Shiv Visvanathan doesn’t have any idea about the Chilly world of Sexual Harassment in Indian Academia

The article by Shiv Visvanathan “The Chilly justice of the Gulag” in the Outlook is a revealing indictment of all (and more) that is wrong with our Indian academia.

Throughout the article, he skilfully weaves the narrative of a great and noble era, where issues were challenged ‘by weaving the personal and political into a tapestry of radicalism’. In his article, he sounds like a kind man for whom the ‘man-woman relationship’ had a sense of ‘celebration, tolerance and humour’, where mistakes, if made, were lived with. He talks about moments of ‘poignancy, innocence, beauty which nothing could destroy’. His entire article romanticises some wonderful past filled with joy, freedom and an enlightened ability to talk and live with difference.

The current generation, however, as embodied by Raya Sarkar, is described with words like ‘essentialist’, ‘seeking instant resolution’, and ‘wanting justice as instant gratification’ while offering ‘little proof because they think proof is unnecessary’. It is as though niceness and rationale froze to a halt with Shiv Vishvanathan’s generation, and subsequently, became filled with landmines that he and his erstwhile friends have to now tiptoe through.

For a start, relationships in universities and academic spaces are not cosy little ‘man women relationship’ spaces. They are spaces of extreme imbalance in power – of gender, of religion, caste, culture to name a few. A professor who uses extravagantly flamboyant language, such as Shiv does, is viewed with open admiration and great regard. If he does deign to have a ‘relationship’ with a woman student, then the recipient must necessarily feel grateful for it. If the recipient complains, it is seen as treachery because, as the note books of bestowing patronage dictate, if someone in power gives you attention, you have no choice but to feel grateful for it. You have absolutely no right to reject it. Rejecting the benevolent patronage of a man of privilege sounds as stupid as a drought prone community standing up to a generous politician and saying ‘We don’t want the water pump you want to fit in our village’. It is outrageous because it changes the narrative of power, it challenges the location of the powerful and the powerless, it converts a voiceless person (as defined by society) into a person with a voice.

If he had any amount of sensitivity to sexual harassment, which he apparently does not, he would know that proof is a loaded term. At no point does he bemoan how the vile perpetrators of sexual violence have made these cosy ‘men and women relationships’ difficult for other decent men and women. What if even one or two women who contributed to the ‘naming and shaming’ on the list had indeed been harassed? Is that a fair collateral damage in his eyes, to retain the camaraderie, the bonhomie of the non Stalinist ‘human warmth and personal engagement’? At no point does he stand in solidarity with the women, as though it is a given that they are untruthful. It is also curious that he takes great care to mention that the academics listed in Raya Sarkar’s list were ‘outstanding’ – curious but not surprising at all, because it somehow implies that being outstanding carries with it some intrinsic impunity against ordinary laws and rules.

Weaving one student’s theories to delegitimise an entire community that has been outraged about the impunity with which women students have been harassed, is wrong in many ways and not at all becoming of a self proclaimed ‘sociologist’. Harassment leads to multiple other outcomes. It leads not only to loss of benevolence from the professor in question, but also to a denial of rights, to targeted harassment, vilification and defamation to name a few. This, in collusion and under the umbrella of a structure that facilitates this impunity. Sexual harassment is not an incident. It is both an outcome and a process. While lamenting his students ‘little sense of history’ Shiv fails to acknowledge his own skewed sense of history – how he and his feminist friends weaved history out from privileged caste and class locations, how the name Visvanathan opened doors for him to build himself out as an expert opinion giver. Maybe some women don’t respect these spaces of camaraderie because it was never extended to them. Maybe these delicious man woman relationships of mutual love and respect were reserved for some and not for others. Maybe the woman’s body was always seen as an object of lust and pleasure, especially so a dalit woman’s.

