Lawrence Laing case: There is no quick fix to the complicated issue of sexual harassment

Written by Nivedita Menon | Published on: March 12, 2018
This post is not a statement from the Kafila collective, but my individual response to the news about the Ambedkar University report having found Lawrence Liang guilty of sexual harassment. This response will also address some of the comments that were posted on the Kafila statement posted yesterday.

Lawrence Laing case
Image: Creative Commons/Joi Ito

We learnt from media reports that a duly constituted committee of AUD has found Lawrence Liang guilty of sexual harassment. We did not know about this earlier, as some characteristically self-righteous and ill informed twitterati assume we did. Those whose social concern and activism is limited to busy fingertips obviously have no idea about the processes that have been carefully put in place in sexual harassment policies in universities, which protect confidentiality primarily to protect the complainant. So the first we heard of the leaked AUD report was from the media. Lawrence’s own statement was then issued that says that he plans to appeal this decision. This statement too we saw in the media.

From enquiry to report to appealing the decision (which can be done by complainant or accused) – these are all established stages of due process that feminists have worked for decades to establish, from the Vishakha judgement of 1997 onwards. That judgement itself was a result of feminist intervention. I do not understand ‘due process’ as a technicality alone, nor do feminists in general who have worked with women and men complainants on this complicated issue, especially in a context of power in academic contexts. We see due process as involving principles of fairness and justice, and the opportunity for both sides to be heard. We also see due process as involving graded punishment according to the context of the act of harassment. This is crucial. Depending on the nature of the act of sexual harassment, the punishment would and should vary. The minimum punishment cannot be termination from a job, especially as in Lawrence’s case it is clear that the incident did not happen in a student-teacher interaction. In my opinion, the decision of the Committee regarding punishment is judicious and appropriate to the situation as described.

Of course there are failures of due process, as for example in the Mahmood Farooqui rape case, in which the Delhi High Court overturned the lower court judgement that found Farooqui guilty. The High Court judgement said two mutually contradictory things. That it is doubtful that the incident ever took place. And second, that if it did take place, the complainant’s ‘no’ was too feeble for the accused to understand that it was not consent. As Mrinal Satish puts it:
If on the basis of the evidence adduced, the court laboured a doubt about the timeline of the survivor’s testimony, it should have acquitted Farooqui straightaway. That could have been said to be based on a sound legal basis, although one may disagree on the interpretation of facts. However, by articulating irrelevant “standards of consent” and ruling that the perception of the accused on the survivor’s consent is relevant in rape adjudication, the judgment causes immense damage to rape law, and to the advances made—both in law and public discourse—after the 2012 Delhi gang rape.
So yes, due process does not always deliver justice.  And when such perversions of justice happen, it is our responsibility to produce the counter narratives at every level, from protests on the ground to analyses of the judgement, that will change the common sense around these issues. For the finger-tip activists with no historical memory, it may be necessary to remind ourselves that the 1983 amendments to the rape law came out of widespread social reaction to the Supreme Court judgement that acquitted the rapists of Mathura. Similarly the 2013 amendments emerged after protests and interventions after the Delhi gang rape. This is not the place for a critical analysis of the 2013 amendment, but my point is that when due process fails to deliver justice we do not give up on it but struggle to make it more accountable.

Just as when democracy fails us and ‘the people’ put fascists in government, we do not give up on democracy.

It must also be noted that there has been no statement from AUD so far, and we are all basing our understanding on a report leaked to the media before the process is complete. The AUD process includes the opportunity for both sides to appeal, only after which is the report made public. We must keep this in mind, that the process is not complete.

Nevertheless, both I personally as well as the Kafila Collective have taken the leaked report to be genuine, and we accept that a clear and just procedure has been followed up to this point in the proceedings. We await the end of the process to collectively decide our next course of action.

Does the AUD report establish the validity of the List? On the contrary, it thoroughly invalidates the politics of the List which I still hold to have been an act of abdication of responsibility, as was established by the defensive and vacuous responses of the administrators of the List to Partha Chatterjee’s direct question as to what the complaint against him was. They had no details to provide, and when backed into a corner, very soon simply started attacking him again, asking him to consider his own behaviour over the years and decide if it was sexual harassment! But one of the key feminist interventions has in fact been to establish that some kinds of behaviour considered normal are not normal or appropriate. Feminists have worked to define sexual harassment to the extent possible, and this has a pedagogical function as well, in that it helps people to revise their previous behaviour. We are trying to build new spaces, new forms of interaction based on mutual respect, and we believe that social interactions can be transformed through political intervention. To this end, we believe that dialogue and conversation are as necessary as an end to impunity.

As for this particular case, it should be clear that the justification of the List supporters at that time, that due process never works and that is why a hasty list with no context or description of the alleged acts was required, has been proved to be untrue. The complainant did get a hearing through the procedures established by AUD in 2014, under the policy on sexual harassment that it established, and the report has established culpability. This policy was evolved through wider consultations with the larger feminist legal community, which has worked for decades to establish due process on sexual harassment through policies in universities.

The question about whether those who signed the Statement that questioned the List now realize the List was “correct” only arises from those who accused us of protecting people on the List and worrying about “innocent men” on the List. These were never our concerns, as anybody simply reading our Statement will see. Our concern was that the politics of the List was dangerous for feminist politics – for attempts to make sexual harassment visible as a crime. And indeed, the ridiculous responses of the administrators of the List to Partha Chatterjee justified our fears.

It is also important to remember the simple fact the List is not some grand originary moment. It was started in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, which in turn came out of decades of feminist politics that in the US has struggled to establish sexual harassment as a crime. There is also the very long history of ‘breaking the silence’ on sexual harassment in India. So the fetishization of the List and some individuals by themselves and by other finger-tip activists is in fact contrary to all feminist ethics.

How should the academic community react in terms of future speaking engagements or academic collaboration with those found guilty of sexual harassment? I think it is not for anybody to lay down how an entire community should react. Individuals and collectivities will take decisions on this as and when necessary, and I would certainly consider it a deeply undemocratic act to insist on one kind of response from everyone. There are ongoing conversations about what appropriate responses can be, and these difficult conversations are unavoidable.

There is no quick fix to the complicated issue of sexual harassment, and complicated it is. And certainly the kind of self righteousness, lack of self-reflection, moral high ground capturing and continuously accusatory tone adopted by some on social media is not helpful at all.