New Delhi: The sacred fire of a ‘havan’ has pitted a section of students and the entire teachers’ body against each other at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
For Burton Cleetus, assistant professor of history and warden of Jhelum hostel in JNU, the heat emanating from the ‘havan’ has scalded him badly as a sexual harassment charge against him by students connected to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has turned his life upside down.
At about 5:30 pm n November 21, 2015, Burton Cleetus and two other wardens, Himanshu and Ashutosh Anand, received a complaint from a Jhelum resident about some students conducting a havan inside one of the hostel rooms.
According to Cleetus, he informed the security guards and arrived at the scene together with them and the two other wardens. He found that there was a gathering of about 20 to 30 students who had come to celebrate the birthday of a JNU student, Jitendra Dhankar. The havan was already over and the wardens found the brazier with burnt coals on the terrace of the hostel. The students were asked to disperse but according to a member of the Jawahral Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) some students began arguing that Hindus were being stopped from practising their religious rituals to mark a birthday celebration. The wardens, after consultation with the provost’s office, issued a show cause notice to two people for creating a fire hazard in the hostel.
Two days later, Cleetus received a call from the Vasant Kunj police station in Delhi saying that a police complaint had been filed against him. A team from the police station arrived the next day to question him and the other wardens. According to the investigating police officer, the complaint filed against Cleetus mentioned that he kicked the havan samagri (prayer material), pulled a student’s ponytails and uttered casteist, communal, and sexist abuses – allegations which not only Cleetus denied but were strongly refuted by the two other wardens who were present at the scene.
An FIR was lodged on November 30 against Cleetus by Jiteendra Dhankar and his two friends which includes a female JNU student which amounts to hurting religious sentiments, sexual harassment and the “Prevention of Atrocities Act”.
“Dr.Cleetus was very angry and uttered cuss words at students who were gathered to celebrate a birthday. There was no havan at all only a simple aarti was done, which is a common ritual in an average Hindu household. When some of the students protested that he should not use foul language and push female students in the room, Dr. Burton said that this will be the next Dadri case and it will snowball into such a huge controversy that it will force PM Modi to resign. The teachers banded themselves together and threatened all the three students who lodged the FIR. We have demanded that Dr.Cleetus resign from the position of warden as a serious case is pending against him in Patiala Court but nothing has happened so far”, said Saurabh Kumar Sharma, a member of the BJP-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) and a joint secretary of the JNU Students’Union(JNUSU).
JNUTA has backed Cleetus and took out a huge protest march against the filing of the police complaint. It asked the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) to enquire into the sexual harassment charges and appoint an internal investigation committee into the incident. Sources in JNUTA said that GSCASH has forwarded its findings to the vice chancellor’s office last week along with the university dean’s committee report, which have both cleared Cleetus of any wrongdoing.
“Dr. Cleetus’s bail application is being heard in the Patiala court. He has been singled out for being a Christian and targeted for doing his duty. Everywhere in JNU, all religious festivals are celebrated with equal fervour. So the question of one lone person from one community offending the sensibilities of a large group of students performing a Hindu rite is full of mischief and reeks of a personal vendetta against an individual from a minority community. The police complaint seemed like an afterthought only to harass and demean a professor who has an impeccable track record. Students and teachers together have led collective struggles to raise issues which impacted life in the university and now suddenly there is an effort to divide students on religious lines and vitiate the atmosphere in the university”, said Shehla Rashid Shora of the left- backed All India Students Union (AISA) and vice president of JNUSU.
Cleetus is reluctant to talk about the case as it is sub judice but friends close to him said that he and his family the case is like an unending nightmare. According to them, the charges are part of a larger effort to end the autonomy of the institution by citing issues of intolerance where there is none and by dividing the campus on religious lines.
Anasuya Basu tweets at @anabee588