This essay is part of a series by The Caravan, regarding allegations of sexual harassment against the culture critic Sadanand Menon, who is a member of the adjunct faculty at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. The other pieces in the series include a statement by Menon, and two interviews—with ACJ’s chairperson Sashi Kumar, and with two other signatories to the public letter asking ACJ to institute a probe into the allegations.
On 8 May, several activists, writers, journalists and other members of civil society wrote a public letterto the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, urging it to conduct a fair and serious probe into an allegation of sexual harassment against the culture critic Sadanand Menon, a member of its adjunct faculty. We put together this appeal after the college’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) refused to entertain a complaint filed in January 2018, by a former student of the institute. The former student—who also described her ordeal in a piece published on the website the News Minute—alleged that Menon had sexually harassed her at SPACES, a cultural venue Chennai of which he is a trustee.
The complaints committee cited procedural grounds to justify its inability to act on the complaint—that the alleged incident had not taken place at ACJ, and that it is said to have occurred after the student had graduated from the institute. Meanwhile, students from the current year at ACJ also wrote to the complaints committee, demanding that, in light of a troubling “whisper network” of accounts of alleged harassment by Menon, the committee take action against him. However, the ICC continued to cite procedural constraints, and in effect, reaffirmed its inability to act.
I am a signatory to the public letter to ACJ, and was involved in drafting it. I have known Menon since the early 1990s, when he was an editor at the Economic Times. I sent in articles for the art and design page, which he radically transformed. Further, we were colleagues at ACJ—for some years, I taught a course on gender at the college. Through these years, our relationship has been affectionate and cordial. When I first heard of the allegations against him, I was nonplussed. I knew that the charges remained to be proved, but I must admit that I was curious as to why a person would speak out years after the alleged incident took place—surely she could not hope to gain anything substantial by way of redressal. As I found out more, perplexity turned to dismay. There appeared to be more people who had endured unwelcome sexual attention at Menon’s hands, and in at least one instance, the person appeared to have been a minor at the time the alleged incident took place.
Since the 1980s, many of us involved in women’s movements across the country have worked on issues to do with violence against women, ranging from obscene speech to harassment to acts of rape. We have grappled with domestic abuse, the inexplicably brutal violence that women are subject to in intimate situations—within and outside marriage—and gained an understanding of how sexual authority works in everyday life. Through these years, we gained some insights into our sexual cultures, where affection and authority, passion and control, brilliance and perversity are often fused together and sometimes indistinguishable. We worked to translate this hard-won understanding into laws that would curb and regulate male sexual and conjugal authority, and help interrogate male social power, which emerges from caste and class locations. While the laws did not always turn out as we wanted them, we nevertheless worked—and continue to work—with the criminal justice system as much as we could. Meanwhile, we continued to protest publicly and campaign against sexual and other forms of violence. We researched, produced reports on caste and class violence, communal hatred, and sexual hurt, and spoke out against individuals, groups and institutions complicit in these acts—inevitably “naming and shaming” those who appeared set in impunity.