Protests, Intimidation and Media Blackout Follow Sexual Harassment Claims at Jammu Medical College

While national media has largely failed to report the incident, the response from the authorities has been questionable.

“You can file the FIR if you really want to, but why don’t you consider a compromise? It won’t help to file an FIR. Instead, we can make sure he comes here and apologises to you,” a Ladakhi student at Government Medical College (GMC), Jammu, was told by a committee set up to look into her complaint of molestation against a professor. The committee, which was otherwise non-functional and was formed a day after she complained to the principal, did nothing else.

Panna*, also a student at GMC, sounds like she isn’t surprised at these comments when she narrates this. She sounds more surprised that such a committee was formed in the first place. Panna continues, “Since then, she faced all kinds of pressure – either indirectly like this,or through threats against other students who have come out and supported her – to withdraw her complaint and let things go.”

Students at GMC say that Bhupesh Khajuria, head of department of forensic medicine (the irony) at GMC and the accused in this case, has a reputation as a serial molester. He handles supplementary examinations and we are also told that he is known to ask male students for bribes so that they pass in these supplementary exams.

Nordon Shunu, a student at Jammu University and a friend of the complainant, says that on December 20, 2016, Khajuria called the 23-year-old woman, a pre-final year student, to his office in college. He made her wait outside for a few hours, before he sent his assistant to ask her to come inside if she was alone. When she entered, Khajuria began to ask about how she planned to pass her supplementary exams, at which point she got upset and began to cry. Nordon says he then asked her, “Agar baahar bulaoonga toh aogi? Lekin akele aana, jab bhi mein bulaoonga (If I call you to meet me outside, will you come? You must come alone when I call you).” Then, a little later, he said, “Yeh baat kisi ko nahi batana (Don’t tell anybody about this).” Soon after, Khajuria demanded that the student give him her number, after which he, pretending to console her, began to kiss her. At this point, the woman pushed him off and ran away.

Photo courtesy: Support for complainant via Facebook/The Ladies Finger

Photo courtesy: Support for complainant via Facebook/The Ladies Finger

It’s obviously tough being a woman in college in many parts of India. There are four medical colleges in Jammu and Kashmir, and they are, arguably, harder to get into. This is because those who want to pursue medicine in the state are expected, like everybody else in the country, to write the National Eligibility Test – however, nobody from Jammu and Kashmir is allowed to study medicine in any other state. The complainant in this case is in her pre-final year and her friends say that she has just entered the clinical year, which involves performing surgeries. Like many students pursuing their undergraduate, she hasn’t yet decided what field she wants to concentrate in, unlike Panna for instance, who says she has always been interested in preventive medicine.

But what happens if you’re a Ladakhi student in a college in Jammu? Panna and students like Dorje (who did a BA and MA in Jammu), and Jee*, also from Ladakh and now in JNU, says that colleges don’t usually have an Internal Complaints Committees. This is despite the law mandating all colleges and workplaces to have them. Panna knows of a senior who chose to quit GMC after she was sexually harassed by another professor – if someone does bring it up, people have only asked them, “Touch toh nahi kiya na? (You weren’t touched, right?)” and let it slide. Almost as an aside, Nordon also says that in Jammu, like in other parts of India, women students in most colleges are expected to follow dress codes (a white salwar-kurta) and curfews, while men aren’t.

On December 26, the woman decided to file an FIR against him. Later, it became clear that Khajuria had connections in the ruling BJP and knew the minister of state for health, Bali Bhagat. According to Nordon, the day an FIR was filed against him, he turned up at the college hospital that the complainant was at and got himself admitted to the ICU on fake medical grounds. Les*, another of the complainant’s friends who studies at GMC, says that it was easy for him to get admitted into this hospital because GMC’s head of department of medicine got him into the ICU citing seizures from alcohol withdrawal. She said that when they snuck in to see him, they saw him lying in bed comfortably and on the phone. Two days later, on December 28, he was arrested and then let off on bail. Panna said that GMC suspended him temporarily and Les added that he was attached to the principal’s office, which meant that he could still come to college.

Photo courtesy: Support for complainant via Facebook/The Ladies Finger

Photo courtesy: Support for complainant via Facebook/The Ladies Finger

According to all the students we spoke to, this is the first time that they’ve heard of a woman student filing an FIR against her professor in any college in Jammu and Kashmir.

Les tells us that no student in GMC has ever even complained to the administration about sexual harassment, even though it happens. Nordon, for instance, knows of at least two women students who left GMC after they were harassed by Khajuria. Les remembers when she first joined college, and was told by her seniors to be wary of him. It was all told to her in whispers, and she didn’t know what to believe until her friend was molested.

