The recent complaints of sexual harassment in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) filed by students against professor Atul Johri have set off a whirlwind of outrage across the university community and beyond. On March 15, the first FIR was lodged against him in the Vasant Kunj police station under Sections 354/509 of the IPC. Since then, eight separate FIRs have been filed against him. It took five days for the police to arrest him. An hour later, he was out on bail. The speed at which this event occurred speaks volumes about the power this man holds not only within the JNU administration, but also in the current regime.
At a time when these fearless women have put their research and career at stake to demand justice, Johri continues to hold the post of a professor in the School of Life Sciences and warden of Chandrabhaga hostel. The complainants are being pressurised, as they have themselves stated to the media, to withdraw their complaints. Their identity has been made public on national media by none other than Johri’s lawyer. The women have also been subjected to intimidation through targeted hostel raids. They are being branded as “political conspirators” who are bringing down a “pro-attendance” professor. For any scope of free and fair investigation in the matter, it is imperative that Johri – who happens to be in the same physical space as the complainants – be suspended from his positions pending investigation.
In the light of this case, more sexual harassment complaints are coming to the fore in JNU. The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the body put in place by the administration after dismantling GSCASH (the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment), has leaked to RSS affiliate Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) an email of a complainant which was specifically addressed to them, jeopardising the identity of a complainant. While an immediate demand for a restraint order has been put forth by GSCASH representatives, no such action has yet been taken either by the ICC or the JNU administration.
It is the effective failure of the ICC in being able to generate any confidence amongst students because of which the complainants had to directly file police FIRs against Johri, knowing fully well the insensitive and misogynist attitude that the police often harbours towards sexual harassment cases. The leak of the identity of another complainant by the ICC is proof that students can never place their faith in the body when its members are even willing to compromise the anonymity of a complainant just to fulfil their political agenda.
At this juncture, the larger question that we must seek an answer to is, how the situation in JNU has today reduced us to such helplessness regarding sexual harassment? The answer lies in the draconian move made on behalf of the Vice Chancellor to dismantle GSCASH – the robust mechanism evolved by the JNU community to deal with such situations. GSCASH is a model institution that was constituted in JNU in 1999 after the landmark Visakha judgement of the Supreme Court in 1997. Even the Saksham Committee Report, which was mandated by the University Grants Commission in 2013 to provide a framework for gender sensitisation institutions in universities, draws heavily from the structure and functioning of GSCASH in JNU.
Through an arbitrary move, the JNU administration under Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar dismantled GSCASH in an executive council meeting in September 2017 citing UGC guidelines. They replaced it with a new, largely nominated, body – ICC – staffed with the administration’s own loyalists. The Saksham Committee report never recommended the dismantling of an already well-functioning sensitisation body to institute the ICC. In its recommendations, ICC was merely the minimum requirement in universities where there has been no effective body in place at all. GSCASH already fulfilled this minimum criteria and was functioning for the last almost two decades.
In historic student movements that were sparked by the sexual harassment cases, as in the earlier #Hokkolorob movement in Jadavpur, we have clearly seen how a body like ICC has failed to live up to its minimum requirement of safeguarding the identity of the complainant. In Banaras Hindu University too, women students clearly articulated their demand for a GSCASH based on the JNU model. This is primarily because everyone has been able to sense and experience the positive transformation that had come about in the campus spaces after the constitution of GSCASH.
Women students and students of oppressed genders in JNU have not only felt relatively freer in the academic spaces of their classrooms, labs and conferences, but have also felt fearless in moving around alone in the campus at any hour and living in their hostels and messes. Women karamcharis have felt emboldened by the body to come forward with any harassment they face in their workspaces, which is something that is not even addressed as a legitimate issue in most universities. In instances where this freedom has been violated, GSCASH has worked tirelessly to ensure that it is restored.
The most important reason behind this reassuring nature of GSCASH is its autonomy from the administration. This is ensured through the fact that GSCASH is a largely elected body, with both student and teacher representatives. People from across campus communities, be it students, administrative staff, professors, karamcharis and workers–anyone can complain to GSCASH if they face sexual harassment. The autonomous enquiry procedure ensures that hierarchies in the university cannot influence its outcome or tamper with the proceedings, even if the complaint happens to be against someone in position of power.
