It is no news to anyone that the grievance system in the Indian varsities is flawed when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment cases. Time and again we are reminded of these cracks in our structure which show that justice in educational institutes stand on precarious ground.
However, the role of power dynamics (and the ways in which it wrongfully hampers the deliverance of justice) in sexual harassment cases on campuses is not just a crack but a gaping hole, which needs to be amended before the trust of the students in the system collapses completely.
Just this month two separate but major incidents occurring in prominent universities of the national capital highlight the double standards of the redressal system, which faltered again in the face of power and bent to the will of those in authority.
Where on one hand, a person who was found guilty of sexual harassment was appointed as the chairperson of an administrative committee in AUD, a victim and complainant of alleged sexual harassment, on the other hand, faced arbitrary penalties by the ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) in JNU.
Lawrence Liang, a highly decorated legal scholar, was forced to step down from his position as the dean of Ambedkar University, Delhi’s School of Law and Governance earlier this year in March. This happened following the recommendations of the university’s CPSH (Committee to Prevent Sexual Harassment) which found him guilty of sexual harassment, when a complaint was filed against him by a PhD scholar. The committee also ruled that the professor would not be allowed to hold any administrative post for the next two years. Liang challenged the verdict of the internal committee in the court and the matter is still undecided and sub judice.
However, earlier this month, on December 3, the Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University Delhi appointed Lawrence Liang as the chairperson of the organising committee which was constituted for the 11th Ambedkar Memorial Lecture, scheduled on April 14 2019.
The decision was met with instant objection from the students; the AUD Queer Collective also issued a formal statement denouncing the action of the administration. Later, on December 7, a new notification was issued and Liang’s name was dropped from the committee, stating that Liang has requested to be excused from the duties citing “personal reasons.”
The discontent of the students echoed in Pritish Menon’s (a member of the students’ council of the university) statement, who said, “It is even more unfortunate that the university is accepting that it did not include Liang’s name in the committee by mistake. How can they appoint him to any position when the institution had itself barred him from all administrative posts for two years?”
The complete disregard shown towards the ruling of CPSH is distressing. The university failed to honour the verdict of the committee and in doing so it undermined its authority and capacity in ensuring the safety of the students. Even when Liang’s name was dropped, the issue of his guilt as a sexual offender was tactically avoided.
Just what is the use of a committee and procedure, when the penalties are not executed and the accused is not properly punished? Penalties against an accused are exercised to police and prevent such sexual misconduct, and if the accused is left off the hook, then the whole committee loses its purpose. The message that is conveyed is that those in the position of power can get away with their unacceptable behaviour, and the victims are lead to believe that they cannot trust the system to punish the guilty.
The appointment and its immediate withdrawal, and the way in which it was dealt with shows a clear attempt to protect the accused, or at least a degree of neglect towards the sensitive issue of sexual harassment and its victims.
While AUD regarded the verdicts of CPSH carelessly, JNU’s ICC decided to take serious actions to ensure that ‘false complaints’ of sexual harassment are not filed. The measures are severe to the point that they are cruel.
Last month, the ICC of JNU recommended extreme penalties – such as debarring the student from campus, withholding her degree and character certificate, prohibiting employment in the university and many more – against a female student who had lodged a formal complaint of sexual harassment and molestation. The allegations were made against her PhD guide on April 12 this year.
The Committee stated that the allegations were ‘frivolous’ and proceeded to issue harsh punishment against the student stating that the complaints were false. Furthermore, the ICC also went as far as to demand that the complainant apologise to the defendant.
However, ‘false complaint’ and ‘malicious intent’ on the part of the complainant are required to be proven through inquiry and due procedure, which did not happen in this case. One cannot help but feel outraged at the draconian penalties that were issued, without proper investigation. The student union of JNU and its faculty members have also expressed displeasure over the recommendation.
The imbalance in the way the accused or even a guilty accused, and a victim or even an unproven false complainant is dealt with is alarming. It clearly shows how our system does its bare minimum when it comes to prevention of sexual harassment while it goes to great lengths to discourage students from coming up and speak out about molestation and sexual harassment. The action of JNU’s ICC shows the system the error of its ways, and also render the recurring excuses which are given by such committees baseless.
The authorities often demand written complaints of sexual harassment, and refuse to go ahead with anonymous accusations. However formal complaints have, more than informal ones, made the complainant susceptible to exploitation by the system. A similar situation occurred last month in Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad, where two students were rusticated for accusing a professor on Facebook.
Another hindrance is ‘due procedure’ which is often tedious and lacks transparency; one never knows when they are turned from being the victim to the accused in a case. All the while the confidentiality of the identity of the victim is not taken care of. And as the proceedings drag on, the student is still vulnerable to the authorities who can take advantage of their position and exploit the student for filing the complaint, and affect their academic career.
When proceedings are complete, and if the accused is found guilty, penalties are not as severe as the crime, while students straight away face expulsion or lose their degrees, even when the ‘malicious intent’ is not established. And finally, if by any chance, one manages to overcome all these hurdles at each step, the administration fails to respect the verdict, just as it happened in the Liang case.
The attitude towards complainants is unfavourable, discouraging, and insensitive, while the accused gets the privileges of being ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and then undue protection even when their guilt is established.
These double standards of the administration between the complainant and the accused are nauseating. It is often said that university campuses are an extension of our society. If this is true, then the inclusive learnings about the world is accompanied by the harsh realities and ugly truths of our society.
Similarly, these campuses are far from the safe spaces that they claim to be, and their dealings with misconduct are just as shady and unreliable as the rest of our corroded system which often tends to favour those in power and authority.