It took almost a year for 21-year-old Sowmya* to end a toxic and abusive relationship and call out her then partner, who was also her classmate at a university in Hyderabad. “The man was emotionally abusive, which eventually, took a toll on me. I had mentioned this to the counselors and faculty at the department, but nothing happened,” she recounts.
Later, days after they broke up, he barged into the classroom and began physically assaulting and abusing her in front of other classmates, as she did not respond to his calls.
Studying in one of the most so-called liberal institutions in the country, Sowmya believed the administration would come to her rescue and believe her version of events when she first apprised them of the man’s abuse. But much to her dismay, it took another instance of physical abuse and a barrage of sexual expletives directed at her for the administration to wake up and register a complaint, in 2016. But for Sowmya, the ordeal had just begun.
Two years ago, the accused, claimed he was 'depressed' and his professors thought it was ideal to send him home rather than taking up the matter with the higher-ups. And for Sowmya, it was an everyday ordeal to run from pillar to post, filing complaints against the accused, who still kept threatening her with text messages and e-mails. He even cornered her at secluded places inside the campus.
Sowmya, fearing for her life, filed a complaint with the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GS-CASH), an authority that comprises student representatives, lawyers and faculty to address sexual harassment cases inside campuses.
“Why didn’t you file a case the first time he assaulted you? Why does it still seem like you have a soft corner for your former boyfriend? Why don’t you file a complaint with the police? Why don’t you threaten him, saying you will file a case under the ‘Nirbhaya Act’? But does this come under the purview of sexual harassment?” - These were, inter alia, the insensitive queries that the ‘sensitisation’ committee posed to Sowmya.
A few months later, after Sowmya raised a request to switch to another programme, hoping that she would not have to attend classes together with the accused. She, however, received a rather snappy e-mail from her head of the department, reminding her of the many favours the University had been bestowing upon her. “We have shown enough and more sympathy in your favour. So it will be nice if you can stop demanding and follow our rules and regulations,” one of the e-mails read.
The accused passed out of the institution, without much blight on his reputation. Sowmya, on the other hand, was told by one of the faculty members that the head of the department was not keen to pursue the issue as the boy belonged to a ‘minority community’ and that the department feared a backlash from certain political parties on the campus.
Today, as the #MeToo movement is taking the social media by storm, where many women are calling out their abusers at workplaces, we should also remind ourselves of our toxic educational spaces, where sexual harassers breed and are protected under the garb of caste, power and petty politics.
When freedom turns toxic
Dr Karthi, a mental health expert at NIMHANS, points out that men turning abusers inside campuses can be traced back to schools, where boys are seldom allowed to maintain a good rapport with their female classmates. Considering the conservative spaces that our schools are, men often find universities a medium to vent their sexual frustration.
“For men, who have been brought up in conservative families and may have only a few female friends, universities are liberating spaces. They suddenly feel entitled to approach a woman, something they were restricted to do for long. And this freedom soon turns toxic, where they grab every other opportunity to hit on a woman,” Dr Karthi says.
Also problematic are the mechanisms followed by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in educational spaces that give unrestricted leverage to men in the pretext of not tampering with the accused’s future. Depression, an often thrown around excuse for harassment, is used by authorities for not following the due process of law.
“Whenever an accused claims to be mentally ill, every institution is supposed to certify the illness from a medical practitioner, ensure he is treated and then follow the law. No accused can escape punishment citing medical conditions, no matter how big or small the charges levelled against him are,” clarifies Swetha Raghavan, a psychiatrist based out of Chennai.
Caste, politics and toxic masculinity
Educational institutions, especially those that are filled with ‘woke men’ who make politically correct statements and are known to be crusaders of feminism inside campuses, often fail to provide justice to a victim of sexual harassment or abuse, fearing backlash from the very political parties that harp on gender equality.
While most of the party men become complicit with the abuser, miring the case in caste and religious angles, the administration also tries to downplay it by dismissing the case as an instance of political rivalry.
