A Predator List Born of Institutional Failure: Colleges, Wake Up!
The Indian education administration gives undemocratic powers to teachers.
Professors and scholars at major Indian universities are going through a rough time these days. A woman named Raya Sarkar has surfaced like a nightmare in their lives. Raya Sarkar is a lawyer based in the US, who writes on gender and caste issues regularly. This story began with a Facebook post of hers, and it has now turned into a storm.
Since that Facebook post, people have been looking at professors and scholars with suspicion. It is about sexual harassment and exploitation. The complaints have all been made by female students of the professors. No one knows who will be named next. Professors everywhere are worried, and have started mobilising their supporters. JNU professor Nivedita Menon has even written an article criticising this public ‘naming and shaming’ approach. She does have a valid point, the complaints are all anonymous and there is no verification of the allegations.
Sexual harassment and exploitation in Indian universities, perpetrated by teachers, is an open secret. Allegations like these have surprised no one. The names of some senior and well-respected academicians on this list is what caused the sensation and disbelief.
This entire story started on social media. Raya Sarkar wrote a facebook post naming and accusing two professors. She further asked anyone who had experienced or witnessed harassment at the hands of a professor, to name them and she would add them to the list. Soon, the name and shame list had grown to include over 50 well-respected teachers. These professors are well-known around the country, and teach at some of the best institutes like FTII, JNU, DU, etc.
These incidents in India have a global context. After dozens of women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against noted American filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement started. Women across the world came forward to say they too have been sexually harassed. Many noted actresses spoke of having been sexually exploited by Weinstein.
As a direct result of this incident, women started to speak of what had long been kept buried.
Lax Attitude Towards Sexual Abuse
Western society has a very strict attitude towards sexual abuse; it isn’t lax like it is in India. Especially when it comes to marital relations, there is zero tolerance in Europe. That is why the #MeToo movement was seen as moral cleansing exercise. In India, apart from a few women like Kangana Ranaut, the effort is more towards hushing up rather than talking.
India does not have a strict attitude towards sexual abuse. Nowhere in Indian mythology or religion does a rapist get punished for his crime.
In a well-known story, after the rape and sexual exploitation, Indra’s punishment was that he was deprived of worshippers, the Moon got a blackened face, and the victim Ahilya gets turned to stone, finding redemption only when she gets hit by Lord Ram’s foot.
In this story, it is the woman who bears the brunt, her very existence in society becomes difficult. The concept of a woman “losing respect” comes from here.
Indications of Change
Students coming forward to name and accuse their professors of sexual exploitation needs to be viewed as an indication of a changing Indian society.
Incidents like this have come to light earlier at institutes like TERI (The Energy and Research Institute), where the chairman RK Pachauri had to give up his seat following allegations. In Jadavpur University and Delhi University action has been taken against professors over sexual exploitation cases. In 2016, an assistant professor at JNU had to leave over allegations of sexually abusing a foreign student.
Indian Universities being a hotbed of sexual exploitation is natural. One of the biggest reasons for this is the power structure of these universities. The Indian education administration gives undemocratic powers to teachers. Especially in institutes of higher education, teachers have god-like powers and can determine the course of a student’s future. They play a significant role from the beginning at the time of admission to research to fellowships, right up to getting jobs. As a result, male students end up doing personal errands like vegetable shopping and domestic work, and female students become vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Undue weightage given to viva and interviews in student evaluation also gives unnecessary power to teachers. A maximum 15% cap on weightage given to vivas in evaluation has been ordered by court, but most universities continue to give vivas 30% or more weightage.
Institutional setups for preventing and dealing with sexual exploitation are either non-existent or very weak. Even where they do exist, very few girls dare to step forward against a teacher. Add to this the undue reverence given to the status of a teacher, and hardly any complainants get justice.
Another major challenge at Indian campuses is the gender imbalance. According to a government of India study (2003), there are 44% women in higher education centers, but they are largely missing at the decision-making level. A 2015 study by the British Council titled Women in Higher Education Leadership, found that in Indian universities, only 1.4% of all professor level posts are held by women. The same study also found that of the 431 Vice-Chancellors in India, only 13 are women, six of whom head women’s institutes.
Long Overdue Cleanup on Campuses
Lack of women at decision-making positions in universities makes the entire structure extremely patriarchal. The teachers’ staff rooms creates an uncomfortable environment for female students. This is one of the most fundamental causes of sexual harassment. Many female research students have no other option but to accept a male professor as supervisor, and their discomfort has no solution. It is difficult to say when this gender imbalance in Indian universities will be corrected, since it is yet to be viewed as a problem.
Recently, when girls at Banaras Hindu University complained of sexual harassment, the administration had no idea how to deal with it. As a result, it was the girls who ended up getting lathicharged. If institutes become gender sensitive, then a consistent redressal mechanism can be developed to deal with such issues.
Anyway, since the issue of sexual harassment in universities has now come up in such a big way, let us hope that this leads to a much needed cleanup within the institutes, and makes campuses a much more democratic space for girls.
Right now, the way in which university professors are being named as sexual harassers, it is quite possible that some innocent people also get caught up because the list does not state any proof with the allegations. It is very much possible that innocent men also get named as harassers.
But it should be viewed as retribution for the thousands of years of exploitation by men. Cleaning up the universities is important.
(Geeta Yadav is an officer in the Indian Information Service. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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