Silhoutte of a woman against the backdrop of IIT Madras campus
Silhoutte of a woman against the backdrop of IIT Madras campus

Tactless response to sexual harassment by IIT-Madras sparks student outrage

In an email to the students after a complaint of sexual harassment was lodged, the Dean asked the students to follow a ‘Buddy system’ and said it was challenging to maintain safety and security in such a large campus.

An instance of sexual harassment within the campus of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) and the subsequent response from the Institute has led to outrage among the students. The students have questioned the management about their approach towards safety of students within the campus, as well as towards how a complaint about harassment has been approached. 

On the night of July 24, a woman student studying in IIT-M was returning to her hostel on her cycle, when she was waylaid and allegedly attacked by an unknown man, who then tried to sexually assault her. According to a friend of the survivor, who brought the complaint to the notice of the management, no one responded to the screams of the survivor for help, despite security guards being posted in the vicinity of the area. After a struggle, the injured survivor managed to escape and reach her room. Upon learning about the incident, her friend decided to file a complaint and mailed about the same to the Dean of Students (DOST) office and all the students, on July 26, describing the incident and stating that the students felt uncertain about their safety.

The friend also demanded the management to take steps for the safety of students and ensure that security personnel remained alert at night. It was also pointed out that the lighting at the New Academic Complex (NAC), where the survivor was attacked, was poor. Further, the student also said that the attacker must have been a worker employed in construction work in the campus; and demanded that the workers employed for construction work, must not be allowed to access the student zones without supervision. 

It was the response to this email from the Dean, on July 27, that sparked a furore. The email from DOST, accessed by TNM, said that an investigation was underway and asked the students to follow certain protocols while going outside their hostel at night. The students were asked to inform the laboratory incharge or obtain permission to visit labs outside working hours; follow a buddy system (that is, working in the presence of co-students); avail bus service if they were returning late from their lab and move around with friends to avoid untoward incident/accident. The mail also specified that it was “challenging to maintain safety/security in campus spread over 600+ acres and with a large forest area,” and that all of them could work to assist the security system to overcome the challenges. They also added that they will try to develop an SOS application to ensure safety.

“The response is not satisfactory and it shifts the responsibility completely towards the students. They have asked the students to follow the ‘Buddy System’ which means that we, especially women students, should be moving with another student, or call for the bus facility that is available in the campus. However, this is not a solution. Inside the campus of a prestigious institution, the students must be able to move freely at all times, and the institute must take responsibility to ensure the same,” said Devan, a member of ChintaBar, a collective of students in IIT Madras who engage in discussions on socially, economically and politically relevant topics. 

Other students pointed out that the management was shifting the responsibility towards students and asking them to take care of themselves. They also questioned why temporary workers like construction workers were allowed unchecked access on the campus, especially at night. They also asked about measures taken by the management to ensure safety like better lighting and surveillance on the roads inside IIT-M.

“Further, several students have come out with similar experiences they have had inside the campus. These incidents have come to light only after this complaint was filed. However, DOST has not responded to us properly and in a satisfactory manner. They have just asked us to be safe on our own. This is just the common response in general that is similar to victim-blaming,” said another woman student studying in IIT-M.

A former student responding to the suggestion that women students follow the buddy system, called the Dean's mail “severely tone-deaf, condescending and misogynistic.” Stating that it was the responsibility of the institute to ensure the safety of its residents, the former student said, “Students’ freedoms, specifically girls’ freedoms should not be curtailed in the name of prevention. We expect better than the ‘personal responsibility’ narrative that the institute is peddling.”

A woman student who is also a member of ChintaBar, requesting anonymity, said that despite multiple mails from several students, no response had been received from the management. “We expect to get a response next week, as it is the weekend now. There needs to be some measure taken by the management without curtailing students’ freedom of movement,” she said.

When TNM contacted IIT-M, they issued a statement in response saying, “An incident happened on the midnight of Sunday/ early Monday morning (July 24-25, 2022), which was reported to the Institute after about two days of the incident, by a friend of the student. The Institute immediately began the investigation, screened camera footage and shared pictures of almost 300 people, who matched the description given by the student. However, she is yet to positively identify anyone. Identification parade of over 35 contract labourers who were on duty that night was also conducted, but the student was again not able to identify.

The gates of IIT Madras are adequately secured and at every 100 metres, there's a security guard posted. The Institute also has a buddy system in place and facility to call for Institute buses, along with a security staff at odd hours. The student is not interested in filing a police complaint. The investigation is still continuing.”

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