A Macabre Alliance

The author, Ashley Tellis, is one of the people named on the first Facebook/now deleted GoogleDoc list of academics charged with sexual harassment.

What is it about the moment we are living in that allows for a list such as the Sexual Harassment list to circulate? What makes several young women, self-professedly feminist, spew venom, abuse and knee-jerk, crassly identitarian politics online to shut people and positions down around this list, with not even an iota of reflexivity about their own positions of privilege or the violence they are doing to other people? How is that they do not see how they mirror the autocratic moves of the government on the issue? How is it that they have no knowledge of the histories of the battles feminists have fought to have sexual harassment (SH) recognised and its redressal operationalised? Why is there so little knowledge and discussion of the fact that that recognition and operationalisation is currently being brutally reversed in institutions of higher education? How is it that there is no awareness of how this list contributes to that reversal?

This list is a symptom of internet-based, middle class, US popular culture-inspired ‘feminist’ politics in contemporary urban India and the technological subjectivities it has spawned. The violences this politics inflicts on the contexts here, on others and on themselves needs research. There are readymade, empty templates – Brahmin, privileged, predator – slapped onto people. Histories do not matter, positions do not require context, the effects of this empty politics on cultures in institutions are irrelevant.

In the context of SH, a lot of state violence on educational institutions is being committed upon young people in the real world. What is ironic is how this violence is regurgitated by these very young people on the internet with no reflection on this irony at all.

The effects of this internet violence are devastating for other people, like the list’s violence. Jobs might be lost, careers ruined, paranoia might fill the classroom. Yet given the toothless nature of cyberlaws, it’s a free-for-all slugfest out there. Once again, it is not just rightwing trolls threatening to rape and kill women journalists. It is young feminists throwing caste names, abuse and violence against older feminists, against men already pronounced as predators, and just anyone who questions their vigilante politics. A cursory examination of the levels of ‘debate’ around this list on any website or social media platform will make it obvious that most of it is abuse, not debate. This is not a feminism of different voices joined by a common concern.

But, more disturbingly, it offers a terrible body blow to the achievements of generations of feminist scholars and activists.

The list premises itself on false claims to two convenient myths: that these were all women who either did not get justice from the legal procedures around SH in place or were too terrified to complain given the adverse culture within Universities. The first is nullified by the fact that many of the names in the list have had no complaints against them ever. The second is a lie because SH redressal procedures guarantee complete confidentiality to complainants, protect them from any reprisals, take the complainant out of the zone of the accused, whether or not the complainant succeeds and the accused (if proven guilty) is removed from the post.

Feminists have fought long and hard for these procedures to be in place. A lower caste woman called Bhanwari Devi suffered a gang rape and still awaits justice which is why this law and these procedures are in place. She still fights for that justice. To claim that we live in some jungle raj where hapless women students have had nothing to turn to and no right to complain is simply untrue.

As I have asked elsewhere, why is there no online culture of support created by these feminists given their own histories of abuse, recurrent complaints and cases that do exist and emerge regularly?

This list does not follow the procedures laid down in various Universities. The list-founder now claims that it is all about registering complaints. This is absurd because you cannot lodge a complaint when you have already made up your mind that the accused is guilty and have announced it in public. You, in fact, open yourself to libel and slander cases being filed against you. There is a procedure to this which has to be followed or we are in a jungle raj where anyone accuses anyone else and instant justice follows.

This, in fact, solidifies the already very adversarial culture towards sexual harassment in educational institutions. If all it takes is to throw a name on a list, all the structures which feminists have formulated painstakingly over years will be disbanded. This has already been effected with the recent SH Act (2013) which bypassed all the structures Universities had set up for over a decade now since the Vishakha Guidelines, in central Universities like Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the UGC’s recent imposition of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) on all institutions of higher education.

While the law demands policies in all educational institutions, many public and private ones still did/do not have one. While the Act already undercut the struggle against SH by diluting many of the achievements of the bodies that came up based on the Vishanka Guidelines, the new ICC set up by the UGC, bypasses and destroys procedures and practices formulated over years in places like DU and JNU. Feminists have contested these moves,

Hardly had those procedures and practices begun and, through failure and success, been seen in action and we were learning from it, when the new SH Act bypassed all of it. The UGC notification about ICCs destroyed JNU’s GSCASH and DU’s policy, two of the best procedures in place, both based on years of feminist work, and replaced them with the ICC. The problems with the ICC are many: it is based almost entirely on nomination, has no equal representation, has no right to appeal, is not gender neutral (despite a throwaway line about it). It does not follow procedures of democratic practice at all. Once again, feminists have challenged it in court.

While all of this is in process, this list, instead of joining these feminist struggles in full force and using the internet to build pressure on the government to retain and build on SH procedures, frighteningly, joins hands with the government’s complete disrespect for procedure, nominating (bizarrely mirroring the ICC) people as harassers and being done with any idea of justice.

It ignores decades of work by feminists on SH in educational institutions, sets us several decades back and has unthinkably negative implications for the current status of sexual harassment claims in higher educational institutions.

The only achievement of the list is that it has brought SH into public discourse in an unprecedented way. However, it is important to ensure that it remains here and does not go back to being where (and what) it usually is: one of the most neglected areas within educational institutions with only a few feminists and several victims continuing the losing battle, scarred and burnt out, frequently denied justice.

Students, teachers, karamcharis were all, till recently, able to file cases of harassment and be elected on committees through democratic and inclusive procedures in place in Universities like DU and JNU. It is crucial that we get that back and in every educational institution.

There is still a need to fight tooth and nail to see that the implementation of these mechanisms is as free, fair and just as possible.

There still is a need to understand the nature of sexual harassment and expand definitions. The SH Act specifies in its title and everywhere else that harassment applies only to women and if the UGC’s ICC document acknowledges men and transgenders at all, even if only in a throwaway line and not in its title (which specifies only women), it is only because of the Saksham Report by feminists who went to Universities around the country speaking to people at all levels about SH.

Understanding the nature of sexual harassment, the idea of consent, the thin line between encouraging sexual expression and moral policing are all still very much needed at all levels and these are really difficult tasks.

While a constant social media presence on all of these would be incredibly helpful, the list does nothing to contribute to any of these struggles.

We must ensure that the moment it has generated does.

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