In the wake of the AUD report

This post is not a statement from the Kafila collective, but my individual response to the news about the Ambedkar University report having found Lawrence Liang guilty of sexual harassment. This response will also address some of the comments that were posted on the Kafila statement posted yesterday.

We learnt from media reports that a duly constituted committee of AUD has found Lawrence Liang guilty of sexual harassment. We did not know about this earlier, as some characteristically self-righteous and ill informed twitterati assume we did. Those whose social concern and activism is limited to busy fingertips obviously have no idea about the processes that have been carefully put in place in sexual harassment policies in universities, which protect confidentiality primarily to protect the complainant. So the first we heard of the leaked AUD report was from the media. Lawrence’s own statement was then issued that says that he plans to appeal this decision. This statement too we saw in the media.

From enquiry to report to appealing the decision (which can be done by complainant or accused) – these are all established stages of due process that feminists have worked for decades to establish, from the Vishakha judgement of 1997 onwards. That judgement itself was a result of feminist intervention. I do not understand ‘due process’ as a technicality alone, nor do feminists in general who have worked with women and men complainants on this complicated issue, especially in a context of power in academic contexts. We see due process as involving principles of fairness and justice, and the opportunity for both sides to be heard. We also see due process as involving graded punishment according to the context of the act of harassment. This is crucial. Depending on the nature of the act of sexual harassment, the punishment would and should vary. The minimum punishment cannot be termination from a job, especially as in Lawrence’s case it is clear that the incident did not happen in a student-teacher interaction. In my opinion, the decision of the Committee regarding punishment is judicious and appropriate to the situation as described.

Of course there are failures of due process, as for example in the Mahmood Farooqui rape case, in which the Delhi High Court overturned the lower court judgement that found Farooqui guilty. The High Court judgement said two mutually contradictory things. That it is doubtful that the incident ever took place. And second, that if it did take place, the complainant’s ‘no’ was too feeble for the accused to understand that it was not consent. As Mrinal Satish puts it:

If on the basis of the evidence adduced, the court laboured a doubt about the timeline of the survivor’s testimony, it should have acquitted Farooqui straightaway. That could have been said to be based on a sound legal basis, although one may disagree on the interpretation of facts. However, by articulating irrelevant “standards of consent” and ruling that the perception of the accused on the survivor’s consent is relevant in rape adjudication, the judgment causes immense damage to rape law, and to the advances made—both in law and public discourse—after the 2012 Delhi gang rape.

So yes, due process does not always deliver justice.  And when such perversions of justice happen, it is our responsibility to produce the counter narratives at every level, from protests on the ground to analyses of the judgement, that will change the common sense around these issues. For the finger-tip activists with no historical memory, it may be necessary to remind ourselves that the 1983 amendments to the rape law came out of widespread social reaction to the Supreme Court judgement that acquitted the rapists of Mathura. Similarly the 2013 amendments emerged after protests and interventions after the Delhi gang rape. This is not the place for a critical analysis of the 2013 amendment, but my point is that when due process fails to deliver justice we do not give up on it but struggle to make it more accountable.

Just as when democracy fails us and ‘the people’ put fascists in government, we do not give up on democracy.

It must also be noted that there has been no statement from AUD so far, and we are all basing our understanding on a report leaked to the media before the process is complete. The AUD process includes the opportunity for both sides to appeal, only after which is the report made public. We must keep this in mind, that the process is not complete.

Nevertheless, both I personally as well as the Kafila Collective have taken the leaked report to be genuine, and we accept that a clear and just procedure has been followed up to this point in the proceedings. We await the end of the process to collectively decide our next course of action.

