In 2015, when we commenced the postgraduate course in Politics at the Department of Civics and Politics, Mumbai University, it was the beginning of a new phase for both Junaid Dalwai and me. Having known Junaid since the last year of my college, we managed to get along quite well due to our common interests in cricket and current affairs. The infrastructure seemed quite decent, and the subjects appeared to be interesting. However, we along with a few other classmates soon discovered a dirty secret. One could sense the angst reflected by some of the female members of the faculty. A male professor was clearly the root of the problem. Though our initial problem about the professor was related to academic malpractices, soon the angle of sexual harassment entered the picture. Most of the people advised us to drop the idea of being proactive in this regard as he was very powerful. But, the rot was so deep that some of us were getting suffocated by the day. On the one hand, this Department was meant to ideate and take a position on critical issues affecting the people. For instance, we were discussing the struggle of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in our classrooms while clearly ignoring the dismal environment in our own Department. Everyone was living in a false reality.
At this juncture, Junaid was one of the few persons who refused to give up. We decided that it was necessary to challenge the professor irrespective of the outcome. Owing to the extremely delicate circumstances, we could not risk taking help from any student organisation. Moreover, the absence of any grievance redressal forum implied that we had a huge challenge. Over the next few months, not only did we complain to both the Head of the Department and the then Vice-Chancellor Sanjay Deshmukh, got the Teachers Assessment Questionnaire (TAQ) process initiated, but also joined forces with a student in the Department who explicitly complained about sexual harassment to the university’s Women Development Cell (WDC). In the midst of all this, Junaid passed away in an unfortunate accident in May 2016. It was not just a devastating personal loss, but a moment of reckoning. Throughout the journey of the struggle, we not only became very close friends but also developed a bond of steely determination. Undoubtedly, the period after that was way tougher. The efforts to seek justice continued and ultimately, a change did take place at the end of August 2016.
Although I had never taken the professor’s name or discussed this case on a public forum until now, I decided to write a book about Junaid and this incident. There were multiple reasons for this. First, the aftermath of Junaid’s demise was shattering. Contrary to my belief that people would show some sensitivity, his dignity was violated right from day one when a newbie online citizen journalism portal put out a video of the accident spot where his bloodied body was clearly visible. No permission of anyone was taken before filming him and neither was any portion blurred. For those of us who received the video and unfortunately opened it, it was a sight that we could not forget for a long time. The video was, however, taken down after repeated pleas earlier this year. Second, an important person in the academia who has a significant presence on social media wrote a public post about him which contained absolute lies- for instance, he wasn’t wearing the seat belt when the accident happened. Despite personally informing him that the information was inaccurate, he did not even have the decency to post a clarification or apology on his post. Till this date, many people who read his post continue to believe that Junaid did not wear the seat belt.
Basically, there has been a concerted attempt to downplay his contribution from both people who knew him and those on the periphery. He was not only an intelligent young man who had a bright future but also wanted to bring about a change regardless of the problems he faced in his home. For example, he wholeheartedly participated in the struggle against the professor at a time when his mother’s health was precarious. Just like many others, he too could have settled for quietly completing his degree and turning a blind eye to every malpractice. But, this was a story of astonishing courage that could serve as an example to every young person in a college or university. Thus, the idea of the book was to highlight the fact that we need a sincere discussion on power structures in our education system. Sexual harassment, academic malpractices and administrative problems are a result of years of subjugation and powerlessness of students. The lack of robust internal feedback and redressal mechanisms has systematically rendered the students as mere numbers in the university register.
Being acquainted with the negative attitude of some professors in the department, I consciously kept the book a secret. Another principle associated with the book was that the identities of most people were to be protected as I did not want anyone to face any repercussions. In any case, most individuals would not want to talk about the case publicly due to the power that the perpetrator wields in the intellectual ecosystem. On the request of the complainant in the WDC case, the name of the sexual harasser has also been kept under the wraps. Hence, the book has been written with a lot of constraints, but with enough links for an intuitive person to dig deeper into the matter. Publishing it as an e-book on the writing platform of Juggernaut Books in June was the first step. The next move to ensure that it not just reaches a wider audience, but also commences a healthy debate on the substantive student issues was to approach the media. An insider account of a sexual harasser on the university campus should logically be a story that any concerned citizen would be interested in. However, little did I know the extent of his influence in the media.
The response from journalists (who have replied) follows a common pattern. After initially expressing interest and showing a willingness to do a story, some of them have mysteriously backed out without giving any explanation for the same. As the e-book is freely available online, everyone is free to ask questions and clarifications about the content. If anyone feels that the content is defamatory, they can refute the story. However, no one either from the university (including the professor) or the concerned journalists has objected to any part so far!
While I was ready to take it as a coincidence, the evidence in the public domain does not suggest so. Sections of the mainstream media have actively patronised the professor for many years. Even the WDC case has not been considered worthy of reportage by anyone concerned. At a time when media does not hesitate to report mere allegations on a person, there has been a complete silence when ‘due process’ has been completed in a case! Of course, the prerogative of doing a story lies entirely with the journalist and media organisation concerned. Nevertheless, it is extremely unfortunate that in spite of knowing the identity of the professor concerned, many journalists and academics have refused to write about him or the incident (for reasons best known to them).
This is not about injustice with reference to Junaid as an individual alone. He was a young Indian who fought against the status quo and rot in our society for a better future. I have seen from close quarters the kind of stress that he went through due to this struggle in the final months of his life. On the other hand, irrespective of the outcome of the complaints, the perpetrator continues to wield considerable influence in the intellectual ecosystem without being publicly exposed for his actions. While the #MeToo movement has gained full force in India, it still evades so many powerful people. It is high time that people in the ecosystem take a clear stand- whether their loyalties lie firmly with the professor at the cost of their conscience or the ideals represented by role models like Junaid. Silence is not an option anymore.
To read the full story of what transpired in the department, the e-book(60 pages) is freely accessible here.