“This is much larger than one man”: An interview with signatories of the letter to ACJ asking for a probe into sexual-harassment allegations against Sadanand Menon

''It’s a collective responsibility of SPACES users to create an environment free of abuse and one that nurtures equality and freedom,'' Sharadha Shankar and Archanaa Seker said, about how SPACES should respond to the allegations against Menon. Kartik Nair

Earlier this month, 35 writers, activists, journalists and other members of civil society wrote a public letterto the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, urging it to conduct a probe into an allegation of sexual harassment against the culture critic Sadanand Menon, who is a member of the ACJ’s adjunct faculty. The signatories published the letter after the college’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) refused to institute an inquiry into a complaint that a former student of the institute had filed in January 2018. In the complaint, the former student alleged that Menon had sexually harassed her at SPACES, a prominent cultural venue in Chennai, of which Menon is the managing trustee. The student also described her ordeal in an account published on the website the News Minute earlier that month.

In the public letter—which was widely shared and subsequently signed by 150 others—the signatories confirmed that the complainant was referring to Menon in her News Minute piece. They wrote that they had become aware of several other alleged cases of sexual harassment by Menon, including those involving members of the LGBTQI community, and a minor. On 9 May, the ACJ released a statement announcing that Menon had decided to not teach his elective course in the coming academic year, and that he was “considering legal action against those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.”

The Caravan contacted various persons involved with the issue, and is publishing their responses as a series. Below is an interview with two signatories to the letter—Sharadha Shankar, an entrepreneur based in Chennai; and Archanaa Seker, a writer and activist. Shankar and Seker were involved in drafting the letter and collecting endorsements for it. Surabhi Kanga, an editor with The Caravan, asked them about the events that took place after the News Minute article was published, and why the signatories decided to draft the letter. They also discussed the role of SPACES and the artists associated with it—some of whom issued a statement on 15 May, describing the venue as an “oxygen tank” for non-traditional art, and claiming that its “vibrancy and integrity ... have been brought into question with innuendo and character assassination.”

Surabhi Kanga: Could you describe the events that took place after the News Minute piece was published? What led to the letter being drafted?

Sharadha Shankar and Archanaa Seker: Though the complainant had not mentioned any names in her News Minute article, a few of us who knew her well could immediately understand that she was talking about Mr Menon. It was not vindictive; this happened to her a few years back and she now felt emboldened to speak about it. We reached out to her.

In the meantime, she had started writing to the ICC of ACJ to lodge a formal request for enquiry as she wanted to follow due process. She felt that it was the right thing for her to do as an ex-student, and also because that Mr Menon continued to be an adjunct faculty. There were a few email exchanges back and forth which lead to a dead-end. They refused to enquire more into this matter.

In the meantime, a few more survivors got in touch with the complainant. This also confirmed that it was not an isolated incident. It is important for the institute to take a note of this and at least set up an enquiry, to find out whether it is true, or talk to the victims, since the power dynamics at play here are quite skewed. But when ACJ refused to act, we drafted the letter to urge them to act. We felt that we had to stand by a person like this—not just [the complainant] but all the people who are encountering this.

SK: The public letter refers to several allegations against Menon, including those by a minor, members of the LGBTQI community and a student of “at least one other educational institution where he had taught earlier.” Could you describe how these testimonies came to be collected?

SS and AS: Some of the survivors reached out to the complainant by various means after reading the article she wrote and knowing that she was, indeed, referring to Mr Menon. We also got to hear about other allegations.

SK: What was the nature of the allegations? Could you describe some of them?

SS and AS: This information cannot be revealed unless the victims come forward.

SK: Which is the other institution being referred to here?

SS and AS: We cannot reveal that information, but one of the things we wanted to do was to reach out to the other institutes. That would be the next step.

SK: The description included in this paragraph alludes to crimes of a very serious nature, but ones that differ in character from workplace harassment. Could you explain why the authors felt these had to be included in the letter to ACJ?

SS and AS: This was just to point out that the complainant’s case was not an isolated one and that there were allegations against Mr Menon at SPACES as well.

