TISS promises action on #MeToo allegation, as former student accuses noted professor of harassment
In a first for educational institutions in the city since the #MeToo movement took off in India, a former student has accused a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) of sexual misconduct. The institute said it has taken cognizance and reached out to the student and would take necessary action after conducting a probe
Over three weeks since it began, the second wave of the #MeTooIndia movement continues to name prominent public personalities, predominantly from the fields of media and entertainment, in sexual harassment allegations.
But a new allegation harks back to the first wave of #MeToo in India, when Raya Sarkar’s List of Sexual Harassers in Academia was published.
Sarkar’s list, which at one point, included anonymous allegations against 75 professors, affiliated to 30 educational institutes, shook up the world of academia, and triggered a discourse on how we talk about sexual harassment.
Preethi Krishnan, who was part of TISS’ Personnel Management and Industrial Relations programme in 2004-06, has said that professor Dr P Vijayakumar, sexually harassed her while serving as her thesis advisor. Vijayakumar is the chairperson of TISS’ Centre for Social and Organisational Leadership, School of Management and Labour Studies.
In a Facebook post dated 27 October 2018 — which she has given Firstpost permission to quote from — Krishnan wrote of coming to TISS in her early 20s, and revelling in the liberating, challenging and idealistic atmosphere she found there.
She says that her relationship with Vijayakumar was professional during most of her two years in TISS — but changed over her last 2-3 months there when she began her thesis under his supervision. Krishnan discloses how Vijayakumar called her to his home (on the TISS campus) one evening saying she could bring her research papers along. His wife was not present during this evening, and Krishnan writes that Vijayakumar attempted to kiss her. Even as she expressed her reservations about his behaviour, Krishnan says Vijayakumar persisted, and coerced her into a sexual encounter.
“I remember telling him that this was wrong since he was married. At that time, I wasn’t cognisant of the actual ‘wrong’ happening in that moment — the abuse of power. It felt wrong; I did not want to do anything with him, but it felt easier to remind him that he was married rather than tell him that I was uncomfortable. That was my feeblest no, ever. He said some psycho-babble in response. I knew what he was saying made no sense, but I did not challenge him. I felt extremely guilty for having gone to his apartment. In my mind, the only thing to do at that point, was to cope. Today, I will respond differently. Then, as a young person, for whom TISS offered a space like none other, I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” Krishnan writes.
She says that these encounters with Vijayakumar continued, at his office and in his apartment. Krishnan writes that she grew exhausted of his behaviour and sexual remarks. She also writes that Vijayakumar “could easily claim that these encounters were ‘consensual’. He may even have many appeasing emails from me. I accommodated him in person. I thanked him in my TISS MA thesis acknowledgment, after all. He also wrote the recommendation letter for my Purdue admission (see how academia keeps power structures in place?). Saying no to someone in authority was extremely difficult for me at that time. By then, I knew how to yell at a man on the street if he harassed me, but I had not learnt how to challenge a trusted authority figure. My history of extended child-sexual abuse also did not help.”
Krishnan says she confided in a few friends over the years about the harassment, and that all of the women who had shared their stories in the #MeToo movement had led to her moment of courage.
“Many of the #MeToo narratives that have come out in India are those where the woman said no or expressed some discomfort at the point of violation. I have a story of paralysis, disempowerment, and appeasement. I have read many women say on social media that they would not have put up with it. I am happy for you. But I am not you. I certainly wasn’t you at 24. I could not say No. ‘No means no’ is too high a standard to place on those with less power. Assuming consent in a context of power disparity is the hallmark of predatory behaviour,” Krishnan wrote, adding:
“When we hear the word sexual violence, we often imagine agitation, assault, anger, and force. You don’t imagine a person looking into your eyes with a smile, violating you, while you try not to offend. It’s not even fear. It’s a moment of confusion, disbelief, and absolute loss of trust. This should not be happening. Then why is it?”
Saying no to someone in authority was difficult for me’
The former student of TISS said that she and her adviser had continued to stay in touch until a few years ago.
“He could easily claim that these encounters were ‘consensual’. He may even have many appeasing emails from me. I accommodated him in person. I thanked him in my TISS MA thesis acknowledgment, after all. VK also wrote the recommendation letter for my Purdue admission (see how Academia keeps power structures in place?). Saying NO to someone in authority was extremely difficult for me at that time,” she said.
The girl said she would participate in any process that TISS would initiate and, through the post, wanted to extend support to any other students who had had similar experiences.
Professor Shalini Bharat, the director of TISS, confirmed that the institute had already taken cognizance of the complaint.
Bharat said, “As an institute we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment. The institute has established mechanisms to deal with such complaints. As soon as we learnt about this incident today, we immediately reached out to the concerned student. Necessary action will be taken post completion of the investigation/inquiry.”
Krishnan wrote in her post: “…predators look for the vulnerable. Courage is not public policy. Policy must be designed to protect the most vulnerable.”