Print edition : December 27, 2013

A rally taken out by students and teaching and non-teaching staff of Delhi University in New Delhi. A file picture. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Bangalore University students protesting against the increasing crimes against women on the university campus, last year. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Two cases in Delhi University colleges point to the gender insensitivity in handling sexual harassment cases and show that such crimes at the workplace are less about lust and more about assertion of power.

THE self-immolation and subsequent death of a Delhi University laboratory assistant on September 30 opened a can of worms. The woman immolated herself in front of the Delhi Secretariat as her pleas against her alleged sexual harasser went unnoticed by the university and government authorities. She had accused the principal of B.R. Ambedkar College, a constituent of the university, of sexually harassing her for four years. In her complaint to the police, made in front of a sub-divisional magistrate, she had also said that the principal threatened to kill her son. Her suicide was caused also by the fact that her services were terminated on “disciplinary grounds” after she filed a complaint against the principal.

Only a few months earlier, in June, the university was rattled by a complaint lodged by a senior personal assistant to the principal of Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College (ARSD College) with the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) against the acting principal for allegedly asking her for sexual favours, following which the university apex complaints committee against sexual harassment set up an inquiry.

Not only did the two cases point to gender insensitivity of the university authorities in handling such cases but also showed that sexual harassment at the workplace was less about lust and more about assertion of power in a hyper-masculine professional space. “Despite my overt reluctance, the acting principal regularly asked me to sit close to him. He kept making undue comments filled with sexual overtones. He tried to touch me; he even asked me out for tea despite my clear objections,” the woman told Frontline.

She said she did not lodge a complaint with the college-level complaints committee. “All the members of the committee were handpicked by the acting principal and that is why I decided to go to the DCW. I faced a lot of resistance from the university apex committee, too, but the DCW pressured it to take my complaint,” she said. Matters became worse after she lodged the complaint. “My office was locked after I filed the complaint. An inquiry committee was established at the college to review my work. I was given many show-cause notices on fake grounds. All notices said that disciplinary action would be taken against me,” she said.

While the principal of B.R. Ambedkar College was suspended after the laboratory assistant succumbed to her injuries, no action was taken against the ARSD College’s acting principal. The only action taken was that he was not confirmed in his post. In most such cases across the country, women’s groups allege, the administrations protect the offender as he is invariably powerful or well connected. The case of the personal assistant became a rallying point for progressive trade unions at the university to highlight sexual harassment of women on university campuses. Many Delhi University teachers came out in support of the victim. The incident renewed the debate on the crucial issue of sexual abuse of professional women.

In 1997, the Supreme Court mandated the Vishaka guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of women at the workplace. Many women’s groups felt that the guidelines, which provide a clear definition of sexual harassment, were revolutionary as they laid down an extensive framework to prevent such cases.

The guidelines required the formation of complaint committees against sexual harassment at all workplaces and placed the responsibility of ensuring a professional environment free of sexual harassment and gender violence on the employer. It fixed accountability. However, even after 15 years, the guidelines have not been complied with in most workplaces.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University and the University of Madras were the first three universities to draft a policy to prevent sexual harassment. JNU became a role model for other universities as it was the first university to have elected student representatives in its complaints committee, along with teaching and non-teaching staff. Delhi University followed suit with an equally strict policy.

However, in most other Central and State universities, the committees are either non-existent or practically non-functional. Rooprekha Verma, former Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University, said: “This is because of the fact that women’s issues are not a priority in our universities. In Lucknow University, I instituted a complaints committee but it was dissolved after I left. Most of the students are not aware of the committees. Whenever a grievous incident happens, a committee is instituted without following the Vishaka guidelines and it becomes non-functional. The staff clubs are male-dominated. They pass lewd remarks on women colleagues; talk about their bodies. As a result, women find these staff rooms inaccessible.”

“A colleague of mine was raped when I was the Vice-Chancellor. No one came in support of her. Male colleagues were curious to know how it happened and they cast aspersions on the woman’s character. Our patriarchal society normalises sexual abuse and power dynamics. Universities are no exception,” she added.

