November 30, 2018 would be another Friday for most of us, but a difficult day for her. Two years ago, on the same day, she was allegedly harassed, intimidated and nearly beaten up by a colleague.
She can’t be named in this story. She is a victim of harassment but speaking to the media may put her job at risk. For convenience of storytelling, let’s call her Anita, and her abuser, John. Both of them work as professors at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) in Thiruvananthapuram.
“According to the complaint she gave us, the incident happened in the office room of their colleague, during an academic discussion. The man is said to have shouted at her, calling her ‘podi’, with a finger raised, while physically intimidating her. There is an eye-witness, another woman professor,” says Valiyamala sub inspector. It is at the Valiyamala police station that Anita registered her complaint, unsatisfied by the treatment of the case by the institute.
There were four professors in the room at the time, and a student too, the police says. “While the discussions (about a project presentation) were going on the accused is said to have contradicted everything the professor said. She then told him, ‘You present yours, I will present mine’. That’s when he cornered her into the wall and called her podi.”
A case was filed against John under sections 509 (insulting modesty of a woman) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code. Though a charge-sheet was filed by the police, Anita wishes that the institute takes action against the man, says lawyer Sandhya Janardhanan Pillai.
A couple of months ago, Sandhya wrote a detailed post about Anita, who had sought her advice. “It is high time to burst the myth that women employees of the Central Government departments get an edge over others when it comes to protection they receive from their employers. It is also a myth that stringent action awaits those men who commit violence on their women colleagues in these departments,” she begins her long post.
Then she narrates the incident that shook Anita on that November day. “During an academic discussion in November 2016, her colleague in a fit of anger, abused, intimidated, confined her to a wall and was about to beat her up, but the other people in the room took him out. This ridiculous incident that happened in front of few staff including a student had shocked her. Even after two years of the act, she is unable to get over the mental trauma the incident had caused-an attack on her dignity as a woman and her self-worth.”
Anita had filed a complaint the very next day after the incident, with the director of the IIST. Two internal committees were set up to inquire about the incident. But the punishment given to John was nothing more than censure. “The Head decided to confine the punishment merely to Censure. This is in spite of two in house inquiry committees reporting that the act of the man amounted to unacceptable level of aggressiveness, usage of improper language and behaviour not befitting a professional atmosphere,” Sandhya writes.
The matter was taken up by Sthreekootayma, a collective of women activists, writers and professionals, which works for the protection of the rights of women and children in Kerala. After studying the incident, they sent off a petition to the Prime Minister’s office, seeking urgent intervention.
“Sir, as you are kindly aware, despite all the flagship programmes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Swadhar Greh, STEP, Udyogini scheme, women scientists programme of DST etc, number of women in scientific faculty of various institutions and universities remain abysmally low at 25 percentage. The fact that the number of women scientists is even lower ( 14 % ) underlines the need for some institutional change and stress the need for ensuring a women-friendly atmosphere in such institutions,” the petition states.
It also describes the sequence of events that led Anita to go to the police. After learning about the censure given to John, Anita had appealed to the chairman of ISRO, to look into the incident. He ‘promptly took action by writing a letter to the Director of IIST, reminding that mere censure does not commensurate with the gravity of the offence done to Anita and stressed the need of reviewing the decision of IIST’.
The petition then goes on to say that this directive from the chairman was ignored and the accused was protected. It notes: “What is shocking is that despite Anita being the complainant, the Institute denied her a copy of the order of the Director and went to the extent of granting the offender a promotion after a few months . Even her request to issue the copy under the RTI Act was turned down. A role model protection of the aggressor and not the aggrieved!!”
A long way to go for women-friendly workplaces to become a reality. And, Anita continues to wait for justice.
Despite repeated attempts by TNM, the Director of IIST did not respond to our mails, messages or calls.