Everyone in India is talking about it, but how is the issue of sexual harassment dealt with in insti? In this multi-part series, Surajram Kumaravel and Shilpa Menon explore this question.
The Legal Side of Things: Background in Brief
In 1997, the Supreme Court judgement on the Vishaka and Others Vs. State of Rajasthan case called for clear legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace, and stipulated the Vishaka Guidelines, to be followed by employers until a full-fledged law was framed and passed by the legislature. The case in question was a Public Interest Litigation filed by Vishaka, a women’s group, in light of the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a government-employed women’s welfare worker. In 2010, the Parliament accepted the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, and in 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed.
The Act aims to provide legal recourse to women subject to sexual harassment in the Institutions that employ them, and obligates employers to maintain a work environment that actively discourages such harassment. Under the Act, it is made compulsory for all public and private employers to set up a committee to accept, and conduct inquiries into, complaints by female employees. Spreading awareness and providing training directed at curbing sexual harassment is chief among the duties of the employer and the committee as listed by the Act.
Apart from the basic definition, the Act further expounds sexual harassment in the workplace as including:
i) implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment; or
ii) implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in her employment; or
iii) implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment; or
iv) interference with her work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment for her; or
v) humiliating treatment likely to affect her health or safety.
The term ‘implied’ is quite important; it allows more scope for a female employee to complain against what she perceives as sexual harassment, which in many cases is quite subjective.
How It Works In Insti
Research scholars and students of educational institutions are also covered under the Act, and IITM has also set up a Complaints Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CCASH) in accordance with the required legal specifications. The CCASH is vested with the same powers as a civil court to call witnesses and conduct an investigation when a formal complaint is lodged with them. It, however, has no executionary powers and can only recommend courses of action based on its findings to the executive, comprising the Director and the Dean of Students.
The Act is very clear on the structure of the Complaints Committee, and at the time of writing, the CCASH includes:
– Prof. Nandita Dasgupta, Department of Electrical Engineering as Chairperson
– Prof. Preeti Aghalayam, Chairperson of the Women’s Forum, ex-officio member
– Ms. V. G. Bhooma, Registrar, ex-officio member (who prepares and maintains the report of CCASH’s enquiry along with other data)
– Student representatives such as the Student General Secretary, the Research Affairs Secretary, the GenSecs of Sharavati and Sarayu etc. (Student office-bearers are involved in cases where the complainant is a student.)
– Ms. V. Geetha, an activist working in Chennai, fills the position of a neutral third party member with experience in law or social work
(A full list of the members–ex officio and otherwise–may be found at the IITM Website: http://www.iitm.ac.in/complaintcommittee)
In IITM, the provisions of the Act apply to any female employee of the institute employed on a temporary or permanent basis, and any female student of the institute doing a full degree or on a temporary academic project/programme, including foreigners. If such a person has a complaint to be registered, she may approach any member of the CCASH who will guide her thenceforth. Apart from this, she may also contact a student office-bearer, mitr, the Dean of Students, her faculty advisor, head of department and even the Security Officer to lodge a complaint–the complaint should be directed to CCASH.
Students and CCASH
Being a residential campus that houses a diverse population of students, the issue of sexual harassment in IITM is quite complex (see Part 1). In terms of numbers, students constitute a majority of those covered by the Act in the institute. Even among students, the issues faced could vary, depending on the age of the student or the nature of their programme of study. Addressing such issues needs sustained efforts towards gender sensitisation, training to respond well to such threats and awareness among students about their vulnerability. A strong and well-known CCASH may go a long way in preventing and effectively dealing with sexual harassment.
