This is the story from the other side of ‘naming and shaming’: what the accused went through. When Raya Sarkar, a law student in California, put out the controversial ‘list of sexual harassers and abusers’ in Indian academia last week, one of the contentious points was its untested claim to veracity in each instance—and the possibility of someone getting named wrongly. Here, Ish Mishra, who teaches political science at Hindu College, Delhi University, talks about being named on the list and grappling with the emotional consequences, in an interview with Pragya Singh:
What do you have to say about your name featuring on the list of offenders?
It is like a surgical strike. This was the worst thing anyone could have done to me. I did not see this coming. The immediate result is I am unable to give my best to anything. I have been deleting my students from my phone book, for I feel I have lost faith in myself. I have been telling myself, over and over, I will not commit suicide. You can say this is a phase of hard introspection for me. I suppose the allegation, though unsubstantiated, is completely fresh right now, so there is an element of overreaction in me.
Do you have an idea why your name is on the list?
I simply can’t comprehend who would have complained about me. I am psyched by it. Every day I have been going over classes I have taught for nearly 23 years in this college, trying to recall each batch, each year, to decipher what I might have said or done that one of my students found improper. But nothing is coming up. I always believed my students love my classes, love my teaching and are fond of me. I have cared about them very much and always been very engaged with them. That is how I thought they feel about me! Now all I wonder about is what I could have done.
Are there episodes from the past you think contributed to the perception of you as wrongdoer?
I have not tried to get in touch with those who put my name on the list, though I want to say I don’t belong on it. I want to ask my students to please tell me if they have any issue with me. My students are my political capital—I am not a person who has a short-term focus. This is what I believe the work of academics and teaching is—to think of the long-term horizon, not immediate benefits. I never perceived my female students as someone to take advantage of.
There are a handful of professors in DU who have been found guilty and convicted by courts in sexual harassment cases. Isn’t that one reason to justify such a list? After all, everybody knows such episodes are far more common and never get noted.
I have never physically violated anybody. Nor have I touched anybody inappropriately. If I have ever said anything that has offended a student, I don’t know what or when it was. No one ever complained to me, or contacted me in this regard.
Do you feel this is led by a conspiracy, as some say it is?
If my name had not been on the list, I too would have been thinking that those on the list ‘must have done something’. I know this is exactly how people are thinking about me. Many of my students have called me to express shock but many others, I know, feel ‘who knows how he was with others’…. But I don’t see it as a conspiracy because sexual harassment is the real issue not only in academia but in all sections of society. However, by this list I have been wounded immeasurably.
And that is why you feel, somehow, targeted?
Yes. In this character assassination, my condition has been rendered helpless. I feel like a woman would under this patriarchal system when she faces character assassination. It causes me pain for I have struggled to be a person who even in jest, even in anger, shunned, for example, offensive words. I have watched over language all my life, every inflexion and tone, trying not to be a sexist pig—and that is the tag now placed on me. I am a feminist and one who has worked on himself to learn and unlearn new and old habits. Hence, it is perhaps difficult to heal from such an unexpected blow. Had I been jailed, or arrested, or beaten, I would have faced those gladly but this causes very great pain and agony.
How would you describe your relationship with your students, particularly female students?
We spend a lot of time working, studying, drinking tea at my house. Sometimes my wife will tell us to break up our endless discussions—‘bacchiyon ko ghar nahi jaana hai kya?’ (It’s time the girls went home!) Now I have stopped this interaction completely. I don’t know for how long. My instinct is to help students, spend productive time with them. I know I will be back to normal—there is a whole lot I have to do in life. One student of mine is a JNU professor. A few are overseas. Many are teaching in DU colleges. They invite me to their weddings, they keep in touch with me, some transformed into friends over the years.
There is a power equation between teacher and student—could you have unconsciously abused that?
Even within academia there are levels of power. Not all professors can be placed on the same level. What will happen to professors who are not famous or powerful on the list? Those who made this list did not stop to think that if a person gets named by accident or mistake, what will happen to that person, such as an old professor like me. One has, I suppose, to bear this suffering. On a personal note, I have tried to never maintain a hierarchical power equation with my students. I have tried to encourage them to question anything and everything. I try to teach them to question not only my ideas but me also. (By the way I have two daughters, and try to educate them in the same way). Now I have shared my new suffering with my current batch of students, even though it was emotionally very difficult. But I feel it was necessary to do so, especially to speak to my female students. This is unfortunately my burden now.
Following are the two other stories of #TheList Interviews: Accuser, Accused, Sceptic series: