New Delhi: Last October, a public list posted on a Facebook page accused several Indian academics of having engaged in sexual harassment. One of them was Lawrence Liang, a legal scholar, recipient of the 2017 Infosys Prize and dean of the law school at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD).
Last week, Liang became the first from the list to be found guilty in a preliminary process conducted by the university’s official Committee to Prevent Sexual Harassment (CPSH).
The finding, which Liang says he will appeal, has a significance beyond AUD and universities more generally, because the committee saw its remit as extending to an employee’s conduct not just at the workplace or as an employee but to before he was hired by the organisation as well.
The complainant, who accused Liang of multiple instances of forced kissing, touch, and unwelcome text messages, is not a student or colleague at AUD. The incidents she complained about took place between 2015 and 2016 – before Liang was appointed to AUD – when they were PhD students elsewhere, though Liang was much older and already an established scholar at the time.
The committee also took on board information about additional accusations of harassment – involving interns at an NGO in Bangalore where Liang worked earlier – in which the victims were not present as complainants or witnesses.
A longer timeline
The decision of AUD’s committee to broaden its ambit, and investigate cases occurring prior to and separately from Liang’s role at the university has major significance for how workplaces and educational institutions identify or investigate allegations of sexual harassment.
This broadening, the committee noted in its report, was consistent with the university’s guidelines, that cover “complaints made by a third party against a member of the university”.
According to the Indian law on sexual harassment in the workplace, “any aggrieved woman” can register a complaint with an organisation against an employee. This means even non-employees can approach an organisation’s sexual harassment committee. Under the law, harassment includes unwelcome physical behaviour, demands for sexual favours or sexually suggestive comments. It is this clause in the law which allowed the complainant to reach out to AUD even though she wasn’t a student or employee there.
AUD’s case is also significant because it investigated cases which pre-date Liang’s employment at AUD. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, says that a complaint should come within three months of the last act of harassment. The committees may “extend the time limit not exceeding three months” if they believe “the circumstances were such which prevented the woman from filing a complaint within the said period.”
In this case, AUD took cases going back to 2015 and 2016.
“The law has said any woman can complain to a committee, but built in a limitation of when they can complain. In cases like this, committees do have to consider the spirit of the law, and a very important ethical question – Was the behaviour of an accused employee prior to being hired, grave enough to have perhaps changed the very fact that they were hired?,” says Suhasini Rao, a lawyer working on issues of business ethics and workplace harassment.
“In many employee contracts, parties sign a clause which says that whatever the other party has said about themselves, is presumed to be true. No background checks are done. Subsequently if allegations emerge and those truths could be questioned, then it becomes very important for places like universities to take these things seriously,” says Rao.
In the wake of media reports about the committee’s verdict, Liang issued a brief statement, saying, ““I have not commented so far on the matter because of CPSH confidentiality rules. I can, and must, however, say this – I dispute the report in its entirety, its findings and recommendations included.”
The recommendations, which have yet to be confirmed, include Liang’s removal from the post of dean.
In a brief statement to the media, issued after reports of the AUD finding appeared, Liang said that he had “signed confidentiality rules and cannot respond” to the “selective leaks” initiated by “some persons” that “demonize, cause a media trial, and proclaim guilt in advance”. He characterized the CPSH report and recommendations as “only one part of the process provided by the CPSH rules,” and added:
“Those rules provide that both/either party can appeal the recommendations. I informed the CPSH and AUD of my intention to appeal immediately on receipt of the report…
“I am passionately committed to AUD, and have worked hard to build the school that I am a part of, and I intend to exhaust every channel open to me to clear my name.”
What the committee ruled
On her part, the complainant has expressed her dissatisfaction with the outcome of the CPSH process so far, telling the university: “Not only has the committee not followed [a] zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment as the AUD policy states, the punitive actions recommended cause minimal impact to his position as a powerful academic and person of authority.”
Liang is as an eminent academic and lawyer on civil rights issues, working on issues of free speech, sedition, gender and sexuality. He was awarded the Infosys Prize in 2017 even after his name appeared on “The List”, compiled by a US-based PhD student, Raya Sarkar, reflecting what she said were anonymous reports of sexual harassment.
