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Breaking the “savarna feminism” rules – how Raya Sarkar’s list of alleged harassers divided opinion in India

A student decided to compile a list of alleged sexual predators. Then other feminists stepped in – to defend them.  

On 24 October 2017, the law student and vocal anti-caste Indian feminist Raya Sarkar put up a Facebook post. In it, Sarkar asked fellow students to share their experiences with academics “who have sexually harassed/were sexually predatory to them”. Coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein saga and the #MeToo movement, the post quickly went viral. Hundreds of women messaged Sarkar on Facebook and WhatsApp to tell their stories and name their abusers. Starting off with just two names, the list quickly grew to 72, many of them prominent figures in liberal and progressive circles.

“Honestly it was an act of impulse. I was infuriated to know that Christine Fair's article was removed from Huffington Post and the ridiculous reason they took it down for,” says Sarkar over e-mail. They (Sarkar uses this pronoun) were referring to an open letter by the senior American academic in which she named several men, including noted Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who had harassed her over the years she spent in academia. (The article was taken down by Huffington Post, but has since been republished by Buzzfeed; Chakrabarty told a Chicago paper that he had “always worked to maintain a respectful, professional, and cordial relationship with my students” and would listen to any complaints “carefully and take appropriate action.”)

Sarkar continues: “I just wanted students and my friends to be wary of alleged sexual harassers in academia. I used first hand accounts and whatever evidence the survivors could gather to make the post using my personal social media account. It was a cautionary list, pretty much how women warn each other in person.” Nevertheless, the list ignited a firestorm of debate in Indian intellectual and liberal circles that refuses to die down. 

“There's a reason the list exists in the first place”

Reactions to the list have been as varied as they have been predictable. While many took to social media to support the list and demand justice for the victims, others decried it as “vigilante justice” or a “witch hunt”. Much of the discussion has revolved around Sarkar’s “methodology” and the ethics of a crowd-sourced list of anonymous accusations. The fact that there have been no official complaints registered against the majority of those named has further muddied the waters.

One of the men on the list pointed out the lack of details in the list (Sarkar does not mention specific allegations, ostensibly to protect the accusers from reprisals), claiming that this made it impossible for men to defend themselves. Almost immediately, several women responded with specific allegations. Another - Ashley Tellis, an English professor who claims he was fired as a lecturer at St Joseph’s College, Bangalore, for “being gay” - claimed that he was only added to the list because he criticised it publicly, and went on to imply that the List and its supporters are deliberately or unwittingly working hand in hand with the “government’s complete disrespect for procedure, nominating people as harassers and being done with any idea of justice”.

For some, this misses the point. “The discourse has shifted to whether it’s ethical or not,” says feminist writer Shreya Ila Anasuya. “But I think that's a question we can tackle once we've all agreed that there is an egregious abuse of power in these institutions and that there's a reason the list exists in the first place.” Apart from a couple of investigations and one resignation that may or may not have to do with the list, she notes, there have been few real world repercussions for the accused men. “I would like to widen the lens of what ethics we're looking at. Is it ethical for students to have to go through harassment year after year without any recourse to any kind of justice? Is it ethical to dismiss the list just because we don't agree with the methodology?”

Criticism of the list hasn’t just come from men or conservative women. Immediately after the list started getting visibility on social media, a statement criticising it appeared on independent radical blog Kafila, co-signed by 13 prominent feminists, including noted author and academic Nivedita Menon and All India Progressive Women's Association secretary Kavita Krishnan. The statement said that they were “dismayed” at the list and urged those behind it to withdraw the list and “follow due process”. On social media, others urged the complainants to come forward and report cases to the police or to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at their universities, set up in the wake of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.

But defenders of the list say these calls ignore the fact that it is their frustration with these very mechanisms that motivated these women to approach Sarkar. “I asked the victims the same question and the answer is pretty clear,” says Sarkar. “They did not approach any committee in place because it is exhausting. They are scrutinised and singled out in their institutions.” In the tight-knit world of academia, the women fear a backlash among colleagues, as well as pressure to withdraw their claims. “Most victims don't approach these committees also because often there are conflicts of interest between the accused and the people carrying out the investigative process,” Sarkar adds. 

Even feminists who are uncomfortable with the ethical implications of crowd-sourced lists acknowledge that existing “due process” is severely flawed. Writing in The Wire, Delhi University professor Ashwini Deshpande draws from her own experience at the Delhi School of Economics. Deshpande served as the chair of the Committee Against Sexual Harassment, the forerunner to the committees established after 2013. In some cases, such as explaining to a male professor that texting a female student repeatedly late at night could make her uncomfortable, the committee could intervene. But on other occasions, red tape, institutional indifference and the lack of any real power rendered these mechanisms ineffective. “The rules are such that if you want to bury cases in red tape and bureaucracy, you could do that very easily,” she tells me over the phone from Delhi. “It was all a function of individual initiative, whether or not the chairperson or some members of the committee were pro-active and sensitised to the issue.” Deshpande believes that committees need to be less centralised, and closer to the possible complainants. “At the moment, the architecture of the committee is not conducive to that,” she says. 

“Would a list of Uber drivers enrage us so bitterly?”

Aside from questions about due process, the Kafila statement also ignited a passionate, and occasionally vicious, debate within feminist circles. The dispute exposed longstanding fissures within the Indian feminist movement along generational, caste and class lines.

