How anti-sexual harassment panel falters at IIT-Madras

Students complained of insensitivity, victim-blaming and downright horror at the way questions were asked during the investigation.

WrittenBy:Meena Chockalingam
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Sexual harassment lurks in Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (IIT-M), as at other universities. So does a sexual harassment complaints’ committee. To what extent the latter addresses the former is the question behind this article. While the answer is lukewarm, it brings to light major concerns regarding the scope of existing legislation, lack of sensitivity and attitude of the students towards the system.


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A Complaint Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CCASH) was formed in IIT-M following the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. There is a general perception among students in the institution that sexual harassment does not happen in a “premier institution with educated people like us”.

Most female students come to campus under this impression and it takes an instance of being stalked or a friend being groped by a security personnel to wake up to the inescapability of such harassment. The majority of male students remain unaware until they get a jolt from a case that rarely makes it to the papers, or get told by CCASH that their “innocuous” acts constitute sexual harassment.

A 2014 survey among students on the visibility of CCASH in the institute (conducted by a campus news outfit) revealed that only 24 per cent of the student population is aware of the existence of the panel. It is to be noted that CCASH was relatively new at that time and that things may have improved a little with posters having been put up across the campus. However, the posters do not give a helpline number or details of a point of contact – they display only the official email address of CCASH.

As with the world at large, sexual harassment and redressal mechanisms are generally perceived as a “female (or victim) concern” on our campus as well. An instance during last year’s students’ election soapbox is illustrative in this regard. One of the candidates contesting for the post of general secretary was unaware about the expansion of CCASH. Being aware of the committee’s existence and remaining clueless about its functioning and limitations poses a different kind of threat on campus. Some students are lulled into complacence as they believe that CCASH exists to take on sexual harassment, disregarding the need for gender sensitisation and healthier interaction between the sexes.

On examining the status of CCASH, the panel appears to be following the prevention of harassment Act and meeting its basic requirements. The list of committee members along with the definition of sexual harassment and details of action to be taken are mentioned on the well-equipped webpage of CCASH. But, when the Act delineates what the committee is expected to do, the “how” is left to the discretion of panel members, which brings up problems while dealing with complaints.

One complainant claimed that members of the committee are poorly aware of what is expected of them. It is to be noted that the majority of panel members are professors and other faculty of the institute who are often overworked and not equipped to deal with sexual harassment. The institute has not made an effort to train or sensitise the members of the committee.

While the inquiry process is time-bound, every case is handled in an ad-hoc fashion. At times, it is even difficult to get the committee to take up one’s case. A complainant stated that she had to send repeated frantic mails and make multiple calls to the persons on the committee to get a response. Apart from all this, the investigating persons allow personal views to influence the process. 

Many complainants found the process uncomfortable. They complained of insensitivity and downright horror at the way questions were asked, restrictions were imposed on the victim and blame apportioned. In the case of the above-mentioned complainant, it was the persistence of one member of the committee that led to redressal. 

Given that the members of the committee are selected by the administration, it leaves a tool for the members of the administration to be part of the investigation and influence the course of action and outcome. This involvement has proved helpful to some victims and harmful to others. It is of significance that the decision of the committee is not binding on the administration. Also, it is a fact that the administration can choose to disregard the recommendations of the panel.

A major drawback of CCASH is the absence of an internal charter that would delineate a set of regulations and ensure transparency. Although a group of students had tried in earnest to draft a charter, it fizzled out due to lack of cooperation from the administration. Last year, a group of students (many of whom were complainants and students with research/work experience in gender issues) tried once again to draft an internal charter for the functioning of the committee. Having been formally instituted by the student legislative council, they have drafted a charter and are in the process of getting it finalised. A draft has been sent to members of the committee for recommendations and changes.

The charter addresses the “how” factor of the Act and an internal policy that will guide the working of the committee. More importantly, it seeks to make sexual harassment a gender-neutral concern although the existing mechanisms like Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) doesn’t treat it so. Although it remains to be seen whether the charter will get passed, students working on it seem hopeful.

While the Act in itself is insufficient, lack of training and sensitivity in conducting investigation and the general complacence of students worsen the situation. While the charter does not possess the superpower of eradicating sexual harassment in the institute or even addressing all the problems plaguing CCASH, it is one precious step towards addressing the reality of harassment and paves the way for greater student engagement.

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


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