Nidhi Kinhal, Class of 2019 Full disclosure: I should have spoken up at the open house.
Ankita Poddar, Class of 2019
Over the past month, allegations of sexual assault have taken the world by storm. They started with Harvey Weinstein, and the dominos fell one after the other, followed by Kevin Spacey and then Dustin Hoffman.
Raya Sarkar, before the 24th of October, was an ordinary law student at University Of California, Davis. On 24th October, they* published a list of known but unprosecuted sexual harassers on Indian campuses on Facebook, creating a tidal wave no one saw coming. Inji Pennu added fuel to the fire, creating a spreadsheet inviting others to add names to the list. These lists had the names of academics working in Indian universities, both private and public, who had sexually assaulted their students. The list also accused a professor from Ashoka University of sexual harassment. The name of the accuser and the reason for the accusation was not provided. These are people who control the future of India, by way of controlling education and the educated. The names, on both the lists, are no longer public —both sheets cannot be accessed.
As of today, it has been fourteen days since the List was published. As of today, no real action against those accused on the List has been taken.
The History Society of Ashoka, on Monday, 6 November, organised an open house on sexual harassment in academia. Their primary concerns, as outlined in their email, were: “What constitutes sexual harassment? How do we respond to such allegations? What role does social media play in cases of harassment? Where do we go from here?”
Interestingly, the History Society of Ashoka organised the seminar, as opposed to the administration, or even Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH). When asked why, Kaagni Harekal, a member of the History Society and a former member of both the House of Representatives and the CASH, said, “Someone had to take the first step. It just happened to be us.” She added that after a class with Prof. Pratyay Nath, wherein the List was mentioned for the first time in an official capacity, the idea of the Society organising the seminar came into being. She argued that no one at Ashoka has spoken about the List in two weeks, and it’s high time that someone does. Calling the town hall an “open meeting”, she hopes conversation will help bring the gravity of the revelations to light.
Both students and faculty were present at this open meeting. Kaagni began the Townhall, and then Prof. Nath, in his capacity as the Programme Coordinator for History and as the moderator of the session, introduced the aims of the gathering — sexual harassment in academia (not limited to women), whether this form of harassment is different than that faced in other situations, and how gender violence plays out in the everyday. The List was brought up, as were questions regarding anonymity — is it good or bad? Does it weaken an argument? The presence of social media as the medium of information and the implications of the same were also on the agenda. The meeting ended with a discussion on CASH. The fact that a professor from Ashoka University was mentioned on the List was not addressed in any capacity.
The room opened to discussion which revolved around what constitutes sexual harassment — a question that is so muddled and difficult to answer that no definitive answer was reached. Prof. Nath asked whether texting someone late at night, even if it is about work, constitutes as harassment or, whether complimenting someone on their shirt does. Where must one draw the line?
One of the greatest revelations that came from the discussion was that most of the student body remains unfamiliar with the functioning of CASH. Students are not privy to the “due process”, or how one goes about lodging a complaint with the Committee. Prof. Vaiju Naravane, the chair of CASH, addressed these questions before she took over the meeting, discussed the CASH support group, her views on anonymity and the Ashokan principle of sealing records. The subject of anonymity sparked a lot of debate, with someone asking for a reveal of names so as to protect themselves better, while Prof. Naravane argued for, and cited examples of, Ashoka’s stringent rules of anonymity.
This town hall hopefully is the first of many to come. It was the beginning of a conversation that was long overdue — a conversation that will continue in classrooms and corridors alike. It’s time for the world to speak up about sexual harassment, a problem that is systemic and deeply rooted in power structures we operate within. These power imbalances are all the more prominent in academic spaces, and so these conversations have great implications on Ashoka University. It’s impacts are already being felt, with the introduction of Students against Sexual Harassment (SASH) — this is only the first step.
*Raya’s pronouns are they/them