A Haunting

A list is haunting the Indian academia. The list of Raya Sarkar. What she has done is to create a virtual hall of shame for Indian academics accused of sexually harassing students and colleagues. As the list demonstrates, some of the offenders are known and have already been penalised while others have neither been formally charged nor held guilty. While objections have been raised regarding the authenticity of anonymous accusations and the ethics behind them, reports have also come to light of offensive behaviour, by certain individuals on the list, which were not available in the public domain in the past. Raya Sarkar has also claimed that each individual name included on the list is based on screenshots, first-person accounts and other credible information provided either by the victims or by their close friends. While it is true that the readers should have had access to the information provided to make up their own minds, one also understands how such revelations might endanger the victims even further and that they may be subjected to legal, social and professional ostracization and subjugation. The list will not bring about institutional redress for the victims, but it might warn future students and scholars which in itself would be a notable achievement. However, in a world of constant digital manipulation of all kind of data, especially images, how does one become sure of the validity of the evidence Raya Sarkar claims to have in her possession? Is it too much to imagine that some people might just be making capital of other people’s trauma to satisfy their own malicious intentions? What to do about the reputations of these men who might thus be falsely accused? The overwhelming support Sarkar has received of course suggests that her initiative lends voice to the silenced trauma that many women, across time and space, have experienced within the walls of Indian academia without much hope for justice. And it is also true that academics across the country, especially in institutions which have had several of their faculty members mentioned in the list, are also showing signs of modified behaviour, with even hesitant declarations of apologies and amends. Some of the accused who have come out in denial have also had their hypocrisy exposed by other women who have been emboldened by the list to openly declare the instances of harassment which they witnessed or experienced.

Unfortunately, the publication of the list was also followed by its denouncement by a group of feminists on the online platform Kaafila which went on to spark an even greater controversy, especially with Raya Sarkar and her allies castigating their critics as advocates of Savarna Feminism. A movement that should essentially aim for broad-spectrum solidarity must not get mired in petty identitarian name calling or the demands to shut up or go away. Such fissures only strengthen the hegemonic order and weaken ongoing struggles for greater gendered justice within the academia. An anarchist list has its uses. But not at the expense of institutional measures which some of the feminists on other online platforms have been calling for, even though their call for the withdrawal of the list smacks of arrogant myopia and ignores the emotional salve it has been able to provide, to many women who have been victims of sexual harassment. During our time in Presidency College, we often came across or shouted a slogan: “When order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice”. The operative word from Rolland’s famous remark is ‘beginning’. The list might be seen as a beginning and not an end in itself. But if the process initiated by the list is to successfully continue, one needs utmost solidarity among people who seek to end violence, harassment or discrimination based on gender and sexuality, without privileging other determinants of individual identity such as caste, class or religion.

What is also agonizing is what the list and surrounding debates reveal about the nature of the Indian academia. Many of us have grown up hearing whispers and rumours of such behaviour, even though I have never come across definitive allegations or evidences of sexual misconduct. But what if the rumours were true? I remember batchmates talking about one particular teacher who spent too much time patting the backs of favoured female students. There have been scholars who have talked about a male professor pressing their thighs as if to congratulate them. There was even a story about a teacher who had supposedly claimed that a poem was like the body of Bipasha Basu: the deeper you went the more pleasurable it was. While I was able to ignore and scoff at these rumours by supposing them to be the ridiculous actions of gross old men, I am sure the female students did not feel the same. Incidentally none of those names are yet in the list which suggests that the problem is more pervasive than the 70 names on the list suggest. I cannot report any of these names as not only are they powerful but I have no evidence to back up my claims, especially since I only heard these reports from other male students and not even from supposed victims of these predatory actions. It is this shroud of silence and fear and shame that the list has perhaps managed to partially lift. After all, subaltern knowledge often eludes official archives and their due processes,

But what does this suggest about the academic world to belong to which we had worked so hard, with such idealistic passion? It is of course foolish to think that the maladies affecting the rest of the society will somehow not affect the academia. Far from it. But there is a difference between isolated cases of wrongdoing and systemic problems. And what the list, irrespective of its accuracy or lack of it, seems to hint at is a systemic problem which will further degrade the popular perception of the intelligentsia and the nature and significance of academic research. When the pioneers of retrieving subalterns from their shadows are seen as agents of subalternisation, disillusionment and apathy are inevitable. In our country, at this particular moment, there is a concentrated attempt to disparage rationality, intellectual vigour and the pursuit of truth to champion, bigotry, sycophancy and submission through verbal and physical violence. This is the time when we needed our academics the most so that the leading lights of academia could set examples of just action and behaviour so that the public could strive to extricate itself from the miasma of abusive, chest-thumping howls of division and hatred that are threatening the very fibre of our idea of India. Instead we have found ourselves mired in these lists, allegations and counter-allegations while the yogis, the gau-rakshaks, the bajrangis and their other cohorts prepare further assaults against all that we hold dear.

Disagreement should never put an end to dialogue. The compilers of the list and those who are sceptical of its efficacy should learn to listen to each other so that the kind of gendered justice they all seek can be collectively fought for, a fight that also needs to include other male academics who have neither practised nor condone the predatory activities of which some of their colleagues have been accused. It is only by forging networks of solidarity that are mindful of our specific limitations and cognizant of what we need to learn from others that we might together seek to thwart the quasi-fascist forces that are raving and raging across the land. In the name of Gauri Lankesh, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Pehlu Khan, Akhlaq Ahmed, Nirbhaya and other martyrs of our time, can we dare to try? I think we must.

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