HC quashes suspension of SN College teachers who voiced against sexual harrasment

The college at Chempazhanthy in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram had earlier suspended two of its assistant professors, who had reportedly stood in support of students who raised sexual harassment complaints against another faculty member.
Justice Devan Ramachandran against the backdrop of SN College
Justice Devan Ramachandran against the backdrop of SN College
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The Kerala High Court has quashed the suspension orders issued by Sree Narayana (SN) College at Chempazhanthy in Thiruvananthapuram against two of its assistant professors, who had reportedly stood in support of students who raised sexual harassment complaints against another faculty member. Justice Devan Ramachandran, while passing the order jointly on five writ petitions on June 13, found that the suspension orders were issued even before the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) report was published, and hence the action against the assistant professors can be suspected to be premeditated. The petitions were filed by the students, the alleged perpetrator T Abhilash, and the assistant professors who were suspended respectively, stating that “the facts and circumstances involved, as also the reliefs sought, are interdependent or entwined”.

The aggrieved students had alleged that the investigation into their harassment complaints were biassed, and approached the court with a request to quash the current ICC and form a new one. The suspended assistant professors had argued in their petition that the suspension was illegal, and therefore sought to quash the suspension orders, while the accused professor alleged that all the allegations against him were false and fabricated by former faculty member Swapna Gopinath and others.

The suspended assistant professors, Lakshmi AJ and Lekha NB, had stated in their petition that they had participated in an online programme called ‘Veyil Pookkal’, designed to sensitise the students on issues relating to gender justice and equality. But “ironically, (this) gender sensitisation programme … has become the genesis of all these writ petitions, in which, inter alia, allegations of sexual harassment are made against a faculty member by students,” the HC pointed out in its judgement.

The college had argued that ‘Veyil Pookkal’ was not conducted with their permission, but that they had in fact objected to it because one of the speakers of the programme was Swapna, who has been accused of putting up social media posts encouraging drinking among women teachers — the allegation here being that her “influence was deleterious to the students”. On the contrary, the assistant professors asserted that Veyil Pookkal was an online programme conducted with the permission of the college.

Meanwhile, the judge observed that the assistant professors were suspended not because they participated in the session, but because they supported Swapna. Not entering into the merits of these allegations, the judge said that “it is rather baffling that a moralistic and extremely patriarchal stand should be adopted by the college in holding that even a reference to drinking among lady teachers would cause deprivation of the moral standards of their students.” He, however, added that the court does not propose to quash the memos issued against them.

Justice Devan further observed that the order of suspension dated October 8, 2021 had stated that the allegations against Abhilash are “frivolous and false”, even though the ICC report deeming him not guilty came out only on October 19. Hence, “the action against the petitioners can be suspected to be premeditated”, he said. Without speaking on the matter further, the judge quashed the suspension orders but allowed the enquiry against them to go on. Further, the court also set aside the ICC report and ordered the college authority concerned to reconstitute the ICC and launch another inquiry into the matter.

How the case unfolded

The case pertains to the alleged complaints of sexual harassment raised by multiple students against Abhilash, an Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science Department at the SN College, in August 2021. The Directorate of Collegiate Education in February this year had found Abhilash guilty of sending inappropriate messages to women students and making video calls to them at odd hours.

Two years ago, six female students from the college had raised a complaint to the college principal against Abhilash, accusing him of sexually harassing them. As no action was taken, the students later lodged a complaint with Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, which led to a police investigation and the filing of an FIR. Subsequently, the college authorities in October last year formed an ICC under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (PoSH) Act. The students had raised the complaint after Swapna Gopinath, a former faculty member of the college, informed them of the ICC and the PoSH Act. Swapna had talked about this during a session of Veyil Pookkal, the aforementioned online gender sensitisation session which acts as a platform for students to interact with their teachers on various subjects. The programme was started by then English department Dean Manu Remakant.

After the students filed their complaints, however, not only did the college management allegedly side with Abhilash and harassed the students, it also took action against five teachers including Manu Remakant, who have been supportive of the students. While three teachers including Manu, Remya and Sangeeta Hariharan were transferred, two others — Lakshmi and Lekha — were suspended. The ICC also found Abhilash not guilty of the allegation.

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