The Delhi High Court on Wednesday directed a JNU professor, accused of sexually harassing women students, should not take charge as warden of any hostel in the university campus which houses women. While also directing the professor not to interact with the students, the court also questioned the varsity over the absence of women members in a fact-finding committee, set up by it to probe his alleged misconduct. It passed the direction after it was informed by the JNU counsel that Prof Atul Kumar Johri had resigned from administrative work and was no more the warden of any hostel or member of any committee. The court said the university will consider the advisability of sending Johri on leave and this decision can be taken by the varsity after the fact-finding committee, set up by JNU, gives its findings.
“In my view, it is also in the interest of the professor to reduce the chance of interaction with the complainants or potentional witnesses,” Justice Rajiv Shakdher said. “These directions are made on the stand taken by JNU’s counsel to provide a safe working environment to the petitioner students,” the court said and asked the professor not to visit laboratory no. 409 of the Department of Life Sciences where the students work.
The court was hearing a petition filed by several women students seeking suspension of the professor, against whom eight FIRs have been lodged alleging sexual harassment, and to restrain him from entering the campus. The plea has sought the provision of a safe working environment to the students. The court noted that the fact finding committee, set up by the varsity to enquire into the aspect of alleged misconduct by the professor, comprised of two male professors. It asked the JNU’s advocate Ginni Rautray to advise the vice chancellor (VC) to re-constitute the panel by including a female professor before whom the women students could depose comfortably. “They have put two male professors in the fact finding committee. Why not any female professor? How will the students answer to a male member properly. A woman member can ask questions in a better manner as the allegations pertain to sexual harassment,” it said.
Advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for women students, said 79 more students have given a letter to the police that they do not feel safe and were living in a fearful atmosphere as the professor continued to visit the Department of Life Sciences. Reading out the details given by the students in the FIRs in the court, she said the systematic nature and pattern of sexual harassment was visible through the complaints of the students. When the matter was reported by any of the students to the university authorities, they were not given due attention and cognisance was not taken of these complaints.
The counsel for the professor claimed that the FIRs against him were motivated and all the complaints were “stereotyped”. The complaints had started after he sent an email to some students warning them against their irregular and poor attendance pattern, he alleged.
At the outset, the judge asked the varsity about the status of the issue and what the VC has done after the court’s April 25 order. “What JNU intends to do from now onwards? Did the VC manage to see the statements of women students recorded before a magistrate under section 164 CrPC,” the court said. The varsity’s counsel said the VC has seen the statements of the students and a fact finding committee has been set up which is expected to conclude the enquiry in three months. She said the professor has resigned from all official postions and has been adviced not to go to the laboratory or the department.
The counsel said supervisors of some women students pursuing Ph.D, have been changed and alternative arrangements were being made for those for whom suitable supervisors have not yet been found. When the court enquired whether Johri will still be evaluating the work of these Ph.D students, the university’s counsel replied in negative. Even the professor’s counsel said he does not wish to continue or touch their work now, saying if the evaluation turned out to be against them, they could again level some allegations against him.
On being asked by the court whether the professor was willing to move out of the campus and reside somewhere else, his counsel refused and said he cannot move out as his “prestige was at stake” and he has “three daughters”. When the judge asked: “You will not volunteer,” Johri’s counsel said, “No I will not.” His counsel said he was served with the notice on Tuesday and has sought time to file his response on the petition seeking his suspension.
Advocate Satyakam, appearing for the Delhi Police, told the court that the investigation was going on and they have filed a status report. A fresh one would be submitted before the next date of hearing on May 23. The court had on April 25, directed the JNU to treat the representations of women students as complaints and initiate a probe against the professor on charges of sexual harassment, while questioning the varsity for not taking any steps in the matter.
Students, professors and women rights organisations have been demanding his arrest, after several students had accused him of sexual harassment. Johri had claimed before the trial court in his bail plea that in compliance with certain UGC guidelines regarding compulsory attendance and leave pattern, he had sent an e-mail on February 27 to certain students, including a complainant student, warning them against their irregular attendance pattern. He had said the allegations levelled by the woman pertained to 2013-14 but the FIR was registered in 2018.