Studying at a “liberal” college, one expects the institution to have a zero-tolerance policy against harassment of any nature, but that wasn’t the case with the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, until recently.
The institution landed in a soup post a petition signed by a group of 30 activists, journalists and students seeking an inquiry into sexual harassment accusations against ACJ’s adjunct faculty and prominent face in Chennai’s culture scene, Sadanand Menon. It raised quite an outcry on social media.
The institution’s Chairman, Shashi Kumar, dismissed the allegations, stating that the institution was under attack for being a “liberal campus”.
Amid the allegations and counters, it becomes necessary to discuss the state of the ICC at one of India’s premier institutes.
In the light of the events that have unfolded, one question remains unanswered. While the ACJ has maintained confidence over its zero-tolerance to sexual harassment policy, why was there no mention of an active ICC anywhere in the institution until now?
Prior to January 2018, when the allegations first came to light, the ICC was in a “dormant” state without even an active email address that students could reach out to.
On discussing this issue with fellow batchmates, it was discovered that many students of the batch of 2017-18 were unaware of the existence of an ICC in the college as it was not mentioned during the orientation or otherwise.
The accusations against Menon first mounted with the release of US-based law student Raya Sarkar’s list of sexual harassment accused (LoSHA) in 2017. Denying the claims, Menon came forward and gave an explanation to the students of his “arts and culture” elective about what could have possibly led to his name being added to the list. He also insisted that he didn’t do anything “to violate the Vishakha guidelines”.
The then ICC, headed by dean Nalini Rajan, refused to take cognizance of the matter and the chatter slowly died down. Up until then, the ICC was headed by a current Dean, even though the UGC guidelines advise against it, saying it may lead to a conflict of interest.
In the wake of this, students demanded a robust ICC and more specific demands of making the ICC gender neutral were also raised. Currently, the committee caters only to female students or workers at the institute.
The issue garnered fresh attention last month as a student from the batch of 2008 penned down her experience of sexual harassment by the faculty member in 2012 at Spaces (an arts foundation) on The News Minute, describing it as an “emotional repercussion”. However, she did not mention Menon’s name, instead calling him a “mentor”.
The student stated that she came forth with the complaint post-Raya Sarkar’s list as she realised she may not be the only one to have undergone harassment by Menon.
On approaching the ICC of the college, the sexual harassment survivor was told that action against Menon cannot be taken as the instance of harassment was outside the college campus.
The series of instances led student body members to approach the Dean, seeking an active ICC body. The demands resulted in the creation of a rehashed ICC committee, but the demand to make a student representative a member in the committee were refused by the management.
Initially, the ICC had denied initiating a probe against Menon on the basis of the allegations. After prolonged pressure from the students, the body later asked for two weeks’ time. The ICC even termed the allegations as defamatory and called them “character assassination” of Menon.
Post these instances, a group of 30 activists, journalists and students submitted a petition seeking an inquiry into the sexual misconduct accusations against Menon. The students have claimed that the institute was waiting for the graduation ceremony so that it could bury the episode under its garb of being a “liberal campus”.
The administration of ACJ issued a press release stating that Menon has decided to not teach his elective course “in order to avoid any damage to the reputation of the college.”
Amid the students’ grouch against the management and the administration’s denial of the charges, it becomes imperative to assess the structural flaws within the ICC.
Only when committees are made accessible, transparent and sensitive to students will our campuses be truly safe spaces, and champions of the “liberalism” they proudly celebrate.
Professor Menon could not be reached for a comment.