How St Stephen's College won't stop at shaming a sexual harassment victim

After intimidating the PhD student for speaking out, the college has now destroyed her research and stripped her off her stipend.

 |  9-minute read |   17-07-2015
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On July 16, the sexual harassment complainant Sonam (name changed), a PhD student, went to the chemistry laboratory in St Stephen's College to check whether the compounds synthesised by her as part of her research were intact. She was accompanied by Devansh, the student who has been facing victimisation by the college as well since, as her complaint states, she was "scared to go on my own." Her fear stands entirely justified.

Outside the laboratory, she was stopped by another student of the accused, professor Satish Kumar. The student, Kunal Prakash, locked the laboratory, told Sonam that she was not allowed to enter and made a call to Satish Kumar, who also instructed Kunal to deny Sonam access. Kunal also shouted at Sonam and Devansh, and harangued the security guard for allowing them to enter the college.

Sonam then went to the college office to ask why her stipend cheque of December-January had "stop payment" written on it, and why her stipend for subsequent months had not been released. She was told by the authorities at the college office that her guide Dr Satish Kumar, also the bursar of the college, had refused to release her stipend and instructed them to stop cheques for the months for which it had been released.

Read what happened next in the words of Sonam's own police complaint:

"I was very worried that the compounds which I had worked so hard over would be missing or have disappeared from the lab. So I went to the lab again in the afternoon hoping to find the compound in my drawer. I did not want to go alone to the lab, so I requested Devansh Mehta to accompany me. Seeing the lab open, I went right to my drawer to inspect the chemicals I had prepared. Kunal Prakash was in the lab while Priyaranjan Sahoo was in the vicinity (another PhD student).

I noticed that compounds NY-6, 2NY-91, 2NY- 92 were missing and also I think I didn't find the compound 2NY-132 and these are important compounds based on which I have to write my PhD thesis. An entire chapter of my theses is based on compound NY-6 and I was very surprised to not find it there. Upon our entry, Kunal Prakash immediately left and locked us in the lab for over 30 minutes with his key, thereby forcefully confining us in the room. Kunal simply laughed and went away, but Devansh Mehta who was accompanying me got worried and called 100, the police helpline. The door was subsequently opened and forceful attempts were made by Kunal Prakash and Priyanranjan Sahoo to remove Devansh from the lab, including grabbing his hand and collar and trying to push him out of the lab. He was nearly punched by Kunal Prakash when he refused to leave the lab until the police arrived. All this took place in the presence of and supervised by Samuel Shekhar, Renish Abraham, Neelam Saxena, and approximately seven other people whose names I am not aware of. The entire atmosphere was very threatening and I felt that something bad could happen any moment.

… Luckily, the police arrived soon after and defused the tension. Kunal told a police officer that he had indeed locked us in the room but it was for only five minutes. Samuel also tried putting the blame on us by saying that Devansh and I were not students of the college, although we are both registered with the college.

Soon after the SHO Aarti Sharma arrived along with sub-inspector Rohit. We then had a meeting with Samuel, Renish, Devansh, the SHO and the sub-inspector in the principal's office. Samuel was very eager to press charges against Devansh Mehta and repeatedly spoke about trespassing although Devansh had only accompanied me on my request and to ensure my protection.

After about an hour, a surprise was sprung upon us by Samuel who had informed us that some students were alleging that I had broken an instrument worth Rs 5 lakh while we were in the lab. After we arrived there, Priyaranjan Sahoo appeared and informed the police that he and Kunal Prakash had seen me twist the cable, thereby damaging it. Aarti Sharma asked him why he had not reported the matter earlier, to which he had no adequate answer... He had not even informed the college authorities about this, making his story hard to believe. It was very clearly a false complaint, most likely filed at the behest of Satish Kumar, who is their PhD supervisor.

I request the police authorities to check the call recordings between 10am till 7pm on the July 16, 2015 between Kunal Prakash, Priya Ranjan Sahoo, Rev Samuel Shekhar, Renish Abraham, Dr Satish Kumar and Rev Thampu…"

St Stephen's College has informed the media that they have filed a case of trespass and vandalism against Devansh Mehta! So, a student who accompanied a fellow student for her safety is now being slapped with police cases to intimidate and harass him.

A woman student who complained of sexual harassment against her supervisor, has had to pay the price - with her research being stolen or destroyed, denial of access to the laboratory to which she is legally entitled, intimidation and forceful confinement and victimisation of her supporters among fellow students!

