Sexual Harassment in the Academia – What the Hitlist Misses: Debaditya Bhattacharya and Rina Ramdev

This is a GUEST POST by DEBADITYA BHATTACHARYA and  RINA RAMDEV

 

The past few years have not allowed us the respite to prepare for a fight. We were perpetually donning our war-gear – often forced without necessary ammunition into a battle that raged through parliaments and streets and colleges and colonies and our doorsteps. There was no time to strategise, no time to theorize, no time to bargain and no time to compose ourselves for the next day’s onslaughts. And yet, the onslaughts never abated. The mundane was coupled with the spectacular, the anti-national with the terrorist, the intellectual with the condom-user, the dissenter with the stone-pelter, and the everyday with the genocidal.

Such is the nature of fascism. It revels in a complete loss of reference, and in the process imposes a compulsory solidarity on those choosing to be on the wrong side of history. We bore our burdens with our allies who were forged out of a coincidence of struggles. Desperation killed nuance, because our immediate contexts were continually rife with the threats of injury. Some of us were maimed, some punished, some frightened and some silenced. But, all of us – each one of us – have been listed out in some registry somewhere for charges we do not know, for crimes we haven’t been tried for, for hearings that never will happen, for disobediences we were compelled into and for a nation which outlaws all difference. We are forever in trial, a Kafkaesque one, which is in our wait for a verdict that will never come.

And while we sit huddled together outside the great structures that promise the ‘due process’ of law, we will have squabbled each other into a great many executions. The most tragic of those deaths will have been of the idea of justice. The courtroom will have become the morgue, as it replaces the memory of a Surekha Bhotmange and a Bhanwari Devi with that of a Bilkis or an Afzal or a Junaid. But, there is an other collateral that will come to haunt us through history. And that will be the burden of our differences. We will have been reduced to identicality, by the weight of those structures that consigned us to a trial in the first place.

Institutions and Historical Privilege

The university is no exception to those structures, though it peddles itself as one. Histories of injustice are internal to the functioning of any ‘corporation’, be it the nation or the educational institution. There is no manual of ‘correctness’ that grades our resistance to it, while ironically our participation within those histories – of behaviour in classrooms or interviews or parties – are forever the object of graded violence. The charge of democracy is about a relentless working at these spaces, to make visible the outsides of freedom that gird the insides of an institution. It is perhaps about creating with one’s voices and tears the fear of an em-bodied imagination that the powerful might be forced to live by. But, where does that imagination receive body from? Are policy-instruments, regulatory guidelines, elected bodies, fair trials, considered verdicts and deterrence norms – in short, ‘due process’ – enough to ensure justice? Perhaps, not alone – as these times have repeatedly proven. Perhaps, we need to create networks of constant vigilance over these ‘processes’ to prevent those minor lapses and major elisions that compound history. What then are these networks of vigilance – social media vanguardism, third-party confidantism or more?

In all the mayhem that ‘The List’ of celebrity ‘sexual offenders’ has generated on social media, we stand the risk – by the very writing of our most intimate dissensions – of being clubbed into one camp or the other. We write in fear of being boxed into binaries, much like lists are prone to do in their unquestionable preference for neat categories. The savarna left-liberal versus the Dalit vanguard, the ‘due process’ feminist versus the public trial feminist, the ‘established’ women’s rights activist versus the younger ‘inexperienced’ social media crusader, the legal constitutionalist versus the instant justice-seeker, the loyal rape-apologists of Brahmin predator-friends versus the third-party witnesses to lived sexual violence, the abettor-beneficiaries of institutionalised patriarchal privilege versus the self-proclaimed moral conscience-bearers. And this is where we lose sight of the structures that not only empower us into positions of relative privilege, but into networks of complicity with powerlessness.

