This essay is part of a series by The Caravan, regarding allegations of sexual harassment against the culture critic Sadanand Menon, who is a member of the adjunct faculty at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. The other pieces in the series include a statement by Menon, and two interviews—with ACJ’s chairperson Sashi Kumar, and with two other signatories to the public letter asking ACJ to institute a probe into the allegations.
On 8 May, several activists, writers, journalists and other members of civil society wrote a public letter to the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, urging it to conduct a fair and serious probe into an allegation of sexual harassment against the culture critic Sadanand Menon, a member of its adjunct faculty. We put together this appeal after the college’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) refused to entertain a complaint filed in January 2018, by a former student of the institute. The former student—who also described her ordeal in a piece published on the website the News Minute—alleged that Menon had sexually harassed her at SPACES, a cultural venue Chennai of which he is a trustee.
The complaints committee cited procedural grounds to justify its inability to act on the complaint—that the alleged incident had not taken place at ACJ, and that it is said to have occurred after the student had graduated from the institute. Meanwhile, students from the current year at ACJ also wrote to the complaints committee, demanding that, in light of a troubling “whisper network” of accounts of alleged harassment by Menon, the committee take action against him. However, the ICC continued to cite procedural constraints, and in effect, reaffirmed its inability to act.
I am a signatory to the public letter to ACJ, and was involved in drafting it. I have known Menon since the early 1990s, when he was an editor at the Economic Times. I sent in articles for the art and design page, which he radically transformed. Further, we were colleagues at ACJ—for some years, I taught a course on gender at the college. Through these years, our relationship has been affectionate and cordial. When I first heard of the allegations against him, I was nonplussed. I knew that the charges remained to be proved, but I must admit that I was curious as to why a person would speak out years after the alleged incident took place—surely she could not hope to gain anything substantial by way of redressal. As I found out more, perplexity turned to dismay. There appeared to be more people who had endured unwelcome sexual attention at Menon’s hands, and in at least one instance, the person appeared to have been a minor at the time the alleged incident took place.
Since the 1980s, many of us involved in women’s movements across the country have worked on issues to do with violence against women, ranging from obscene speech to harassment to acts of rape. We have grappled with domestic abuse, the inexplicably brutal violence that women are subject to in intimate situations—within and outside marriage—and gained an understanding of how sexual authority works in everyday life. Through these years, we gained some insights into our sexual cultures, where affection and authority, passion and control, brilliance and perversity are often fused together and sometimes indistinguishable. We worked to translate this hard-won understanding into laws that would curb and regulate male sexual and conjugal authority, and help interrogate male social power, which emerges from caste and class locations. While the laws did not always turn out as we wanted them, we nevertheless worked—and continue to work—with the criminal justice system as much as we could. Meanwhile, we continued to protest publicly and campaign against sexual and other forms of violence. We researched, produced reports on caste and class violence, communal hatred, and sexual hurt, and spoke out against individuals, groups and institutions complicit in these acts—inevitably “naming and shaming” those who appeared set in impunity.
The petition that I, among others, signed perhaps ought to be viewed as such—a part of this struggle, and not as a deliberate campaign to malign Menon, or a conspiracy against a liberal educational institution. (Here, it would help to remember that most of us were aware of the allegations for nearly four months, and decided to speak publicly only after it became clear that ACJ was not willing to think beyond due process and procedure.) For many of us, the question was not one of choosing between “due process” and public action, but of understanding the constraints of procedure, and how we could encourage ACJ—and with it, ourselves—to imaginatively and with empathy rework it.
Equally, in writing this letter, we wished to remind this important educational institution that it needed to expand the horizon of its ethical charge. For one, procedure is seldom only a set of rules—rather, it is shaped by social and cultural assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality. For another, the issue for young persons is not only the act of violation, reprehensible in itself, but also the breach of trust that it signifies. Procedure, as it exists, does not engage with this at all. Further, we have to consider not just these limits, but also the execution of “due process”—for instance, how are law and procedure employed by individuals accused of harassment, and how does procedure play out in legal reasoning? How do these concerns—of the limits of law, and the nature of power—work in the context of academia, which is simultaneously formal and intimate? It is these subjects that I wish for the letter to raise, and that I believe bear discussion.
To consider the engagement of the law with those accused of sexual misconduct, two recent and prominent instances—one of harassment, and another of violence—are worth examining. The first is the response of the reputed legal scholar Lawrence Liang, when facing inquiry by the Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Delhi’s Ambedkar University,
Liang reportedly claimed before the committee that “sexual harassment policies and laws define harassment in black and white form that does not accommodate the complexities of actual interactions between people.” On the other hand, he admitted to having deep and intense relationships with female interns at an organisation he worked for in Bengaluru, but claimed that they were “mistakes” on his part that broke his personal rule of not having relationships with interns. He also noted that these relationships predated the establishment of a policy regarding sexual harassment at the office.
In effect, Liang wanted to have it both ways: we are to allow him his sexual entitlement, even if the law might frown on it, and yet consider him a law-abiding citizen, because once the law was established, he supposedly respected it, even if he did not feel comfortable with its formulations. It is unclear when the respect for this law comes in: when accused, or brought before an arbitration committee, the law becomes a context for explaining and arguing his case. At other times, the law is characterised as a boring, bourgeois instrument that adventurous individuals might not always want to honour.