Speaking to TNM, Janaki*, a student and member of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Jadhavpur University in Kolkata, says that ICCs are often sites for partisan politics and a place where ego clashes between ruling parties and oppositions play out. In this tug of war, it is the survivors who lose out.
“For instance, a student named Sushil Mandi was accused of sexual harassment on social media. Following this, he went missing. His comrades accused the survivor and her support network of abducting him. They also accused them of being casteist. Police complaints were lodged and the survivor underwent extreme harassment. After about 20 days, Sushil was found in some part of rural Bengal. The survivor then went to lodge a complaint of sexual harassment. At the ICC presiding officer’s room someone pointed out that her clothes were supposedly too short. She was asked to wear something ‘decent’. By then, she had had enough. She decided against lodging the complaint. Eventually, her refusal to lodge the complaint was interpreted as ‘false accusation’ by the supporters of the accused. She continues to be shamed by these people even today,” Janaki shares.
Aparna*, a former member of the GSCASH at the University of Hyderabad, says that there are instances when the committee has insensitively dealt with verbal assault cases, stating it as a mere 'political rivalry' since two student organisations were involved in the dialogue.
“When authorities fail to come to the rescue of a survivor, it restricts a lot of women to come out and talk about their instances of harassment. More than an institutional mechanism, what is absent in this space is the lack of an internal support system among the student community that can be channelised to a complaint readdressal mechanism,” Aparna says.
Attempts by universities to save their reputation by not punishing or taking disciplinary action against the accused, to also not spoil their ‘future’, is another problematic area. The accused is made to give a public apology and testify before the ICC to not repeat the act or behaviour in the future, but rarely does he mend his ways; and the survivor is further alienated on the campus. In many cases, the university simply waits for the accused and the survivor to pass out, so that, they do not have to deal with such tricky situations.
Janaki explains this with an incident, where a student was called out by multiple women in 2017. The complainants and the man were questioned by the ICC. In the end, he confessed to his guilt. He issued an apology in writing, vowing to never repeat his inappropriate behaviour. He was later let off with a warning. The case was declared resolved. The man is now pursuing a research degree in the philosophy department of the same university.
“Now, a few days ago, another woman posted a screenshot of the same man asking her questions of a sexual nature. He did not learn his lesson,” says Janaki, adding, “Clearly, there are structures of power present in the university that support men like this. The same person was also the convener of the forum for Arts students. Although he was removed from the post, questions of laxity remain in the minds of the survivors. Many blame the political body for not caring about the survivors enough. This is just one organisation. Such internalised misogyny exists in all organisations.”
Though many campuses have constituted committees to address sexual harassment, the mechanism often doesn’t serve the purpose. The panel members, who are known for their insensitive approach towards the survivors, refuse to be sensitised on gender issues and often accuse students of ‘preaching’ the faculty.
As Sowmya rightly points out, it is the panel that needs to be sensitised first, even before the students are lectured on gender sensitivity.
Sowmya says, “When I filed a case before the committee, the first response I received was to file a complaint with the police. This response, surprisingly, came from a female member. How easy do they think is it for a woman to approach the police? And if that’s the case, why do these committees exist in the first place?”
The primary concern among student representatives in ICCs is their tendency to work as a pro-administrative body and the huge amount of lethargy to conduct sensitisation programmes.
“Our requests to screen movies on gender sensitivity or hold awareness campaigns on similar subjects are turned down by the administration as they see it as an attempt to preach the faculty. As long as the administrative authorities are not ready to set aside their parochial approach and address issues one on one, ICCs are never going to serve its actual purpose,” Aparna says.
“The Internal Complaints’ Committee has no reach in Jadavpur University. Not many students trust them after how one of the committee members went to a student’s home and asked her what she was wearing during the night of her assault. This was the incident that had sparked the ‘HokKolorob’ or 'let there be noise' movement in Kolkatta. Students do not trust the ICC, which hardly ever talks to students. Even as the #MeToo movement in India is gaining momentum, it is sad that the only and the best way available for survivors to call out their abusers is naming and shaming them,” Janaki opines.
*Names changed for privacy