Metoo campaign leads to 'vigilantism' in India


Delhi: The Harvey Weinstein scandal and the avalanche of sexual harassment claims emerging under the "metoo" hashtag have spawned a Facebook campaign in India that has already named and shamed 70 top academics.

The campaign, which prominent feminists have decried as a "vigilante approach", was started on Tuesday by Raya Sarkar, a US-based law student of Indian origin at the University of California. Sarkar asked Indian women to name the academics who had sexually harassed them on campus.

From the response she compiled a list which she keeps updating. The women making the accusations have not identified themselves, unlike the actresses and models who, since Weinstein's spectacular fall, have gone on record to accuse him and other men in Hollywood, of sexual harassment or rape.

In an interview with the New Indian Express newspaper, Sarkar said that she herself had never suffered sexual harassment at Jindal University in India where she studied prior to moving to the US. But she defended her initiative, saying it was important to alert female students over which professors to "watch out" for.

She also said that some of the professors on the list had been calling their accusers to offer them scholarships to Oxford University in return for withdrawing their allegation.

"An overwhelming number of people have shared the list and have supported the campaign and have chosen to believe the victims. I have received over 300 messages from different women - often accusing the same professor of sexual harassment," she told the newspaper.

But some of India's most famous feminists - women who have taken no prisoners while fighting for equality - have distanced themselves from the campaign.

A group of prominent feminists issued a statement on Wednesday expressing dismay over the Facebook list in which men were named without context or explanation.

"One or two names of men who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations," said activist Kavita Krishnan, lawyer Vrinda Grover, and author Nandina Rao, three of the 12 women who signed the statement.

"It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability. Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilise."

Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, said that while she understood the frustration of many women with the "due process of law" in dealing with sexual crimes, she was concerned about anyone, whether a mob or a woman on social media, dispensing their own justice.

She said she had seen too many cases where, say, upper caste Hindus had accused a dalit (a person of the "untouchable" lower class) man of behaving improperly with an upper caste girl and were itching to lynch the youth without the girl having made a complaint.

On such occasions, she has intervened to say: "Where is the woman? I will help her file a complaint. You cannot just beat someone up based on hearsay".

"I am not saying the men on the name-and-shame list are necessarily blameless," Krishnan said. "But I have always made the distinction between a woman speaking for herself and making a specific complaint and the politics of anonymous lists ???

"Creating anonymous lists is, to my mind ... publicly parading and socially boycotting people based on anonymous allegations."

But Sarkar has remained defiant. She said the reaction of India's top feminists was to be expected because they "hold powerful positions and because it rattles the power assemblages they benefit from". She has yet to react to the feminists' request that she withdraw the list.

Sarkar's supporters have accused the feminists of a class bias, calling them liberals defending their liberal academic friends.

"Detractors may call the list slanderous or dangerous, but might have had fewer concerns if it named and shamed Uber drivers or property agents, instead of illustrious scholars," said one Sarkar supporter.

The #me too hashtag was started by actress Alyssa Milano to highlight sexual harassment around the world following the disgrace of American film producer Harvey Weinstein, 65, over charges of rape and sexual assault. It has spun a web of similar campaigns around the world.

On Wednesday, US time, a Norwegian actress Natassia Malthe, came forward to allege that Weinstein had raped her in a hotel room after the 2008 BAFTAs award ceremony. She is the latest of 60 women who have accused him of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

This story Metoo campaign leads to 'vigilantism' in India first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.