Six months into Class 8, I was called into the counsellor’s room. I was nominated as the student representative for the POCSO committee in my school. I was elated! Over the next few months, all I had to do was sign every time there was a meeting, although I was never a part of it. This seemed like a golden opportunity to me — no work, and full credit. Two years later, I realised how I was wrong.
A commerce teacher who taught at the PSBB school in KK Nagar, Chennai, was booked under the POCSO Act and arrested by the Ashok Nagar police on May 24, 2021, after the teacher was questioned by the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crimes against women and children) Jayalakshmi.
Sex education in Indian schools is anything but enlightening. Amidst everything else that it lacks, sex-ed also fails to imbibe the idea of consent and boundaries, consecutively fostering an environment that promotes sexual harassers, including PSBB teacher G Rajagopalan. The teacher was accused of making remarks of sexual nature on female students, showing up to an online class with only a towel tied to his waist, forcing a minor to drink, sending porn links on class groups etc. The school version of this #MeToo movement was started by a student on Instagram and supported by more than 1,000 students.
The ironic statements made by the school’s management have highlighted the hypocrisy that exists in institutions. Principal Geetha Govindarahjan said in her statement that the school authority did not receive any “written complaint”. She added that “students’ welfare is absolutely sacrosanct” and that a teacher’s actions do not reflect their “high standards of professionalism.”
In their previous statement on May 24, the management said that they had not received “any complaint” regarding this matter. These statements reflect the Indian polity’s ignorance of victim-blaming, survivor-guilt and feign ignorance of rape culture. This also makes one question the competence of authority and capacity of prevention.
Popular alumni of the school cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin and musician AR Rahman’s statements came to light after the incident. The school has been alleged of caste hegemony and favouring Brahmin students. Mr Rahman’s (who had dropped out of the school) statement from an earlier interview narrates that teachers in the school had asked his mother to beg at the railway station if she was unable to pay the fees. Cricketer Ashwin expressed his distress in a tweet and said, “a complete overhaul of the existing system” is the need of the hour. “I know justice and law will take their course, but this is the time for people to come clean and revisit the existing system,” he tweeted
Been a couple of disturbing nights, not only as an old student of PSBB but also as a father of 2 young girls.
Rajagopalan is one name that’s come out today, but to stop such incidences all around us in the future, we need to act and need a complete overhaul of the system.
— Mask up and take your vaccine🙏🙏🇮🇳 (@ashwinravi99) May 25, 2021
Women in rural India suffer the most from sexual harassment. According to a BBC news report, Dalit women in India are among the most oppressed in the world. “We are victims of violence because we are poor, lower caste and women, so looked down upon by all,” a Dalit woman told researcher Jayshree Mangubhai some years ago. “There is no one to help or speak for us. We face more sexual violence because we don’t have any power,” she added. Dalit women, who constitute 16% population of India, are subjected to gender bias, economic deprivation and caste discrimination.
Some employers expect sexual favours from women of oppressed classes in exchange for employment; around 27% of women experience sexual harassment by relatives. These horrendous experiences cause them lifelong mental disturbance, normalising sexual harassment for 65.53% of the rural Indian population. These are some regions where students have little to no learning of sex education.
PSBB has taken action after the incident by declaring the formation of a special senior group, drawn from both legal and non-legal backgrounds, who will be guiding them to ensure that such incidents don’t recur. While a seemingly suitable compensation for the teacher’s misdeeds, the senior group may prove ineffective for several reasons. Schools in India do not have safe forums nor do they cultivate a safe ecosystem for students to report acts of harassment. Employing more professionals to improve the situation may lead hypocrisy to trickle further into the meshes of the organisation, yielding no concrete results.
In places where fear acts as a barrier to justice, grapevine communication is one of the best channels for the identification of survivors. Involvement of students in counter-harassment initiatives is imperative to sensitise people and implement solutions on grassroots levels. Although POCSO committees have been established in schools, there are no official statistics indicating its implementation. The CBSE special guidelines on the POCSO committee calls upon one male, one female, one student, a teacher and other non-teaching staff to be a part of the committee. This may foster a queerphobic environment and make it unsafe for queer and intersex students to voice out their problems.
More than 246 million children are subjected to gender-based violence in or around schools every year (UN Women statistics). The formation of such committees and student-based initiatives will increase gender-neutral sensitisation at a young age. Along with self-defence workshops (suggested in the implementation of the POCSO act guidelines), these coupled efforts may increase alertness. These counter-harassment efforts need to be funded by state and union governments (under the concurrent list), especially for municipal schools or schools in rural areas.
Obliterating rape culture will take a long time and efforts need to start today. Anti-cyber bullying initiatives are needed in educational institutions, especially in the age of online education. Anonymous confession boxes, ameliorating sex education as a gender-neutral experience, preventing sexism or queerphobia is the place to start.
India needs to stop stereotyping harassment survivors and start self-enforcing consent in full force. A survivor does not need to act a certain way. Be it a female or a non-binary person, a survivor should not be asked what they were wearing, what time it was or why they did not report it earlier.
We have to start by asking the right question: “What can justify harassment and/or rape?” It is time we recognise all caste and gender minority groups are recipients of not only basic educational rights, but also social courtesy. It is time we listen to the screaming voices in the darkest of nights (minds).