“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”
Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) would like to place on record its views on the recent suicide of Dr. Khurshid Anwar, Director Institute for Social Democracy, a Delhi-based NGO. Dr Anwar had been accused of rape by a 25-year old woman in September 2013. He committed suicide on 18 December 2013, following a campaign against him on social media and TV channels and the lodging of an FIR just a day before his death.
We are dismayed and deeply concerned at the content and tone of the discussions on Dr Anwar’s death in social media and in various public forums, where aspersions have been cast on the complainant. Questions have also been raised about the role of feminists who have stood by the complainant and upheld the feminist principles evolved in the course of the long and ongoing struggle against sexual violence in our patriarchal and misogynistic society.
Being part of the same struggle, we in WSS:
• Extend our support and solidarity to the complainant. We are keen to stand by the complainant in this crucial period.
• Know that sexual harassment of employees at the workplace and in social spaces by those at the top level of institutions is an ongoing phenomenon. It is a very difficult step for a woman to bring up charges of sexual assault against those who occupy a senior position in the organization.
• Recognize that the suicide is a human tragedy that has shocked and affected all of us. However, we strongly condemn the manner in which this tragedy is being exploited by those who claim to be fighting for justice on his side.
• Realize that with the suicide, the alleged crime cannot be investigated and will not be able to reach its logical conclusion. At this point, it is important to ensure that the complainant is not maligned in light of grief on the death of the accused.
• Believe that all our lives and acts – public and private – can and should be open to scrutiny when the rights and space of another person is impinged upon. Being open in this way enables us all to continue to be part of a more egalitarian society that we are striving for.
• Condemn the hostile social media campaign being directed at the complainant, as much as we condemn the social media campaign that was conducted against the accused. We would like to underline the need for restraint and a sense of responsibility while commenting on such issues, especially when our comments can have grave impacts on others. Certain processes should be demanded rather than mud-slinging on individuals.
• Are concerned that some progressive intellectuals have chosen to brand the complainant as a conspirator and vilify women’s rights activists for participating in the ‘media trial’ of the accused. While the coverage of the case by the India TV was undoubtedly sensationalized and irresponsible, the complainant cannot be faulted for accepting whatever avenues were available to her in the media. It has been a long and tough struggle to have voices of women complainants find any space in the media. It needs to be understood that the complainant sought help and was guided by people.
• Find attempts to pillory and silence such voices both disturbing and avoidable. We should all instead create an atmosphere where the pursuit for justice in the interest of the complainant is not deflected.
• Acknowledge that an attempt to carry out a process of free and fair enquiry was made by the Board of Trustees of ISD in vain. We believe that members of NGO governing boards should actively uphold the values they believe in and make sure they are not compromised at any stage. We call on all trustees and members of governing bodies to play a proactive role in such matters. Senior management needs to create a safe space for women to report sexual violations and be assured of justice.
• Share our anger on violations happening within the ‘progressive’ circles, by individuals who are otherwise respected for their work. We have seen this as it has happened in our lives and lives of others who have come to us for support and continue to do so, that perpetrators of sexual assault can be people working with us, known to us.
• Reiterate that the progressive and secular credentials of any offender cannot be advanced as proof that they cannot indulge in violative and unwelcome sexual behaviour. As activists, we should not dither from taking a principled stand, regardless of the nature of our relationship with the accused. Sexual violence needs to be seen for what it is, and the crime cannot be diluted or tempered based on other aspects of the alleged perpetrator’s life.
• Are concerned that the persecution of the complainant in this case, unless actively resisted by the activist community, will dissuade women in such situations from registering their complaints.
• Encourage women to open up and speak more. Appeal to women at large to file complaints without any hesitation or fear of the consequences.
• Resolve to deal with such consequences as and when they come up as we perceive it to be part of the same large and tough struggle to bring offenders to book. In this case too, the complainant should be supported and provided opportunities to be able to move forward in life.
On behalf of Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression
– Kalpana Mehta, Shivani Taneja, Uma Chakravarti, Ranjana Padhi