With the #MeToo movement taking India in its stride, not even our educational institutes have been spared, as students and alumni have come forward and spoken out about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of authorities, professors, and fellow students.
Under the radar of #MeToo are some of the most prestigious institutes of the country – Delhi’s National Law University, Symbiosis Centre of Media and Mass communication (SCMC), Indian Institute of Mass communication (IIMC), and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) are some of the names that made it to the headlines. Not all went in vain as some of these institutes took measures to deal with alleged sexual offenders within their campuses. While some took immediate action, others delayed, nonetheless offering respite to the minds and hearts of agitated and shaken students.
An institute that has responded to the complaints of the students is the Symbiosis Centre of Mass Communication. SCMC has issued suspension orders against two of its faculty members based on the interim report that was submitted by the ICC (Internal Complaints Committee). The two faculty members who have been suspended, while the investigation is ongoing, are Suhas Gatne, adjunct faculty at SCMC and Vijay Shelar, an assistant professor who teaches media and camera to students.
The order was a result of students and alumni of SCMC taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain about inappropriate verbal and physical advances on part of their fellow students and faculty members, which also amounted to outright sexual harassment.
The uniqueness of the situation is: that an order of indefinite leave has also been issued against SCMC director Anupam Siddhartha over allegations of harassment, and for ‘not acting upon the complaints of sexual harassment in the past,’ even when he was made aware of the situation.
‘AS’ answer to this has always been (he said this to Student Council 2017), “I have explained to him, he doesn’t get it. What can I do? I tried to convince AS (Anupam Siddhartha) to please initiate some action, but he told me that unless a women student gave her accusations to him in writing, he wouldn’t do anything!”’ alleged a former student on twitter.
SCMC still went ahead with the suspensions, despite students not filing a complaint in writing – something which is not common, as authorities tend to insist on a formally written complaint which discourage victims from pursuing justice as they are afraid of revealing their names, fearing shame and further mental trauma.
While SCMC was quick in its attempt of assuring justice to alleged victims, the Symbiosis Law School at Hyderabad displayed an apathetic attitude towards the movement. Two students – Apoorva YK and Snigdha Jayakrishnan (fourth year BA LLB students) — who spoke against the professor accusing him of sexual harassment on Facebook were rusticated. While a lot of people and lawyers have condemned this action of the institute and expressed solidarity, it stands as an example as to what happens to students who speak out against sexual harassment without the veil of anonymity.
Next in line is the National Law University at Delhi where students took to Facebook (accounts have now been deleted) to share their stories of sexual harassment by fellow male students. In response, the varsity registrar, G.S. Bajpai, has appointed a nine member Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), and a facilitator to assist in the implementation of UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations 2015, as reported by The Indian Express.
It is imperative to note that an elected ICC should have already been functional, according to UGC guidelines, but it was only instituted in the wake of recent allegations. The registrar claims that they have also nominated a student as ‘gender champion’ for promoting gender equality, and are contemplating appointing mental health professionals, as a sign of support of victims and survivors of sexual assault. However, there have been no reports of the result of the findings of the committee or even the initiation of proceedings after the institution of the ICC.
Another premier institute that has acted upon allegations posted on social media is the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad. MICA has initiated an inquiry against associate Professor Pravin Mishra following allegations of sexual assault made against him.
Within MICA, already exists a Gender Equality and Anti-Sexual Harassment (GEASH) committee; and now, a committee of three senior female faculty members has been set up to investigate the claims. The complaint was posted on Facebook by a woman who worked with the accused Professor’s father-in-law, stating that the assault happened at the professor’s residence. MICA’s spokesperson, Vaneet Chhibber, has said that the institute has had to undertake an internal inquiry simply because the professor is associated with it. Since the assault happened outside the campus, and the complainant is also not associated with the institute, MICA has ‘no locus standi in the case,’ according to him.
The inquiry is underway, with Mishra, who is the director of Crafting Creative Communication (CCC), on a sabbatical for three months. He is not allowed to teach while the investigation is ongoing.
Showing relatively greater solidarity and commitment towards creating a safer environment for students, the council of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has decided that it is best that an accused professor, Giridhar Madras, highly reputed and celebrated academic and recipient of the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award, leaves the institute in the light of the allegations of sexual assault (in the form of sexually coloured remarks) made against him by a female PhD student. He has been asked to take ‘compulsory retirement’ after the investigation of the complaints against him.
The IISc council took up the case earlier this month and has decided to relieve the professor of his duties despite a glorious profile and great contribution to the field. In doing so, it has sent a strong message to other educational institutions regarding ‘zero tolerance’ against sexual harassment.
