On 1 November, Smita (name changed), a post-graduate student at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, lodged a complaint of sexual harassment against Nitin Solasamudram, a first-year student, and Raj Kusuma Simha, a former student. Smita alleged that the duo had invited her for a party in their room and raped her when she was in an inebriated state.
Though the accused had initially denied the allegation, they confessed to the crime on further questioning. However, they were let off on bail as the local police failed to file a complaint under the Nirbhaya Act, 2013.
As expected, the angry students launched a protest. But what got their goat was the university administration’s apathy. The statement put out by the EFLU students said, “We are protesting against two things: the horribly violent act that has been committed on the student; and even in aftermath of such a gruesome act, instead of taking steps towards sensitising the campus, the administration chooses to further its repressive agenda.”
Ever since the sexual harassment case came to light, the administration at EFLU had allegedly closed all avenues of communication with the students. Further, it abstained from providing any legal or emotional assistance to the complainant. As a result, the question of providing guidance and support to a victim has been left hanging.
The question of addressing sexual harassment in the university campus has often been ignored owing to it being treated as a students’ issue. This dismissive attitude stems from the inability to see the campus as a complex site of work for students, teachers and employees hailing from various socio-economic sections.
For instance, when a student at IIT-Madras complained about being harassed by a classmate through text messages, the faculty had sought to underplay the magnitude of the complaint by asking her to be empathetic towards the accused as he was in the thick of examinations and nearing his final year of BTech.
Similarly, when Samwad, a gender collective at the EFLU, had taken up the domestic harassment case of a worker, the administration dismissed it as a husband-wife issue.
When Mudassir Kamran, a PhD scholar at EFLU, committed suicide on 2 March 2013 after the police questioned him about his “homosexual behaviour” with his roommate Waseem, the students had sought the necessity of a body to address such sensitive concerns.
“Instead of providing professional help to the students who were grappling with male intimacy, the proctor pushed Mudassir into the narrative of criminalisation of homosexuals and connected it to his overall mental health,” says Vasvi Oza, a PhD student at EFLU.
Since Kamran’s death and the recent sexual harassment case, the students have been in constant dialogue with the university administration over gender sensitisation.
“When there were a series of harassment episodes last year, the administration brought in more security guards, set up CCTV cameras and put the campus under regular police patrolling,” says Vasvi. “A set of rules that keep female students from visiting men’s hostels were put in place. But no effort was put into sensitising the campus.”
The idea of setting up a cell on university campuses to address issues pertaining to sexual harassment and gender emerged as early as 1997, following the landmark judgment in the Visakha case. Coupled with a series of protests by students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, this led to a convention on gender issues in 1998.
“The convention was organised by the SFI -led union and inaugurated by Capt Lakshmi Sehgal,” says Vijoo Krishnan, the then president of the JNU Students’ Union and a member of the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). “It recognised the need for a policy against sexual harassment in the campus and stressed on the necessity to sensitise the entire JNU community. While most of the democratic-minded professors and karamcharis supported this initiative, the then university administration was obstinately against such a policy.”
The GSCASH was set up following a notification dated 16 April 1999 and became functional in 2001. Ever since the GSCASH became active in JNU, intense campaigns around sensitising the JNU community and addressing sexual harassment complaints have been conducted democratically. The cell has helped the campus in addressing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) concerns as well.
The setting up of the GSCASH in JNU pushed several university campuses to do the same. As a result, varsities such as EFLU, Hyderabad Central University and Delhi University have set up similar committees.
However, the initiative did not bear fruit as university administrations prevented any effort to sustain such cells.
For example, the GSCASH cell in EFLU was dissolved in 2012. As a result, students have been left in a continuous state of vulnerability. In the absence of any body addressing sexual grievances or sensitising the students, there is no sense of democracy in the campus.
“The GSCASH cell was dissolved without any notice,” says Jishnu Ramakrishnan, a PhD scholar at EFLU. “The then student representatives were not informed when they were inducted into the committee or when the body was dissolved. We have heard that the GSCASH is being reconstituted in the wake of the sexual harassment case. But the authorities have made no effort to let us know about any details pertaining to the reconstitution.”
This pattern of undermining the GSCASH plays out in other campuses as well, including IIT-Madras.
“In IIT-Madras, a professor from the electrical engineering department decides which sexual harassment complaints are important enough to be considered by the cell,” says a female PhD research scholar on the condition of anonymity. “The professor has made arbitrary decisions in choosing complaints that are ‘worthy’ enough to be considered by the cash. Recently, a student had filed a complaint when some 30-odd men harassed her over the issue of collecting funds for Kashmir. The professor had then questioned the complainant as to why she clubbed the harassment with sexual harassment.”
