The 'List' and the Task of Rearranging Academic Relationships

The list of sexual harassers in academia and progressive politics is an event born out of the demands for equality in the increasingly diverse Indian universities. The proliferation of new media has created new pathways of becoming political for young students and enabled their battles against cultural elitism and misogyny. There is need for a fresh debate on harassment, discrimination, and consent.

 

Whether we like it or not, the list of sexual harassers in academia (hereafter the list) was an event. It lifted the lid from the boiling kettle of pent-up anger, anguish, and pain of women who have suffered and continue to suffer sexual harassment. Even as the original list makers withdrew from active engagement, a second list by Indian Dalit–Bahujan women also appeared. Many legitimate and pertinent questions have been asked about the politics of the lists and their efficacy as a strategy. Indeed, these need to be discussed threadbare–the absence of details of harassment, or the lumping together of several kinds of injuries into one bracket, or even the limited possibilities for a future course of action. What one cannot fail to recognise is that the event laid bare the “culture” of sexual harassment in academia and among progressive political circles as never before. The slow but wide outpouring of disturbing accounts and statements by those who have taken their complaints through institutional redressal mechanisms but have failed to obtain justice, has also sparked off debates. It is undeniable that the general impunity which men in positions of power and authority enjoy—despite the rumours, whispers, and actual complaints about their behaviour—is now under the public scanner. 

Changing Terrain of the Indian University

In order to understand and engage with this new moment where the harassment question has been opened up once again, we ought to consider the changing profile of the Indian university as well as the different demands for equality in society in general. Today, a larger number of women from different social and economic backgrounds are entering universities that seem to have been designed to service men and (to some extent) women of a certain privileged class and caste. We saw the ferment caused by this disjuncture in many of our national universities recently—whether it was the protests around the suicide of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad or in the aftermath of the charges of sedition against Kanhaiya Kumar and others in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The former brought to the fore the long-festering issue of caste discrimination in elite universities, while the latter foregrounded the issue of political freedom. We also saw Banaras Hindu University students demand gender equality from authorities who openly subscribed to dual standards for male and female students. Across universities and colleges of India, there are increasing demands for such equal and democratised relations between the administration and students; teachers and students; between men and women, savarna groups and Dalit–Bahujan groups.  

Today’s young women enter the university space with an idea and expectation of gender equality. Prior to the 1990s, women's initiation into feminism was through different political movements and early feminist mobilisations where many encountered the idea of discrimination for the first time. From the mid-1990s, however, gender entered the governmental discourse where “women's empowerment” became a buzzword. In addition to this, in the post-globalisation era, popular culture, media, and more recently social media have also become platforms for articulating women’s equality. Unlike those of us who were initiated into feminism in the 1990s, the current generation of middle-class women has grown up in this environment. Even though they still have to contend with the strong feudal discourse of a “woman's place in society,” one could say that equality is something of a given—a starting premise for them.

The hegemonic liberal discourses of individualism, rights, and sexuality have played a significant role in shaping the women and men of this generation. This has led to a generalised incitement to experience sexual pleasure, experiment outside the tried and tested monogamous heterosexual relationships within the caste–kin milieu, and a desire for greater intimacy between friends and colleagues. It is here that the contours of acceptable male sexual conduct have been opened out for scrutiny. The enthusiastic reception of  the trial court conviction of Mahmood Farooqui (subsequently acquitted in the Delhi High Court) demonstrated the wide prevalence of ideas of “unacceptable male sexual conduct” and “consent gone awry.” Unlike women from the 1980s who largely displaced their feminist battles onto the outside world, for the women of today, sexual/personal selves and relationships also constitute a major battle field. Is it any wonder then, that they want to rearrange the terrain of relationships, friendships, and mentorships in the university or other political spaces in which they deem themselves to be equal, active, and sexual beings?  

The nature of the university space or the space of progressive politics can offer students many exciting things—the headiness of new ideas which challenge one’s common sense, the freedom to build a new identity that is not strictly governed by the family or community, new role models, new friendships and relationships. Central to university life is also the attraction towards and adoration of charismatic and dynamic teachers whose scholarship the student wishes to learn from and whose recognition and validation is so important for her own sense of self as an intellectual being (Geetha 2017). There is hope and desire to be a favoured student and to be a part of the teacher’s inner circle. Progressive political spaces also offer other kinds of hero figures who one wants to emulate. However, when women’s desire for academic and intellectual recognition or political camaraderie is met with inappropriate behaviour, demands for sexual favours, or worse, actual sexual assault and violence, then the sense of betrayal is far greater than it would be with strangers. It is no wonder then that deep-seated anger erupted with the list and in the early days of this debate, this anger was also directed against the people who questioned the list too.

The Ways of New Media

The present moment also demands that we recognise the significant change that social media has brought in ways of doing politics, in activism, and collective action. Whether trending or trolling, social media  amplifies certain voices in the public domain and no one is spared, so ignoring it is not an option anymore. We have seen how Dalit, Muslim, and queer groups use it for collective action, mobilisation, and opinion making. Social media platforms like Tumblr have enabled vulnerable young people to connect in anonymity. Others have become important forums to learn about feminism, racism, Ambedkarism, sexuality, and other discourses. Arguably, it has enabled more people than before to participate in politics or think of themselves as political beings. The accompanying online abuse and viciousness, while regrettable, is perhaps only an indicator of the nature of politics of the offline world. 
 
It seems to us that what we have witnessed during the past few days is the playing out of feminist political debate within the unruly ways of this new media where the language is often rude, irreverent, and menacing. One has learnt that it is simply not possible to either dismiss it or demonise it. Nor is it useful to imagine it as either replacing or destroying the old modalities or media. Conversations have been occurring across platforms, new and old media, among different kinds of feminists, and among non-feminists. These proliferating discussions suggest the productivity of the co-existence of different media and its unevenly located users. What we have witnessed are perhaps new imaginations of feminism by women and men from multiple locations—queer, Dalit, Bahujan, minority, metropolitan, transnational, rural, and more. It is imperative that we pay attention to these new pathways to feminism and recognise that in our attempts at building bridges and keeping a dialogue going, there is bound to be friction and even violent disagreement.

Looking Ahead

“What now?” is a question that confronts us all. In the heated debates around the list, different participants have pointed to some useful directions, and some moves have already been made. A few public-spirited journalists have used the lists to write to the universities concerned believing that it is no longer just Raya Sarkar or Inji Pennu’s battle (Roy Chowdhury and Deep 2017). Some university teachers and students (at the University of Hyderabad, for example) have initiated much needed discussions on this issue. What is more urgently required is to begin such discussions on the campuses where harassers still remain “unnamed and unshamed”—which is the majority of the country’s colleges and universities.

Rather than polarise the debate between due process and guerilla lists, we should view this as an opportunity for fresh thinking. We need to reckon with the evolution of discourse of equality within the university spaces over the last few decades and think of ways to raise a serious and sustained discussion around our understandings of abuse, harassment, consent, and acceptable sexual conduct in coordination with activist, student, and teacher groups. Not only in universities, but in many spaces of work, women, queer people, Dalits and Bahujans are struggling to achieve new norms of conduct and are challenging existing structures of power, often while deploying new media in unusual ways. We must link discussions on gender equality and sexual harassment with these struggles if we are to succeed in our battles with the culture of elitism and male entitlement in our institutional and political spaces. 

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