confided in and her hostel warden told her that as he was from an orthodox background he was bound to say such things and that she should get used to him.

These are two documented cases out of several hundred ones, which never see the light of the day. Even before they can process the trauma of being assaulted, the survivors are taught to gulp back the pain and pretend as if nothing happened.

Why invite more trouble?

Men will be men.

This is just a part of life.

You must have liked the attention.

Time’s Up for “Due Process”.

Somewhere around April 2017, Dr. Mitul Baruah, assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology was accused of sexual harassment. Every article which extensively covered this allegation had “due process” prominently featured in it. Baruah, a faculty of Ashoka University- a pioneer of Liberal Education in India- was later included on Sarkar’s list following another survivor’s unsettling experience with him.

A major criticism of Sarkar’s approach, which was spearheaded and perpetuated by some of India’s acclaimed feminists, detailed that anonymous naming-shaming is not only sans context but also lacks answerability. Further, they pressed upon the need to utilize existing procedures while dealing with genuine complaints.

However, according to a website created by a handful concerned alumnae and students of Ashoka, as of July 2018, it had been over 500 days since the survivor first filed her complaint against Baruah. Moreover, as of August 2018, it had been over 330 days since a representative of the Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) reached out to her. It also provided plenty of pieces of evidence to suggest that Ashoka violated its own policies.

Not only in this case but in almost every single case of sexual abuse reported, the proceedings transform it into a circus, in which the survivor is the tamed animal and “due process” is the ringmaster. Over and over again, women are put through ordeals to relive their trauma and then left at that. At the end of the miserable road, there are no fair trials; impartiality exists only on paper, in this country, minds are made even before investigations commence.

In scores of universities and colleges across the nation, there is no established Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), and in some cases, it only exists as a formality. The ICC often maintains a certain prejudice towards the complaints registered, viewing them through a single lens, which ironically discriminates against the plaintiffs. One female student narrated how upon formally registering a complaint with her university’s ICC, she was threatened of dire consequences, not only by a perpetrator but also by an unnamed member of the committee. Where such committees are functional, they lack fair representation and result in the gross miscarriage of justice. As a direct consequence of this, sexual predators are roaming around Indian campuses with no accountability.

When the onus is on institutes to actually take action, why is none taken? The maximum amount of efforts are devoted to burying the ‘matter’ deep under heaps of paperwork, slut-shaming the survivor and letting the perpetrator go scot-free unless the institution is placed under tremendous pressure. Inaction with knowledge is the strongest kind of action; it sends out a glaring message to women akin to what Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court did, in the words of The Agonist’s Predator & Prayer, “We hear you, we don’t care”.

Written by Vibhavari Desai.
Illustrated by
Edited by Aayush Agarwal.