Authorities Victimise Sexual Harassment Victims
THROUGH a memorandum submitted to M Mangapati Pallam Raju, the minister for human resource development in the government of India, on November 7, 2011, the Students Federation of India (SFI) brought to his notice “the appalling response of the Pondicherry University (PU) administration to the serious incidents of sexual harassment, ragging and intimidation of girl students in the university.” Instead of punishing the perpetrators of the above-mentioned crimes, the memorandum noted, “the PU administration has chosen to suspend the complainants and the students who stood by them.” The memorandum followed the stern note the SFI has taken of a recent case of sexual harassment and ragging in the Pondicherry University. BACKGROUND OF THE INCIDENT The background to the recent developments is as follows. Kavya M and Vidya T Appukkuttan, who are first year students of MA in Mass Communication and MA in English respectively, were ragged by Sreejith, a senior student of the Department of Physical Education on September 21, 2013. Nay more, Sreejith, alias Jithu, verbally abused the girls and, moreover, threatened to rape them when the girls told him that this was not the way he should talk to them. He threatened that he would assault the girls physically at any cost during the nest two years of their course of study in the university. He also made vulgar gestures at them. A day after the incident, this very same person went to the girls and told them that he would sexually assault them if they dared complain about him. Monu, a friend of Kavya and Vidya, who was with them when the first incident happened, was threatened by Sreejith that if the girls went ahead with the complaint, Sreejith would stigmatise their image “the girls who were sexually assaulted by Sreejith.” The girl students subsequently filed a complaint, and the Kallapett police filed an FIR against the aggressor under IPC sections 506 and 509. But the students who supported the girl students in filing the complaint came under constant threat, and on the morning of October 1, 2013, a gang of hooligans including Jithu manhandled them. They threatened that they would cut off the legs of those students who stood with the girl students if Jithu and other assailants are suspended from the university because of the complaint filed by the girl students. The gang also brutally beat up one of the students; his tooth was broken and he had to be admitted in JIPMER, Pondicherry. However, the security personnel of the university remained mute spectators throughout even as the gang unleashed violence. When one of the girl complainants approached the vice chancellor with her grievance, she was discouraged from filing a complaint --- the VC’s prime “concern” was that the “reputation” of the institution would get spoiled. But, the SFI said, such insensitivity of the university authorities has been one of the prime causes for the continuance of instances of sexual harassment in the campus. Following the recent incidents, the said students are under constant fear of being attacked at any moment. Ever since one of the girls filed a complaint, she has been continuously subjected to intimidation and threatened that she wouldn’t be allowed to complete her course of study in the university. Even more shockingly, the attempts to intimidate her were being led by Mr Praveen, a faculty member of the Department of Physical Education. There are also attempts to divert attention from the matter by fabricating false cases against the students who helped the girls in filing the complaint against the attacker. IRRATIONAL AND SHOCKING ACTION On October 1 night, students of the university conducted a protest action against the aforesaid criminal acts in the campus, and the action saw massive participation of girl students and others. The students demanded that the university must take steps on an urgent basis to stop ragging, sexual harassment and goonda raj in the campus, and that the university must set up a Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) in order to address complaints of sexual harassment in the university. However in a decision that is patently illogical, irrational and shocking, the PU administration issued a memorandum, signed by the university’s registrar, suspending the two girl students (Kavya M and Vidya T Appukuttan) and five other students (N C Monu, P V Abhijith, B Abhijith, Rony Paulose and K Jyotish) who stood by the girls. In its order dated November 1, 2013, the university administration sought to equate the aggressors and the victims by portraying the acts of sexual harassment and ragging as a case of “mutual fight and exchange of abusive words.” The other charges were even more ridiculous. Approaching “the media to release the news without obtaining due permission from the university” and organising “unauthorised protests within the university campus” were the other “crimes” the victimised students had supposedly engaged in. These charges and the decision based on them, needless to say, were totally unjust, as any democratic-minded citizen of our country would tell. After all, the right to protest against injustice constitutes the very essence of democracy. The right to freedom of speech and expression as well as the right to assemble peaceably and without arms is part of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution of India. In view of these incontrovertible facts, the SFI memorandum urged the minister of human resource development to urgently intervene in order to ensure that the Pondicherry University promptly take remedial steps. The SFI wanted the following steps to be taken --- 1) The university must immediately revoke the suspension order served on the said seven students --- the complainants and those who stood by them. 2) The university must to ensure the safety and security of girl students in the campus. 3) The university must to punish the culprits in the case in an exemplary manner. 4) The university must set up a GSCASH immediately as the students have been demanding. The SFI memorandum stressed the disturbing fact that 16 years after the Supreme Court, in its Vishaka judgement of 1997, laid down binding directives regarding the formation of committees to deal with cases of sexual harassment, and yet, in spite of the recently passed law against sexual harassment in workplaces, a GSCASH has not been formed even in most of the central universities, what to speak of colleges. The SFI has also demanded that steps must be taken to ensure punishment to those who indulge in ragging in campuses, that GSCASH must be constituted in all the universities and colleges in India in order to effectively address the cases of sexual harassment in campuses, and that effective steps must be taken to sensitise students on gender issues. On behalf of the SFI, its president, Dr V Sivadasan, and others met the HRD minister. AIDWA CONDEMNS VICTIMISATION Through a statement issued from New Delhi on November 5, 2013, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has condemned the victimisation of two girl students of the University of Pondicherry who had complained of having been sexually harassed and ragged by senior male students on the university campus on September 29, 2013. It is shocking that instead of taking immediate action against the male students who had harassed the girls by making obscene gestures, using abusive language and threatening them that they would be raped and sexually assaulted, the university has chosen to suspend the two girls for a period of six months, as they had supposedly “defamed” the university. Even to get an inquiry instituted, these students and student organisations had had to protest through demonstrations. The university has also issued suspension orders of five other students who had extended support to the girls, the charge being that they had incited the protest and gone to the press about the incident. The AIDWA has expressed the opinion that these actions of the university authorities are totally against the law which does not allow any kind of victimisation of those who make a complaint of sexual harassment. The statement said the students who should have been suspended are those who are responsible for the harassment. Thus, instead of getting justice, the girl students have been penalised for demanding justice. Apart from putting forward the abovementioned demands, the AIDWA has also demanded that a proper inquiry should be conducted against the miscreants who are responsible for the harassment and for creating a hostile environment in the university. It has reiterated the right of all students to protest against violation of their dignity and against sexual harassment and ragging. The association said that, apart from protesting against this violation of law and justice in Pondicherry, it would approach the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) to demand that justice must be done.