Admissions are on at Delhi University. St Stephen’s College is one of DU’s most prestigious institutions. A most-desired destination for students and teachers alike. Would-be students, at the college and the university, need to pause and ask themselves – what will my college or university do if I face sexual harassment? Will it support me and ensure a free and fair enquiry and justice, or will it back the accused and pressure me to withdraw my complaint and put up with the sexual harassment?
It must be remembered that sexual harassment at workplace flows from power. A man who has power over a woman (a teacher over a student; a PhD supervisor over a student; a boss over an employee and so on) can use it to subject her to unwanted sexual attention. If she objects or complains, he can use his power to harm her studies or her career. A PhD supervisor, for instance, controls access to laboratories, the content and quality of recommendations for research programmes and jobs, and the life of one’s PhD is quite literally in their hands. If a supervisor uses that power to demand sexual favours, it is a nightmare for the student.
What is worse, institutions, instead of defending the rights of women to a safe workplace free of fear and harassment, support and protect the perpetrator, and isolate the complainant, accusing her of "giving the institution a bad name".
The facts emerging from the sexual harassment case at St Stephen’s College are chilling.
Sonam (name changed) is a research scholar from rural Haryana, who, in October 2012 joined the Chemistry department of St Stephen’s College for a PhD.Between June and October 2013 her academic life became a nightmare. Her PhD supervisor Dr Satish Kumar, who is also bursar at the college, began molesting her in the laboratory. According to her FIR, he would come up and touch her behind, her thighs, or grab her by her waist, touch her breast and insist on hugging her.
When she objected he would apologise and promise never to repeat the offence, but later say "promises exist to be broken" and "I can’t control myself, why don’t you get married". He would punish her for objecting by withholding guidance and saying that her work was wrongly done. He would tell her, "I will give you a PhD degree and publish your paper but what will I get in return, only your husband will get everything." He would insist on talking about sex and sexual matters in front of her, and on showing her a picture of a naked woman.
He accessed her laptop one day, and commented on a photograph of her in a sari, "You look healthy in that sari, if you come to the lab wearing a yellow sari, I will pour sulphuric acid on you." He would quiz her on her male Facebook friends and get angry when she locked her laptop with a password.
One day he said that he had read in the news that it was good for women to have a gap between their thighs, and asked her if she had a gap between her thighs. He told her that if he was younger he would not let anyone else marry her and would not let her get down from the bed for one month after marriage. He would tell her about other sexual harassment cases in the university, warning her that women who complained were blamed for the harassment and unable to complete their PhD or get favourable job recommendations. Complaining about sexual harassment, he said, amounted to "apne paer par kulhadi marna (hacking at one’s own leg with an axe)".
Intermittently, he would punish her for the lack of a response by denying her access to the college internet system, and to equipment in the lab that she needed for the research.
On October 15, 2012, things came to a head. He grabbed her breasts, pulled her towards himself, and grabbed her private parts. She escaped his grip, ran from the lab and took a rickshaw to go home. He followed in his car, continuously calling her. When she got off from the rickshaw to take a shared auto, he parked his car and demanded that she get in.
She did not go back to the lab for the next couple of weeks and told her parents what had happened. He continued to stalk her: He got the phone number of one of her acquaintances from Facebook and asked for her number; he called her sister and asked for Sonam and continuously called her from unknown landline numbers.
On October 26, Sonam’s parents along with two other persons, confronted Satish Kumar in the college itself. He admitted to having molested Sonam, swore it would never happen again, and begged for mercy. Sonam’s parents, fearing for her PhD, accepted the apology and hoped for the best.
Instead, things moved from outright physical sexual harassment to the classic second chapter of every sexual harassment story. The supervisor began playing with her academic life, research work and career as punishment for having complained.
On October 31, 2014, a year after she first spoke about the sexual harassment, Sonam made an official complaint to the head of department of Chemistry in Delhi University and asked for a change of supervisor. Satish Kumar, who is also bursar of St Stephen’s, in turn, punished her by stopping her monthly stipend of Rs 18,000 from November onwards.
It was then that the classic third chapter of sexual harassment began. The principal of St Stephen’s College, Valson Thampu, began pressuring her to withdraw her complaint. He asked to meet her parents on December 10, 2014, stipulating that she should bring along any "NGO activists" with her.
Thampu claims that her father "begged him with folded hands" not to take up the case of sexual harassment. This is untrue; instead he asked the principal to ensure the safety of his daughter and safeguard her PhD.
Sonam, failing to secure a change of supervisor from the university, approached her college. But principal Thampu asked that Sonam write, in her complaint to the college, that the case "not be treated as a case of sexual harassment" and that she trusted the principal to act. She complied, but added a rider: "for the time being". On January 9, he again called her to meet him, and told him that Satish Kumar had a "weakness", and that her PhD was his responsibility. He later arranged for Sonam to meet Satish Kumar in his presence, and told Sonam – in the presence of her harasser – that he had consulted lawyers who had advised him that if the matter went to an internal complaints committee, Sonam would get media attention, but would have to forfeit her PhD. He gave her half an hour to make up her mind to withdraw her complaint. When she protested, he made her write that she needed time to rethink.
