Sexual harassment on campus: Follow ‘due process’ or make a list?
Campus Politik

Sexual harassment on campus: Follow ‘due process’ or make a list?

My experience at two different universities made me realise the need for a redressal mechanism and the flaws that can accompany.

By Surya Harikrishnan

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I pursued undergraduate studies in journalism and communications from an elite and expensive college, Centre for Management Studies (CMS), Jain University, in Bangalore. The majority of students here belonged to the upper class, the socio-economically privileged strata of society. Within the larger educational institution, the department of media studies was headed by a 60-something, “well-mannered”, English-speaking professor who was quite the charmer for the first few days, until stories of his misbehaviour on campus under the influence of alcohol and sexual misconduct with female students and teachers started doing the rounds. Yet, none of us didn’t really believe it as we hadn’t witnessed it first-hand.

It was during my final year in college that some new and explosive information emerged. One of my friends was threatened by the professor that he would withhold her hall ticket if she spoke up about how he had propositioned her. Another incident happened during a study-abroad trip to Germany. The professor called over a few female students to his room and made sexually inappropriate statements in an inebriated state. The students sent emails, of which Newslaundry has copies, but that had no effect. The two women faculty members who spoke in favour of the students were hounded. While one has already quit, the other is leaving soon. At the same time, two other teachers who stood by the HoD have apparently been rewarded. When Newslaundry reached out to the professor, he denied all the allegations. “I don’t want to comment anything on this because the emails are completely fabricated and it’s an attempt to demean my image. I have already stepped out from the position of HOD in August on health grounds and spoken to the girls as well,” the professor told Newslaundry refusing to respond further.

One feels helpless in such a situation, especially when so many details emerge towards the end of your undergraduate years, and more information much after you have graduated and lost ties with the institution. What is more distressing is the fact that had we been aware of these details during the college days, we would not have been able to do much. What I now realise is that it is not easy to speak out against strong establishments. It is not just authority in play here but the structure of power. There are multiple factors, such as position, age, accomplishments, access, control, fear etc., that come into play. All these dilute the power available to students to speak up.

Looking back, one of the starkest things that come to mind is the lack of a system to combat sexual harassment on campus. None of us were aware of the need for an internal complaints committee (ICC), even by law. Even if some other mechanisms existed, there was no effort on behalf of the college to communicate it to students. I was not even aware of the fact that the University Grants Commission mandates by law that every university must have an ICC with faculty and student representatives.

What is ironic is that within the classroom, we learnt and discussed women empowerment, the waves of feminism, gender equality and so on, whereas the very institution that was providing the space to spread this knowledge did not have adequate measures to tackle the issue of harassment. Even more ironic was the fact that lecturers who taught us these concepts were the ones accused of indecent behaviour. Every time we raised questions, one of them would say “bridge the gap between genders. Do not create more tension than already exists”.

After graduating, I was accepted into the Young India Fellowship programme at Ashoka University in Delhi. At the university, right from orientation week, we had multiple sessions about institutional mechanisms that handle a variety of segments of our life on campus. The committee that stood out to me was the Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH), formally called the Internal Complaints Committee.

We were introduced to CASH by professor Madhavi Menon who heads the Centre for Studies on Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) at Ashoka University. The session with her laid out the foundation for our understanding of sexual harassment on campus. A lot of people opened up about their experiences of harassment within the session and this was right at the start of the fellowship. It was a reality check for all of us who till then were in denial that sexual harassment was perhaps not so pervasive among the well-educated “change agents”, at least so early on in the programme.

After the rude shock, a series of workshops were conducted by representatives of the CSGS. What constitutes harassment was discussed in smaller groups along with logistical details such as how to report a case to CASH, the right time to file a complaint, who to approach for help with the wording of the complaint, and so on. The entire system and procedure was explained in detail, leaving others and myself feeling more secure and comfortable on campus, and having access to an institutional mechanism that would redress a very serious aspect of life.

This made me think why I never questioned the lack of a formal mechanism for complaints in my undergraduate college. Was I oblivious to sexual harassment on campus then? Was I just that ignorant? Or was I just not well-informed? Was this due to my own lack of initiative or was this an intentional omission on the part of the university? All these questions and many more popped up in my head and made me want to do something about it. I did not want to feel helpless any more.

I wanted to be part of the solution in whatever small capacity possible. An opportunity came my way when elections for student representatives to CASH were announced. I quickly filled up the application form and submitted it. The list of candidates was announced and elections were conducted. Soon, I got to know that I had made it to the committee. I felt empowered and enthusiastic. I felt the need to serve justice to those who had been harassed. I felt like coming down strongly against sexual harassers.

While all this is very true, I soon realised that being part of the committee is not easy. And a committee is not the answer to all problems related to sexual harassment on campus. In fact, several questions were raised within the university about the committee itself. Certain incidents and sequence of events led me to raise a lots of questions to myself as well.

The sequence of events I talk of here started with the sharing of the explosive list of sexual offenders in academia by Raya Sarkar. Three specific incidents, such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo campaign and the “list”, came in close succession to one another and created an atmosphere conducive to debate and discussion around the topic. Of special interest to me at the point was Raya’s list for a variety of reasons:

1)  I knew for a fact that the allegations against some on the list, if not all, were absolutely true.

2) I was wondering how I could get added the name of my undergraduate head of department to the list. I soon got in touch with my juniors and teachers from college, collated email evidence and sent it over to a friend who knew Raya.

3) A professor from Ashoka University was named on the list as well, and this had multiple implications.

Students started whispering around campus and rumours began to spread about the case. The professor’s students got worried about their own future in academia or industry. All this activity made me pause to think and reflect. At first, I was in support of such a public list, but it was only when I looked at it from the CASH’s perspective that I understood the nuances. It made me think about whether such lists could undermine the effectiveness of a body such as CASH. There was fear of the committee losing students’ trust, because CASH enjoyed their support and this is what made it an effective body.

With respect to sexual harassment on campus, power structures are not going to change to a large extent any time soon. The laws exist, the Vishakha guidelines exist, the UGC guidelines exist and have existed for some time now. But I have seen personally that none of these are followed even in a top college in a cosmopolitan city such as Bangalore.

At Ashoka University, as an exception, the sexual harassment committee and the disciplinary committees actually function, and as a committee member it is easy for me to say that one must follow the due process and report any infraction. It is important to trust the systems else there will be no process and procedure, and this might actually lead to the feminist movement taking a couple of steps backward.

But other colleges and universities, or even the legal system in general, have failed the women of our country. So in such a situation it is utopian to expect one not to take, in desperate times, desperate measures such as sexual harassment lists.

It leads me to believe that in a place such as Ashoka University, one can debate and discuss the complexities of feminism and the nuances of sexual harassment, power structures and so on. But, how much of it is really relevant inside and outside the boundaries of the university? Will our campuses ever be truly safe?

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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