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#MeToo: 'Sexual predators' list divides Indian feminists

A list of alleged sexual predators, comprising mainly professors from Indian universities, was recently posted and spread virally on social media, once again shining a spotlight on the issue of sex crimes in India.

Symbolbild Protest gegen Vergewaltigungen in Indien (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Following the #MeToo social media campaign, initiated last month by women worldwide to share experiences with sexual harassment, a list appeared on social media in India containing the names of dozens of professors, activists and journalists accused of "sexually predatory" behavior.

The accused have cried foul, alleging a witch-hunt based on "unsubstantiated" charges. The list was also criticized by a section of Indian feminists who believe that bypassing institutional mechanisms could prove counterproductive, in the long run, for gender justice.

Separately, a report published by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch on Wednesday revealed the difficulty in reporting sexual harassment through formal channels in India. The report said that victims of sexual violence often face humiliations in Indian hospitals and police stations, with officers refusing to file complaints. Even in courts, victim-shaming is still common, it added.

'Bypassing due process'

Published first on Facebook by Raya Sarkar, an Indian-origin law student based in the US, and compiled by Inji Pennu, an Indian activist and journalist, the first list contained close to 60 names, including Indian professors based abroad.

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"Speaking up is important and the list spoke for itself. No due process can contain sexual violence or discrimination. So to me, it doesn't make any sense to depend only on due process," Pennu told DW.

Since the list appeared, several women who added names to it came forward with their reasons on social media. Some, such as filmmaker Nishita Jain, expressed distrust with the formal complaints systems, which she dubbed "misogynist and morally bankrupt" in a Facebook post. Others, such as doctor Sylvia Karpagam, shared unsatisfactory experiences with due process, and hoped the list would at least serve as a warning for students.

Read more: Blame victims and the West – India's way of justifying sexual assaults?

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"If due process were done with integrity, the victims would not have approached me in the first place," Raya Sarkar told DW. "I have first-hand experience with internal complaints committees. Victims were asked to accept an 'apology' from their perpetrators. Their deposition was distributed among the perpetrators and their friends, after which the victim was mocked - a clear breach of confidentiality. No investigation occurred. Victims were asked if they are lying during the proceedings," Sarkar said.

Not transparent enough?

But opponents of the list say that filing a formal complaint is the only transparent and ethical way of tackling sexual harassers.

"I am not against women speaking up but object to the way the list was compiled," said Kavita Krishnan, an activist who rose to fame during the 2012 protests in Delhi against sexual violence. She referred to an opinion article she wrote in which she explains that the process wherein the identities of the complaining women and details of the harassment were left out to protect the victims, was not "transparent" enough. This was because it left too much to the discretion of those who published the list, according to Krishnan.

Sarkar, meanwhile, maintains that she has evidence and corroborating testimonies for those whose names feature on the list.

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Krishnan insists that she does not see the debate as a difference of opinion between two generations of feminists - which is how it has been interpreted by many. "Many younger women have also supported our stance," Krishnan countered.

'Deeply worried'

Publishing the list was not an easy choice for Srakar and Pennu. Pennu admitted being "deeply worried," initially, about adding some intellectuals' names because of their leftist background and stellar reputations.

"The first list had many of the names you always look up to. I mean you read their feminist and social theories and build upon it," she noted. But they went ahead with the publication, Pennu said, because the issue was more important than individuals.

"Every time, when there are allegations against the Left patriarchy, we are requested to keep quiet due to the larger issues. Is gender discrimination not a larger issue for them? Gender discrimination is denying space to half the population," she added.

A sense of relief

Seeing some names on the list has certainly caused shock, but for some, it has also brought a sense of relief, if not closure.

Speaking to DW, Reena Pradhan (name changed) alleged that her daughter who studied at Jadavpur University in Kolkata - several of whose professors feature in the first list - had to discontinue her studies after relentless sexism and harassment by two of her teachers. "I always felt (an) anger against the entire department as a mother (for my daughter dropping out)," Pradhan said. However, she added that her daughter was happy about the names of these two particular professors being exposed.

Read more: How people are saying #MeToo around the world

Meanwhile, the publication of the list has led to others also speaking up and adding their testimonies. A second list, which came out a week after the first, was created especially by women from "lower" caste backgrounds, in a similarly anonymous way, and also features several student activists along with professors and journalists - some of them quite well-known.

According to media reports, only three universities may have started acting on the complaints, out of 29 named in the first list. Most institutions claim that without a complainant coming forward and contacting them directly, they could not do anything about the names on the list.

It remains to be seen if the lists would actually help in getting the guilty punished. But Sarkar hopes it will contribute to exposing and tackling the problem. "If there are any proceedings, hopefully my list will encourage people to believe students who are vulnerable. I will cooperate with victims in every way I can, with their consent, of course."

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