The woman who approached AUD in late 2017 said she was emboldened to do so by ‘The List’ and the subsequent comments on it by other women, with other allegations about Liang.
Her own complaint involved two instances in which Liang kissed and touched her in 2015 without consent. Another kissing incident occurred in February 2016, when Liang was in Delhi “to give a public lecture during the protests” at Jawaharlal Nehru University over the cases of sedition against JNU student leaders.
The campus saw thousands of visitors daily for what came to be known as the ‘Nationalism Lectures,’ where several academics and activists delivered talks every evening. Liang gave a lecture on sedition laws in India at JNU, on February 28, 2016.
The night before, the complainant says, Liang had dropped her home by auto and “again kissed her without her consent”. After this, she told him that she “felt tired of expressing her discomfort repeatedly, that she felt it wasn’t that he did not understand her discomfort but was unconcerned about it. After this incident, she decided to disengage politely, keeping communication mostly professional and not wanting a friendship.”
In his deposition, Liang describes the February 2016 kiss as part of a “series of intimacies initiated by” the complainant and that it was only “a slight brush of the lips because he was in a committed relationship by then.”
The AUD committee also heard from a witness, known to Liang through his work in Bangalore. She described she had heard of other instances where he had sexually pursued interns at the Alternate Law Forum (ALF), which Liang co-founded in 2000.
The AUD committee report notes that Liang did not deny that he had kissed one of the interns, who immediately objected, saying that Liang never sought her consent. He also spoke of a “consensual kiss” with another intern. He said that “neither of the two sexual overtures on his behalf with these interns should have occurred”, and that he had broken a “personal rule” – though it was not a rule at ALF, which according to Liang, did not have a sexual harassment policy until 2013.
“In a strict reading of the term,” Liang told the committee, “I think it would absolutely constitute” sexual harassment, though that would “not accommodate the complexities of actual interactions between people”.
In finding Liang guilty of harassment, the committee took into account these earlier incidents. It also rejected Liang’s plea that the “friendly communications” the complainant had had with him as late as September 2017 meant her decision to complain about incidents which had occurred in 2015 and 2016 were an afterthought – a “moral judgment” on his reputation following publication of “the List”.
The committee noted: “Forms of gender violence and harassment are often identified as such not at the time of their occurrence; it is common for these to be seen through new lenses as new frameworks of, for example, feminist understanding, are gained… Thus, it is perfectly understandable that [the complainant] may have once not read a particular incident as violating or been forgiving of the same but later changed her mind.”
Under the university’s rules, since Liang has appealed, the entire case, including competing accounts and versions of what happened between the complainant and the defendant, will now be reviewed by an appellate committee.
The List vs ‘due process’
The AUD committee’s finding has turned the spotlight back to Raya Sarkar’s list, which had sparked intense debate last year on the question of whether it subverted due process and even whether it would help punish offenders.
At the time, a group of prominent feminist scholars issued a statement saying, “We are dismayed by the initiative on Facebook, in which men are being listed and named as sexual harassers with no context or explanation.” They encouraged aggrieved women to not abandon “due process” of law, and asked them to “be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice.”
Liang was one of the core members of Kafila, the website where the feminist scholars’ statement was published. Following AUD’s decision, Nivedita Menon, one of the signatories of the letter against the List, told The Wire, “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. It is not for social media commentators to decide the quantum of punishment.”
Asked for her reaction, Raya Sarkar told The Wire, “I am glad that the due process procedure validated the complainant’s experience of trauma by convicting Liang.” She said she agreed with the complainant’s comments to AUD that the penalty prescribed to Liang was insufficient.
“The complainant was already planning to file a complaint before I made the list,” Sarkar said. “But I hope the list offered them a semblance of solidarity and catharsis. The list has encouraged many women to publicly name their perpetrators, and some have publicly detailed their experiences of abuse for the first time.”
Menon disagrees, insisting that the AUD report “thoroughly invalidates the politics of the List which I still hold to have been an act of abdication of responsibility”.
In her latest Kafila post, she cites the “defensive and vacuous responses” of the List’s administrators to Partha Chatterjee’s request that he be told what the complaint against him was. She said that in the Ambedkar University 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.”