What is Delhi University doing in the case? Why on earth have the vice-chancellor and the university failed to provide Sonam with a new supervisor? Why have they failed to restore her stipend and initiate action against the college authorities who have illegally stopped a stipend she received from the university? Why have they failed to act to protect and safeguard her research - the compounds that represent several years of irreplaceable work?

On social media some have asked me - why did Sonam "delay" filing her complaint? Well, the answer is before us. She and her family feared exactly what is being meted out to her today. They feared that she would have to pay with her PhD, her career and her reputation. Isn't DU and its premier college St Stephen's, proving this fear right?

Transcripts of conversations recorded by Sonam with the Principal Valson Thampu are absolutely damning. They prove that Thampu, in the name of "explaining the legal aspect" to the complainant, was repeatedly telling Sonam to withdraw her complaint since that would lead to "media tamasha", harm the reputation of the college - an institution he would be bound to defend - and asking her to "trust" him so he would ensure her PhD would be completed as long as she cooperated and withdrew the complaint. She can be heard telling Thampu that what happened was not just sexual harassment but sexual assault - and that he, even after hearing this, continues to pressure her to say that the matter was NOT one of sexual harassment, but some other issue that her "trust" in the principal could resolve. When Sonam repeatedly expresses her doubts, Thampu can be heard asking her if she has a mental problem. He had pressured her to write on top of her complaint that she did not wish that it be treated as one of sexual harassment. To this, she had added a clause "for the time being". The transcripts make it clear that Thampu objected even to this clause, telling her that he suspected she had done this on someone's advice.

So Thampu wanted to "advise" a survivor of sexual assault to bury the matter and remain "happy" and "cheerful", but objected to her seeking advice or help from anyone who might help her get justice. 

Note that Thampu, in the time-honoured tradition of khap-style patriarchs who tolerate violence against women in the name of "honour" of the family or community, tells the victim that she is like a daughter to him.

This kind of intimidation is not new for Thampu. A library assistant who had complained of sexual harassment some years back, met a similar fate at his hands. Her complaint against Thampu, filed on June 6 with the Delhi University apex committee against sexual harassment, speaks of intimidation by the principal to withdraw her complaint: "The principal tried to persuade (her) to drop the complaint against Mr Bhardwaj and sought to downplay the issue by saying the occurrence was normal and that even he used to do such things when he was young and it was not a serious issue." Thampu actually told a complainant that sexual harassment was normal and even he used to do it when he was young.

I would also like to warn against the tendency to communalise sexual harassment incidents. Women's groups and student groups have protested against many instances of sexual harassment in DU, and sexual violence in general, including at St Stephen's. But the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) at Delhi University has protested only at St Stephen's College - because they would like to use the issue to fit their agenda against Christian minority institutions.

Needless to say, any kind of communal rhetoric would help Thampu to protect himself and divert the gravity of the issue. After all, religious identity can be the last refuge of the rapist, as we have seen in other cases. In Asaram's case too, his sympathisers, like BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, are claiming that he is being accused of rape and murderous attacks on witnesses as part of a conspiracy against Hindu godmen. Similarly, Thampu has held a press conference with religious and minority leaders, stating that the sexual harassment complaint is a bid to victimise him as the head of a Christian institution. Earlier, we had seen Tarun Tejpal project himself as a victim of a communal conspiracy.

We must not allow cases of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment to be diverted under any pretext. Be it Asaram or Satish Kumar, they have used their power to sexually assault women subordinates, and Thampu has helped protect Satish Kumar and intimidate the complainant. These men cannot be allowed to use their religious identity to protect themselves.

Today, at Thampu's behest, Sonam is being subjected to a threatening situation and forceful confinement as well as theft and destruction of her research work, and denied access to a stipend and a laboratory.

Why has Satish Kumar not been arrested as yet? Why has Thampu not been booked yet for his role in intimidating a student who complained against sexual assault? And why has DU failed to protect the academic career of a student who is being victimised for having dared to speak out against such sexual assault? These questions should haunt us all.


Kavita Krishnan Kavita Krishnan @kavita_krishnan

Secretary, AIPWA and Polit Bureau member, CPI(ML), editor, Liberation, and formerly a student activist with the AISA and former Jt Secy, JNUSU.

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