Why Raya Sarkar’s list is not ‘vigilantism’

Clearly, some of our journalists and public intellectuals need to invest in a dictionary.

WrittenBy:Deepanjana Pal
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Ladies, feminists and gentlemen, I need to share an important announcement with you. Facebook is not the Supreme Court of India and a Google Sheet is not an official pronouncement of guilt.

I know. Crazy, right? See, I don’t go to Facebook much so when I started seeing the reaction to a Facebook post that lists and accuses 70-odd Indian professors of sexual harassment, I thought I’d missed the memo that Facebook had converted itself from a social media platform to a fact-finding mission whose discoveries are sacrosanct, legally-binding and essentially accepted as the truth and the whole truth, so help me, Mark Zuckerberg.

On Tuesday, a list that was evidently inspired by Shitty Media Men started circulating. It had names of Indian professors who have allegedly harassed, molested or abused students. Unlike Shitty Media Men, this list was view-only and not anonymous. It had an author. Raya Sarkar, a master’s student at the University of California, Davis, in the US, started compiling it after Huffington Post took down a post by C Christine Fair on the sexual harassment she has experienced in American academia. After publishing her piece, Huffington Post had the epiphany that Fair had written about “events that haven’t been previously published or verified” and removed it from their site. You can now read the post on Fair’s blog.

Among “the beloved gentlemen” Fair has written about is historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, a professor at the University of Chicago and widely respected for his contribution to postcolonial and subaltern studies.

Sarkar’s list began with Chakrabarty and has since been growing like a Complan kid. She told Buzzfeed, “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.” Dubbed the Sexual Violence Hall of Shame, it’s a work in progress. Sarkar has stressed that these men have been named by those who have faced harassment themselves or can credibly stand as proxy for a victim. Curiously enough, the Facebook post in which she details her process hasn’t got the kind of acknowledgement as the post with the list. Sarkar has also said that she has screenshots, emails and other forms of evidence to back her list.

Ironically, Sarkar’s post would probably have remained the stuff of whispered gossip if the anti-establishment website Kafila hadn’t unwittingly given it legitimacy. On the same day that the list became public, a statement appeared on Kafila, attributed to Nivedita Menon, one of India’s leading feminists, and signed by a host of intellectuals. Carefully worded, Kafila’s statement tries to dismiss the list and subtly sides with those accused by it. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously,” read the statement, ignoring Raya’s assertion that she knows most of the complainants. Kafila also says it’s “committed to due process, which is fair and just”, but doesn’t clarify if by due process it means the committees to address complaints of sexual harassment in colleges, which are notoriously biased and allegedly difficult for a student complainant to negotiate. Or maybe Kafila was referring to the Indian judicial system whose levels of progressiveness are evident in the fact that we now have a legal precedent that says in a sexual scenario, a woman’s “feeble no may mean yes”.

Leaving aside this sudden faith in The System and due processes, the statement concludes with this: “We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it, and if they wish to pursue complaints, to follow due process, and to be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice.”

Points to Kafila for that not-so-subtle indicator that they’ve got the big cultural guns, not Sarkar; and for neatly wrapping the threatening tone in a promise of (conditional) support.

Since then, the opposition to Sarkar and her list has been vociferous and intense. On Twitter, lawyer and columnist Dushyant wrote, “Down with due process of law. Hang/ lynch any/everyone whose name appears on a crowdsourced anon excel sheet.” Never mind that Sarkar is the only one to have been ‘lynched’ in the sense of being punished without an actual trial or investigation, on the basis of a Facebook post. (Dushyant has, however, gone on to tweet that his reservations about the list aside, not enough is being done to check sexual violence in universities.)

Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said that she stood opposed to the list because it bypassed the process of justice. “What concerns activists in such situations [where village communities back a person alleging harassment or abuse] is that it is so common for young Dalit or Muslim men to be accused of anonymously (without any woman actually having to come forward as a complainant as some women or men claim to be her proxy) and lynched,” wrote Krishnan. The real news here was that Krishnan was equating the experiences of Dalit and Muslim men from rural India with those of upper caste, privileged, urbane academics. Journalist Seema Mustafa went a step further and asked how Sarkar’s Facebook post is any different from the attacks carried out by gau rakshaks and attacks on Christians in Chhattisgarh. The fact that Sarkar has compiled and written out a list of allegations while the others she refers to are actually murdering people is a purely pedantic detail according to Mustafa.

