The Ashokan Fallacy of a Safe Space
by Sana Bashir (UG '24) and Ragini Bakshi (UG '24)
Trigger Warning: This piece contains mentions of sexual assault, CASH, and victim shaming.
The past year has once again brought to light Ashoka University’s culture of harassment and victim blaming. Post the accusations that circulated on Facebook groups and social media sites earlier this year, there has been little response from the administration for the same. An email from the Anti-ragging committee sparked more arguments and conversations about the failure of the administration in making Ashoka a safe space for its students.
On 27th October 2021, Prof. Gautam Menon on behalf of the ARC sent an email saying that there were “reports of bullying and public shaming of certain Ashoka students in some social media channels such as Facebook.” He reminded the students that such examples of what he refers to as defamation, and other anonymous accusations in public spaces, can classify as cyber-bullying and go against the laws regarding online safety. He then followed up with another mail addressed to clubs, societies, and other student organisations about the removal of these individuals from aforementioned associations. Prof. Menon reiterated that any more of such acts will force the ARC to look into the cases and, ironically, emphasized on the “atmosphere” this creates for the individuals being called out.
The email equates calling out one’s perpetrators to cyberbullying and in doing so, victimizes the abusers instead. The continuous addressal of the so-called bullying and exclusion of the abusers not only inculcates an unsafe environment but also reduces the legitimacy of the victim/survivor’s accusations. The Feminist Collective responded to the Prof. Menon’s email emphasizing how “Stating facts about how one was sexually violated is not a punishable offence”, and highlighting the difference between public defamation and calling out one’s abusers.
However, such behaviour on behalf of Ashoka’s administration isn’t new. In May 2021, Ashwini Deshpande, an Economics professor and a member of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)/Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH), sent out an email clarifying the allegations that were ‘wrongly’ being put on the committee. She denounced the claims that CASH has not delivered justice to the victims/survivors and suggested that all cases she has been involved with have delivered decisions favouring the victims/survivors. Further, she addressed the claim of complainants being uninformed about CASH recommendations in their cases and confirmed that nothing of this sort took place during her tenure with the committee. She highlighted how in each case, the recommendation is sent to the complainant, the defendant, and to the university authorities. Finally, going back to the topic of “Name-and-shame”, Professor Deshpande addressed the alleged habit of victims/survivors calling out the perpetrators on social media and not through the “due process” of complaining to the CASH. Calling them “defamatory”, she reminded students about the legal repercussions of such posts. According to the email, the entire structure of earnestly dealing with a case is lost if social media is used. As an ending note to the email, she requests students to trust the CASH and follow due process, calling it a system that would ensure justice for all. As a direct response to Ashwini Deshpande’s email, the Feminist Collective sent out an email addressing and countering many of the points that were included in the email. The email criticized her approach in addressing the matter while highlighting the misconception of justice and the problems of confidentiality and transparency in CASH. They also pointed out that “the ICC receives an average of 8 complaints a year, while 86 victims/survivors have spoken up about their experience publicly” which further shows the lack of faith of the student body in the administration.
Professor Deshpande’s email created even bigger grounds for scrutiny of the very system that CASH has been operating on. The act of delivering “recommendations in favor of the complainants” wouldn't necessarily lead to the victim being satisfied with the punishment the abuser receives as many times these hardly constitute justice. Moreover, it often takes months or even more for people to come to terms with what they went through, yet the ICC requires survivors/victims to submit a complaint within three months of the incident. Additionally, labelling social media posts on predators as “defamatory” reduces the legitimacy of the accusations. Social media helps in building a community of support which can strengthen not only the victims/survivors, but the entire Ashokan student body.
Both the mails, by Gautam Menon and Ashwini Deshpande, try to emphasize on the importance of the due process yet fail to address the negligence of this mechanism. Additionally, the emails repeatedly erode the concept of a ‘safe space’ promised by the committee and fail to recognize that a safe space can be created virtually too. Social media is an outlet and platform for survivors/victims when institutional machinery fails them and such emails by the administration only further limits the survivor’s well being.