However, the CCASH, up to now, has maintained a very low profile, as a result of which very few students even know of its existence. In a survey conducted by The Fifth Estate, only 22% of the 687 respondents said that they were aware of the IITM CCASH. It does not help that the Act prohibits the release of any detail–be it the identities of the victim or perpetrator, the recommendations of the Committee or the action taken–and provides for the penalisation of anyone involved who breaches these conditions, obliging the CCASH to maintain utmost secrecy in its workings. It does, however, stipulate that the information about justice secured by the victim may be disseminated in a manner that provides no detail that could directly or indirectly identify those involved. It would indeed be helpful if the Institute could release information about the number of cases successfully resolved each year; if nothing, this would testify to the credibility of the CCASH and encourage victims to register complaints in future. “I personally feel that the victim should be supported to share her experience if she wishes to do so; it will help remove the stigma of shame on the victim,” says Amala Bonnie, General Secretary of Sharavati Hostel, who has worked with the committee.
On the other hand, fear of breach of identity in a close-knit campus community like ours may be one of the major reasons deterring victims from registering complaints . “The Committee remains focussed on protecting identities, but the IITM grapevine has always been a problem,” remarks Prof. Nandita Dasgupta, Chairperson. Recent issues of information being leaked to the media have also mounted a challenge. Many of the members of the CCASH that we spoke to feel that the media reports often present distorted accounts. Including the student representatives, all of them vouched for the CCASH’s commitment to confidentiality.
Even in the presence of such challenges and constraints, the CCASH holds great potential as a legally recognized platform for both recourse and spreading awareness. The Act empowers it to recommend the transfer of students/faculty, and even the suspension/dismissal of the perpetrator. During the investigation, it takes measures to minimise/suspend the professional contact between the complainant and the respondent. If needed, this is achieved by offering the victim an opportunity to be transferred to another program, department, or even another IIT. Although cases where the perpetrator is an outsider to the Institute falls outside its purview, the CCASH can assist the victim in registering a complaint with the police using the help of the institute’s security officer. It can also facilitate professional counselling for the victim, if she so desires.
In cases where the alleged perpetrator is a student, considering the age of the accused and the impact on his future, the CCASH uses its discretion while treating the issue. “Many issues arise out of genuine cases of misunderstandings or miscommunication between the parties, and we try to resolve such cases with counselling,” says Prof. Nandita. Deepak Johnson observed that relationship-related problems that are brought to the CCASH, but found to not constitute harassment, are treated similarly. Resolution through ‘conciliation’–where, only upon the victim’s request, the matter may be settled without any action–is also allowed by the Act. When the alleged perpetrator is a Faculty or an employee of the institute, Prof. Nandita confirms that the CCASH adopts a stance where the onus completely rests on the accused to prove his innocence, as he is expected to be fully aware of his position and the implications of his actions.
Prof. L. S. Ganesh, Dean of Students, is of the opinion that it is wise to exercise restraint and maturity when it comes to the filing of such cases, even though the investigation process tries to ensure that ‘no innocent gets accused even if it means a few accused go free’. However, most of our interviewees, including the Dean and student representatives, also acknowledged the fact that many victims may not wish to address the issue formally for fear of jeopardising their career or education. ‘It is a tough situation,’ admits Prof. LSG.
The Act itself has provisions to penalise complainants if the complaint is proven to have been filed falsely with malicious intent (this is not the same as the inability to prove the offence). Whereas this could ensure that the CCASH is not misused, there have also been accusations that this provision further discourages victims from complaining. Although there has been one case of mistaken identity in a complaint, Prof. Nandita says that the instances of the CCASH being misused hasn’t occurred so far.
From the current scenario, it seems that the CCASH, though effective in investigating cases, still needs to take advantage of its unique position to ensure that IITM implements clear rules and codes of conduct against sexual harassment. As of now, CCASH’s outreach is restricted to the display of helpline numbers during screenings in the OAT, and referring to it during freshmen’s orientation. Much more needs to be done in this regard. It can start by working with student office-bearers to spread awareness and encourage students to file complaints. Both Deepak Johnson, Student’s General Secretary, 2013-14, and Amala Bonnie, admit that much more could have been done in this regard. The Students Affairs Council (SAC) should also make it a point to discuss and tackle the issue of harassment. Currently there is no specific post/representative through whom such issues can be raised and it becomes an added responsibility of the general secretaries of the girls’ hostels to bring it to the notice of the SAC. Prof. Preeti says that she is willing to support the creation of such a student post.