The news from Jawaharlal Nehru University is not good at all. To date, eight women students, both current and former, have filed police complaints against Atul Johri, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, for a range of crimes that amount to multiple offences falling under the purview of Section 354 of the IPC – pertaining to “assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty”, as well as subsections 354A (unwelcome sexual advances) and 354D (voyeurism and stalking).
The complaints came in two batches — the first six complaints were filed on March 15, with two more women filing the next day. Finally, the Delhi Police arrested Johri, who will now be produced before Patiala House court. Meanwhile, the complainants have had to run from the police station to Delhi Police headquarters back to the University to get their complaints converted into FIRs and their statements recorded before a magistrate.
In the Johri case, as in the cases of former TERI chief R K Pachauri or Hollywood moghul Harvey Weinstein, there is a pattern: one or two brave women, in utter desperation, are driven to speaking out when the pressure of harassment becomes too much to tolerate. In the Johri case, a young woman student has staked her academic career by quitting her studies to publicly expose the JNU professor. A wave of complaints followed, other women spoke up about their own harassments with the man in question and soon the dam broke.
In the JNU campus these days, many students and residents seem to have a Johri misdemeanour/story to tell.
In the face of this outrage, though, the “system” almost always strikes back. The first stop is the workplace and its first strategy is to suppress the woman’s complaints. In JNU, this would have been difficult in earlier times, but with the illegal dissolution of the university’s acclaimed Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) in September 2017 and its replacement by a Committee consisting of the Vice Chancellor’s nominees, there was no threat on that front.
JNU’s Internal Complaints Committee has not issued one statement offering help to the complainants’ quest for justice, something which it is required to do so by the law. It has also not restrained Atul Johri from speaking publicly on the issue, or asked the University to give the women protection from reprisals and victimisation, both of which it is required to do.
Atul Johri continues to be the research supervisor of most of the complainants’ work and remains in charge of the lab that these students’ research and project work is in. The Jawaharlal Nehru University administration has not even bothered to suspend Johri pending inquiry, instead afforded that he resign from the two powerful committees that he was a member of. He continues to be the warden of a large university hostel.
The next safety valve that the “system” triggers is the police, whose guiding humour is to dupe the complainants, by drawing up just one FIR against Atul Johri, when there should have been eight – remember, there are eight complainants with eight separate accusations. No police investigation is undertaken. When pressured to actually apply the law and register eight FIRs, mysterious leaks of the proposed FIRs begin to take place, so that the accused can be well prepared for the police interrogation before they even step into the room.
The third safety valve, which has yet to be triggered but will eventually be is the one inbuilt into the criminal justice system — is the statute of limitations on complaints that fall under Sec 354A and Sec 354D is one and three years respectively.
This means that if a narrow reading is made of the women’s complaints, any incident that is more than one year old may not be considered to be a crime at all. (In internal complaints committee inquiries, the limitation is just three months before the date of complaint, by the way.)
It is to the credit of India’s women’s movement that in the Nirbhaya case, limitations around the application of Sec 354A were completely withdrawn. Now it is time to fight for removal on all the subclauses of Sec 354 as well.
Not to do so would be an insult to the brave fight that the JNU Eight are putting up for their right to seek justice from the law of the land.