For supporters of the list, such as the feminist writer Anasuya, the Kafila statement smacked of “turf and territorialism”. Its tone was seen as patronising, while the promise of the “support of the larger feminist community” suggested the writers felt ownership of the feminist movement. Other critiques focused on the shared caste and class of the accused and the feminists who signed the statement.

Indian academia, like the rest of Indian society, is heavily dominated by Brahmins and other “upper” castes. Individuals from those background enjoy an in-built legitimacy and social and cultural capital from their location on the caste hierarchy.  Ironically, even supposedly egalitarian and progressive fields such as post-colonial studies and gender studies are largely the preserve of caste elites – a group which includes both the men on the list, and 11 of the 13 feminists who signed the Kafila statement. As Vidhya Reveendranathan and Nitin Sinha ask in The Wire, “would a list of Uber drivers enrage us so bitterly? Perhaps not.” Or, to put it another way, why is Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, OK with naming and shaming misogynistic trolls on Twitter, but uncomfortable when others name and shame academics for offline sexual harassment, abuse and worse?

The debate has also become increasingly personal. Two days later, one of the more prominent signatories on the Kafila statement, Nivedita Menon, responded to these allegations with a rambling 7,300 word post titled “From Feminazi to Savarna Rape Apologist In 24 Hours” (“savarna” is a term that denotes those with caste privilege). Menon raised some important critiques of the list, especially the lack of specific allegations and the importance of establishing institutional procedures to deal with sexual harassment cases.

Nevertheless, much of the post was devoted to establishing her credentials as a feminist and questioning the role of her - and her co-signees’ - caste in this debate. She went on to equate anti-caste feminists calling out “savarna feminism”, i.e. the privileging of upper caste feminist narratives over those emerging from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) and other marginalised communities, with anti-feminist attacks by right-wing Hindu nationalist trolls. (For non-Indian readers, this smacks of the same logic that leads white American progressives to blame the rise of Trump on “divisive” identity politics, rather than on their own failure to reach out to marginalised communities.)

For Menon and many others, especially on the left, this attack on upper caste feminism has led to a “destructive polarisation” within the movement and “the annihilation of mutual trust.” But, as Anasuya points out in a must-read piece on DailyO, “even claiming that the movement’s ‘unity’ is being threatened is a savarna construct and a sign of this privilege. Dalit Bahujan activists and still others who are in different locations have never bought into the idea of a singular "feminist movement" - why should they, when they have been systematically excluded by savarna feminists?” 

Feminism in India has disproportionately focused on issues of concern to upper caste, upper class women. Simultaneously, the contributions of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women (such as Savitribai Phule, the Dalit poet and social reformer who opened the one of India’s first girls’ school in 1858 along with her husband) have been erased.

“This culture of disbelieving victims hits minorities the hardest”

Before Sarkar was known for their list, they were known as an anti-caste campaigner. “Savarna feminism has dominated post-colonial theory and feminism in India,” she says (Menon did not respond to queries seeking comment for this piece). “How many Dalit women have been given the opportunity to publish their own stories, their own theories in academia? Savarna feminists refuse to pass the mic to Dalit women but would rather speak for them, come up with words like ‘subaltern’, without Dalit academics and scholars being given the opportunity to write their own histories and theories about their own subjugation.”

While discussions of sexual harassment and reporting in the US and Britain have focused on the relative privilege and power of white men, in India the discussion has included the idea of “caste capital”. Sarkar argues this plays a major role in whether victims get believed when they choose to complain about sexual harassment. “This culture of disbelieving victims hits minorities the hardest who do not own the caste capital that their savarna professors enjoy,” says Sarkar. In one case, Srilakshmi Prabha, a Dalit research scholar, filed a case against the university’s vice-chancellor, on the grounds that a job reserved for a woman had been given to a man. Later, she found her post-doctoral fellowship was blocked, in what she believed was revenge (the case is currently being examined by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes). “The power dynamics cannot be disregarded,” argues Sarkar.

This splintering of the feminist movement has brought long overdue discussions about intersectionality - or the lack of it - within Indian feminism into the public eye. This debate continues, and will continue, to rage on for months and years to come. In the meantime, the question that many have raised is “what now?” Different people I spoke to had different answers. Deshpande, the former committee chair, believes that the solution lies in working to strengthen the existing mechanisms to address sexual harassment within the university. In another post on Kafila, anthropology student Nandita Badami explores ways in which crowd-sourced lists like this one can be made more robust and less problematic, suggesting that they can bolster the work of anti-sexual harassment committees where they do exist, and act as a first port-of-call where they don’t.

Still others see the list as an end in itself, a digital version of the “whisper networks” that already exist offline to warn women of potential abusers. And then of course, there’s the fact that all of this action is restricted to academic and urban liberal circles. Apart from a few academics, and one music venue owner in Pune, powerful men across various industries – from Bollywood to law to government - continue to believe that their position gives them the impunity to harass their women employees and colleagues. A broader cultural shift will take much more time and effort.

Nevertheless, despite the acrimony, some recognise Raya Sarkar's list marks a turning point. “Aside from these action points, I think we need to pause and realise that this is a big moment,” says Anasuya. “We need to historicise this moment and look at what's happening now post-Weinstein. What is this moment, where women who haven't spoken publicly for decades are coming out with their stories? It's been happening all year, so we need to really think about this and grapple with the whole of it.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.