Does the AUD report establish the validity of the List? On the contrary, it thoroughly invalidates the politics of the List which I still hold to have been an act of abdication of responsibility, as was established by the defensive and vacuous responses of the administrators of the List to Partha Chatterjee’s direct question as to what the complaint against him was. They had no details to provide, and when backed into a corner, very soon simply started attacking him again, asking him to consider his own behaviour over the years and decide if it was sexual harassment! But one of the key feminist interventions has in fact been to establish that some kinds of behaviour considered normal are not normal or appropriate. Feminists have worked to define sexual harassment to the extent possible, and this has a pedagogical function as well, in that it helps people to revise their previous behaviour. We are trying to build new spaces, new forms of interaction based on mutual respect, and we believe that social interactions can be transformed through political intervention. To this end, we believe that dialogue and conversation are as necessary as an end to impunity.

As for this particular case, it should be clear that the justification of the List supporters at that time, that due process never works and that is why a hasty list with no context or description of the alleged acts was required, has been proved to be untrue. The complainant did get a hearing through the procedures established by AUD in 2014, under the policy on sexual harassment that it established, and the report has established culpability. This policy was evolved through wider consultations with the larger feminist legal community, which has worked for decades to establish due process on sexual harassment through policies in universities.

The question about whether those who signed the Statement that questioned the List now realize the List was “correct” only arises from those who accused us of protecting people on the List and worrying about “innocent men” on the List. These were never our concerns, as anybody simply reading our Statement will see. Our concern was that the politics of the List was dangerous for feminist politics – for attempts to make sexual harassment visible as a crime. And indeed, the ridiculous responses of the administrators of the List to Partha Chatterjee justified our fears.

It is also important to remember the simple fact the List is not some grand originary moment. It was started in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, which in turn came out of decades of feminist politics that in the US has struggled to establish sexual harassment as a crime. There is also the very long history of ‘breaking the silence’ on sexual harassment in India. So the fetishization of the List and some individuals by themselves and by other finger-tip activists is in fact contrary to all feminist ethics.

How should the academic community react in terms of future speaking engagements or academic collaboration with those found guilty of sexual harassment? I think it is not for anybody to lay down how an entire community should react. Individuals and collectivities will take decisions on this as and when necessary, and I would certainly consider it a deeply undemocratic act to insist on one kind of response from everyone. There are ongoing conversations about what appropriate responses can be, and these difficult conversations are unavoidable.

There is no quick fix to the complicated issue of sexual harassment, and complicated it is. And certainly the kind of self righteousness, lack of self-reflection, moral high ground capturing and continuously accusatory tone adopted by some on social media is not helpful at all.

15 thoughts on “In the wake of the AUD report

  1. Priyanka

    I disagree with your take on the outcome of this case. It does not really matter whether the harassment occurred between a teacher and a student. Why would the committee even take on the case if that was the sole dynamic they were interested in? The very fact that they entertained a ‘third party’ complaint shows that it is his position of power which is the issue here, not his particular relationship with the complainant. And if he was found guilty of harassment, while being in a position of power, then he is not worthy of holding that power. Thus the just outcome would be removing him from that position, i.e. from his position as BOTH dean and faculty. As our definitions of what constitutes justice change and adapt, we can also apply pressure on due process (through public discussion) to make it reflect justice.

    1. sheels

      Does the nature of harassment not matter ? – so anything from a look to a lewd suggestion to a kiss to far more aggresive forms of misconduct to even more abusive forms of behavior to outright rape , all deserve the same punishment ? There is to be no sense of proportion , no sense of basic tenets of giving people second chances, reform and rehabilitation ( even irrespective of who they are and which ideology they belong to) ? Ofcourse this is not to deny the trauma for the victims. But If we choose to not acknowledge either the fact that while patriarchy and power relations define ALL the varied forms of gendered sexually charged interactions , there is however a whole spectrum of behavior that lies in that continuum ….or that principles of justice are based on not merely punitive measures, but also on ideas of engagement, reform and rehabilitation in case of even the gravest crimes committed , we not only end up being merely vindictive in our quest for justice , but also become counterproductive, and defeat the very purpose of feminist engagements with societal change in cultures of impunity ( which are far greyer and varied).

      1. sheels

        And yes this holds for even people in power and what constitutes abuse of that power – there is again a whole continuum even here and not everything on that continuum of what could be considered abuse of that power can be given the same form of punishment ! – the context, the nature of such abuse and the extent of violation- all matter. I would not ever want to be part of a feminist engagement which in its demand for justice and redressal becomes no different than others .

