Statement on Sexual Harassment and Internal Complaints Committees on Campuses

Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) stands firmly with all those who have come forward to report their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in university spaces and colleges across the country by male faculty members. The feminist movement has acknowledged that there is no one way to seek justice and each complainant must have the autonomy to find their path to speak and seek redressal. We extend our solidarity to the complainants and salute their courage for exposing the sexually predatory behavior of powerful faculty members at immense personal and professional risk. We further condemn unequivocally all the attempts made by vested interests to pressurize the complainants into withdrawing their complaints and demand free and fair enquiries in each of the reported cases.

According to data released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, there has been a 50% increase in reported cases of sexual harassment in Universities and Colleges across the country in the year 2017 as compared to the previous year. The data reveals that about 149 cases of sexual harassment were reported from universities and 39 cases from colleges and other institutions in 2017 as compared to 2016 when 94 such cases were reported from universities and 18 from colleges and other institutions. However, we do note with deep concern that the existing internal mechanisms of dealing with cases of sexual harassment within educational institutions suffer from severe shortcomings. The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) which have been recently constituted under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 do not consist of democratically elected representatives and its recommendations remain non-binding. This undermines not only the autonomy of the ICCs from administrative control and interference but also blunts the capacity of the institution to effectively challenge the existing power structures.  Moreover, earlier committees against sexual harassment have themselves suffered from various lacuna, such as problems of breach of confidentiality, the protection of accused men in positions of power or the questionable understanding of gender neutral provisions, all of which have led complainants in several instances to lose their confidence in the functioning of such committees.

Nonetheless, cases such as that of Ambedkar University Delhi, wherein law professor Lawrence Liang was held guilty of sexual harassment by its internal Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (CPSH), remain notable exceptions. The CPSH not only followed due process under the new government regulations but also upheld the practice of ensuring consent in intimate relationships. In this particular instance, the internal policies of the Committee allowed for a “third party” to register the complaint since the complainant belonged to another University. According to news items, the final report submitted by the CPSH on 20th February 2017 details instances of alleged sexual harassment in 2015 and 2016, with the complainant approaching CPSH (AUD) in October 2017, after a list of men in academia accused of sexual harassment was put up online.

The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, on the other hand, is a glaring example of how students were compelled to approach the police and had to go through the further trauma of dealing with a recalcitrant state machinery. (The JNU ICC was summarily set up by the administration in late 2017 by unilaterally closing down the GSCASH that had been functioning in JNU for many years, which was widely condemned at the time.) On 16th March 2018, as many as eight students approached the Delhi Police to file cases of sexual harassment against Professor Atul Johri from the School of Life Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Delhi Police, in a clear attempt to shield the accused, caused immense delay in filing an FIR. The students had to protest for days on end outside the police station, following which the Delhi Police eventually registered eight separate FIRs against Professor Johri. In a shocking turn of events, he managed to get bail in all eight cases in a matter of minutes after his arrest on 20th March 2018.

It is important to note here that the compulsion to approach the Police instead of the ICC indicates a serious lack of confidence amongst the university community in the internal redressal mechanisms to tackle cases of sexual harassment. There have been several reported instances of serious procedural lapses by the JNU- ICC wherein cases have been jeopardized by the deliberate leaking of sensitive and confidential information by members of the ICC. Moreover, they have actively pressurized complainants to withdraw cases involving male faculty members in positions of power. The report of the Saksham Committee appointed and endorsed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) clearly states that the Sexual Harassment Redressal Committees ‘must be autonomous (i.e. independent of existing structures of power), accountable and accessible’. [Saksham Committee Report, 2013, pg.68] The current functioning of the JNU-ICC, however, has not only grossly undermined the autonomy of the institution from administrative control and interference but has made a mockery of due process.

WSS stands in solidarity with the decision of the complainants to approach the police directly due to the abject failure of the ICC to provide support and redressal and demands that the Delhi Police expedite the cases to ensure justice to the complainants. We demand that the JNU administration stand by the complainants and that Professor Johri must be summarily suspended, on grounds of propriety, whether or not this is legally mandated.  Being out on bail makes it possible for him to further intimidate the students and block the investigation process.

Parallel news reports from several colleges affiliated to Delhi University suggest that their ICCs have not been properly constituted and do not have student representatives on the committees. This has prevented complaints of sexual harassment from being lodged, and constitutes a severe lapse. Two complainants from Delhi University’s department of Chemistry —a junior faculty member and a research student — have approached the university ICC to complain against Chemistry Head & Professor Ramesh Chandra’s sexual harassment, and an enquiry is underway (TOI 9th March 2018). Nothing must come in the way of the enquiry, the clout of the accused notwithstanding. It is deeply disconcerting that the accused Professor, like Professor Johri, has already begun a vicious smear campaign against the complainants by terming the allegations as ‘baseless’ or concocted with the intent to malign him out of professional jealousy. WSS condemns the actions of Professor Chandra to devalue the complainants and trivialize the charges of sexual harassment made against him.

Significantly, both the cases against Professor Johri and Professor Chandra have exposed how science departments function in institutions of higher education with the laboratory supervisor running his laboratory as a private fiefdom, wielding enormous control over the students and their entire academic futures.  These cases are but the tip of the iceberg, as we are aware of numerous instances of sexual harassment in departments of science in several universities that simply never come to light.  Research in the sciences display some of the worst forms of quid pro quo sexual harassment, which happens routinely for years together, making it almost impossible for such students to complain since their very careers are at risk. The complaints have importantly foregrounded how power relations and social hierarchies operate in the confinement of laboratory spaces and how this creates hostile and oppressive working conditions for women and marginalized groups leading, in many instances, to students committing suicides.

In a shocking incident, (Business Standard, March 21, 2018) a 15-year-old girl student allegedly committed suicide in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar area on Tuesday. The teenage girl had reportedly failed in her Class 9 examinations. The deceased’s father said that she had accused two of her social science teachers of sexually harassing her and “touching her inappropriately”, and that her failure in the exams had to do with resisting the teachers’ advances on her. A case has been registered in the matter under Sections 306 and 506 of the IPC and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act). The deceased student belonged to the Ahlcon Public School in Mayur Vihar Phase-I.   This terrible tragedy provides a glimpse of how rampant and, in many cases, fatal, acts of sexual harassment can turn out to be.  Universities at least have to show the way so that other institutions like schools can begin to address these crimes.  It is absolutely imperative that much more effort must be given to the situation in schools.

Therefore, this is a moment for WSS to reiterate its solidarity and commitment to support the complainants and those who have dared to speak out against sexual harassment. We demand that current ICCs be investigated for their lapses and that shortcomings in the current structure of ICCs be redressed. In the name of prevention, universities and colleges have been spending time and money on increased policing of their campuses to protect women from sexual harassment, rather than engage in much needed gender sensitization of all sections of the university, especially faculty. The challenge is whether institutions of higher education will respond to this moment with responsibility and justice, to enable students to pursue their education freely and without fear.

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