‘I would like to credit Bhanvari Devi for igniting the #MeToo movement years ago’
Raya Sarkar, the bahujan law student who kickstarted the Indian arm of #MeToo last year says she doesn't mind how the movement is framed now as long as it acknowledges her labour
This week has been as empowering as it has been emotionally draining for the many women who have stepped out of the shadows and spoken about their mental and physical violation, their voices gaining strength as they were joined in numbers by others. The second wave of India’s #MeToo movement is here and women are once again holding their aggressors accountable.
One important voice that could have led the charge has been conspicuously silent, perhaps watching from a distance the wildfire she had started a year ago. Raya Sarkar, then a 24-year-old law student at the University of California, sent tremors down Indian academia when she published a list of alleged sexual predators after collating accounts from victims. Over this week, several critical voices have expressed the need to credit Sarkar, who identifies as bahujan, as a pioneer of the Indian arm of the #MeToo movement.
Sarkar spoke to Lounge about déjà vu, operational differences, the role of media and the need for marginalized groups to be part of the current conversation. Edited excerpts from the interview:
As you see #MeTooIndia unfolding on Indian Twitter and Facebook, do you feel a sense of déjà vu? Take us through what’s going on in your mind right now.
I do sense déjà vu, and believe this is a continuation of the #MeToo movement triggered last year. They are similar because in both cases women who have been through trauma are expressing it in public and seeking closure and offering caution against the men they have accused. It is a cathartic process in both instances.
What is the key operational and conversational difference that you see when you outed alleged predators in academia and now?
Last year the list was invalidated by many as a witch-hunt even though many women who had offered their testimonies publicly identified themselves later. I am glad that now more people are willing to believe women and the collective sense of empathy is much greater. I only wish more people had done the same for women last year. Even after a few men from the list were held guilty under Internal Complaints Committees, not many extended their solidarities to the survivors.
Operationally, I believe I did not provide details for people to gossip about and consume as trauma porn, so many may have been frustrated by that. I refrained from sharing details unless the survivors publicly shared it themselves (many did) to protect the identities of those who feared professional retaliation and retribution like we often see in academia. For instance, Donna Harroway of UC Santa Cruz shielded Gopal Balakrishnan when students accused him of sexual assault as it was revealed by BuzzFeed and leaked internal emails. Similarly Judith Butler and other influential academics like Spivak and Zizek signed a statement defending Avital Ronnell and called the complainant malicious even though the student did not publicly call out or shame Ronnell but took due process measures. Since this has been a trend in academia, many are scared of retribution, even in India where the circles are as closely knit if not more. Thus, I acted as a facilitator for survivors so they could avoid the backlash. Although the backlash upset and shocked me I am happy I did it because it is necessary for us to disrupt this brahminical patriarchy and have each other’s backs.
Do you feel that since many women now publicly control their own narratives it’s snowballing into a campaign?
I definitely think it is a campaign now. I am glad so many women are whistleblowing abusers and men who have no right to occupy the positions they do in society from where they abuse and exploit the most vulnerable. A lot more can be done because dalit, adivasi and bahujan women’s voices are missing from the discourse right now. Marginalised women’s trauma and their voices should not be an afterthought, instead should be in the core of any emerging campaign. The campaign must address sexual abuse in the informal sector where abuse and labour violations are rife. The campaign must create resources and support for women who have very poor access to justice. It should include the voices of trans women, homosexual men and women and non-binary folks. I am very hopeful and request folks to engage with this intersectional possibility.
Do you feel media did not do its due diligence when you started a conversation a year ago around sexual harassment at the workplace?
I think the media did the best they could. I am very thankful to the journalists who fought to publish pieces that were nuanced and empathetic to the survivors who shared their trauma through the list. Although I will admit that some media spaces gave a voice to sexual misconduct apologia under the guise of a balanced view. I hope from now on new standards are set so that such a thing is not entertained. We cannot afford to publish pieces that are detrimental to women’s liberation in a country where sexual misconduct is grossly underreported.
What is your main takeaway from your experience back then?
My takeaway was that radical solidarities are possible and radical disruption is not just a possibility.
Do you feel #MeToo Part 2 has largely ignored caste and marginalised communities in its ambit?
As someone who has been actively anchoring and sharing #MeToo stories this week, I have been getting angry messages saying that this movement ignores your stellar work though we have tried to repeatedly tell them that we credit you with starting this fire. Do you yourself feel a sense of betrayal?
I was happy to have facilitated #MeToo a year ago and I am definitely not the first person to do this. I would like to credit Bhanvari Devi for igniting the #MeToo movement many years ago. Because of her we have the legal recourses to sexual harassment we have today. Due process failed her and she awaits justice even today. But I don’t mind how the movement is framed as long as it acknowledges my labour—so many of us who supported and stood by the survivors who helped create The List—their labour, and our personal sacrifices. We all faced a lot of flak. I hope we are vindicated.