The second instance that illustrates the limits of the law in dealing with such subjects is the Delhi High Court judgment in the Mahmood Farooqui case, which acquitted him of charges of sexual assault. The judgment is a curious text. It recognises that Farooqui imposing himself sexually on a woman friend constituted an unwelcome sexual act, but then goes on to agonise over whether the woman in question assented or did not assent; whether their prior intimacy did not complicate matters for Farooqui; and whether her comprehension of his lachrymose, inebriated condition did not render her “complicit” in what happened to her, even if she did not want it. The judgement then allowed Farooqui the benefit of the court’s doubt over consent, and acquitted him.
Two statements in this judgment are interesting in the present context:
An expression of disinclination alone, that also a feeble one, may not be sufficient to constitute rape
when parties are known to each other, are persons of letters and are intellectually/academically proficient, and if, in the past, there have been physical contacts…it would be really difficult to decipher whether little or no resistance and a feeble “no”, was actually a denial of consent.
Clearly, prior intimacy, too, works both ways for the liberal conscience: it makes it hard for the courts to “mark” resistance, but by the same token, it renders whatever resistance is visible or has ensued to be null and void. In other words, the onus is on the woman to clearly signal her willingness or unwillingness for sex, and if she fails to do so, especially in a situation where the man is known to her and towards whom she might have exhibited a measure of kindness or even tenderness, she cannot claim she was violated.
In both these instances, male sexual entitlement was effectively upheld. While Liang—who continues to retain his professional position—did so without a sense of irony, the court did so through a form of reasoning that refused to reckon with a woman’s anguish over a violation of bodily integrity.
In institutions of higher learning, male sexual entitlement is privileged in distinctive ways. Not only is it held in place by sexual cultures that take it for granted—illustrated by Liang’s behaviour— but also by a particular model of mentorship. The former student notes that when confronted with charismatic and bright men who are accused of sexual misconduct, many “consider the minds of these men to be of greater value than the bodies of those women.”
In academic worlds, these “minds” appear precious in particular ways. Eager for knowledge and excited by a life of “the mind,” many of us are starry-eyed about those possessed with a formidable intellect. When such a mentor is also open and friendly, the charismatic teacher becomes a friend.
Moreover, when one is young, eager for recognition and emotionally vulnerable—as many students often are—the possible pleasure afforded by a mentor’s appraising gaze is not easy to negotiate. All too often, lines of civility and decorum that ought to hold a mentor-student relationship in place are blurred. This is when situations spiral out of control—it becomes difficult to say no, and yet you are also aware that you have not “consented” to the sexual act that is being demanded, or has been made to appear inevitable. Only in time do you recognise that personal boundaries were crossed—a discovery that is profoundly unsettling, if not traumatic.
To be sure, there are individuals who transact such situations to their advantage—not just in academia, but everywhere. Such situations—where a person may be consensually involved or feel compelled to be involved in a sexual relationship as a means of gaining any favours—are not less problematic. The 2013 law governing the prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment of women at the workplace notes that any implication or promise of preferential treatment in scenarios associated with sexual harassment would itself amount to harassment. While the letter of the law may not be directly applicable in transactional sex, its spirit is certainly worth noting.
Effectively, intimacy in academia is both fraught and charged because mentors are placed at an advantage, on account of the positions they hold and the intellectual authority they command. Yet, hardly any thought is given to their responsibility when it comes to negotiating relationships with students. The law against sexual harassment defines what constitutes a transgression of this responsibility, and suggests punitive action that might be in order. In doing so, inquiries as well as discussions focus on the plausibility of a certain experience of harassment, the existence or not of prior intimacy or at least familiarity between the alleged perpetrator and the complainant, and the possibility of mala fide complaints. Seldom do they reflect on questions of trust. This leads discussions on sexual harassment to dovetail into questions of what constitutes consent without paying any mind to a breach of trust by a person in a position of power—with whom a student or a young person has trustingly consented to spend time.
Our educational institutions are steeped in named and unnamed equations of power, flowing from caste, class and gender. These powers infuse mentorship with a trust that is anchored in dependence and obedience. To speak of a breach of trust is almost impossible—it might invite retribution, or affect a student’s academic prospects. In a cultural sense, trust is avidly sentimentalised—to even raise questions about those to whom we are bound is considered traitorous. This quandary is complicated further by a student’s own social power or lack thereof—specifically, for those students that belong to oppressed groups of caste, gender, religion and sexuality.
A critical review of mentorship is clearly in order, and we have hardly ever been better situated to undertake it. The last decade has witnessed the emergence into prominence of anti-caste student groups in various campuses,which have shown the limits to campus liberalism and charismatic “intellectual” life—for caste sticks, even as gender and sexuality do, in our throats, and not all of us wish to spit it out.
With respect to gender and sexuality, battle lines have not been as clearly drawn—yet feminist groups on campuses in India have organised around a range of issues, and taken the battle into areas where caste, gender and sexuality intersect. Moreover, feminist and anti-caste scholarship has called attention to how knowledge is mediated by, among other things, patriarchal authority and practices, and for many years now, has gone on to remake knowledge across intellectual domains. There is much to be learned from the intellectual work of these overlapping groups—women and Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi scholars—and from the spaces they have created. Groups such as the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad, which draws from feminist thought and practices to learn new ways of engaging with issues to do with caste, religion, health, education, and development, and the Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre in the University of Pune, are only a few among many that are attempting to reimagine mentorship and intellectual discourse by involving not just other women, but Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim men.
In this context, we must rethink our notion of the ideal intellectual mentor—the man of genius, the eccentric and endearing thinker who must be looked after, understood, catered to—and how our systems protect him. By going beyond the realm of due process and taking on complaints such as the one against Menon, it is this responsibility that I believe every university—not only ACJ—should agree to shoulder.
This essay is part of a series regarding the allegations of sexual harassment against Sadanand Menon. Other pieces in the series can be read here.