Anatomy Of A Bad Email
By Aritro Sarkar, UG’21
Content Warning – This article has mentions of sexual harassment/abuse, CASH, victim-blaming.
Note – For the sake of brevity, the following article uses the term ‘survivor’ while referring to those who have spoken out about sexual harassment on social media. The sentiments in the article are inclusive of those who identify as ‘victims’ as well.
Charged by the harrowing ‘bois locker room’ incident last May, hundreds of Ashokans bravely came out with their own stories of sexual assault and gendered abuse. The event shook the notion of the Ashoka as ‘safe space’ to the very core, one that the student community had deluded itself into believing – the space was not safe for many. It took survivors narrating anecdotes through Ashoka’s own MeToo movement for many to introspect and make a conscious commitment to making their university an actually safer place.
The heartbreaking similarities between the circumstances of last year and last week really underlines just how far removed we are from this safe space we thought we inhabited. Scores of Ashokans have once again had to come out with their stories – always a process that requires grit and courage. At times like these, prospects of refuge always seem bleak. What has truly been a powerful sight is the sense of community that has emerged. People are there for each other, offering solidarity and inspiring one another to come out with their own stories. One finds power in another, as one did last year.
In the middle of all this, throwing a spanner into the works was Professor Ashwini Deshpande’s email on the morning of the eleventh of May. Prof. Deshpande has been a member of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at the Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) for two years now, and is a chair in the committee. Evidently, she firmly aligns herself with due process, and underlines her commitment to the same in her communication to the student body. The rest of what she says, however, warrants critical examination, having the potential to undermine the bravery of those who spoke up, as well as the solidarity that has been fostered over the last week.
The very essence of Ashoka’s MeToo last year – and its sequel, whose throes we find ourselves currently in – is the use of potent platforms like social media, to speak up about one’s experiences, because institutional mechanisms have proven to be inadequate. Here, there is a ready audience at one’s disposal. People will hear you out, draw inspiration from the strength it took you, and offer unwavering support. They will possibly share their own accounts through what is an extremely brave and emotionally demanding process. Thus, one draws power from the many, highlighting the extent of the issue in the process. The whole point of this exercise is to emphasize on how widespread the issue of sexual harassment is. Given the remarkable success of the MeToo movement back in 2017, speaking out on social media is a method that very evidently works. It may only be a start, but in situations like these, it is the power to start that feels elusive.
However, Prof. Deshpande writes in her email communication that she stands against this process of ‘name-and-shame’. The very point of this process is missed out, when she writes that “once things are out on social media, they take a life of their own.” Speaking up about one’s abuse on social media is usually a carefully considered decision, taken because institutional mechanisms have already let one down. Little else could suffice as avenues for recourse. By suggesting that these posts take up “a life of their own”, Prof. seems oddly dismissive of the strength and bravery displayed by these people when they come out with their stories in the first place, fixating on medium instead.
In a worrying turn, Prof. Deshpande writes that the posts could be read as ‘defamatory’ under national law, and that the “legal implications of posts are outside the institutional structures that govern Ashoka”. This completely undermines the precedent set by the Priya Ramani v MJ Akbar case, wherein Delhi’s Rouse Avenue Court, in a landmark judgement, declared that “the right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity”, in response to Akbar’s defamation suit. It is atrocious, that at such a crucial time, the Ashokan administrative machinery seems to be concerned about reputations, instead of the dignity of survivors.
Moreover, such a pointed reminder of legalities only begs more questions: is the University thus not willing to offer any support to survivors who write about their accounts on social media? Will Ashoka wash its hands off these events entirely, if hallowed ‘due process’ isn’t followed by a survivor? A reminder of the legal implications of coming out with stories of abuse can only be welcome when it is followed with reassurances of institutional support systems, even if it is informal support. Otherwise, it is read as a warning of possible legal proceedings by those named as abusers, and the university taking a step back, when scores of its own students could do with backing and belief from the institution. Further, Professor misses out on addressing the fact that multiple CASH complainants had such poor experiences trying to get justice, empathy and accountability from their abuser, that they lost faith in the system altogether.
The flagrant dismissal of the recourse sought by so many survivors – through social media – is concerning not just because of what is mentioned above. The reduction of social media stories as ‘name-and-shame’ as well as pitting them against due process makes one patently uncomfortable with her communication. There is no denying that due process needs bolstering and greater accessibility, and it is great that she has commissioned an ‘informal’ group to look into this. Having said that, due process does not fly in the face of coming out on social media. The two are not part of a zero sum game, and it is worrying that Professor Deshpande seems to not agree with this.
Survivors find strength to come out with their stories in the first place, once they see others do the same. Social media allows for this. Of these survivors who come out on social media, some may indeed seek institutional recourse through due process, which makes apparent the overlap between the two. Due process and ‘name-and-shame’ cannot be fundamentally pitted against each other when so many survivors would seek redressal through both; this overlap, if anything, points to how CASH can work in tandem with survivors who come out on social media, instead of hanging them out to dry with the prospect of legal consequences of their own actions.
Coming out on social media requires remarkable courage, and it is this that inspires others to emerge with their own stories. With the solidarity and validation received from the community, one may eventually find the strength to take their cases up with CASH. Others may not, and may choose to end their recourse through a social media post itself. They cannot and should not be told that their form of recourse is incorrect, or incomplete even – it borders on being patronizing towards survivors. Further, Prof. Deshpande’s starting assumption – as per her email – that these social media posts may not be ‘founded in fact’ seems remarkably disingenuous to the accounts of all those who were brave enough to share their stories on social media last week.
The truth is that when comparing social media and due process, the former will always remain more accessible – and, in spite of Prof. Deshpande’s genuine pleas about bolstering the approachability of due process, one suspects that this will remain the case. To have witnessed so many accounts of sexual harassment over the last week on social media, and then suggest that it was wrong of these survivors to come out online because it weakens due process, is patently insensitive, to put it mildly. Survivors are aware of the pitfalls of social media posting, and it is the sense of desperation that they feel that nudges them more towards a social media post rather than a potentially long drawn CASH case, through institutional machinery that simply seems broken. Either way, there cannot be any value judgements passed on a survivor’s choice of recourse; what can only be offered, when the wounds are still fresh and the anxiety still rocketing, is unwavering solidarity, and support for all survivors, regardless of how they came out.
Professor Deshpande’s email fails on that front, and it is a failure that could have – and should have – been avoided at this sensitive juncture of what appears to be the second length of Ashoka’s historic MeToo movement.
The writer is Co-Editor in Chief, The Edict. All views are personal.