In some other universities, anti-sexual harassment committees were formed only recently, when women’s issues came to the fore following the gang rape of a paramedical student in Delhi in December 2012. For example, Osmania University constituted a committee only in January 2013 after the death of a girl student. It was later found that the student had been repeatedly raped by an assistant professor of the university.

Even in celebrated Central universities, problems such as failure to advertise the complaints committee and conduct sensitisation programmes against sexual harassment are common. Most of the students do not know that such committees exist. “Complaints committees should act as a deterrent. If students do not know about these mechanisms, the employer should be held accountable. The Vishaka guidelines clearly mention that the employer should take adequate steps to publicise it,” said Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.

According to the Vishaka guidelines, Central institutions such as JNU and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) should have at least one committee to take all complaints. The Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) of JNU is the most celebrated complaints committee in India. Every year, two student representatives are elected to the body. Students body elections, thus, have become the best way to keep women’s issues alive and accord them top priority. But in most universities, election to these bodies is non-existent. In decentralised universities such as Delhi University, there are college-level committees and one apex committee comprising representatives from various colleges. The representatives are elected or sometimes nominated.

In universities where the complaints committees are functional, they face resistance from the male staff. “The male-dominated administration views these committees as directly affecting the interests of men. Women campaigning for gender rights in universities are seen as men-haters, even by the administration. It is another way of legitimising sexual harassment. They should wholeheartedly extend support to such mechanisms. The universities must be forthcoming in strengthening these committees,” said Abhiruchi Ranjan, students’ representative in JNU’s GSCASH.

Another method adopted to scuttle the committee’s proceedings, women teachers point out, is to delay disciplinary action. The committees submit their inquiry reports to the executive councils of the universities for initiating disciplinary action. The committees do not have punitive powers as they are quasi-judicial bodies. “In cases where faculty members are found guilty, the executive council delays its decision. In such cases, the woman needs courage to lodge a complaint against a hierarchical superior. Such delay traumatises her further. We have found that many a time, the executive council creates situations that compromise the confidentiality of the complainant. Sometimes, procedural lapses are found to protect the guilty person,” said Ayesha Kidwai, a professor in the Department of Linguistics, JNU.

“For example, in the case of a senior professor in JNU, the executive council insisted on reading the full report at its meeting. This created an environment that was inimical to further complaints. Finally, the professor was suspended on charges of sexually harassing a female student. In another case, the supporters of a professor who had been accused by a PhD student of sexual harassment pasted posters all over the campus attacking the GSCASH. The university did not take any action. Such an environment will deter complaints instead of deterring sexual harassment,” she said.

Private universities

Women’s groups have often pressed for an accountability mechanism in private universities and colleges. Most of these universities do not have complaints committees and are said to be violating the Vishaka guidelines. “College and university administrative bodies brush aside incidents of sexual harassment in educational institutions as mere exceptions. Instead of having institutional mechanisms to deter sexual harassment, private universities focus on limiting interaction between men and women. They often limit the scope of discussing these issues. Students are discouraged to talk about gender rights, issues of sexuality and gender violence. They are also threatened sometimes,” a professor at Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) University, Tamil Nadu, told Frontline on the condition of anonymity.

In October, the VIT administration sent two girl students home for initiating a survey on gender equality in social media platforms. Both of them were actively campaigning to secure equal rights for women on the campus. Similarly, students belonging to two big private universities, Manipal University in Karnataka and Amity University in Haryana, told Frontline they were not aware of any complaints committee in their respective universities. This closed attitude towards discussing gender issues, many women professors in private universities said, was the result of the complicity of the administration with politically influential people, who discourage any rights-based movement in private universities and colleges. Violation or non-implementation of the Vishaka guidelines is more pronounced in private, profit-oriented technical institutions.

In what may be seen as the first step, two non-technical universities, O.P. Jindal Global University and Shiv Nadar University, both in Haryana, have drafted an anti-sexual harassment policy following efforts by certain faculty members who have been associated with the Indian women’s movement.

