Stir Over St Stephen’s Sexual Harassment Case Reaches Flashpoint

Protestors demand the resignation of St Stephen's College principal on Monday. Photo: Taru Bhatia

Protestors demand the resignation of St Stephen’s College principal on Monday. Photo: Taru Bhatia

New Delhi: With St Stephen’s College engulfed in a raging controversy over the sexual harassment of a research student who has also accused it of efforts to hush up the incident, women’s groups have stepped up their campaign for the resignation of the renowned educational institution’s head.

Even as close to a dozen womens’ rights and student groups came together Monday to seek the intervention of the government, Valson Thampu, who is principal of the college, blamed “vested interests” for targetting him.

The victim has accused Thampu of pressuring her to withdraw a complaint filed last month against a bursar for sexually harassing her inside the college’s chemistry laboratory almost two years ago. On his part, Thampu has said he would resign if the charge against him were proven. This, after organisations including All India Democratic Women’s Association and All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), held a spirited demonstration and listed their set of demands at the office of the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University to which St Stephen’s is affiliated.

The protestors will now submit a memorandum to the National Commission of Women and the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

They want the release of the 22-year-old complainant’s monthly stipend allegedly suspended by the accused – who also handles the college’s financial accounts – after she filed a complaint with the college’s internal committee on June 18. They also want her to be allowed to submit her doctoral thesis, to a new supervisor, without further delay, and an external committee to probe the principal’s role and “institutional failure” in addressing sexual harassment cases.

Another demand is the reintroduction of an earlier DU ordinance, scrapped last year, which had decreed an academic and work environment free of sexual harassment for the university’s students, academics and non-teaching staff.

Among those who signed the memorandum are the Commission on the Status of Women, Joint Women’s Programme, Democratic Teachers Front, Krantikari Yuga Sanghatan, All India Student’s Association and Student’s Federation of India.

AIPWA accused Thampu of siding with the accused rather than with the woman who suffered sexual harassment. “He even tried to intimidate the complainant. It is a criminal offence,” the association’s president, Kavitha Krishnan, alleged. “This shows the institutional rot in the administration of DU. We have to remove it. For that, it is important the victim in this case got justice.”

“A case should be filed against Thampu so that no one can take advantage of his high authority just to save the institution’s reputation,” added Krishnan, who is also the editor of Liberation magazine published by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

As for the Internal College Committee, the memorandum said its members should be elected democratically instead of being nominated by the principal. “This alone can effectively address cases of sexual harassment,” one of the activists said.

The speakers at the protest pointed out that the research student’s had requested the DU vice-chancellor to change the supervisor of the chemistry lab.

“We will request the VC to immediately implement the request of the complainant,” said DU Executive Council member Abha Dev Habib.

Thampu, who has been St Stephen’s principal since 2008, termed the protests as “extra-judicial pressure” by various organisations being brought in to “disturb the peace in campus”, while he had “absolute trust” in the Delhi police.

On Sunday, he sought a CBI probe into the matter, claiming “the victim is being used against me” and a forensic investigation of the “purported recordings will clear the air”. PTI quoted Thampu as saying: “I feel sorry for the victim. She is being misled and is being used against me by certain elements in the college only. She has admitted herself to the media that she released the audio recordings as advised by a ‘teacher’.”

Monday’s demonstrations saw some of the speakers revealing similar stories of harassment in DU in the recent past.

An ad-hoc Hindi professor at Mata Sundri College for Women shared the ordeal she underwent when she accused three of her teachers of harassment back in 2008.

“I filed sexual, mental and educational harassment cases against three teachers of the Hindi department. Two went scot-free, while the third was punished six months later through compulsory retirement,” the teacher said. “The man, however, received all the post-retirement benefits.”

On the other hand, the complaint affected Meenakshi’s career. “I went through various interviews in colleges for a permanent job. But the panel would invariably have one of the accused; that affected my job prospects,” she said.

Meenakshi filed a complaint against this, following which the court ordered that no teacher accused of sexual harassment should sit in the panel of an interview at an institution under DU. “Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College conducted that interview between May 31 and June 3. The result has yet to come,” she added.