What followed the FIR was a Facebook page (the page has her name so we’re not linking it) started to support the complainant, and widespread protests against Khajuria in January. More recently, on February 1, the JNU Ladakh Student Forum, All Kargil Ladakh Student’s Union and the Ladakh Students Welfare Society, Delhi, held a protest in central Delhi starting from Khan Market to Jammu & Kashmir House, where they submitted a memorandum meant for Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. The students, who were joined by older Ladakhi men and women in Delhi, demanded what they had been asking for for a month: That Khajuria be fired from his job, and not be allowed to hold any other government posts. On February 7, representatives of each of these groups also met Thupstan Tsewang, a BJP MP from Ladakh with the same memorandum. Chhewang Dorje (from the JNU Ladakh Student’s Forum), who currently studies in JNU and met Tsewang yesterday, says that they have decided to organise another protest in Jammu soon.

Surprisingly though, none of these protests have been reported by the national media – not even when the opposition walked out of assembly over the BJP government’s silence on the issue or when Leh witnessed a complete shutdown on January 7. ANI even broadcast the All Ladakh Women’s Association holding a rally in Leh on January 10, with women marching from Leh’s main market to the polo ground. Even the big newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir, Panna says, aren’t reporting it accurately. “When we had a huge protest in Jammu with over 500 students, papers started saying that Ladakhi students came out on the road because a boy was slapped. They made up a story and put photos of our protest,” she says.

This was, it seems, only the beginning of the politicisation of the case. Now, it has been spun into a regional issue of Ladakh vs Jammu (most non-Ladakhi students haven’t been protesting) and groups like the Rural Women’s Forum and the Dogra Brahaman Pratinidhi Sabha have come out in support of Khajuria. They claim that he was harassed in police custody (now he is out on bail) and that this was an attempt to tarnish his image. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve had sexual harassment cases being politicised – when V. Shanmuganathan, governor of Meghalaya, resigned just a few weeks ago on January 27, after cases of molestation came to light, the BJP came out in his defence, suggesting that “vested interests” were at work in this situation.

Colleges in India are notorious for implementing gendered rules, including dress codes and curfews for women students. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, women aren’t allowed to carry cell phones or be seen talking to male students. Colleges have always done this in the name of ‘safety’ of its women students, but most never have meaningful systems in place to protect them from harassment by teachers themselves. Those that do, usually never support the complainant. When The Ladies Finger reported on the many sexual harassment cases in Christ University, Bangalore, for instance, a student had asked (referring to a case where a man was found lurking in the girl’s washroom), “This was an outsider. What about saving us from insiders?”

Panna describes the protest march in early January – it was a cold and cloudy day and all the students were in jackets – from the Press Club in Jammu to GMC that included around 500 Ladakhi students from Kargil and Leh. As they walked, the shouted slogans like “Awaaz do hum ek hain” and “Nahi sahenge, nahi sahenge, molestation nahin sahenge”. They met the principal, who told them they couldn’t do anything except suspend Khajuria.

Photo courtesy: Support for complainant via Facebook/The Ladies Finger

Photo courtesy: Support for complainant via Facebook/The Ladies Finger

But at GMC, Panna says she was surprised that most non-Ladakhi students didn’t take part in the protest (while the Ladakhi students from GMC did): When asked why they weren’t joining, the students said they had been warned not to by seniors. “Because Khajuria is a powerful man, everybody is terrified of him, rumours are spreading, and nobody is saying anything in the open,” Panna says.

Since that protest, Panna says that GMC’s administration has come down hard on protesting students. It has become clear that the administration has made sure that the complainant has been isolated and made to feel like she has very little support — students say they have been threatened that they’ll be failed in exam, and won’t be given attendance if they are found taking part in protests. Some others, says Panna, are scared because they’ve received death threats via phone, but they don’t know who they are from. Jee, who is now in JNU, but knows students in GMC, says that they have been pressurised to focus on their studies and the lack of support is translating into a pressure on the complainant to withdraw her case. “In a batch of 150 students, if 100 students supported her when the molestation came to light, there are now barely five girls who continue to support her,” Panna says. The woman’s few friends, who are supporting her, we are told, are secretly doing their best to get more students to support her.

The district court of Jammu was first due to hear the case on February 6, but Panna tells us without certainty that it’s been tentatively pushed to February 13. Do they expect the case to go in the girl’s favour? “We are worried the case will go against us,” Dorje says, “primarily because the accused has so much political backing.” After more than a month of protesting and no response, neither Panna, Dorje or Les are certain anymore.

Ila Ananya is a staff writer at The Ladies Finger, where this article first appeared. 

The Ladies Finger is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

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