Amidst generational divide, Indian feminists grapple with the issue of sexual harassment in academia

On the 24th of October, 2017, Raya Sarkar, an Indian law scholar studying at the University of California, Davis, unveiled a “catalog of scholarly sexual transgressors” collaboratively compiled by numerous nameless female scholars on Facebook. —The primary perpetrator of habitual sexual misconduct featured on the index is Dipesh Chakrabarti, a renowned historian specializing in postcolonial theory. Subsequently, the catalog expanded in size, eventually encompassing 72 male instructors, the majority of whom were affiliated with esteemed Indian institutions such as Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Gadapur University.

The department in which I am enrolled comprises three instructors listed within. That evening, several students who were closely acquainted with the aforementioned male instructor shared the post. The ensuing comment section beneath the shared post ignited fervent debates between proponents and opponents, leading to a division among the students. The impact of Facebook exceeded expectations. Upon hearing that legal action was being contemplated by one of the teachers to retaliate, those who had shared the post promptly removed it.

A few days later, a collective open letter authored by 14 renowned feminists, including Niveda May, surfaced on the internet. The open letter posited that the catalog included individuals who had already faced charges, as well as those whose circumstances remained ambiguous. The context was unclear, devoid of any explanations, thereby posing harm to the feminist movement against sexual harassment. The issue of campus sexual harassment should revert to legal procedures and be addressed through reformation processes, thus calling for the removal of this catalog. However, numerous young feminists rallied behind the “catalog” and experienced profound disappointment and a sense of betrayal, thereby inciting generational divisions and conflicts within the realm of Indian feminism.

My friend Shatta posted the catalog on Facebook, expressing great distress. I advised her that Facebook was an unsuitable platform for public discourse, as the quality of communication was abysmal and it achieved little beyond fostering confrontation. Shatta grew incensed, accusing me of suppressing the voices of the victims. I found myself helplessly crying, unsure of what course of action to pursue. A few years later, I had the opportunity to engage in a profound conversation with another friend who had shared the article. She revealed that it was only upon venturing abroad that she acquired the lexicon to articulate these experiences—sexual grooming. Sexual grooming is a term derived from European and American contexts, denoting the manipulation of children by elders through emotional cultivation, educational guidance, and the like, with the aim of fulfilling sexual desires. In India, this concept remains largely unknown.

On campus, the turmoil sparked by the anonymous roll call swiftly dissipated, with minimal intervention from university authorities. However, an exception occurred in August 2022. The head of the English department at a prestigious institution faced allegations from students of prolonged emotional manipulation and sexual harassment. The school promptly dismissed the teacher from their position as department head. This teacher hails from the Dalit caste and has long been involved in anti-caste movements. Supporters of the accused teacher swiftly organized a protest, pointing out that when a Brahmin teacher faced allegations of sexual harassment, the school failed to respond, thus revealing the fundamental presence of caste discrimination.

Just as this incident gained momentum as a topic of discussion, Ishtar’s Facebook post caught my attention, titled “Please take note: abuse, sexual grooming.” Ishtar recounted her personal experiences, how she had idolized her college professors, how they never concealed their unrestrained outlook on life, and how they made her feel exceptional. After graduating, one day, her teacher visited her and forcibly kissed her while she was alone. Upon sharing this incident with her friend, her friend also disclosed a similar experience. Reflecting on the past, they were shocked to realize that the teacher-student relationship had been characterized by “sexual deception” from the very outset, serving solely sexual objectives.

I privately messaged Ishtar, seeking a conversation, for I genuinely failed to comprehend the gravity of this incident. Ishtar informed me that she only became acquainted with this term upon arriving in England. She ardently believed that the concept of “child,” as understood in Europe and the United States, applied to female college students in India. In a conservative society like India, college students possess minimal sexual experience and are no different from children. The culture of teacher reverence fosters unconditional trust from parents and students alike. Many girls remain oblivious to the fact that the teacher’s motivation is not education but rather “sex.” Ishtar contends that it falls upon the awakened self to rouse young women. Although I still lack complete comprehension, I hold firm in my belief that through continued inquiry and active listening, I will gradually gain a deeper understanding of the unspoken suffering endured by women in Indian society.

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