Kolkata: Jadavpur University in Kolkata recently made headlines after an undergraduate student of the English department alleged sexual harassment and molestation against another student and shared his sexually loaded text messages to her in a post on social media. The post on Facebook was a dossier of screenshots of messages that the complainant found to be offensive.
Almost immediately, there was an avalanche of responses that converted cyber space into a virtual battle zone.
This was soon followed by a joint statement from at least 13 female undergraduate students who shared their experiences of being violated, describing the acts of harassment as “crimes against women, patriarchy, elitism, entitlement, privilege, and bullying. We take this stand to retake our agency, to re-establish the narratives that were taken from us. We hope that our stand will encourage others to come forward with their own experiences, which they have kept silent about for whatever reasons. It’s time we all spoke up, it’s time we ripped all their masks off. Thank you for your support”.
By the time Jadavpur University, as an institution, could take up and respond to the complaints, the messages had spilled into the public domain and were brimming with comments about how the incidents were portents of “dark times,” and how it was “even more appalling to know that it was being hushed up”.
The campus and the English Department were awash with “a feeling of outrage and betrayal.”
The complainant claimed that she had not lodged a formal complaint against Ekalavya Chaudhuri because he was the son of Chandrayee Niyogi, a senior professor in the English department who was “influential.”
The English faculty responded on Facebook by pointing out that “it is wrong to suggest that the department is sheltering the accused and that it has done nothing for the victims”.
In an attempt to set the record straight, the department posted, “In institutional terms a department is a formal body which can only act on the basis of formal complaints made to it,” and made a reference to responding to “due process,” and called upon the university’s faculty and the “university as a whole” to observe restraint.
Before the due process of the institution could kick in, an emotionally charged general body meeting was conducted by the students, which provoked comments on social media like: “And this four hour GD [group discussion] on sexual harassment between perpetrator and victim is a ‘due process’? Where do these wonderful new processes come from I wonder?”
Jadavpur University began a formal investigation into the matter on July 26 after the registrar, Pradip Ghosh received written complaints from some of the students who had signed the joint statement.
The next day, vice chancellor Suranjan Das constituted an investigation committee headed by Prof. Samita Sen of the Department of Women Studies and other faculty members and students. This is an interim arrangement, because the larger committee has not as yet been constituted and there is an urgency to bring this case to a closure.
“As per the law, the committee has been set up and it will submit its report within a specified period. If there is merit in the complaint, I will propose to the executive council of the university that a high powered committee headed by a judge of the high court should be set up to decide on the matter,” the vice chancellor said.
He explained that any student with a complaint of sexual harassment has the right to write to the vice chancellor, the registrar and the presiding officer of the internal complaints committee that is established in accordance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013.
Jadavpur University has set up a Committee for Gender Awareness and Action Against Sexual Harassment as per the guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission.
According to Das, the committee has a head, but the body is missing, since the necessary elections to select those who would constitute the committee have not been held.
What he failed to say, and what the other members of the faculty did, is that holding elections in Jadavpur University is not a simple task.
The committee would need elected representatives from students, non-academic staff members and employees and from the faculty. With most of the elected representative bodies in suspension, the chances of the committee being up and running in the near term is remote.
The vice chancellor and the executive council of the university would have to move forward, hampered by the lack of the committee, by doing things by the rule book.
The high powered committee would be the most probable route. There is, however, a precedent to this. On a complaint of OBC harassment, the vice chancellor set up a committee with a high court judge.
The fierce reactions on social media have led to the creation of a vast community against the student – made up of students and adults, most of who are Jadavpur University alumni.
Complaints against Chaudhuri, who has been barred from the university campus for the duration of the investigation, were first voiced in 2015.
Those complaints were handled on the basis of mediation, a process that is permissible under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act and Chaudhuri had been asked to undertake counselling from the university’s counselling centre. Chaudhuri, however dropped out of those sessions, according to reports.
In the wake of accusations of repeated misbehaviour and the ongoing social media campaign, Prof Sen will need to wade through an emotionally charged minefield in order to establish what the actual facts are.