On Saturday, May 27, 2017, news broke that a court in Sonipat had sentenced three former students of Jindal Global University (JGU) of gang raping and blackmailing a fellow student. All three were men in their early 20s, two of whom were sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment while the third was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment.
In April 2015, a female student of the BBA programme had accused three final-year law students of repeatedly raping her for two years. The student also accused them of blackmailing her with nude photographs. An emergency meeting of the university’s disciplinary committee, as well as the sexual harassment committee, was called, and the accused students were interrogated. The main accused was immediately expelled, and the rest were suspended. Jindal Global University then helped the student file a police complaint, and over the course of these years, provided her with the guidance needed to finish her degree and pursue her ambitions.
The university’s support is commendable considering many universities in the country may have simply turned their backs on the survivor or attempted to cover-up the incident. However, soon after the verdict was made public, an email was sent out to the student body of JGU to inform them about the convictions. Screenshots of the email have already been shared across social media and many of you reading this may have come across it, and formed your opinions already. I am writing this simply to add my two cents to the conversation.
The language used in the email is unfortunate, as it appears to express sympathy for the convicts and the trauma that their families have endured. I believe that people can have varying responses to an incident of this grave nature, and it is important to make room for all the different kinds of emotions that one may experience. However, I also believe that the responsibility of an institution is first and foremost to the survivor of the sexual assault, and any parallel drawn between the survivor’s trauma and those of the perpetrators or their families is unwarranted.
The email bemoaned the loss of the ‘productive years’ of the perpetrators in prison and urged students not to act in ways that would hinder their academic progress. When the consequences of rape are depicted as an impediment to academic and career goals, rather than a grievous affront to the survivor’s well-being and autonomy, it is a cause for concern. I am willing to accept that the email was not sent with any mala fide intentions on the part of the administration, but intent does not matter when the language of the email inadvertently contributes to rape culture and trivialises horrific crimes.
Combating rape culture means strongly condemning any actions that threaten the autonomy of students, faculty, and staff on campus. Standing up against rape culture also means being brave enough to support not just when the conviction happens but throughout the process. It means creating an environment safe enough so that no survivor of sexual assault is ever forced to leave while the perpetrators roam free. It means recognising the gravity of offences such as gang rape and blackmail and exercising caution in the way they are reported so that the issues are not trivialised. The language we use, even if well-intentioned, can result in a victim-blaming narrative that lets the perpetrators off the hook for the terrible acts they have committed. It is our duty to exercise caution when talking or writing about sexual assaults, as our words can have a far greater impact than we envision.
In that regard, the email to the JGU student body was problematic on several levels. A lot of emphasis was placed on the code of conduct that all students are required to adhere to, and the email itself was titled ‘appropriate and inappropriate conduct’. Rape is not merely an unlawful act, nor can it be limited to ‘inappropriate conduct’, it is a serious violation of a person’s autonomy and can have grave physical and psychological consequences for the survivor. Survivors of sexual assault are subject to a lot of scrutiny and often forced to relive their traumas by the justice system, in addition to facing ostracization from their communities – this is what we must keep in mind when we talk about rape. Any compassion we wish to extend towards the perpetrators or their families cannot take precedence over the empathy and support we must show to the survivor.
Many problems related to the sexual harassment committee (SHC) at the university persist. In two recent open-house forums with the Vice-Chancellor and Registrar, students and faculty alike brought up issues regarding transparency and accountability of the SHC. Not only were there complaints about students having to relive their trauma during the proceedings of the committee, but some students also narrated incidents where they or their friends had been advised against filing formal complaints. It was clear that people are wary of placing their trust in these institutional redressal mechanisms, and that many sexual assaults go unreported. This, of course, is not a problem that plagues JGU alone. Nevertheless, the university should take the bold step of admitting to these issues and work towards fostering a safe environment for all. The admin was evasive, but they did say that they would work on the issues and that they had scheduled a meeting with the SHC where all these issues would be raised.
Finally, it is crucial to undertake efforts not only to ‘sensitise’ the campus about these issues but to make a change in how we think about gender relations, consent, and sexual assault. JGU recently released a statement to the press condemning the heinous acts of the convicts and committing to the creation of a safe environment for everyone. I believe this is the right move to take and I hope that in the coming semesters, concerted efforts are made to improve the situation on campus.
Only when we accept our failures and learn from them can we hope to create any real change. Let us all take the first step by identifying and understanding the structures that normalise sexual assault, and then engaging with them passionately. Let us commit to being in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault everywhere. Let us talk about rape, responsibly.
Editor’s Note: Campus Watch approached the Jindal Global University administration for a response against the allegations of members of the sexual harassment committee advising students to not file formal complaints. We received confirmations about the alleged functioning of the sexual harassment committee from a couple of students from the university. However, the administration called these claims ‘absolutely false and baseless’ and assured us that they are committed to creating and maintaining an environment free of all forms of sexual harassment. Furthermore, they said that the statement was sent to deter heinous acts from occurring, without commenting on the nature of the mail and the criticism it garnered.