SK: It is my understanding that the response to the public letter has been divided. Various observers have suggested that it is not ACJ’s responsibility to hear the complaint.

SS and AS: ACJ’s claim that the complainant is no longer a student of ACJ and that the said incident did not happen in their premises is not valid. Mr Menon continues to be an adjunct faculty in ACJ and continues to engage with young girls and boys. ACJ should have taken this allegation seriously and set up an inquiry to look into this.

SK: On 15 May, various artists associated with SPACES published a statement regarding the allegations raised against Mr Menon. They likened these to “vague rumours and hearsay.”

SS and AS: All of us love SPACES and in fact, a lot of signatories that we have on board are regular SPACES users.  We respect the place and respect what it stands for. But there are cases we have heard of—we have first-hand information, as people are reaching out to us and the ACJ students who are involved. These are people who don’t have any motivation to speak up. This is a very powerful man, and they are all either aspiring artists or they are in the media. They don’t have a vested interest in this. It is very disheartening to see various artists dismiss the allegations as vague rumours and hearsay without even trying to investigate or know more.

SK: How do you believe SPACES should react to these allegations? You note in the letter that “it owes a measure of accountability to those who use it.”

SS and AS: The various artists who use SPACES have come to feel a collective ownership over it. This is not in any way an attempt to deny the enormous power that comes with the official ownership of such a space by Mr Sadanand Menon. Simultaneously, it is important to set up an example of how public institutions such as SPACES, which are used collectively, can take responsibility and declare accountability in the context of sexual harassment. It’s a collective responsibility of SPACES users to create an environment free of abuse and one that nurtures equality and freedom among all of us during the times that we are at SPACES. We should have zero tolerance towards such matters. If anyone complains, you have to address and treat it with the respect that it deserves.

It is important to point out that this is the second instance of sexual allegations raised—the first being allegations against the Kalaripayattu Master Mr Shaji John, who was conducting classes regularly at the venue.

SK: Several people, including the signatories to the latest statement, have raised concerns that the many of the allegations against Mr Menon are anonymous, and that no one has stepped forward and provided proof. It has also been described as a “witch-hunt.” How do you respond to this?

SS and AS: When there are certain allegations that are pointed at a man—and there is not one but multiple—we should all be open-minded, and take the victims’ perspectives into account. We are sure many of the signatories of this letter would be aware of the trauma that such cases of sexual harassment can cause to the victims, and the social stigma attached to talking about such matters. In most cases, survivors face victim-shaming and slut-shaming. We also know how power structures work. It is quite insensitive of people to ask for proof in these matters. It is a formal complaint that the complainant wanted to lodge against Mr Menon—all the more reason why this should have been treated with due respect and an inquiry carried out.

It speaks of the rampant rape culture we live in that we are unable to give the survivor the benefit of the doubt, instead of the alleged perpetrator. A transparent inquiry, if one were to be held and if survivors were to depose in it would put an end to this whataboutery, except that those who regard these incidents as possible “misunderstandings” are providing no space for one, nor is the institution that has the moral, if not the legal powers to do so. The idea that only the survivor gets to define what they went through, and the narrative should be owned by them without speculation from the outside might be hard to grasp as a concept. But we are either kidding ourselves or blinded by loyalty to think that young persons would stake all they’ve got to take on a person so powerful in a world so unkind.

It is probably healthier to have a strong sense of faith and loyalty to an ideology than to a person, who is a messenger. It is important not to get blinded by our loyalty and awe of anyone and not to question them when there is any allegation against them. This is much larger than one man. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a reform that is so required in this country and this exercise will lead up to developing a blueprint for treating sexual harassment cases in workplaces and institutions with the seriousness they deserve.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It has been published as part of a series regarding the allegations of sexual harassment against Sadanand Menon. Other pieces in the series include a statement by Menon, an essay by the writer and publisher V Geetha on why she chose to sign the letter asking for a probe into the allegations, and an interview with Sashi Kumar, the chair of the ACJ.