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THE recent release of a list of ‘alleged’ sexual predators within academia, apparently still being expanded, has caused considerable consternation, not only among the males within the fraternity but also well known Indian feminists. Even as a few have welcomed the hit-list approach, though guardedly, a much larger number have pointed to serious problems with a strategy of anonymous ‘calling out’, in particular the absence of corroborative evidence and disregard of ‘due process’, together creating a reversal of the burden of proof wherein the named are presumed guilty and it is contingent on them to prove otherwise, thereby raising the spectre of a witch hunt which could likely seriously damage the environment necessary to sustain a vibrant and healthy academia. Notably, many of the cautionary comments have come from ‘progressive’ intellectuals and activists long associated with struggles against a ‘patriarchal, conservative and misogynist’ mindset marking our society. The merit of these comments apart, there is need to guard against the danger of shifting the focus away from what continues to be a large and relatively unaddressed problem, that of widespread sexual harassment on our campuses.

As many have pointed out, the recognition of this problem in our academic institutions is relatively recent, and involved sustained struggle by the women’s movement before relevant authorities were willing to admit the need for corrective action. Equally that despite the 1997 Vishaka judgement mandating that employers constitute statuatory committees to deal with complaints against sexual harassment at the workplace, most institutions have still to do so. Further, barring rare exceptions, most of these committees are indifferently constituted, meet rarely, follow cursory procedures and routinely deliver judgements that are deeply flawed, almost invariably exonerating the ‘accused’ usually on grounds of inconclusive evidence. The process is dilatory and burdensome with little support extended to the complainant. Hardly surprising that few women work up the courage to formally lodge a complaint, knowing well that even if they ‘win’, they will have to pay a heavy price – forever marked out as ‘difficult’, disrupters, and uncooperative in creating a conducive work environment. Expectedly, therefore, few women show any trust in the committees against sexual harassment (CASH).

Unfortunately, instead of working towards strengthening and improving institutions of redressal, and more, proactively working to create an environment within which women feel secure and welcome as equal participants in the sharing and creation of knowledge, the debate, far too often, turns to the extant legal provisions, castigating them as draconian and one-sided, amenable to misuse and the settling of personal scores by aggrieved women. In a sense this set of complaints is no different from the reactions to the laws created to address the problem of caste discrimination, dowry deaths and rape. In each of these cases, there is concerted effort to minimize the problem of discrimination by highlighting stories of witch hunt and raising the spectre of a caste or gender war.

Laws and rules designed to address structural discrimination relating to either caste or gender, are invariably blunt instruments, generically incapable, except in gross and obvious cases, of satisfactorily dealing with the specific cases of individuals involved, whether as accused or complainant. How we define what constitutes proper evidence of violation, make sense of the context and evidence, validate witness testimony, the process of cross-examination and so on, matters greatly, more so in cases where the ‘accused’ is more powerful than the complainant. Moreover, given the dilatory nature of our processes, we neglect to appreciate that the ‘final judgement’ rarely ensures closure, that neither side emerges unscathed from the experience, and that both suffer a loss of reputation. One wonders whether in addition to the existing set of laws and rules, our institutions simultaneously need to think about and experiment with other forms of redressal such that both men and women can come together to create a more convivial environment of work and interaction.

To come back to the ‘name and shame’ list. Even if one reads it as a desperate measure to overcome the stranglehold of our inefficacious institutional procedures and ‘hostile’ social environment – break the silence and hopefully persuade others to also speak out – this strategy for dignity and a fair deal at the work place is deeply fraught. It not only impugns the character and work ethic of those named, violating their civil rights and raising serious ‘ends and means’ questions, by presenting women as inevitable victims, it takes away from their struggles for autonomy, agency and personhood. Worse, by raising the spectre of a kangaroo trial, it both delegitimzes and weakens efforts at improving existing arrangements for justice – hardly a desirable prospect.

Harsh Sethi