India’s culture of silence around sexual harassment on campus
Most in academic circles refuse to acknowledge sexual harassment, making it difficult for victims to come forward
The indictment of a prominent academic for sexual harassment in one of India’s premier universities has revealed a disturbing culture of silence around alleged habitual predators, an Asia Times inquiry has found.
Professor Lawrence Liang, dean of the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship at Ambedkar University Delhi was found “guilty” of sexual harassment in late February by an Inquiry Committee set up by the university.
However, the charges against Liang, and a whispering campaign about him, are not new. He was named in a crowd-sourced list put together last October by several women in India. They, in turn, were inspired by Professor Christine Fair’s scathing piece on the silence she encountered on sexual harassment over decades in academia.
The Liang case could be a turning point. It has lifted the veil on a disturbing issue that few speak of, let alone complain about. But interviews with various academics, feminists and lawyers by Asia Times have revealed that there was a culture that enabled Liang’s transgressions.
Conspiracy of silence
In March 2000, Liang co-founded the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), a collective of “progressive” lawyers based in Bangalore (Bengaluru) who worked on issues of human rights, free speech and provided legal services to marginalized groups. It ticked all the right causes and was seen as a key body fighting for liberal causes and individual rights.
However, the Ambedkar Inquiry Committee’s report reveals hints about Liang’s past behavior at ALF. Paragraph 3.3.3 of the report details two incidents with legal interns that reflects his behavior with the complainant in the current case. The report records “unwelcome kisses” for interns constitutes “sexual harassment”. In his defense, Liang responded to a specific question about the “unwelcome kisses”, saying that “in a strict reading of the term…it would absolutely constitute” sexual harassment. However, he tried to make a case that if the sexual harassment law was not read in the “strictest terms” he could interpret it as a “complex” interaction with the interns. The Inquiry Committee said it “disagrees” with his interpretation. In its view, Liang was guilty of harassment.
But a few members, past and present, at the Alternative Law Forum who Asia Times spoke to noted that the atmosphere and culture of the organization prevented them from speaking up. “We were told that if we were to continue with the organization, then the Board would not allow these issues to be raised,” one member said on the strict condition of anonymity. As a result, several testimonies remained buried with the apparent support of ALF’s leaders.
A third case was referred to in the Inquiry Committee report. A witness told the committee that she asked “her colleagues at (Alternative Law Forum) about (Liang); her colleagues said that (Liang) had a reputation of behaving similarly”. In fact, the witness also referred to a personal encounter as a part of her deposition, when Liang made an “inappropriate comment”.
Asia Times sent a detailed questionnaire to several members of the ALF seeking their response to specific queries:
- Were there any incidents or allegations of sexual harassment against Professor Liang, during his association with ALF?
- If so, what action did ALF take following those incidents or allegations?
- Does ALF have a Prevention of Sexual Harassment Policy?
- Does ALF have an Internal Complaints Committee to deal with complaints of sexual harassment? If so, since when?
- In his defense during the investigation by Ambedkar’s Inquiry Committee, it was mentioned by Prof Liang that “ALF is a small organization of 18 people” and there was some ambiguity on what constituted sexual harassment.” Do you agree with this statement made by Prof Liang?
Alternative Law Forum did not send any response to these queries. Vinay K Sreenivasa, a core member of the group, wrote on March 9 that “we will get back to you shortly”. But there was no follow-up.
Powerful academic nexus
For the woman who complained to Ambedkar University Delhi and many like her, a powerful nexus within India’s academia proved to be the biggest hurdle in filing complaints against sexual harassment. The Liang episode saw this repeated on several occasions.
In October, when the crowd-sourced list of alleged “sexual harassers” surfaced on Facebook, a group of “feminists” immediately issued a statement opposing this “name and shame” tactic. It was posted on a portal called Kafila.Online, which describes itself as “team effort of concerned individuals – scholars, activists, writers, journalists – to create a space for critical engagement on a wide range of issues of the contemporary world.”
One of the signatories was Professor Nivedita Menon, a teacher at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory. When the statement came out on Kafila.Online, they failed to mention a crucial fact – that Liang was a core member of the collective. The collective has members from academia, the law and media; Aditya Nigam, who works with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), siblings Aarti Sethi, a researcher and scholar at CSDS and her brother Aman, recently appointed as the editor of Huffpost India, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, a “media practitioner”, among others.
Once Ambedkar University’s Inquiry Committee report was revealed, kafila.online released a brief statement stating that Liang would no longer be “writing on Kafila.” However, Menon wrote a piece on Kafila.online defending Liang and saying the “process” was not over. She argued that “once [Ambedkar’s] process includes the opportunity for both sides to appeal”. She also argued for a lesser punishment for Liang.
“We also see due process as involving graded punishment according to the context of the act of harassment. This is crucial. Depending on the nature of the act of sexual harassment, the punishment would and should vary. The minimum punishment cannot be termination from a job, especially as in Lawrence’s case it is clear that the incident did not happen in a student-teacher interaction.”
This has left the student community at her university (JNU) deeply distressed, as Asia Times discovered during its inquiries. “The response was triggering,” said a PhD student, herself the victim of repeated instances of sexual harassment. “She argued that the complainant and Liang were not in a ‘student-teacher’ relationship’. But, in these universities, we always get external faculty as guides and examiners for our PhDs. Will they recognize sexual harassment only if he harasses a student he is a guide to? In that case, any policy and punishment will fail to recognize the power equation, which is key to all forms of violence against women.”
Menon, who has known Liang for a long time and is a fellow member at Kafila.Online, has changed her position on sexual harassment. In an earlier article, she argued that making cases of harassment public was a well-recognized remedy. “If the existing laws restrict the agency of the complainant, we need to change them,” she argued, noting that victims and complainants should have the agency to decide what to make public.
As another PhD scholar told Asia Times, “Academia is a small world. Most professors and PhD guides know each other well. The disciplines they specialize in are even smaller collectives. This explains the culture of silence on sexual harassment, especially when they perceive that one of their own has been outed as a harasser.”
Asia Times sent detailed queries to all the members of Kafila.Online, including Menon, but is yet to receive a response. Meanwhile, the complainant has already written to Ambedkar University to express her dissatisfaction with the Inquiry Committee’s recommendations. She noted that Liang being asked to step down from his administrative post does not remove him from a position of power over the students he teaches.
Liang, meanwhile, has issued a statement saying he will challenge the findings of the report.
Finally, in January, the Infosys Foundation, set up by one of India’s biggest IT companies, awarded Liang its 2017 prize for social sciences. The jury was headed by Professor Kaushik Basu, a former Chief Economist at the World Bank now at Cornell and included an array of eminent academics.
According to a member of the jury, the allegations against Liang arose while they were deliberating who should get the prize. “But since we did not have anything concrete, we decided to go ahead with the prize,” the jury member told Asia Times. However, they are now considering if the prize can and should be withdrawn, as “details listed in the complaint precede the prize.” Questions were also sent to Professor Basu but he is yet to respond.