By Taruni Kumar
Please sit down for the next paragraph.
“The Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) notes with concern that ill-informed and vague allegations and assertions, most of them made anonymously and with scant regard for the facts and the law, have been published in a section of the online news media about how it handled a complaint of alleged sexual harassment made against Sadanand Menon, a well-known journalist and writer who has been teaching an elective at the College as an adjunct professor. The matter has also been commented on in the social media, mostly without regard to the facts and the law.”
That, friends, is a statement borne of attempting to follow due process in the matter of sexual harassment. Please take note of the specific words used to describe the allegations – “vague”, “ill-informed” – and the subtle pride in the description of Menon. I can almost hear a breathless declaration of, “Oh, he’s such a well-known journalist and writer.” And immediately after, I imagine I’d hear the incorporeal voice adding an addendum, “They’re targeting us just because we’re liberal.” That part wasn’t in the statement, but it’s what the Chairman of ACJ said about the entire debacle. This is the very real, very disturbing and very wrong statement that ACJ has issued in response to sexual harassment allegations that have been made against one of its faculty members.
Shortly I’ll dive into the various problems that exist with ACJ’s response and I assure you there are many. It’s important to mention here that Menon featured on law student Raya Sarkar’s List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA) in October 2017. A list that was met with a ‘statement by feminists’ on what was perceived to be a ‘Facebook campaign to “Name and Shame”. This statement was issued by a section of the Indian feminists and met with resistance from others, sparking a huge debate about the ways of dealing with sexual harassment allegations. To quote, “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability. Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilize. We too know the process is harsh and often tilted against the complainant. We remain committed to strengthening these processes. At the same time, abiding by the principles of natural justice, we remain committed to due process, which is fair and just.” In the months that followed the place of LoSHA and the place of due process has been discussed and several parties have shifted positions. Some have wished that this debate was not presented as a binary.
One of the things that have made the ‘due process’ camp shakier, the LoSHA camp indignant and everyone in between despairing is this question: during the time it takes to strengthen these processes, what are survivors of sexual harassment and assault to do? Especially when faced with a response like ACJ’s when an attempt is made to follow this due process. In the case of sexual harassment in a student-teacher context, the power equation is clearly skewed. For example, in a Medium post published on 9 May, students of ACJ posted a statement that clearly says that after Menon’s name appeared in LoSHA, he acknowledged it in his class the next day. “”There is a list going around with my name on it. If anyone here wants to talk about this, we can,” he said. Menon proceeded – in his official capacity as a professor, using a platform provided by ACJ – to deride the list and speculate as to who put him on it.”
Just this incident shows the kind of public space that Menon has at his disposal to make his own views heard from a powerful vantage point – one that sits in the seemingly infallible space at the front of a classroom. In this same class, he apparently narrated his version of an incident with an ex-student, which he described as a misunderstanding “arising out of differing values associated with sexual freedom.”
On 8 January, the same ex-student wrote about the incident from her point of view in The News Minute. In fact, the very title of this piece is ‘Raya Sarkar’s list, and how it empowered me to tell my story’. She wrote, without naming Menon, that his name had appeared on the list and that she only realised the emotional repercussions of being sexually harassed by a man she viewed as a mentor many years later.
A petition, signed by activists, students, media personnel and former adjunct faculty at the college has also been released which lays down how the ex-student’s complaints to the Internal Complaints Committee of the college, made originally in January, hit a roadblock because the incident occurred when she was no longer a student and the location wasn’t the college. The petition makes strong demands of ACJ and calls for it to not hide behind procedural reasons in an attempt to avoid accountability and not follow through with its ethical responsibility.
Only now, when the situation has escalated because of this extremely strong petition and the flak ACJ is getting from its own students as well as ex-students, has the college posted its statement.
Here’s an aside: In the midst of all this drama, on 1 May, Spaces, one of Chennai’s foremost cultural venues, hosted a forum that wanted to promote free speech and help around the issue of sexual harassment. Spaces was co-founded by Sadanand Menon and is also where the ACJ complainant worked with him, thus making it the venue of the sexual harassment he alleges. The irony is painful.
And while we’re on the subject of pain, there’s a painfully hilarious conspiracy theory that has been shared by a member of the Chennai academia. He wonders if Raya Sarkar’s list is perhaps a right-wing weapon deliberately targeting all left-wing academicians in the country. And that the Sadanand Menon allegations are a North Indian conspiracy to smidge a South Indian institution.
But returning to the conversation of due process, let’s look at just how problematic the ACJ statement is.
Aside from the very specific wording of the first paragraph that is clearly supportive of Menon, the sexual harassment accused, the statement goes on to summarily state, ‘Mummy, maine kuch nahin kiya’ with the line “The ACJ wishes to reiterate that the alleged incident in 2011 at Spaces, a cultural centre in Chennai, had no connection with the College.”
In terms of actually taking up and investigating the issue, the College has washed its hands off the situation with a reference to ‘the law of the land’ and a statement that because the complainant was, by then, an ex-student, the institution has no jurisdiction. This is followed by a rather simpering paragraph about how Menon has decided (of his own volition) to not teach his elective course at the College for the coming academic year to protect the College’s reputation (how thoughtful) and also that he’s considering legal action against those publishing false and defamatory allegations (sounds like a threat).
“Meanwhile,” the statement reads, “Sadanand Menon has informed us that after taking into account the overall circumstances and in order to avoid any damage to the reputation of the ACJ, he has decided not to teach his elective course at the College for the coming academic year, and also that he is considering taking legal action against those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.”
Please note that ACJ was under no obligation to announce the bit about Menon’s proposed legal action since that would be a personal decision but the fact that it did, says a lot about whose side ACJ is speaking from.
All this is rounded off by a standard “policy of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment” paragraph but with the addition of the words “within its jurisdiction”. (In March 2018, Ambedkar University, Delhi set a precedent when it chose to accept a third party complaint against Lawrence Liang, who at the time was teaching at the university.)
Here is a basic question. If the person being accused of sexual harassment happens to be a teacher, how can an educational institution dismiss an accusation like this without thinking of the students of this teacher who may face the same treatment. How is the university not obligated to investigate charges to ensure continued security of its other students? And if this is how ACJ reacts, then the LoSHA is far from the online shaming vigilantism that it’s been called and seems far more like the traditional whisper network serving two purposes – to make those who come in contact with these people aware of the possibility of harassment and to offer some sort of punishment even if it’s only a hit to a reputation. Because clearly, colleges like ACJ are more concerned about their own than anything else.
Co-published with Firstpost.