      2. Priyanka

        You are confusing too many points. I said the exact nature of his relationship with the complainant is not the question, as much as the nature of the act –– which AUD defined as ‘harassment’. If he had raped a woman, it would have had to be taken to the police, a very different outcome from merely removing him from a teaching position. Harassment, which is what he did, deserves removal from a teaching position, and I think this is the point that many people are trying to make.

      3. Priyanka

        I think the fact that he violated consent not only with a colleague but also with an intern, and that he set up an organisation with no sexual harassment policy in place, makes him unsuitable for a position of responsibility over large numbers of students. It’s high time we examine our own concerns about ‘harshness’ and confront the fact that it is precisely the characterisation of termination as harsh that allows for abuse in universities to continue.

        1. sheels

          If teh fact “he set up an organisation with no sexual harassment policy in place, makes him unsuitable for a position of responsibility over large numbers of students ” was to be held as a principle, then we loose count of teh number of organisations and institutions set up by people who’s appointment should be terminated …the idea is to force the organisation where these policies do not exist and where sexual harassment may exist , to adopt them , not to terminate the employment of those who dont as a first step ! …. And i reiterate, abuse of position of power cannot have a punishment that is straightaway ‘termination of employment’ , irrespective of the nature of the abuse……. I am not the one mixing issues. Rape was an extreme example i quoted while pointing out the spectrum, but i also quoted a number of other instances which can constitute this spectrum of abuse of power and harassment. These are part of a larger culture of male power and impunity in academia , but does that mean that the principles of justice that apply elsewhere do not apply here? If the first step for anyone who is responsible for a number of other people who are vulnerable and under him, in any organisation or institution, was straightaway termination of their employment irrespective of what constituted that ‘violation’and in what context, to my mind, it constitutes a clear violation of the principle of graded punishment. People holding positions of power over a large number of people who may be found guilty of harassment exist all around us , does it mean that we loose a sense of what is proportionate justice according to the situation ? He has been issued a warning and threat of suspension if this occurs again besides being abdicated from a position of responsibility. For a first step ,given what is known about the nature and context of the ‘violation’ , this seems appropriate . However this is subjective and opinions may vary . However, I do not agree that “concerns for harshness” or “the characterization of termination as harsh that allows for abuse in universities to continue” hold at all. If that was true and if ‘concerns about ‘harshness’ or ‘proportionate punishment’ did not exist ,we would be living in an extremely intolerant and authoritarian society , not a more equitable society !! ……The extreme form of these arguments in general could for instance well coincide with a case for death penalty which feminists have been fighting against for so long both for rape and in general as a principle in itself. There are lots of people who could similarly argue that absence of such penalties and concerns for harshness in a society allows crime and abuse in society to continue !!!….what is harsh and what is not is subjective, yet we have to find a reasonable criterion to think about them .

  2. Gautam

    How can you even write this…”The minimum punishment cannot be termination from a job, especially as in Lawrence’s case it is clear that the incident did not happen in a student-teacher interaction.” What does this mean? Professors harassing non-students should have some privilege? What about harasser staff members, what about harassing at conferences, what about harasser anyone anywhere… why does it deserve a different treatment?

    1. Nivedita Menon

      Gautam, it is a key principle of just punishment that it should be graded according to the nature, severity and context of the crime. Sheel’s comments actually cover the objections you make, but yes, there is a range of different offences across the spectrum, from sexism to sexual harassment, and yes it does make a difference if the harassment is by a person in power over the other person. Harassment by a peer at a social gathering does have to be taken differently from harassment by a teacher of his or her student whether in a classroom or a conference. Sexist comments in a classroom do have to be addressed differently from a teacher making sexually loaded comments. Whether a statement is sexually loaded itself needs to be discussed by feminists. For instance, is it sexually loaded to discuss sexuality at all? Instead of adopting this accusatory and all knowing tone, perhaps you could join the conversation in a positive mode of engagement, assuming you are speaking to someone as concerned as you are about the issue.