It is not as though the younger generation of women do not look for ‘conversations laced with humour and vulnerability’ as Shiv and his generation seemed to have enjoyed extensively. The difference is that this generation looks for it in spaces that are empowering for all concerned. Using the word ‘surveillance’ is again an abuse of language by the author. The brunt of the kind of surveillance that Shiv claims to now operate in academic spaces, is disproportionately borne by the very same women who are vulnerable to sexual harassment. To underestimate that is a further abysmal failure to understand sociology in its multifarious dimensions. He doesn’t realise that moments of ‘poignancy, innocence and beauty’ do get destroyed in these spaces. Along with all those, also gets destroyed the sense of self, the just emerging self-esteem, the dreams and the aspirations. Their cost cannot be measured at par with the loss of relationships that Shiv bemoans. Those relationships that his heart bleeds for can be found outside the walls of institutions, but education and career are sought within these institutions, sometimes with the burden of being the first generation to be educated. The institution can be a sacred space to many, a key to escape from generations of poverty and oppression. To reduce institutions to spaces of man women relationships and upholding that as of primary value is trivialising the aspirations of thousands of young women.

While Shiv claims to write the article with a sense of hesitation, even doubt, he should have, instead, written it with a deeper sense of introspection, identifying the class, caste and gender location of himself and his buddies. He says that, for the current Raya Sarkar generation, debate is not welcome and controversy is read as obscene, as though his own generation took up every issue by the head and addressed it with candour and thoughtfulness. His self proclaimed understanding of the ‘poignancy of pain’ seems to absolve him of his naïve and narrow class, caste and gender frames of reference. While on the one hand he says that he lived in an ‘innocent stupid world where people learnt to confront each others mistakes’, on the other hand he claims that ‘the older generation of radicals feminists and Marxists sensed something and respected time waiting for institutions to develop’. Isn’t this an oxymoron in itself? He blissfully holds these institutions in high esteem where mutual trust was like a flower that they watered daily with their ‘scepticism of quick solutions’ and creatively decorated with ‘the tapestry of radicalism’! The fact that institutions were becoming agraharas with self serving brahmin men handling unlimited power and privilege, seemed to have passed these people by – an entire generation of people who let serious issues get pushed under the carpet for fear of rocking the boat of camaraderie and good will.

When self-regulation fails, external regulations come in, and they are necessarily all encompassing, creating an atmosphere of discomfort even for all the ‘nice’ men and women. It is the deafening silence of these ‘nice’ men and women that has created this situation, not the people who object to these extended silences. While the thoughtful senior men and women waited patiently for institutions to develop, they failed to notice that it was also being converted into toxic spaces that were exclusionary and oppressive at every step.

He also makes it appear as though the younger generation enjoy playing with minefields, as though they themselves are not scarred by what they view as a necessary fight. The fight has opened up innumerable doors of conversations. It has challenged status quo, it has brought in new life, new ways of looking at marginalisation. Yes, the voices are shrill, but that is not something they themselves are responsible for. When a reasoned voice is not heard, however hesitant and English naïve, it only goes shriller with time. Maybe it’s an indictment of the people who failed to listen rather than the one screaming. If Shiv, with his great knowledge and vast understanding, had instead said that he finds the list too narrow in that it focuses on academia, while leaving out the large scale systematic sexual violence meted out to women in the name of caste, religion, politics, region – it would be a criticism that would be of great value, coming from him and his renowned feminist friends.

In most academic spaces in India, those who do not belong to the dominant groups, have no experience of mentorship, shared memories or shared culture – and for that Shiv’s generation is entirely to blame. They did not fight for diversity and affirmative action as strongly as they fight to protect their ‘men women relationships’. Exclusion means you get so comfortable with your own group that it becomes an inalienable right.

Assuming that he is a ‘sexist male and patriarchal’ isn’t the fault of his student. It is the fault of men in his position who have lost out because of years of being exactly that – sexist male and patriarchal. Did he object at any point to sexism and patriarchy among his fellow men? Maybe not – since they were all waiting for institution building to take its due course!


The writer is a public health doctor and researcher who neither identifies as older or younger generation and who incidentally also put a name on the Raya Sarkar list following a total failure of ‘due process’ over a twenty year period.


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Dr. Sylvia Karpagam Written by:

The writer is a public health doctor based in Karnataka

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