The Fight Against Sexual Harassment: A Call for the Long Road rather than the Short Cut

We want to start with extending our deepest solidarities to the survivors of sexual harassment that runs rampant in the academy and beyond. We acknowledge that sexual harassment, in all its forms, is far too widespread. That senior and serial offenders have operated with impunity and survivors have been maligned and blamed for the assault. One of us is a woman and having handled enquiries with the GSCASH in JNU, has experienced and fought alongside the complainants for justice if the accused is a powerful reputed academic. As young people and students, we understand the extremely difficult situations that people in their late teens and twenties find themselves in. We understand their confusion, their fear, their pain and their fragility. In most cases, victims are unable to speak about this to their families. Most of their friends are also in the same age bracket, just as confused if not fragile. We also empathise with the trauma of the survivors who may have been let down, in whatever measure, by the systems that were meant to support and ensure justice. We, therefore, understand the pain and the rage that underpins the creation of the list and why it draws such traction — it seems like it is the only way to get justice. But is it?

Following from a Facebook post on 24.10.2017, a list of 60 odd academics has been compiled and is being circulated. The list claims to be based on first-hand accounts of women coming forward to talk about and name the academics who are sexual harassers. At the onset let us make it clear that we do not doubt any of these claims nor do we care much for the “reputations” of the individuals who have been named in the list. Our objections to the list and its circulation, therefore, do not emerge from that position. We seek to interrogate some of the tactical and political difficulties that the concept of such a list poses to the broader movement for gender justice.  

The list is founded on the idea that the survivors of sexual harassment at the hands of academics have to take recourse to anonymous submissions of their experiences on social media because the legal and institutional mechanisms of redressal have not been adequate.

The mechanisms in question refer mainly to quasi-judicial committees that exist in the universities in India based on the Vishakha guidelines of 1997 which later became the Vishakha Act of 2012. Even though these committees are based on the Supreme court guidelines, their actual establishment in university campuses has been the outcome of a concerted and militant struggle waged by the democratic student movement. To this day, the establishment of such bodies in all universities across the country continues to be one of the most significant demands of the progressive student movement. Although not always succeeding, the continued struggles of the progressive and democratic sections of the university ensure that these committees remain comparatively autonomous from administrative depredations. The impetus behind these bodies continues to be an indispensable need to provide for a democratic, stable, transparent and publicly accessible space for redressal of complaints of harassment within the university spaces. In JNU, for example, the GSCASH ensures a robust complaint screening and enquiry process. An enquiry committee into complaints of harassment filed by a student against a faculty member is mandated to include a student representative (who is annually elected). The inquiries are also timebound and are painstakingly conducted through multiple depositions from both the parties as well as witnesses if any. Decisions are arrived at democratically within the enquiry committee and are ratified by the entire body of GSCASH before they are passed on to the administration to take action. These due processes protect the complainant with a confidentiality clause and a restraint order against the accused. At the same time, they ensure that the accused have the right to defend themselves on the basis of the principles of natural justice.

List-making and “naming and shaming” position themselves as a more effective method to combat sexual harassment within the academy in opposition to the institutional mechanisms, in the process undermining them. Ever since their establishment these committees have faced constant attacks from Hindu Nationalist groups like the ABVP as well as university administrations. While the administration has undermined such bodies by shielding the individuals found guilty, the reactionary circles amongst the students have tried to discredit the committees by spreading malicious lies about them and calling them man-hating vindictive instruments. These attacks have increased manifold since the Modi government has come to power (in India) and there have been efforts to systematically destroy these bodies. For instance, the JNU students and teachers are currently in a pitched battle with the administration and the government to protect their GSCASH. In such circumstances, the punctilious functioning of these committees is what has maintained the faith of the students in them and made them rally behind these bodies to strengthen them against these attacks. To dismiss these mechanisms as ineffective only strengthens the discourse that is being employed to systematically dismantle them, as in the case of JNU.

What it boils down to, then, is a simple question. Is an individual, no matter how well-intentioned, better equipped to tackle incidents of sexual harassment in the academy than a collective body, with all its limitations, the members of which are responsible and accountable to the constituencies they represent? Is an individual, no matter how committed, capable of providing more consistent support than a collective body that perpetuates itself through its own procedural foundations?

The choice before us is straightforward. Do we fight to preserve and strengthen these institutions which are the result of the struggles of the women’s movement or do we call for their abandonment in toto and resort to tactics like making a list as an end in itself? Do we accept that with the collective action being no longer possible, the battle is already lost and the only hope lies in stray acts of individual resistance? Do we fight the behemoth of patriarchy with our ever so fragmented forms of opposition? Or do we choose the path of a long arduous democratic mass movement without the possibility of immediate individual glory to protect and defend the gains of the democratic women’s and students’ movement against unprecedented onslaughts that it faces at the moment?

We understand that our viewpoint may differ from that of our readers’. But we want to state emphatically that constructive internal debate always was and continues to be the only way forward for the women’s movement. We encourage differing opinions to be voiced albeit without hostility of the nature that any response to the list has sought in the last 24 hours. We recognise the vicious hate-speech that comes from misogynists every time a conversation about sexual harassment is initiated, and we condemn it in the strongest words. At the same time, we encourage the advocates of list-making to be able to discern criticism that comes from circles earnestly invested in the women’s movement from that of the trolls, rather than dismissing them all as ‘feku’ and engaging in other forms of name-calling.

Aparna Mahiyaria

Aparna Mahiyaria is a researcher, currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Drama Department, University of Exeter. She has served as an elected students’ representative to the GSCASH, JNU in 2014-15.

Sahil Kureshi

Sahil Kureshi is a researcher and is a DPhil candidate at the Department of International Development, Oxford.

The authors can be contacted on: [email protected]