We speak here not to accuse or excuse, but to evolve a critique of our own convictions and to test them against a culture of impunity that indeed installs male privilege as the fulcrum of all institutional spaces. We write to say that – yes, we are disarmed by the naming of some of our closest associates beside those who we know are hardened assaulters, but we do not wish to bail out any on the force of our recommendations or testimonials. We also do not want to dare any of our male colleagues – savarna or Dalit – to proclaim their innocence through ‘little’ social media acts of moral self-righteousness, nor do we want the feminist in us to not face up to the inefficacy of institutional infrastructures of redressal. It is true that ‘due processes’ have failed time and again to ensure a climate of ‘bekhauf azaadi’ for the women of those very institutions that have taught them the value of it, in slogans and struggles and classroom lectures. But, must the answer therefore lie in informal archives of secret charges that only fly in the face of our collective angers, or must they translate into movements for stronger and better-represented punitive mechanisms to hold those powerful men accountable for their acts? At a time when Vice-Chancellors and university administrations are trying their best to destabilise mechanisms of sexual justice – by subjecting women students who demand the right to dignity to either police batons or puppet committees – does an extra-juridical championing of justice help our cause?

As the list swells into a public databank that testifies to the magnitude of sexual violence on ‘safe’ campuses, one wonders why most of these names belong to institutions where the recourse to ‘due process’ has been eminently available and possible. It follows, as many have argued, that such processes often turn out to be biased and do not inspire confidence in the fairness of proceedings or the certainty of punishment for the accused-but-powerful. Indeed, this is the historical-structural index of male privilege that institutional procedures are susceptible to. But, problematically enough, doesn’t such a catalogue then restrict the struggle against gender injustice to a certain enlightened minority of victims – while at the same time ignoring the role that hard-earned structural mechanisms have played in sensitising these women to their sexual rights? Does the ethics of procedure – for all the vitriol that has already been directed against its effectiveness – really prove all that redundant in working towards a ‘consciousness’ of violence?

Consciousness: Too Little and Too Less?

This of course explains why almost all of the academic ‘offenders’ on Raya Sarkar’s list appear to belong to the better-known elite metropolitan institutions/universities. But, would that also push us a step further to ask why women students from non-elite lesser-known/unknown provincial institutions (or, mofussil spaces) cannot muster courage enough to even participate in such anonymous social media campaigns? Why don’t routine offenders from BHU or a Patna University or a Magadh University – or any of the new central or state universities, for that matter! – feature on the dreaded list? How are the invisible laboratories of Hindutva invasion somehow immune to our registers of sexual crime? Does it mean that these spaces are relatively freer of gendered violence, or that there are no ‘due processes’ to be sought? The answer currently rests in the realm of the unsaid.

And so, while there are everyday instances of assault by not just Brahmin/ Bhumihar/ Rajput/ Yadav/ Kurmi/ Koeri/ Dosadh/…male teachers (and yes, by actively patriarchal female teachers too!), but also by Deans of Students’ Welfare and Proctors who head student councils or enquiry committees, there is none to bring them to book. Or, even to organise the survivors – because, obviously, they don’t make news enough. Does anybody care about the failure of ‘due process’ in these spaces (or about the puppet bodies manned by assaulter administrative heads, in paper-abidance of UGC guidelines), or care to work within these non-celebrity spaces to bring in even a cognitive perception of gender-justice? Would those of us speaking out on ‘behalf’ of vulnerable women care to engage with structures that compound vulnerability on a daily basis, outside of our own privileged spaces? If first-person information were to be the only authentic sources, these are campuses where women are regularly slut-shamed for as much as not carrying a dupatta. But, that doesn’t count as sexual harassment, does it? Male invigilators during examination routines use their surveillance prerogative to ask women students to fold up salwaars to see what’s written on their legs, while boys are ordered to unbutton their shirts to prevent criminal propensities of cheating. DSWs clad in their inner garments traipse around during class hours, while university events offer unguarded opportunities for molesting women students and more. Women’s hostels are raided by male teachers at any time of the day and without notice, and students are unabashedly interrogated for their personal relationships or sexual choices. Those staying in the library till late at night are warned about their izzat, and made to swear discipline by their womanly sanskaar.

