Lessons from ACJ: Why ICCs are inadequate to deal with cases of sexual harassment

14 July 2018
Illustration by Satwik Gade for The Caravan
Illustration by Satwik Gade for The Caravan

In May this year, 35 individuals signed a public petition exhorting the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai to entertain a formal complaint of sexual harassment. The petitioners wrote that a former student had filed an official complaint with allegations of sexual harassment against Sadanand Menon, a culture critic and member of the university’s adjunct faculty. However, the college’s Internal Complaints Committee, which is empowered to inquire into complaints of sexual harassment, had refused to entertain the case on jurisdictional grounds. The ACJ administration dismissed the public petition as an attack on the university for its purportedly “liberal” leanings. In the ensuing days, social media erupted with claims and counter-claims made by studentsand public intellectuals, regarding the college’s approach to the complaint.

But this is not the beginning of the story—Menon was named in a crowd-sourced list of Indian academics who were accused of sexual harassment that was circulated widely in late 2017, in the wake of the allegations of rape and sexual harassment against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The crowd-sourced list, curated by a law student, Raya Sarkar, almost immediately received backlash from the general public—one response in particular, a statement by several notable Indian feminists published on the blog Kafila, received particular attention. The statement decried the circulation of the list on social media and urged victims to take recourse through the “due process” of the law. But what happens when a complainant heeds this advice? A look at the former ACJ student’s case allows a glimpse of due process at work—in particular, its shortcomings.

In January this year, soon after the circulation of the list on social media, a former student of ACJ published an article describing how she felt to see the name of her former mentor, who sexually harassed her, on it. Though the article did not name Menon, it was subsequently revealed in the public petition that the author was in fact referring to him. In the article, the former student states that the public circulation of this list made it apparent to her that she was not alone in her experience because she was not the one who put her mentor’s name on the list. That month, the former student filed an official complaint with the college’s Internal Complaints Committee, or ICC, alleging that Menon had sexually harassed her at SPACES, a prominent cultural venue in Chennai, of which Menon is the managing trustee.

If the allegations against Menon were a part of a “smear campaign,” as he later claimed, the best resolution for everyone involved, including Menon, would have been for the ACJ to accept the complaint and initiate a confidential investigation. Instead, the college’s ICC rejected the complaint outright without considering its merits. According to the public petition, the ICC cited three grounds: that the incident did not take place on the university campus; that the complainant was not a student at the time of the incident; and that the limitation period for filing a complaint had lapsed. To understand the folly of dismissing a sexual-harassment complaint on these grounds, it is necessary to examine the ACJ’s reasoning, in specific, and the functioning of ICCs in general.

ACJrejected the complaint based on a decision by its ICC. But what, really, is the role of the body? The ICC is a quasi-judicial body that was envisioned by the Supreme Court of India in its landmark 1997 judgment in the case of Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan. The court laid down guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace, which later came to be known popularly as the “Vishaka Guidelines.” These guidelines acknowledged that civil and penal laws in India do not adequately address sexual harassment at the workplace.

Manasi Karthik Manasi Karthik is a researcher who works on land and forest rights in India. She tweets @ManasiKarthik.

Keywords: sexual harassment internal complaints committee SPACES Sadanand Menon Vishaka Guidelines ACJ
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