When 24-year-old law student Raya Sarkar, a master's student of law at University of California, Davis started a list of sexual predators in Indian academia, she knew she was taking up the difficult role of crusader for several young women, most of whom wish to remain anonymous.
Inspired by C. Christine Fair's account of sexual harassment at the hands of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sarkar created the list which now includes more than sixty people, many of them big names in the social sciences in India and abroad.
Unlike a similar list that originated in US media circles, this list is not anonymously sourced. According to Sarkar, the names on the list are based mostly on first-person accounts from women who were allegedly sexually harasssed. In certain cases, where the victim requested anonymity, a friend was nominated to be a go-between. Sarkar says she has collected screenshots of chats, WhatsApp messages, emails, call recordings that corroborate the testimonies of the victims.
Sarkar, formerly a student at OP Jindal Global University believes that her Singaporean nationality and American residence will shield her to an extent from potential defamation suits.
The response to the publication of the list has been overwhelming. Sarkar says hundreds of friends and strangers have messaged her to add their own accounts of alleged sexual abuse and harassment in academia. Her post has been shared by hundreds of people. It has also, unsurprisingly, faced resistance.
A statement put out by several prominent Indian academics including Nivedita Menon, Kavita Krishnan and Ayesha Kidwai has criticised Sarkar’s methods, stating that the list could “delegitimize the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult”. The debate fueled by the list has several dimensions – the ethics of creating such a list, the privilege of those opposing it, and the unchecked hegemony of upper-caste men in Indian institutions. It’s clear Sarkar has managed to ruffle quite a few feathers.
Below are excerpts from an email interview with her which have been edited for clarity.
What prompted your decision to create this list?
People ask victims why now? Why 20 years later? And use that as a reason to dismiss allegations. One needs to understand the power assemblages at work that silence and prevent victims from speaking out. Why am I doing this now? Because I feel Harvey Weinstein's case has started many discussions and people are now more open to believing victims instead of "liar until proven innocent". The #metoo campaign inspired me to do this, and I took this opportunity to create a list to warn students using firsthand accounts from survivors. The list is primarily for students to be wary of their professors, because in my opinion, knowing how college administrations function, harassers will continue to hold their positions of power.
Your Facebook post is already creating ripples. It’s been shared by hundreds of people and there is already a statement against it by prominent feminists on Kafila. Were you concerned about whether you were insulated legally from defamation charges?
It’s not surprising that the list was not well received; even by feminists who hold powerful positions. After all even Donna Karan (the American fashion designer), who is a self-proclaimed feminist, blamed victims for the clothes they wear in order to defend her friend, Harvey Weinstein. I think the response by most 'academic feminists' has been similar. Students have reported that professors are calling them incessantly and asking them to make me take off their names and luring them with scholarships to Oxford. I don't know if they will decide to face defamation charges or not. I think it is worth it, as long as my list saved more victims from being harassed.
You have also received a lot of support, particularly from younger women. Were you shocked at the number of survivors who've shared their accounts with you?
An overwhelming number of people have shared the list and have supported the campaign and have chosen to believe the victims. I have received over 300 messages from different women, often accusing the same professor of sexual harassment against them. I am very glad that there are many people in India – men, women, and non-men – who are open to believe victims of sexual harassment, who have risked their career to report to me.
Many of the men in your list are self-avowed feminists. They have spoken about systemic privilege and structural inequality. Yet, their own social privileges seem to insulate them from being held accountable, particularly by the intelligentsia.
It is appalling but not surprising that the hegemony is trying to preserve its power. Be it left or right, both jump to rape apologia whenever 'one of their own' is threatened. Most of the professors are Brahmin or Savarna. Moreover, it is Brahmin patriarchy and Brahmin hegemony at work here, trying to swiftly preserve the structures they have built to silence whoever tries to dismantle it.
What's next as far as this list is concerned? Do you hope it translates to action? Say student protests or swift decisions by university administrators?
The list was not prepared with institutional action in mind, but as a cautionary list for students. The victims themselves must consent to approaching the courts or any ministry. My friend Aroh Akuth, who is a member of a student-run action committee in Ambedkar Univeristy, New Delhi, and I have convinced one of the victims to file a complaint against two of the professors. It is shocking how most victims do not wish to file complaints fearing that they will be bullied, silenced and made a pariah by their academic communities.