Row over list shaming academics for sexual harassment

Raya Sarkar, 24, a United States-based Indian lawyer, has accused 60 academics from top institutions all over India of sexually harassing students, naming and shaming them in her controversial Facebook post. Sarkar says she compiled the names of academics after she received complaints of alleged sexual harassment about them and that the list is based on first-hand accounts from alleged victims.

Her “Sexual Violence Hall of Shame” posted on Facebook on 24 October includes acclaimed names from Indian academia and highly reputable universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi; Jadavpur University, Kolkata; Ambedkar University Delhi; Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata; and Delhi University, among others.

They also include names of academics currently working abroad, including at the University of Oxford and the University of California. Sarkar is based at the University of California, Davis.

“The most dangerous rapists, harassers, serial killers, murderers are the ones who are in positions of power, calculative, selective, who hedge their bets, who plan their harassment and analyse their victims and their chances of getting caught,” Sarkar said on Facebook and invited others to contact her if they had been subject to abuse.

The post, which rapidly went viral, has led to much online debate around the country with Facebook users and intellectuals divided – some hailing the initiative and others questioning the appropriateness of the way the list was compiled and released online.

Criticism and support by women’s groups

Some feminist groups were critical. A statement, signed by 14 well-known women, published on India’s – an online platform for debate by intellectuals – denounced the publishing of the names.

“As feminists, we have been part of a long struggle to make visible sexual harassment at the workplace, and have worked with the movement to put in place systems of transparent and just procedures of accountability. We are dismayed by the initiative on Facebook, in which men are being listed and named as sexual harassers with no context or explanation.

“One or two names of men who have already been found guilty of sexual harassment by due process are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations,” the statement said.

It said the women remain committed to “due process, which is fair and just”.

“This manner of naming can de-legitimise the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult,” they said in their statement. It was signed by Jawaharlal Nehru University professors Ayesha Kidwai and Nivedita Menon; Kavita Krishnan, an activist and secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association; and Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and women's rights activist, among others.

But another women’s group, Feminism in India, lauded the naming and shaming. “We stand in solidarity with Raya Sarkar who has compiled a crowd-sourced list of male academics and professors accused of sexual harassments on her Facebook page,” they said.

“In the culture of silencing and victim blaming surrounding sexual harassment allegations, it is of utmost importance to amplify the voices of survivors and, most importantly, believe them.”

Retaliation and victim-shaming have been a real consequence for many women who have been harassed on campus, with events at Banaras Hindu University hitting the headlines recently. A group of women students protesting against sexual harassment at Banaras Hindu University were beaten by police.

Sarkar defends the list

Sarkar said she compiled the list to make other students chary and save more of them from possible abuse, but critics say it will create fear and panic.

Sarkar claimed that while the list has not been well received by many, many more support her campaign and believe the victims. She was overwhelmed by encouragement from so many all over India, she said. Large numbers of women from all over the country messaged her, narrating their experiences and applauding her brave stance.

Sarkar maintained that “due diligence has been exercised” while compiling the list, which is based on the first-person accounts of victims, she said.

“A few of the victims who wanted to be completely anonymous or were apprehensive that their identity could be revealed, approached me through a friend who contacted me and narrated the incident directly to me,” Sarkar explained in selected local media interviews.

She claimed the victim or the friend representing the victim presented “credible evidence” to prove the genuineness of the complaint, including screenshots of the victim being harassed, emails and call recordings.

The concern that this initiative could be wrongly used by someone for revenge is ill founded, she said. However, she acknowledged that she could face legal action or a defamation suit from a person included in the list if a victim takes a U-turn or goes back on her allegation. Still, she said she was disappointed that most of the victims of sexual abuse do not wish to lodge a formal complaint.

Women’s activist Kavita Krishnan said the list could not lead to any kind of probe unless and until there is a specific complaint.

Padmavati Pamarthy, a women's activist, said: “The list is without any concrete proof. It is true that students hesitate to speak out against sexual abuse by professors as they fear this could affect their academic career. But such a list will do little to end harassment and abuse on the college campuses.”

Students said they wanted “redressal” committees on every university campus to address sexual harassment allegations.