Not one of the universities named have made any statement and as far as we know, there are no investigations into any of these faculty members. One can only hope that while we read comment after comment (much like this one), some reporters are following up on this story so that we have documented evidence of how sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse is received and dealt with on campuses. A few years ago, I’d done some very basic digging into Vishakha Committees and cells that were supposed to deal with violations in a few universities, to see how complaints of sexual harassment are recorded. I can only hope the situation is different today because back then, to find people in the academic establishment who were ready to acknowledge that there just might be “such problems” on campus was like spotting a little green man, carrying a pot of gold and riding on a unicorn. The process of filing a complaint and seeing it through was isolating, emotionally scarring, tedious and long. To some students, it seemed easier to just grit one’s teeth, bear it and warn fellow students so that they were better prepared.

Reportage like this is time-consuming, painstaking and requires maturity, investment and support. Commissioning opinion pieces that assume Sarkar’s list is an authoritative indictment is much easier. The only silver lining I can see is that in the process of shouting down the complainants and their champions, the opposition is giving credibility to the victims. Because really, would there be so many knickers in a twist if this was all just figments of a few women’s imagination and Sarkar’s Machiavellian plan to become world famous?

Here’s another detail that’s gone missing as we hear all the frenzied ranting against the list: the truly vulnerable ones, in this case, are Sarkar and the complainants. They’re the ones who could be sued and are currently being attacked professionally and virtually. The accused male academics haven’t been asked to explain or defend themselves, but their alleged victims and Sarkar are the ones who are being told to withdraw.

One of the charges against Sarkar and her complainants is “vigilantism”, which just goes to show that some of our journalists and public intellectuals need to invest in a dictionary. To say they believe someone who says they’ve been sexually harassed is not taking the law into one’s hands, which is what a vigilante does. To be a vigilante requires decisive and aggressive action that ignores the systems in place. Sarkar wrote a Facebook post. Move over, Batman. The act of writing a post isn’t even a witch hunt unless that list is the basis on which some sort of action is taken against people. So far, all the accused have got is protection from some of the leading feminists in the country, which speaks volumes about how structures and hierarchies are maintained in our society.

Viewed from a legal perspective, Sarkar’s list inhabits an ethical danger zone. The complainants are anonymous, the charges are vague and the only definite detail is the name of the accused. Sarkar has said that she’s kept the charges vague because if she gave specifics, it could be seen as defamation and would expose the identity of the complainant. Fair has opposed the list saying that women need to come out and put their names to their allegations because otherwise, it remains easy to dismiss these claims as maliciousness. While Fair has a point, just seeing the reaction that the list has got from prominent feminists in India makes it difficult to imagine a situation in which women who come forward would not be harassed.

We’ve heard from one academic, Ashley Tellis, who says he’s been falsely accused. Contrary to Krishnan’s claim, to write something on the internet is not the equivalent of blackening someone’s face. It’s neither that dramatic nor one-sided. This is a medium that not only allows for an exchange of ideas, but thrives and is enriched by civil disagreement. That’s why Tellis can use it to proclaim his innocence, for instance.

Tellis believes he was included because he criticised the list publicly, suggesting Sarkar hasn’t been sticking to her methodology. It’s strange to see an openly gay activist in Sarkar’s list, but there’s no evidence to back Tellis’ claim either, which is worth keeping in mind since one of his charges against Sarkar is that the list doesn’t show any evidence to support the allegations. (While raising some excellent questions, Tellis also decided that he needed to mansplain what “real feminism” is for all our benefit. Thank you kindly, sir, for showing us the way and dismissing all the work that doesn’t match this dated worldview that doesn’t recognise the existence of digital labour.) We’ve also heard from women like playwright Swar Thounaojam who corroborated that she’s experienced harassment from some of the names in Sarkar’s list.

Whatever the validity of the claims, sexual harassment is a serious problem on campus that just doesn’t get talked about enough. Over the years, using silence and dismissal, we’ve normalised inequality in our colleges and universities. We’ve encouraged students to ignore and tolerate rather than complain. Especially if the professor is considered brilliant, they’re allowed their ‘quirks’. Students should just grin and bear it. We’re told to think about the terrible ordeal a man would undergo if he was falsely accused, yet no one remembers the traumatic experiences that thousands of women have been through because the authorities sided with the male faculty member. To be falsely accused is not the norm, but that’s what we’re reminded of while the actual experiences of victims are forgotten. When Sarkar is asked to withdraw her list, when the allegations are disregarded because the complainants are anonymous, that norm of inequality is reinforced. In this case, silence isn’t golden. It’s a talisman that has kept powerful abusers safe.

For all its clumsiness and blind spots, Sarkar’s list may well be just the kind of disruption that we need because it demands that we — students, feminists, intellectuals, activists and journalists — do more and be less scared.

The author can be reached on Twitter @dpanjana.


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