Shraddha Chatterjee: Some Thoughts on The List

The List
Freedom from Power in the University

A week ago, a list of names curated by Raya Sarkar took Indian academia by storm. This list, comprising male faculty who were rumoured to have raped, sexually harassed, or otherwise violated the consent of their students, came in the aftermath of a sudden surge in conversation around the rampant presence of sexual harassment following the charges against Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign. Since then, another list, curated primarily by Dalit, Bahujan, and adivasi women (henceforth, DBA), has charged student activists and some working on caste issues with sexual harassment. In this week, Raya Sarkar, after adding approximately 70 names to the list, has deleted her Facebook account, and the DBA curated list has already been deleted. I write this as someone who was taught by some professors who featured in Raya’s list, and who is acquainted with some who featured on the DBA curated list. These are not my final thoughts on this issue, and I will be developing them for a special issue of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology on Sex and Power in the University.

I began keeping track of men in academia a long time ago, after teachers became monsters and the classroom became an unsafe space, but only in retrospect. As a student in the social sciences, there were many instances where words of dead White men set the benchmark of intelligence, even though they came with indictments that were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered – “Althusser killed his wife, but …”, “Neruda raped his maid, but …”, “Derrida didn’t claim his out-of-wedlock son, but …”, and so on. When I was being taught these theorists and their texts with these non-disclaimers, I did not realize that this was setting the stage for me to simultaneously learn that such treatment of women (murder, rape, unclaiming) was ordinary, expected, almost banal, but also reminding me that academia – the extremely exclusive promissory seat of social transformation – was an extremely unwelcoming space for me, and others like me. I was unconsciously being taught ‘my place’, as an absent semi-colon in history, while also being taught feminism, critical theory, and post-structuralism. In the guise of being ‘given’ a voice, I was being coached on what I could say, and what I could not.

Soon afterwards, just as I had begun to feel safe in the university, protected in my role as an excellent, driven, and hard working student, I realized that my ambition and desire to learn would work against me if I did not acknowledge the power of my (often male) faculty. This was not only about an academic feudalism that expected students to be loyal to the theories of their (often male) professors, but also about how (mostly women) students were expected to be loyal to their (often male) professors in bed. If I had somehow failed to learn ‘my place’ in the world of the classroom (that was so often a precursor to the sexual politics of a professor and a student in the bedroom), if I had failed to assuage the egos of those who were paid to know more than me, if I progressed faster than they intended me to, I would be shown my place again and again, either through manipulation or through outright displays of power, all while these same people claimed my success for themselves. What is a student, if not clay that is moulded into brilliance by its teachers?

When I realized what had happened to me, what I had been coerced into, how many ways I was broken into believing ‘my place’ as the handmaiden of men who were always more brilliant than me, I also began to realize how I had been part of the problem – my enthusiasm, my excellence, my preparedness were all used to silence other students. Every time I was cherry picked as the student with immense potential, only to be ‘moulded’ and ‘placed’ in hierarchies where I could only be exploited, there were many others who never reached where I reached. Even though I have stumbled for two years trying to find a corner where I can speak without being attacked in return, I survived when Rohith did not. I graduated at the top of my class, when Akunth was failed. I managed to enter a PhD program when Swapna and Sucheta never went to university.

These lists are, for me, another illustration of exactly how unsafe the university is for students. It shows us how empty political and critical theories of transformation are, because those who teach them are under no compulsion to believe them, nor are they required to imbibe them in their practice. In classrooms, we judge the merits of scholars based on what they write, how much they publish, and who they know, but never discuss their personal life choices, their own negotiations with sex and power in the university and in the world. The university fails insofar as its teachers are not held to the standards of the theories they teach, and it fails insofar as it blinds students to the power dynamics within their classrooms. How can feminism save students when men who are on the list can teach it, easily, blatantly, and consciously, using it to seduce students with the illusion of transformation and safety?

Many have written about how these lists are problematic. Feminists have turned against each other on the issue of how such lists do not follow due process, and how its accusations are anonymous. For me, these lists are not about legal recourse – often students find themselves in positions where complaints to committees against sexual harassment or internal complaints committees are impossible. Taking the route to legal redress also means providing legal evidence that harassment or violation took place, but often the evidence of experience is inadmissible in legal proceedings, often such students are slut-shamed, often such complaints are moments that end the academic careers of students while protecting the power of accused men. Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths is a moment in learning for feminists who still believe in the fairness of legal redressal, and in the myth of the unbiased university. Even if a student by-passes the university committees to file cases in courts, the Mahmood Farooqi judgement is a clear indicator of what structures legal mechanisms protect; courts continually make the line between rape and consent grey, when in fact these lines are not blurred at all.

If these lists are problematic, it is because they are rumours. Rumours are infidels; they can be used against such faculty when desperate students gather their whisper networks, but they can also be used against such students. Rumours only have as much power as the one who utters it; to be effective, these lists needed many names, and therefore, many anonymous students, but turned against students, these rumours only need one vindictive or malicious faculty member. Like some have pointed out, in academic systems where recommendations matter, to have a faculty member turn against you as a student can mean an unceremonious exit from academia. Further, sometimes rumours don’t reach students in time; only after the fact of their harassment or violation, as another #MeToo. Once out in the world, the rumour uttered can no longer be controlled; it is no longer safe, it can protect its owner no longer.

In the end, despite its problems, these lists exist; their arrival and their deletion show me how desperate we have become, how powerless we have felt as students, that we have resorted to this method of sharing a warning: BE CAREFUL OF THESE MEN. Because, these lists are, after all, only a warning. I do not believe that these lists are intentioned to defame, to shame, or to make outcasts of the people who are in it. These lists are, quite simply, a desperate measure in these dangerous times in the academy. These lists are to shatter students’ illusions of the sanitized university, and break the naive hopes of young activists in their leaders of social transformation. These lists are a way to remind us that our politics must survive in the face of hopelessness. I believe the rumours behind every name on the List, because to not believe is, for me, a failure not only of feminism, but also of not listening to my own experience of the university. We all know how the university systematically stacks the deck against any complaints against faculty – sexual, or otherwise.

The List may not be the most feminist way to talk about the university because it does not rely on the years of feminist work that goes behind making the university a safe space and instead goes directly against it, but it also exists because – despite everything feminism has done for us – feminism has not succeeded in making safe spaces for such discussions, let alone in rethinking the idea of such a university.

Shraddha is a graduate student in gender, feminist, and women’s studies. Her book, Queer Politics in India: Towards Sexual Subaltern Subjects is forthcoming in 2018.

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