  3. sheels

    However i do see the list as the manifestation of a moment( abstracting from individuals involved) that was waiting to happen given certain cultures of impunity that are deepy gendered within academia and have carried on for a while and which are not even necessarily easily slotted under ‘harassment’. While we may differ with the modalities of engagement etc, we all know moments of rupture or eruption may never come in the form we consider ideal , nevertheless require both an acknowledgement, perhaps even empathy with what they represent , but with a critical engagement to perhaps move them in desired directions?….i wish this had not become so confrontational and polarised within feminist circles,while the concerned men (not merely the ones listed) within academia and progressive circles are happily by and large escaping much engagement with it… except some defensive and apprehensive counters . Wish these difficult conversations, both among feminists as well as with men located within these larger cultures would occur ….

  4. arosecellar

    Sexual harassment was still a relatively new concept in the early 1980s. A federal court recognized it as discrimination in education for the first time in a case that was brought in 1977, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established criteria for defining it in 1980, the year before Karl arrived at Harvard. By the time of Karl’s complaint, Harvard appears to have admonished only two other professors for sexual harassment — the poet Derek Walcott in 1982 and another professor in the government department, Martin L. Kilson, in 1979…
    Karl began to feel that, despite acknowledging that her complaint was justified, Harvard wasn’t really taking the issue of harassment seriously…
    In January 1984, not knowing that in two years she would begin a long career at Stanford, Karl sat down at her typewriter to start a journal. “I can’t stand this any longer,” she wrote…

    https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/harvard-harassment

  5. Prerna Subramanian

    I genuinely want to know if there is a way out in these things-
    1) Not create a hierarchy of experiences/ whose trauma deserves how much punishment under sexual harrassment. Considering a serial gaslighter professor who sends lewd text messages can also be a trauma-causing presence if allowed to be on campus because raping and sending rapey messages aren’t one and the same, and deserve different punishments.

    2) When we talk of context, narrative and explanation, and knowing the List is not an alternative justice system ( it is an assumption that it was claimed to be so, it was an already existing gossip network that gained a social media format), if explanations, narratives have to be demanded, why is that it is assumed that the men on the list will be harmed by naming? If they have justifications for their innocence, they have all the opportunities in the world to justify with their narratives, accounts. What is the fear about? If they have really done nothing, what do they have to lose? Mose of them clearly haven’t lost anything even after being named, they made to the list because they held powerful positions and were hard to be named for a long time. And second, Why is that the burden of the initial narrative falls on the victims? Why can’t the men asked for justifying why they shouldn’t be on the list?

    3) Is there anyway out for the experienced feminists in this field, using the term experienced in the sense of larger proportion of direct participation in the field of sexual harassment redressal policies, to not make this a battle between the “finger-tip activists” and themselves? Social Media activism is no joke, it comes with its own challenges, has its own powerful moments and the significance of feminism lies in its ability to take various forms and claim different spaces? Why is there a need to create such crevices, rather than invite a humble dialogue? Why is there a constant patronizing tone of “we know better because we devised these laws” from the feminists who have worked in this field for a longer time and have their own ways and means to go about seeking justice? Is only one form of resistance allowed, do we really want to create such divides when the right wing is clearly getting more solidified? Why is there always a need to have a “we one upped you” emotion? And I am sorry, no one has said that the List gets justified as an alternative legal procedure. If it was anything, it was a political tactic which opened up the various gaps and contradictions our system has, it brought back the attention to the failures of due process you now attest to in this article. It helped women think of the various experiences they have managed to let go of as potential harrassment situations and revaluate the ways in which they have been mistreated. By invalidating the many varied consequences of the list it had on women, you invalidate the various responses women had towards the list. Creating a watertight “List Supporters” “List Condemners” is so problematic. I don’t think there is a clear cut binary like that. There are people who got a vent through that list but did not support the way it created a domino effect. There were people who never saw it as a legal alternative, but as a collective purge of something a lot of us were sitting on, trying to deal with it in unitary forms of legalities. There were people who condemned the list in its haphazard technicalities which you present here as its biggest flaw, but they saw the List as a whole as something of a conversation-starter. Some did see it as an alternative justice system, and they know that Facebook will never provide them with justice, because when women speak out in any forum- virtual or non virtual, the first response to any experience of theirs is invalidation, disdain and marked as “attention-seeking”. Women know that their narratives- be it on the list or in the due process will go through scrutiny of various kinds. The List is not a saviour at all, it is clear to even those who made the list- Facebook comes with its own due processes, with its own systems of inspection, judgement, regulations and it is sometimes more harmful. Women who chose to speak for that list know it too well that this list is not the answer to their troubles. And making these clear binaries that women who seek justice saw justice in the list is a gross misunderstanding, and disheartening.

