In a recent development at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), two professors were given clean chits in the sexual harassment cases against them. The Internal Complaints Committee of JNU, not only cleared these professors but also issued warnings against the complainants. Despite both the complaints dating back to 2013 and 2017, they were registered only in January 2018. The probe report and the Internal Complaints Committee’s recommendations into the first case were submitted on June 29 and in the second case, on July 25.
The complaints were filed against the professors Mahendra P Lama and Rajesh Kharat. While Mahendra P Lama is a professor at the Centre for South Asian Studies, Rajesh Kharat was the former chairperson for the same centre. Despite having different complaints, both the recommendations were identical.
Earlier this year, an email which was sent by one of the two complainants, and was addressed to the Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar and a few others, had gone viral.
The email read as follows:
“I write with regards to the complaints that I have registered with ICC on 8th January 2018. I had registered a complaint of sexual harassment against Prof. MP Lama and Prof Rajesh Kharat. The two professors have not been restraint from going to SIS building and the Centre for South Asian Studies. Moreover, they are on the panel of interviewers in the on-going admissions process. Why (have) such people been interested with such responsibilities pending multiple inquiries against them in ICC? I hereby request you to remove Prof. Mahendra P. Lama and Prof. Rajesh Kharat from the interview panel of CSAS immediately and suspend them until inquiries reach its logical conclusion. There are strong possibilities that if they are not removed from the panel and suspended immediately, the inquiry will be influenced.”
For the 2013 complaint, the ICC concluded that “no case of sexual harassment is made out against Lama and Kharat”. The same conclusion was drawn for the 2017 complaint.
In the case against Lama, the ICC noted the “administrative lapse” on his part for not providing the complainant with a No Objection Certificate (NOC) on changing the supervisor of the complainant. There was a similar note of ‘lapse’ against Kharat as well, for not bringing the matter of complainant’s application for a change of supervisor in the faculty meeting.
For the 2013 complaint, the ICC said: “Professor Mahendra P Lama was a strict teacher who wanted his students to work hard and perform up to mark, which cannot be termed and/or understood as sexual harassment at all. The complainant could not complete her thesis on time and, also, it is clear from the deposition of the complainant that on the basis of some rumour she developed ‘Lama phobia’, which triggered the present complaint. It is also clear (Lama) gave NOC to the complainant without delay for the change of supervisor.”
Further, the ICC observed that “Kharat did not perform his duty of maintaining the records and files of the PhD students properly. But this act of Kharat cannot be termed as sexual harassment in terms of the Act.”
For the 2017 complaint, the ICC made a recommendation that Lama and Kharat be “censured”. Lama was censured for “creating uncertainty by not giving NOC to the complainant as well as directing (the) complainant to de-register against her will”.
At the time that ICC cleared the names of the professors, the complainants were issued warnings for “advertising” the issues. They were even told that such “public propaganda” was damaging.
A statement was issued against the complainants. “It was observed during the proceedings that the complainant herself was advertising about her complaint on her Facebook and through other electronic media and informed the public at large. Hence, the complainant should be issued a warning to not indulge in such act in future because this kind of act by any of the complainants, defendants and witnesses damages the inquiry procedure and the affected parties. This kind of a public propaganda also damages the image of the institution.”
The Students’ Federation of India, an active students’ organisation in JNU, released a notice in which they stated the issues they had with regards to the manner the aforesaid sexual harassment matters were dealt with. They stated their demands in the letter, too.
These reports highlight the incompetence of the ICC and also raise pertinent questions on gender injustice on campus. The manner in which these complaints were handled by the committee was disappointing. Add to that, the insensitive identical warnings issued to the student for bringing this matter out on social media, was called “advertising” the issue.
“Primary reason why JNU students are opposing ICC is because of its composition and certain problematic rules of functioning that it lays down. GSCASH was an autonomously elected body where students, teachers, staff everybody had representation. They were elected representatives by the students, staff and the teachers. But ICC is more of a body, which has nominated members. Three students are allowed in it – one each from UG, Masters, and M.Phil. PhD. Rest of the body is composed of the teachers. Lot of officials, members of ICC have made gender insensitive comments and that people have been nominated by the VC to run SH redressal cell which was really problematic. The VC himself was heading the committee initially. He is still a member of the ICC and the problematic part is that GSCASH operated with a completely autonomous character. So, there was no administrative official interference and anonymity was maintained. Never did GSCASH matters come out, no comments were made by the members publicly; neither on the name of the accused nor the complainant or the nature of the complaint.” said Shreyasi Biswas, who’s a former JNUSU representative at the GSCASH, and also a member of the SFI.
Furthermore, the SFI demands the resignation of Vibha Tandon, the chairperson of the ICC, while taking the moral responsibility for the leakage of information and issuing warnings to complainants which was clearly in violation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention and Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
They also demand the Gender Sensitization Against Sexual Harassment Committee to be reinstated on campus.
The GSCASH has a very strict clause on the maintaining of confidentiality, which is not present in the ICC.
“There has been leaking of emails, private emails which were sent to the members of the ICC. They have even been circulated as pictures over WhatsApp which is a clear-cut flouting of rules. ICC is compromising on the question of gender justice, and the members are the ones who have been doing every sort of moral policing, raising questions on the character of the complainant, and it is undoing the work which GSCASH took years to build while trying to sensitise the campus. While GSCASH had done a tremendous job in handling issues and maintaining anonymity and fast redressal, ICC is a complete failure. Hence, on behalf of the union we are demanding that the GSCASH be reinstated which has been a model institution for the country,” added Biswas.