Again, on January 12, Thampu tried to pressure Sonam into saying that she was facing an "academic problem", not sexual harassment, and that she should withdraw her complaint from the university. She refused to do so, following which he got irritated with her and told her to "first withdraw the complaint from the university and then meet" him.
The HoD of Chemistry counselled her to speak with another teacher, Monica Dutta, who told Sonam that she should not withdraw her complaint, and that the principal had no right to ask her to do so. Principal Thampu told her that he had given her complaint to the ICC, which could now deal with the problem, adding that she was free to do a PhD from somewhere else if she was dissatisfied.
Again and again, Sonam and her family were forced by her supervisor and principal to weigh her PhD and her academic career against the question of justice against sexual harassment.
The ICC of St Stephen’s College, consisting of appointees of the principal thanks to Delhi University’s interpretation of the new Sexual Harassment Prevention law, flouted norms all around. They did not take the basic step of imposing a restraint order on the accused – so Satish Kumar’s father contacted Sonam’s father on January 19 to ask him to withdraw the complaint. Sonam informed the ICC, but they ignored this breach of confidentiality and safety.
On January 21, the ICC spent time focusing on the words Thampu had made Sonam add to her complaint: That she did not want the case to be treated as one of sexual harassment "for the time being". In spite of her telling the ICC that she had written those words under duress, the ICC suggested that she could withdraw her complaint for the time being, and take the principal’s assurances seriously, and could always complain later if she felt like it. Sonam stuck to her ground. The ICC showed her a booklet with the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention) Act 2013, drawing her attention to the clause regarding the penalty for a false complaint. The feminists’ apprehension, that the "false complaint" clause in the new law will be used to scare away complainants, is borne out by these facts. Sonam has neither been given transcripts of her own replies to the cross questioning, nor any transcript of Satish Kumar’s response and his list of witnesses. One of her witnesses (an NGO activist who was among the five people in front of whom Satish Kumar apologised on October 26, 2013), was browbeaten by an ICC member, who insisted on a "yes or no" answer to a question!
Eventually, Sonam lost faith in the ICC and filed an FIR. What has followed is even more shameful. Valson Thampu, her principal, has written public articles and given media interviews suggesting that the case is false and that Sonam is a pawn in the game of some conspiracy against him.
It is important to note that Satish Kumar is a bursar, who signs salary slips of employees. The fact that he remains a bursar means that he is able to manipulate witnesses and make employees speak in his favour, bad-mouthing the complainant and her supporters.
The university has not yet assigned a new supervisor to Sonam, whose PhD is therefore in jeopardy.
Sonam’s story reminds us that sexual harassment is rarely an isolated episode. By its very nature, it is long-drawn out, and the victim keeps hoping the situation will go away, because speaking up takes a huge toll and demands that she risk her career.
This is why independent ICCs are extremely important, with elected representation rather than a body stacked with nominees of the head of the institution, which is likely to want to protect powerful perpetrators and dissuade complainants.
In Delhi University, the Ordinance XV-D that was won by university staff and students after the Vishakha judgement has evolved a working model of functional ICCs and a university-level apex body with elected representation from staff, teachers, students and karamcharis. Even so, in many colleges, those committees did not function well, and were controlled by principals – take the instance of the PA to principal of ARSD College who went to the police after losing faith in the ICC and the apex body, since her complaint was against her acting principal himself. Two years later, she still awaits justice. The police, who had filed a chargesheet, have since been sleeping on it. The acting principal has now moved on to another college and is giving interviews for the post of principal in other colleges. And the new principal at ARSD continues the chapter two of sexual harassment that his predecessor had started – denying the complainant her due seat, isolating her at her workplace, and punishing her for having refused to play along with her boss’ sexual demands.
But the ICCs and apex body were still a better model than the present one. Following the new law, DU overnight decided – contrary to expert opinion – that Ordinance XV-D had to be scrapped and replaced by a new ordinance that only allows ICCs to be nominated by the principals, leaving no provision for an apex body.
What Sonam is facing is appalling. Students who study in DU today, or are seeking admission, need to speak up in support of Sonam’s struggle for justice – because if you don’t speak up today, who will speak up for you tomorrow when you might be at the receiving end?
Delhi University must assign Sonam a change of supervisor with no delay so she can continue working on her PhD without having to start all over again. It must ensure the release of her stipend money, and an investigation must be ordered into how the bursar of college and the accused, failed to dispense stipend money granted by the university.
Principal Valson Thampu’s name ought to be added to the FIR, along with Satish Kumar’s, for his role in protecting the accused while bullying Sonam to withdraw or weaken her complaint. Both must be investigated, prosecuted and punished. Ordinance XV-D must be reinstated in Delhi University, and the functioning of ICCs and apex body under it monitored periodically by an independent expert body from outside the university.