Even at JNU, the question of ensuring gender justice to complainants has been tricky and slow in several ways.
For one, the GSCASH cell does not have a member who can provide legal guidance to the complainant. Secondly, its report published during 2011-12, the committee had reported that it had only seen 9 percent of the complaints to completion.
Lastly, the failure to make the verdicts binding has been a big problem. As the GSCASH has only recommendatory powers, the university administration has the final say. As a result, verdicts on complaints pertaining to professors sexually harassing students have been delayed and this has compounded the distress of the complainants.
Similarly, the use of political clout to scuttle verdicts has also been a constant sore point with the GSCASH cell.
“When a case was filed against Prof Ganga Sahay Meena, who was an ally of one of the mainstream parties at jnu, there were reports of attempts made to tamper with records,” says Ashwathi Nair, a PhD student.
“Similarly, when a sexual harassment case was filed against Prof Nayyar, another organisation was more or less silent as they had a personal equation with the professor. When a sexual harassment case was filed against the president of the former AISA-led union, the complaint was leaked to the campus through the office-bearers of the union. All these show how sexual harassment cases are misled in the face of power.”
On 29 October 2012, the Supreme Court had expressed its disappointment after seeing the failure to execute the Visakha guidelines on sexual harassment at workplaces. The apex court had also expressed its dismay at the lack of legislation in implementing the Visakha guidelines. As a result, the apex court had given a two-month deadline to employers of all workplaces to institute a committee against sexual harassment in the workplace, but this deadline also failed in terms of implementation.
However, the 16 December 2012 gangrape triggered legal interventions in addressing concerns pertaining to sexual harassment. For instance, the landmark report submitted by the Justice Verma Committee on 23 December 2013 and the Nirbhaya Act became pertinent breaks in this long-drawn battle to redefine the magnitude and scope of sexual harassment.
A law against sexual harassment in the workplace also came into effect on 9 December 2013 in accordance with the Visakha guidelines. Accordingly, the law stated that all offices with 10 or more employees must have an internal complaints committee to address grievances in a time-bound fashion.
Further, it directed all employers to terminate the accused without promotions or increments, if found guilty. But the question of ensuring the enactment of such a law vis-à-vis a campus is still under contention despite the law being more than a year old.
“When the Nirbhaya Act had come into being, I had suggested that the salient features of the law be put up on billboards across villages and taluks and efforts should be made to sensitise the police force and people about the differences in the new legislation,” says Sujatha Surepally, principal of University College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Karimnagar, and a member of the Democratic Forum for Rights at EFLU. “But the failure to ensure such measures has effectively diluted the idea of rethinking the law vis-à-vis women.
“Just like the Nirbhaya Act, a legislation can be effective only if we ensure that the law is implemented and executed accordingly. Caste, class, money and power works against you when you file a case. If a Dalit girl is raped, the case is not filed under the SC/ST Atrocities Act. If the accused does not wield any power, the case is taken to its logical end.
“In the sexual harassment case at EFLU, the accused were Dalits. As a result, some of the Dalit organisations abstained from commenting on the issue. As the parent of one of the accused is a high court lawyer, some of the evidence was destroyed. And the FIR was not filed as per the Nirbhaya Act. It would have ensured that the offence is a non-bailable one.”
Almost all the major campuses in the country have witnessed protests by students demanding the setting up of GSCASH cells. The onus of setting up cells to address sexual harassment complaints has always been on the students and they have been casualties to the cause.
“At EFLU, the students who are protesting against the administration for the cause gender sensitisation have been suppressed through new rules and regulations,” says Oza. “For instance, some students had planned to perform a street play in the wake of the sexual harassment case but the administration banned them from doing so. CCTV cameras have been installed on every floor of the men’s hostel to keep male students under surveillance and all interactions between male and female students are being seen suspiciously. There is also the threat of rustication in the air as the administration has a history of rusticating students arbitrarily.”
At Hyderabad Central University, the formation of the GSCASH cell had resulted in the rustication of student activists who had worked towards establishing it. At Pondicherry University, student protests had erupted in October 2013 in the wake of a sexual harassment case in the campus. As a result, the students had demanded that the university set up a GSCASH cell within the campus but no effort has so far been put into establishing one.
Due to the failure to see the campus as a workplace, the problem of ensuring gender justice looms over legal measures and legislations.
Similarly, the question of colleges and universities taking no measures to address grievances pertaining to sexual harassment is a massive error in understanding the question of gender politics. Unless adequate efforts are made to bridge the gaps between policy formulation and implementation, laws and Bills will fail to bring in the necessary upheaval.