Understanding Harassment

But of course we would have no register of such incidents. Not only because there is no ‘due process’, but because these charades have become so normalised in their unchallenged repeatability that students don’t even recognise them as sexually violative. Let alone having the institutions or the language to register sexual abuse, what does one do when harassment is not even recognised as such? And this is where the struggle for gender-justice becomes an arduous process of not just numbering cases of complaint, but of counselling women students about the substantive meaning and import of harassment. And then, getting them to speak about their experiences, making them see the toxicity of it and deal with the trauma, find language, negotiate with peer-groups (often in the absence of ‘student councils’ and teacher associations!) and then demand ‘due process’. Naming offenders would have been easy vengeance in these cases, but never a guarantor of any attainable trace of justice. Because informal campaigns carry insurmountable risks to the complainant’s mental and physical health, and can only reproduce injustice within classrooms and hostels and homes. Incidentally, many early-career/‘contractual’ academics do also engage in this labour of sustained mobilisation, at the possible cost of their jobs and ‘reputation’. Procedure, therefore, is not something worthy of being abandoned for its failures – when having it could itself be a privilege. Protecting the integrity of such procedures is the difficult task of feminism; delegitimizing them through vigilante models and methods will cost a lot of us all the labour that we have been risking for years.

It is exactly here that Raya Sarkar’s list seems disingenuous – because in its deliberate non-naming of the specific instances of offence, it works with some definition of harassment that forecloses all possibilities of conversation. The demand for an exact citation of charges levelled against each entry on the list is, principally, not a demand for ‘evidence’ or the disclosure of identities of the complainants. We do recognise the crucial confidentiality-clause that harassment proceedings are ethically bound by, and hence the popular presumption of victim-blaming in such a context is misplaced here. What a generic nature of charges might have still done is contour the idea of sexual justice as moored in certain forms of hard-won consensus over our bodies, choices, desires and consent. Such a process of arriving at a consensus is consciously shunned in the current campaign – insofar as ‘sexual offence’ is made into a self-explanatory category lodged in mysterious archives of individual understanding. Earnest conversations around what constitutes ‘sexual abuse’ within unequal relationships of power are crucial in prying open the blindness induced by millennial histories of male privilege.

Victims over Survivors: The List to Come?

Raya hopes the list will equip future students with a crucial forecautioning, that would help them negotiate their professional relations with the listed professors – “I took this opportunity to create a list to warn students using firsthand accounts from survivors. The list is primarily for students to be wary of their professors, because in my opinion, knowing how college administrations function, harassers will continue to hold their positions of power.” (https://www.buzzfeed.com/karthikshankar/why-i-published-a-list-of-sexual-predators-in-academia?bffbdialogue&utm_term=.jmXLKrJ9k#.eq2kLZYVl) Even as this is meant to arm the student, it carries an implicit exhortative admonishment – one that drives the onus of keeping herself safe from potential victimage back upon her. An empowering of the student is thus already always undercut by a ‘burden of responsibility’ that she must carry – and one that dangerously opens an experimental trial-and-error space for the sexual offender through its refractory focus. This is the classic inversion of the template of gender justice that could again mobilize discourses of blame and shame against the complainant, without actually ensuring the harasser’s accountability. A list such as this is protectionist in its impulse, much like lists of dos and don’ts, drawn by keepers and custodians of women’s safety, slyly placing the burden of the experience of sexual harassment upon the student. This also proclaims and reserves the future as a site of perpetual victimhood, wherein students will always need warning lists and where the exercising of caution will be an act in itself, one that could easily be scuttled out of the economy of redressal and justice.

Further, within the list’s purported arming of future students there is no attempt made to ensure justice for the current survivor, beyond a public naming of her perpetrator. Its mode of anonymity and the deferred disclosure of details, foreclose in the present the possibility of redressal and accountability beyond the singular act and event of naming. The list might ‘save’ future students, but the question of justice for present survivors is collaterally deferred into the future. And yet, justice for the survivor is also about her own survival with dignity and her right of redressal in the present, one that must not be elided in an instrumentalizing of her experience for the continuing mission of aggregative listings in all futures to come. An iconizing of her role, an exaltation that props her as the poster-girl of vigilantism cannot ever be a compensatory overture for the materiality of her harassment and its lived horrors.

A Practice of Justice

Only acknowledging predatory sexual behaviour without attempting to bring it to justice, in effect, makes peace with the actual fact of male privilege in academia. In withholding details of the cases reported to the list, the materiality of the experience of sexual predatoriness is passed over, and its prevented outing cancels it as a measure and means to draft a strong policy against all that constitutes sexual harassment. In turn this could offer easy evasions to the actual predators on the list who could decry it for its lack of transparency even while hiding behind it. Since the details are missing for framing charges, the structural embeddedness of male privilege in academia would suffer no damage.