Sections of the media have often painted a very dubious picture about JNU. They claim, based on the number of complaints filed with GSCASH over the past few years, that sexual harassment is rampant in JNU. A large number of complaints does not mean that sexual harassment happens only in JNU. Sexual harassment happens everywhere in our society – at home, at workplace, at universities, in factories and fields. GSCASH in JNU, and the students’ movement around it, ensured that survivors of sexual harassment could report it, overcoming the feudal stigma associated with it and fear of negative backlashes. GSCASH ensured that the identity of the survivors, unlike what has been done by Johri’s lawyer on national television or the leaks by ICC, remained completely confidential. GSCASH took cognisance of abuse in inter-personal relationships and went beyond the gender binary to address abuse by being a gender-neutral body.
Days after the decision passed by the JNU executive council to dismantle GSCASH, the student body held an extraordinary general body meeting in defence of GSCASH. The students gave a historic mandate from the platform to conduct GSCASH elections despite the administration’s attempt to dismantle it. The student community came out in open defiance of the administration and made the elections a historic success, despite threat letters and intimidation by the administration. Despite having elected members, GSCASH however continues to remain unrecognised by the JNU administration and its office remains sealed. The students have filed a petition against the JNU’s administration move to replace it with ICC. The fate of this body, which heard complaints of sexual harassment, now remains in the hands of the Delhi high court. One hopes the judiciary reverses the perverse attempts of the current VC to undo years of painstaking work towards making JNU a gender-just space.
The same JNU administration which worked so hard to dismantle GSCASH is criminally silent today on the sexual harassment case filed against a professor who not only dances to their tunes but also holds their reins. In an official notice released by them, they had the audacity to term the sexual harassment as a “grievance of few students against a teacher”. Even in the past, when GSCASH was functional, the administration has been seen to behave indifferently to its recommendations against people in positions of power. With the dismantling, this shielding has become more brazen.
While the administration continues to remain silent on Johri, it has been way too eager to clamp down on the dignity and freedom of women. In February-March 2016, when JNU was in the eye of the national media, Professor Amita Singh, another favourite with the present JNU administration , came out with a dossier with outrageous claims of “north-eastern female student running sex rackets” in campus. Then, too, members of the administration leaked fabricated news to a few media outlets a few months back with sensational claims of “women found in compromising positions in the men’s hostel rooms”. Women students, who walked freely anywhere on campus at any hour in the night, are now asked for their ID cards by security guards. We are constantly under surveillance, being stared at suspiciously by the security guards, and for what? For exercising our right to exist as women who don’t fear the patriarchal norms of society?
When we demand basic infrastructural issues, such as regular water supply in hostels, we are told that the administration has long stopped releasing funds for repairs in hostels. This led to one in four women having urinary tract infection because of no access to hygiene and water in the hostels. What idea of “world-class university” is the administration harping on in their media propaganda if women have to pitch their fights at such elementary levels each day, simply to survive free of disease and fear?
The JNU administration, through its action and inaction, has contributed to creating a frightening situation for women in the campus. It neatly dovetails with the manuwadi agenda of the present ruling dispensation, and is part of the larger clamp down on all policies of social justice and gender justice in JNU. Now, more than ever, it is clear that we cannot continue to watch silently as Jagadesh Kumar destroys JNU brick by brick and tries to contribute to the dream of “Hindu Rashtra” of his masters in RSS.
Yes, we demand Azaadi. Azaadi to live without fear, study without fear, pursue our choices without fear, Azaadi from controls and moral policing, Azaadi from caste discrimination, from socio-economic inequalities and Azaadi from sexual violence and patriarchy! This is a battle which will happen now or never.
Apeksha Priyadarshini is pursuing M.Phil from the Centre of Cinema Studies/School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU. She is associated with Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation and contested the elections for the post of students’ representative to GSCASH in 2017.