GSCASH works in Hyderabad university, but under duress

Institutions have the tendency to ‘manage' complaints instead of addressing them.

ByFirdaus Soni
GSCASH works in Hyderabad university, but under duress
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The Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), as an institutional intervention, has been possible in Indian universities because of the struggles of women outside and within varsity spaces who believed in feminist politics. It is one of the most democratic institutional setups in universities in terms of approach to sexual harassment and functioning, where student, teachers and non-teaching members have equal space in the system. The nature of the committee, therefore, renders itself to a lot of possibilities – if it functions properly. Unfortunately, University of Hyderabad (UoH), just like any other institution, has ensured that GSCASH doesn’t work as pro-actively as it can and should. The committee has for long been undermined by the administration and campus community.

After a lull in the past few years, recently, especially after the Rohith Vemula struggle, students have been making an effort to make the committee more relevant. I think the more the campus community takes GSCASH seriously, the higher the chances of the committee and its members taking themselves seriously and being more accountable.

As a GSCASH member during 2016-2017, my struggle within the committee has been in two parts. One was the struggle with its institutional scope and functioning, and the second was engagement with sexual harassment complaints. I will speak about the first part and then come to the second.

As part of the larger attack on university mechanisms and right-wing insensitivity to histories of these spaces, the University Grants Commission (UGC) wanted GSCASH to be renamed as the “Internal Complaints Committee” (ICC). Following the notification, the HCU administration tried to bring in the ICC last year, but we resisted it strongly. We told the administration that “Internal Complaints Committee” is an ambiguous term and makes the panel inaccessible to students due to lack of clarity. It feeds into the social taboo of not speaking openly about sexual harassment. But the HCU administration, in the process of renaming GSCASH as ICC, basically sought to reconstitute it. They removed all previous members without notice and reconstituted a new committee. Five things are to be noted here:

1) Members of GSCASH whose term was not yet over were replaced without notice.

2) The existing legal expert was replaced by another professor from Osmania University without any notice, even though her term had two years left.

3) Not a single member from the earlier committee was made part of the existing committee – this hindered the process of dealing with existing cases in particular and transition in general.

4) The new members are already part of administrative committees such as the proctorial board, grievance redressal cell, equal opportunities cell, etc.

5) The UGC notification insisted that “chancellors, registrars, deans, heads of department etc., shall not be members of the ICC in order to ensure autonomy of functioning”, but the administration added the assistant registrar of the fellowship section to the newly formed committee.

Another notable change is that all faculty members are from the sciences and management studies, and not even a single from the social sciences, humanities or mass communication school. Elected representatives from students along with the university student community raised these issues firmly and made sure that all these grievances were addressed, including the committee being called GSCASH-ICC. Though the administration did not reinstate the legal expert, we were somehow able to make sure that the committee became more representative. It was very difficult to persistently raise questions about the re-constitution of the committee while complaints of sexual harassment were also getting registered. One cannot overlook the fact that there is distrust among students with respect to the university administration, and hence with GSCASH.

The GSCASH is a committee that is not an extension of the university administration but is autonomous, but this is not understood by the student community, as well as the committee itself. Unfortunately, previous history has shown that the committee, especially faculty representatives, have not been able to get an autonomous position for the panel. The distrust of students comes from the fact that the committee seeks to preserve the interests of the institution more than of the students. It has also happened that the committee has taken a rather lenient stand on complaints that are against the faculty, non-teaching staff and security personnel.

During my tenure with GSCASH, 13 cases were registered in 10 months. This was the highest number of cases being registered with the panel in recent years. It is not that sexual harassment suddenly increased on campus, but that a certain level of trust and accessibility was gained by this particular committee.

One of the biggest problems we face is that when a student complains against a member of the faculty or administrative staff, the dean of students’ welfare or others, instead of forwarding the complaint to GSCASH immediately, attempts are made to pacify the student at the department level itself.

The fact is that in HCU, most people in power are men. Hence, when a PhD scholar or an integrated student builds up the courage to go and complain to their head of department or dean regarding sexual harassment, a bunch of senior male faculty members try to convince them that “don’t worry, it won’t happen again, just forget about it”.

Instead of sending the student to GSCASH where there are women and students who are institutionally equipped to be more sensitive to the situation, there is an approach of “managing” the complaints instead of addressing them. In GSCASH, we have tried to employ the approach of not being “punitive”, because we believe that just punishing someone will not ensure that they realise their wrongdoing. This is in cases where the harassment is verbal/emotional and not physical. We had a sensitive counsellor in the university during my tenure and we used her help in many cases to counsel students. But, when the university administration looks at complaints of sexual harassment in the proctorial board, they make it a fight between two students and the situation will be dealt with by punishing either one or both parties. We intervened in such cases that came to us.

Our committee used to meet frequently owing to the influx of cases and because the time period for any case to be settled is a maximum of three months. We addressed all the complaints that came to us within that time limit. I remember that in one case, we had to meet almost twice every week continuously for three months. Very intense discussions took place as the student representatives and some of the faculty representatives were taking different approaches on the issue. We had to make sure that our approach was not moralistic. There were times when the way of inquiry itself became problematic enough for moral judgments to play out. Fighting these tendencies within the committee was the second toughest task that I faced during my tenure.

The misuse of security staff by the administration to morally police the students and create an atmosphere of fear and surveillance, especially in the aftermath of the Rohith Vemula movement, was a recurrent issue in some of the complaints that we registered. The last one that came to the committee when I was part of it was against hostel raids being conducted by some wardens with security guards. In the last complaint, the harassment was blatant and the current goings-on in the university are also an extension of the same thing.

In one instance, one student’s hostel room was continuously targeted by the warden over anonymous complaints that a female friend of his used to visit him. One day, seven wardens along with other security staff entered his room to “raid” it and see if there was a girl around. The security guards ransacked the place and messed up the boy’s stuff. They came across a packed suitcase and started opening it, to which the boy objected, saying it was his friend’s luggage and she had left it there as she was waiting for her admission results. In spite of his protests, they threw the woman’s clothing around and clicked pictures of her undergarments inside the bag.

This is just one instance of abuse of power by university wardens and securitymen with all authorisation from the vice-chancellor. The female student concerned complained to GSCASH against the said wardens and security staff who clicked the pictures. No public statement has yet been made by the committee regarding this matter, even though the students demanded it. My term was over by the time this case was registered in GSCASH.

The same wardens are involved in suspensions and raids on the campus. They keep going to hostel rooms to “look” for women students and make misogynistic and sexist remarks; they have now become as bold as to arbitrarily suspend students. As in the case of Rohith Vemula, where the suspended students, including Vemula himself, were accused of beating up an ABVP member (a charge later proven false by the police commissioner himself), in this case too, the administration cooked up stories of the warden being beaten up by students as an excuse for such harsh measures.

In a university where women are given second-grade hostels and terrible mess food, all that the administration wants to do is target students for mingling with one another. HCU claims to be on a par with premier institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru University and the IITs for having inter-hostel mobility, but the wardens here are busy raiding the rooms of research scholars and shouting “ladki mil gayi” in the corridors.

In the latest instance of suspending 10 students, the girl who was present in the men’s hostel felt intimidated by the presence of so many hostile men (i.e. the wardens and security guards) and immediately called the GSCASH representative. Ironically, instead of forwarding the case to the panel, the administration suspended the GSCASH representative for performing her duties. This is the way in which a progressive institutional intervention like GSCASH is being made dysfunctional on our campuses.

If you’re a student, professor or an alumnus and want to write/share how your college deals with sexual harassment, the systems to check it or the lack thereof, email us at campus@newslaundry.com

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