May 9, 2018
Students and journalists unite against professor Sadanand Menon for alleged sexual harassment incident in 2012, demanding justice for a former student.
In October 2017, a crowd sourced list of academicians from Indian universities, who had allegedly sexually harassed students was posted on social media. Names of prominent Indian academics and public intellectuals featured on the list, including of men from Chennai. It had very little traction in the city until an article by Neerja Dasani appeared. Though no names were mentioned, her account of the harassment she had endured was poignant and disturbing; even more troubling was the identity of the man who had harassed her. Those familiar with the original list of possible offenders, immediately recognised who she was referring to.
On reading the article, some of us in Chennai, including past adjunct faculty of an educational institution where the alleged perpetrator teaches got in touch with Neerja. Several young people who had been subject to harassment by the same individual also reached out to Neerja and to various of us. We were horrified at the stories we heard, especially of those that involved minors and members of the LGBTQI+ community – he had allegedly made sexual advances at people who used the well-known Chennai cultural arena, Spaces, with which he is associated. We found out too that he had done the same in at least one other educational institution where he had taught earlier.
Since the people who had spoken to her were too vulnerable to come out with their stories, even though they wanted to call the man out on his sexual misconduct, Neerja decided to lodge a formal complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of one of the educational institutions where the perpetrator taught, and of which she herself was a former student. After three months of correspondence with the institution, she was told that the matter was time-barred since the said incident happened when she was no longer a student and at a location away from the college (the incident took place at Spaces). Even when she pointed out that there have been instances where such complaints had been granted the seriousness they deserve, the ICC refused to relent from its limited, procedural interpretation of sexual harassment. The fact that the alleged perpetrator continued to teach at the institute made no difference to the institute’s decision to close the file without inquiry.
Meanwhile, students of that same institution had got in touch with Neerja. They also raised a separate complaint with the ICC, demanding an inquiry be initiated against this person since his name had appeared on the list, and some of his victims had spoken to them about being harassed by him. Their complaint, too, was dismissed.
While we are very aware that complaints and allegations of sexual misconduct need to be investigated and due procedure observed, this case clearly shows how individuals and institutions use the notion of procedure as a convenient alibi to not take sexual harassment seriously. Due procedure ought to be observed both by complainants and institutions, but sadly, the latter seek to subvert it rather than approach it with the diligence and empathy that is required in these matters.
It is in this context that we have sought to make public the name of the offender, and the institution where he is currently adjunct faculty. The man in question is Sadanand Menon, well-known and highly regarded cultural critic and journalist. The institution that has refused to consider Neerja’s and the students’ complaints is the Asian College of Journalism, where every year around 200 students enroll to become discerning, sensitive journalists.
The questions we raise go beyond the legal, though the legal arena is where we translate civility into law. To balance legal as well as civic claims to justice and equality is a challenge and we trust and hope that our institutions and civil society meets this challenge in a creative and productive way.