A serial list of offenders (without intending to provoke discussions around the terms of ‘harassment’) only serves to disguise the structural as individual acts of moral turpitude, and thus goes on to displace cultures of sexist prejudice onto nameable targets of knee-jerk resentment. Not only that, a timely debate on the material forms and expressions of harassment would have enabled the bulk of women within the university sector to measure their experiences against paradigms of justice that are most often imaginatively distant. In fact, all those survivors who have been cognitively damaged against a minimal apprehension of violence might emerge with the tools for an affective identification of victimhood, in the process. Isn’t the task of gender justice an equal commitment to the training of such radically other imaginations and forging of alliances beyond immediate equivalence(s) of identity? Don’t we realise that the vast majority of women with structural access to higher education will neither get a chance to enrol under the listed celebrity offenders nor in their respective elite institutions – and so, a list like this alienates more than it builds bridges? Raya’s claim to “save more victims from being harassed” is hinged on an indifference to those women who will neither know who these men are nor what harassment means. And unfortunately, that is where all numerical odds are stacked.

Where does this leave us and where do we go from here? It needs acknowledging that, despite the obvious problems of a list crowd-sourced by proxy and circulated without any actionable representation of cases, we are confronted by a moment of tremendous political urgency. It calls on us to earnestly take stock of institutions that we believed to be invested with our passionately transformative energies. We may allow this moment to spend its rage in social media circles and gather the dust of a damning distrust between those that sit on selection committees and those that queue up grade-sheets of ‘honour’. Or, we may try tapping into the realm of the cathartic, and unstitch the agonies that dress up everyday masculinity. The #metoo moment enabled an owning up to the trauma of experience – which may only be sustained and negotiated in a movement across college campuses for coalitions of collective trust. The transformative agenda lies precisely in this gap between the moment and the possible movement. And that gap is occupied by the painful ‘work’ of rallying for and building structures that recognise the sexual as the most intimately essential coordinate of justice.

This passage cannot be exhausted or even short-circuited by lists – strategically positioned between censure and defense, or neat self-separations between caste and gender privilege. We have to walk out into the sun, and see the university take shape outside its own insides, take the cause to schools along with the mandatory sex education classes, and alert young students to the nature of harassment and their rights therein. Debating and evolving guidelines continually through close understandings of cases that play out materially on our campuses, we have to ensure powerful mechanisms of redressal. We have to play the guards to the sealed GSCASH offices or those non-existent ones, bring back XV(D) in place of the weak and politically questionable ICC in colleges. It’s time now to reclaim our sensitization from the settled dust of collusion that we are all guilty of breathing into.

[The authors, currently teaching at colleges in Calcutta and Delhi, have always believed in the power of forging distant alliances and passionate collaboration. They have been working together on issues of political interest – just so that the differences of their everyday keep chasing them into the limits of ‘belief’.]

2 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment in the Academia – What the Hitlist Misses: Debaditya Bhattacharya and Rina Ramdev

  1. Eugene Correia

    The issue of sexual case trial for both complainant and accussed is being hotly debated in Canada. Here is part of the story on the Chief Justice remarks in Toronto. link given below.
    Canada’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has waded into the national debate on sexual-assault trials, telling complainants that while they have a right to be treated fairly and with dignity, they also need to be realistic in their expectations of a justice system that needs to protect against wrongful convictions.
    “Complainants and witnesses need to understand what is required of them in a trial and what they can realistically expect from it,” she told an audience of about 200 lawyers and judges, during her acceptance of the G. Arthur Martin Medal for lifetime achievement from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association in Toronto on Saturday. “No one has the right to a particular verdict but only to a fair trial on the evidence.”

    https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/chief-justice-beverley-mclachlin-on-sex-assault-cases-no-one-has-the-right-to-a-particular-verdict/article36763554/?ref=https://www.theglobeandmail.com&

  2. Pingback: A Facebook List – Site Title

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