    With virulent remarks from within the feminist community to young, budding activists, writers, thinkers, intellectuals, it has instilled a different kind of fear- that not only we would be labelled as armchair activists with nothing to back our ways of resistance up, but that our future work will be continually and processually invalidated because we did not choose the staple way of seeking or at least, trying to knock on the doors of what we think is “justice.”

    I implore you, as someone who has been in this field for such a long time, as is made clear in each and every statement that comes from the elder scholars in this field, that you invite dialogues, and not divides. The legal, the affective and the political should not be made so stringently different from each other, that all we have is in-fighting at the expense of trauma which anyway has to be dealt with in subjective and multiple ways.

    1. Nivedita Menon

      Prerna, I appreciate the sincerity of your response. I will only say a few things. It should have been quite clear that my use of the term fingertip activism referred to twitterati (in the sentence immediately prior to the first time I use it) and other social media users whose activism is limited to tossing off accusations and allegations from a self righteous high moral ground they permanently allocate for themselves. It does not refer to social media activism as such, of the grounded kind of which many of us are part, including myself.
      Two, I notice that criticism of “virulence” and “battles” is now always directed at those who respond to virulence and battles started by others, not with silence but combatively. It seems we are expected to bow our heads before twitter-storms of abuse and if we speak up, even to clarify our position, we are chastised. As to “fear”, and who fears whom, it is more than evident today that many feminists remain silent out of fear of being attacked in the vicious ways that some of us have been by those claiming to be more radical and feminist than everybody else.
      Three, the “one upmanship” that you refer to has always been displayed by List initators and supporters, not by those who are not in favour of that kind of politics. The moment media reports about the AUD report emerged, social media spaces were deluged with gleeful sneering posts and tweets attacking those who had criticized the List and claiming how wrong “they” were and how right “we” are. Some of us also received mails from journalists referring to these social media outbursts and asking us to comment. Many such comments deluged the Kafila Admin statement in Lawrence Liang too.
      Finally, fortunately for all of us, there are many many feminists, “young and budding” (in your words), as well as old and fading, who continue to do the hard unrewarding, unrecognized work on the ground through all of this – building institutions and processes, working with complainants and being feminist lawyers – out of the limelight, out of sight of social media glare.
      Dialogues are ongoing, I dont have to invite them, as you request me to. They are not happening in the ultra visible spaces of empty sound and fury, but they certainly are going on in other spaces, quietly, productively, with none of these divides of “budding” and “fading”, so don’t worry. Look out for them, join them.

  6. Pingback: In Finding Dean Guilty, University Expands Jurisdiction Over Sexual Harassment  - Thewire

  7. tu

    Besides these due processes and creating spaces within institutions, feminists can take a stand that they will not work with or collaborate with or do joint research or share space in public events, with academics who have been found guilty in cases/complaints on sexual harassment . That can be a deterrent. This can be done individually or collectively through a statement(s). Such peer pressure is perhaps necessary when institutions don’t impose stringent punishments or let the guilty off with warnings.

  8. tu

    It would have been better had the politics over the list was discussed separately while this post was just about the complaint and the process in AUD and the interim outcome. Irrespective of the list , this case is important and its ramifications deserve to be discussed.

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