While some took to Twitter and called the inquiry a sham saying that the term ‘sexual remark’ is simply a cover up for more heinous acts, others showed anger and accused the #MeToo movement for stripping individuals of their hard-earned reputation. There may be some truth in the former claim as it is not unknown that there persists a huge gender imbalance in the field of science which contributes to such offences.
Krishnesh Mehta, a senior faculty member of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, has been asked to leave after the inquiry committee found truth in allegations against him. Students have come forward, accusing Mehta of making ‘undesirable and out of syllabus references to sexuality and sexual relations and behaviour.’ He has been barred from entering any of the NID campuses.
He was sent a show cause notice but his response can be read as inadequate. He ‘expressed his regret and apologised for putting the Institute to such awkward situation’ in his letter.
It is important to note here that there have been similar cases concerning Mehta earlier, but all the institute did was withhold one round of increment and issue a warning.
Following IISc’s footsteps, is the School of Media and Culture Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which came out in support of a former student who outed Stalin K. Padma, co-founder of the popular community media platform, Video Volunteers (VV), and accused him of sexual harassment in workplace, while she was working as an intern under his mentorship.
The university, in response, has not only voiced full support of their alumna, but has also cut off all ties with VV and Stalin, ensuring that no internships or placements are done with VV from the campus.
Things, however, did not go as smoothly in the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), yet another prestigious school of mass media.
A woman officer of the 2017 batch of the Indian Information Services (IIS), who is undergoing training at IIMC, has complained about ‘unwelcome advances’ and harassment from a foreign journalist who was pursuing Development Journalism. But, the fact that the accused is a foreign student somewhat complicated the situation, as that means they remain under the protection of the Ministry of External Affairs.
However, the case was still handed over to the ICC, whose report is awaited, while the accused has already been suspended from the course and ousted from the hostel following the complaint. This is not the first time there have been complaints against development journalism professionals.
Delhi University’s Bharti College disappointed the students by allegedly delaying the execution of the ICC’s recommendations in a sexual harassment case against a professor, prompting around 150 students to protest within the college premises on October 24.
The next day of the protests, the Governing Body of Bharti College issued a show cause notice against the professor, who was accused by a student for sending her lewd messages (the complaint was filed to the DU authorities by the victim this February, following which the accused was sent on leave). The professor was found guilty in a report presented by the ICC to the GB, who are awaiting a response to the notice. An ex-parte decision will be taken against the accused if there is no response to the notice.
It has been reported that the delay in the ICC report occurred because the accused had moved the Delhi High Court against the college. Even if his petitions were dismissed, they still acted as an obstacle and were time consuming.
As of October 31, the GB of Bharti College has approved the ICC’s recommendation to ask the accused to take ‘compulsory retirement’ and sent the recommendation to the Vice Chancellor’s office for approval.
It is not all sunshine and daisies as many educational institutes where allegations and reports of sexual harassment have surfaced are yet to even begin taking steps in the right direction. The Film and Television Institute of India is one of them.
Students took to social media, complaining that the culture in the institute is toxic and masculinist, and that the administration has lost the confidence of the students when it comes to redressal regarding sexual harassment cases.
In fact, a report by The Indian Express shows that out of the 13 cases of sexual harassment that were filed by women, only in one of cases was any solid action taken against the accused, while the rest were either disposed off or ‘resolved with “mutual understanding” or “compromise” or “counselling.”’
While some institutes have failed to serve their students justice, others have taken a stand – though it remains undetermined whether the reasons behind this is their own moral integrity or simply public pressure.
The road to this small success has not been easy. On one hand, many institutes still refuse to act upon anonymous complaints and on the other, many written and open complaints have led to disastrous repercussions, such as expulsion and long procedures, which are mentally and emotionally exhausting.
People continue to be insensitive and freely mock the platform #MeToo has provided, saying that it is being misused by women to defame others. However, the fact that people’s immediate reaction to many #MeToo allegations is to victimise the accused, and question those who allege about their motives, is in itself evidence of how society treats those who actually take the courage to speak out against harassment.
It remains easy to dismiss an allegation on the grounds of lack of proof and blame the women for defamation and shame her for false allegations, but they forget and fail to answer, just how are students supposed to provide evidence of a wrong touch, or a wrong gaze?
The criticism these female students and alumni are receiving is completely baseless and unacceptable. ‘Why did you not report it to the authorities earlier?’ they ask. What people fail to understand is that it is not easy to go against someone who can ruin your career, manipulate your grades, withhold your letter of recommendation, so on and so forth. Power dynamic is a big player in these situations.
When, finally, these students have an outlet to speak up, it is still met with criticism, suspicion and uncertainty. The institutes mentioned in this article are just a few examples that caught the public eye, there are many more – still unknown, unreported and unresolved.