“Many believe that the idea is to punish people rather than sensitise them. This comes out of the belief that the workplace is sacred and sexual harassment does not happen here. Our university is a kind of experiment in private education. People have welcomed the complaints committee. We have held sensitisation workshops for all staff members and students. Universities should stop thinking of such mechanisms as a mere formality and ingrain them into their vision,” said Rupamanjari Ghosh, director, School of Natural Sciences, Shiv Nadar University.

Cases of sexual harassment in universities across the country have increased in recent years. “Cases of stalking, sexual abuse in a relationship that has gone sour and eve-teasing are increasing,” said Abhiruchi Ranjan. A survey conducted by some teachers in JNU found that around 24 per cent of the approximately 600 girl students interviewed admitted to being in abusive relationships. Of the 40 per cent of the girls in abusive relationships who considered approaching the GSCASH, fewer than 1 per cent did so. This clearly points to the social anxiety among girl students in approaching such committees.

In an online survey of ad hoc staff done by a few teachers of Delhi University, 5 per cent of the respondents admitted to sexual harassment by their superiors. The survey also revealed that 64 per cent of the respondents lived in constant fear of losing their jobs; 44 per cent had faced misbehaviour or humiliating experience at work; 28 per cent had faced misbehaviour from colleagues; and over 20 per cent from men in the administration.

“[Central and State] universities have stopped recruiting staff in a bid to privatise campuses. This has led to an increase in the number of ad hoc teachers who are more vulnerable to sexual harassment. In Delhi University, there are almost 4,500 ad hoc teachers. At the same time, all forms of dissent are being criminalised. Democratic culture is not only shrinking but is being suppressed by the administration. In Delhi University, we have been conducting sensitisation programmes against sexual harassment, but the apathy of the administration towards women’s issues is worrying,” said Nandita Narain, president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association. The lack of a supportive environment deters students from lodging a complaint. Most of the students Frontline spoke to fear an administrative backlash or character assassination if they approached these committees. Many of them see complaints as detrimental to one’s career. “Our education system is feudal and completely pro-teacher. Students are hardly given any space to voice their opinions,” said Ayesha Kidwai.

“The trauma of sexual harassment is immense. There are occasions when women drop out in the face of an internal resistance from fellow male students. In cases where a professor is involved, the complainant has to face an adverse situation in classrooms. Complainants from science streams have a common problem in accessing laboratories, overseen by faculty members. Since most of their course work is dependent on laboratories, lack of access is a huge problem. There is no way we can protect them from the very people who may have sexually harassed them. Complainants from other streams have to face many difficulties in pursuing their academics if their complaint is against one of their teachers. Victimisation by teachers who are sexual offenders is commonplace,” said Abhiruchi Ranjan.

The University Grants Commission (UGC), which oversees the functioning of State and Central universities, does not have a proper mechanism to monitor the implementation of the Vishaka guidelines. It has a Women’s Development Cell, which is concerned with various women’s issues in different colleges, but a nodal body to take up cases of sexual harassment does not exist. Sources in the UGC told Frontline that the Commission had set up a committee to frame rules against sexual harassment in the universities as per the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The committee’s report, which will be released in December, is viewed as an excellent one as it deals with many complications involved in sexual harassment cases that were ignored previously.

It is also said that it discusses at length the accountability of the university administration and promises greater protection to the complainant. The report seeks to minimise the effect of certain controversial clauses in the Act, such as “conciliation as the first solution” and “punishment for false complaints”. These two clauses, gender activists believe, are negative and are likely to be used by powerful offenders to silence and deter complainants. The report also envisions better representation of all sections of the university in its committees.

The idea of a complaints committee is to diffuse hierarchy. But recent cases have shown that in the face of apathy shown by university administrations, existing hierarchies are entrenched in these committees. It is, therefore, necessary to build a supportive political environment not only for working women but also for women students. A concerted effort by women’s rights groups, students and the teaching community is required in this respect. The UGC and other administrative bodies should ensure that educational institutions comply with the spirit of the Vishaka guidelines and fix accountability effectively.

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