Are sexual harassment committees failing our college campuses?

GenderAnd Nation: Internal Complaints Committee vs GSCASH: A tale of two committees. Which will serve students better?

Updated: December 6, 2017 1:57 pm

“How do we prove the molestation? There are no eyewitnesses.”
“Why did you hug him?”
“Just shout next time something like this happens”

These were some of the verbal comments made by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of a well-known university in Kolkata to a student who had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against her classmate in July 2016. Shortly after the final hearing, the accused told IndianExpress.com that the ICC “did not find him guilty”. The complainant, on the other hand, said the “ICC had refused to give any verdict” since the 2016 UGC notification on sexual harassment in campuses says the complaint must be lodged within six months of the offence.

While the physical harassment had stopped in her case, the mental and online harassment continued, till two days before the ICC complaint was made, a fact ignored by the committee.

“During the deposition, I was told that I should start shouting when something like this [molestation] happened. The person stopped in the middle of the questioning to make this statement and added that they were saying this informally. How can you be informal while carrying out a formal process,” the Kolkata student is still unclear. “Telling a survivor they can get molested again is horrendous,” she added.

Indian universities, under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013, are mandated to have ICCs for the redressal of sexual harassment complaints. But are these mechanisms working on the ground? Is the balance of power heavily tilted in favour of the accused ? And does the very composition of these committees make them anti-complainant?

The issue has gained more attention since JNU’s much-acclaimed Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) was dismantled and replaced by the ICC in September. The move has been challenged in the Delhi High Court. IndianExpress.com spoke to students and teachers across campuses to find out what’s wrong with sexual harassment complaint committees?

Do we have a Complaints Committee?

Ambika Rai, an M Phil student in North Bengal University, was in for a shock when she realised that a complaints committee had been functioning in her college since 2015. “When we raised the demand of GSCASH after a harassment case in 2015, the Vice-Chancellor shut us up by saying there is an ICC in the university. Till then, not a single student had any idea about it. We were shocked to know that a body like ICC exists in our university,” Ambika said, adding that she wasn’t the only one who did not know. “One student representative did not even know of the functioning.”

On paper, the UGC regulation mandates that institutes make students aware of the ICC and assist in sensitisation programmes. But the reality is far from it. The question is why can’t the ICC carry out gender sensitisation programmes?

Sonam Goyal, a petitioner in the GSCASH-ICC case, pointed out, “Committees like GSCASH carried out sensitisation campaigns in a sustained manner. They are started right from the day of admission of students. Also, GSCASH is inclusive, staff, other employees of the university including hostel staff, guards are all part of the process.”

On other hand, many complainants IndianExpress.com spoke to, underlined how all that the ICC did in the name of gender sensitisation was a few seminars in a year. Sometimes not even that. “The ICC doesn’t do any sensitisation programmes on our campus,” Rai said.

JNU’s newly-appointed ICC chairperson Vibha Tandon said they would carry the sensitisation programmes at the beginning of the new semester. “We will conduct a two-day conference and workshop to make students more aware about what is sexual harassment and how to fight their case. But that would be carried out in January, when students would be back from their vacation,” she said.

‘Forget About It, These Things Happen’

Nandita Narain, former president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), recalled a 2015 case where a research scholar was allegedly sexually harassed by her supervisor. “When she complained to the principal, the person said these things happen and she should forget about it,” Narain recounted.

According to rules, the accused should have stepped down but that didn’t happen. The researcher’s stipend was allegedly suspended by the accused who was also the college bursar when the incident took place. While on paper, there is nothing to say the two incidents are linked, “but a month after the case went to the ICC they called her and showed her a clause on false complaints,” Narain said, referring to Section 11 of the UGC notification that says complainants who make false complaints with ‘malicious intent’ are liable to be punished.

The researcher, according to Narain, later filed an FIR.

When committees are full of members nominated by administration

Professor Vinita Chandra of Delhi University’s Ramjas College has been associated with sexual harassment redressal mechanisms for more than a decade. She said survivors hardly register complaints with a committee [like the ICC] which had members nominated by the administration since there would be “no faith in due procedures of this kind”.

In 2013, Delhi University’s sexual harassment watchdog based on Ordinance XV-D, was replaced by the ICC. “Ordinance XV-D was much more progressive than ICC,” DUTA member Naveen Gaur said.

“Ordinance XV-D was very clear about the sexual harassment committees being totally independent of executive authority, which is the principal in case of colleges. All members were elected or nominated by members of the committee. The executive authority was not to influence that process at all,” Chandra said.

“Some universities violated the norms under Ordinance XV-D as well. But at least the law mandated that the members be elected or nominated by the committee. The ICC did away with that and the members are now legally nominated by the executive authority,” Gaur said. “The undemocratic nature of this can no longer be challenged under ICC.”

When questioned on one of the main criticisms of the ICC, inclusion of nominated committee members, JNU ICC’s chairperson Tandon refused to comment on it since the matter is subjudice.

Student representatives in committees

One of the big concerns remains the constitution of the student component in ICCs. Unlike GSCASH or Ordinance XV-D, student representatives in ICC are not allowed to sit on cases which do not have a student as a party to the complaint. “GSCASH works with the idea of equal say to all members. ICC has hierarchy of students versus the others. This is in itself a roadblock in any fair procedure,” Goyal said.

Those in favour of GSCASH point out that student elections to the sexual harassment body were done in a systematic manner and were diverse in terms of representation. In the case of ICC, Chandra said, “There is no timeline set for the elections. There is no clarity what the democratic election procedure (for students) should be, and whether it should be conducted by the executive authority or not.”

Different colleges adopt different procedures for the election of student representative to the ICC. While JNU recently saw an unopposed election of three student representatives owing to a boycott by most of the parties, in Kirori Mal College, parallel elections are held during the union elections. “Three student representatives in the ICC are enough, along with the faculty and other members. In fact, even if the student representatives are not there, we can understand the complainant’s point of view because we too were kids once,” said Dr Sangeeta Gadre, presiding officer of the Kirori Mal College ICC.

Caught in the middle are students like the girl in Kolkata who see rules being diluted when they take their grievances to the ICC. While ICC rules said there should be an elected student representative, in her case the process was bypassed because authorities simply asked an elected student union leader to sit in the proceedings.

“When an election for a panel or a body on sexual harassment happens, there is an entire narrative around it. The ICC bypasses it. The ICC depoliticises gender. Gender is political. It has an oppressor and oppressed,” the Kolkata student added.

In a year where campuses across the country have seen patience around sexual harassment allegations run thin, the fairness of complaint committees has been questioned many times. All eyes are now on the ICC versus GSCASH battle, awaiting a final hearing at the Delhi High Court. That could once again tilt the scales of gender justice in campuses.

GenderAnd is a series of stories on Gender and how it intersects every sector