Sadanand Menon Sexual Harassment Charges Resurface, Asian College of Journalism Students Bring Out Statement Against ICC (Picture: ACJ website screenshot)

Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) Students have published a statement condemning the College’s statement and attitude in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations that have resurfaced against Sadanand Menon, a teacher there. The students’ statement was published on May 9, 2018 and is the third such note to speak about allegations of sexual harassment against Menon.

Earlier, a blog post had been written about a forum where sexual harassment in theatre community was discussed which was conducted by Short and Sweet India, a pan-theatre collective in Chennai. It spoke about how it was extremely insensitive that the forum was held at a space called Spaces that was co-founded by Sadanand Menon.

Sadanand Menon and the Sexual Harassment List

It was when lawyer and student Raya Sarkar brought out a list of sexual harassers and abusers in academia in October 2017 that Sadanand Menon’s name appeared under a headline of sexual harassment. Menon was otherwise known as a prominent culture critic in Chennai and also as a teacher at Asian College of Journalism (ACJ).

After his name turned up on the list, Neerja Dasani, another woman who had been harassed by Menon came out to write about it. In an article that appeared in The Newsminute she spoke about how seeing the name on the list had reminded her of the harassment she faced and how she intended to lodge a complaint at the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) for Sexual Harassment at ACJ.

Even though Neerja went ahead on this path, ACJ declined to look into the matter. In the light of the recent incident at Spaces, ACJ has, again come up with a statement that announced that Menon will not be teaching at ACJ the coming year.

The statement also says that ‘ill-informed and vague allegations and assertions’ were made against Menon (whom they call ‘a well-known journalist and writer’) and ACJ. Most of them were made ‘anonymously and with scant regard for the facts and the law,’ the statement said while also giving space to a statement by Menon himself (who was unreachable to TWJ on phone) saying that he would be filing a defamation case against the victims and whistleblowers.

ACJ Students’ Statement

The statement brought out by the students of ACJ Chennai (Batch of 2017–2018) serves as an explanation to the college’s sentiments in the statement they brought out. ‘We have been disheartened by their attitude, which lacks empathy and shows little understanding of the complexities of sexual harassment. A liberal, progressive institution such as ACJ, which trains journalists to be discerning, sensitive, and to speak truth to power, should listen when they themselves are being spoken to,’ said the statement.

A student of ACJ told TWJ that the fact that ACJ’s statement gave space to inform people of a defamation case that Menon intended to file and thereby literally being his spokesperson was a clear indicator of where the management stood.

The statement reveals shocking details about the ICC at ACJ and the impunity enjoyed by Menon because of his friendship with the college’s Chairperson, Sashi Kumar.

The day after his name appeared on the list, Menon went to his students and ‘spoke’ about an incident that involved an ex-student and said that it was probably a ‘misunderstanding arising out of differing values associated with sexual freedom.’ Menon said that he could think of no other incident that might have put his name on the list. The students who contacted Neerja Dasani were appalled when they saw that ‘the lines of consent which had been violated were far clearer in her telling.’ This is when out of concern for students’ safety, they decided to take the matter up with the ICC for Sexual Harassment at ACJ.

At the time that the students approached the ICC, it was in a dormant state. Most students did not know of the existence of such a committee and some of the members of ICC themselves were not aware of their membership in it.

Students said in their statement that between January and March 2018, details of multiple, independent, first and second hand allegations against Menon surfaced which deeply shocked and worried them. These were in connection with institutes that Menon taught at and at Spaces, the cultural venue run by Menon. Furthermore, the students were contacted by an alumnus who mentioned that there were informal complaints about Menon’s conduct in 2011 as well. Victims were women, queer persons and minors.

What Would You Do If He Was Your boyfriend?

The students insisted that a meeting be held with the ICC. After repeated attempts, ten ICC members held a meeting with 85 students of the college. In the meeting, Sudha Umapathy, the Presiding Officer of the newly constituted ICC asked the students to consider the man’s reputation before making claims of sexual harassment against him. Members of ICC asked the students to disclose the identity of the victims, questioning them about why they wanted to remain anonymous and why it took them a long time to speak about it.

ICC members repeatedly asked the students why the victims had not gone to the police when in India, the Visakha Guidelines that was superceded by Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 came into effect after prolonged fight of women who were denied justice by the police and the legal system. The Chaiperson of ICC then asked a student what she would do if it was her boyfriend who was accused of such behaviour (sexual harassment).

After this meeting that happened on March 14, on March 28, 2018 the students were told in writing by the ICC that the complaints against Sadanand Menon were defamatory and ‘shockingly wild allegations.’ They said that the students were attempting to character assassinate Menon and did not speak about the strong sexual harassment policy that the students had demanded from the college.

The Forum for Sexual Harassment by Short and Sweet India

When Short and Sweet India, a pan-theatre collective in Chennai held a forum where sexual harassment in theatre community was discussed, they did it in Spaces that was run by Sadanand Menon.

The matter came to light when Karthik Shankar, whose friend too was sexually harassed by Menon wrote about the event and its insensitive nature. Even though Karthik made repeated attempts to bring the organizers’ attention to the problem in holding the event at Spaces, it did not yield any result. Karthik who went ahead and attended the meeting also hoping that he could raise the issue there witnessed a session conducted by a lawyer by the name Geeta Madhavan. The views she expressed in the meeting as reported by Karthik in his blog have now brought back the focus to the ignorance and insensitivity displayed by artists and activists alike when it comes to sexual harassment.

Geeta Madhavan is reported to have spoken about how a complaint of sexual harassment should not destroy a person’s life or reputation. She repeatedly said that the ICC had to be ‘impartial’ and did not just comprise of ‘card carrying feminists because they can also be dangerous.’ She repeated the phrase several times and later apologised for it when a few women present at the forum questioned her.

These statements by the lawyer should be seen in the context of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 that lays down clear guidelines as to how a committee for sexual harassment has to be constituted. According to the Act, the Presiding Officer of the committee should be a woman employed at a senior level and not less than two members from amongst employees who are preferably committed to the cause of women and one woman from non governmental organization (NGO) committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment.

Madhavan also said that committees should try and resolve disputes and give people chances instead of playing judge and jury. Coming from a lawyer, it is again suprising that the Act was overlooked in this case. According to the Act, the ICC has the same powers as are vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 when trying a suit. It is also important to note that ICC does not make judgements but only makes recommendations to the workplace authority. Sadanand Menon’s workplace authorities would be ACJ and Spaces, of which the former refused to initiate an inquiry and the latter was co-founded by the accused himself.

One of the students of ACJ who had spoken to four victims in person said that Menon always ‘chose’ people who looked up to him and used his ‘cultural capital’ to harass them by various means. Neerja’s note said about people like Menon whose names had appeared on Raya’s list ‘Many of the men on that list are looked upon as intellectual torch-bearers of the country, who have deeply influenced and inspired the minds of many, especially young students. For many of us, this was also why we hesitated to speak out because somewhere, we were placing their progressive image and its impact to be of greater value than our own seemingly inconsequential selves.’