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St. Stephen’s Sexual Harassment Row: Is The Principal Trying To Bury The Case?

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By Kawalpreet Kaur:

In one of the recent cases of harassment in Delhi University, a female student was allegedly sexually abused by her professor and psychologically pressurized by the principal of the college to withdraw her complaint. This is the story of one of the most prestigious colleges of DU, where cut offs for admissions often touch 100. In this case, it was a PhD student who was allegedly sexually harassed, slandered and her image maligned by her supervisor professor. After all this, she was advised by the principal to treat the case of sexual harassment as an ‘academic problem’, not sexual harassment. The facts and details emerging from the case are chilling.

Image credit: ststephens.edu
Image credit: ststephens.edu

In October 2012, a research scholar from a small village of rural Haryana got herself enrolled in the chemistry department of St. Stephen’s College to pursue her PhD under the guidance of Dr. Satish Kumar, who happened to be a treasurer of the college and a close confidante of college Principal Valson Thampu. The case goes back to June 2013, when the professor who was meant to supervise and recommend her research allegedly started demanding sexual favors from her. In her FIR, she narrated how he would come from behind and hold her from the waist and would go on to touch her breasts from the side. As a chemistry student, whenever she found a new compound in her research or found some success in the project, he would insist on hugging her as an act of affection and would talk about sex and romantic affairs.

From June to Oct 2013 despite her repeated objections against his alleged misbehavior, he would come up with an apology and would promise to not repeat it again but would always retract later by saying that “promises are meant to be broken”. When she used to get furious he would refuse to guide her in the research work and complain that she was not doing the work properly. He would talk about romantic affairs, his relationships, would enquire about her intimate acts, male friends, and showed her pictures of naked women. She was traumatized by his frequent sexually abusive talks; his interest in her gap of thighs and skin color. He would grab any opportunity to put his hands on her body.

On 15th of Oct 2013 he pulled her towards himself, grabbed her breasts, and put his hands on her private parts. She ran away from his grip and took an auto, he followed her in his car. That day she received 25 calls from him, all within an hour. Appalled and shocked by the turn of events, she stopped going to the lab for 10 to 15 days. After that, she confronted the professor along with her parents and a friend, where he admitted that he had committed a grave mistake and profusely begged for her apology. He reassured her parents that she is a bright student and they shouldn’t endanger her career and PhD. Her parents told her to think of her studies and give him another chance. Little did she knew that the whole apology scene was a gimmick. Her monthly stipend of Rs. 18,000 was also stopped and he refused to assist or guide her in her academic work further.

As she didn’t want to jeopardize her PhD, she decided to raise the matter at university level but found out that there was no committee for sexual harassment at the university level. Her parents decided to take up the matter with the college principal Mr. Thampu and met him on Dec 10, 2014. He led them into believing that he will arrange for her PhD and advised her to treat the matter as an academic issue. The complaint was forwarded to college Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) whose members are appointed by the decree of the Principal Mr. Thampu. The committee didn’t share the minutes of the proceedings with the victim, even while the accused professor was elevated to senior positions. When she decided to get records of her call details, she was told by mobile operators that it can be made available only if the internal complaints committee asks for it, which the committee refused to grant. The behavior of the committee members was disparaging of her and aimed at shielding the accused at every step.

The victim has now submitted audio recordings and transcripts of the conversations between her and the accused professor Satish Kumar and Valson Thampu to the police. The college principal has left no stone unturned to malign her reputation by giving interviews to news channels by accusing her of “trying to destroy the reputation of the college”.

This case reeks of the culture of immunity through which crimes against women take place in our society. The accused professor who enjoyed close bonhomie with the principal was protected at every level. ICC appointed by the principal neither has the autonomy or power to investigate the matters. Almost every year the number of people who aspire to take admission in DU increases. If in the heart of the capital, the so called best University of the country fails to provide justice to its student, how safe are we in our classrooms elsewhere? A college is seen as a hub of career opportunities for students, but what about the opportunity to seek justice?

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