Why Indian universities allow sexual predators like Atul Johri to get away

As a society, we are still making excuses for harassers and our top institutions festering this lethal environment.

 |  6-minute read |   27-03-2018
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In October 2017, a crowdsourced list of sexual harassers in academia did the rounds on social media. The list was made by academic and lawyer Raya Sarkar to serve as a warning to other young women about sexual harassers on their college campuses. A blogger then converted the list into a Google spreadsheet and invited people to add details, the alleged crimes noted ranged from verbal abuse, to molestation, stalking and in some cases even rape.

The list had 58 names; these were top academics from 29 colleges across the country. What followed was a lengthy debate between two sides — the ones that supported the list and the ones that doubted the veracity of the claims.

Out of the list, only a handful of names were investigated and the rest dismissed for lack of evidence.

The list no longer exists but it did manage to highlight two important facts. The first being Indian women are still afraid to talk about sexual harassment publicly and on record. Second, the problem of sexual harassment on college campuses does exist and needs immediate redressal.

Earlier this year, two cases in Delhi University caused a furore when college authorities threatened the girls with expulsion if they didn’t take their complaints back. The matter was only taken seriously after widespread protests on campus. Both the accused were later arrested and are no longer on the college campus.

A similar case is playing out today: Atul Johri, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has been accused of sexual harassment by eight students. Johri was briefly arrested but is now out on bail and states that the complainants had a vendetta against him after he asked them to work on their attendance in his class. On the heels of the Johri case, sexual misconduct by another professor, Mahendra P Lama, has also come to light after the Delhi High Court issued notices to JNU and the said professor, based on a petition filed by a student. Lama has not been suspended or restrained from taking classes.

In fact, he is also on the admission panel for the upcoming academic session. There are also two other complaints against him and an investigation for the same is underway.

Indian universities often have very lax ground rules for preventing sexual exploitation. Of course, there is due process in place, but these too come with guidelines which are often rigged to loosely work around the Vishakha guidelines. The “due process” itself is so prolonged that, in most cases, the victims feel the psychological damage is at par with the abuse.

women_032718031804.jpgThat people are abused is routine. That nothing much is done about it is also routine. Photo: PTI

Ravinder Kaur, a 25-year-old management trainee, recalls her experience of filing a complaint: “I was a third-year college student and he was a very popular teacher. It started with incessant text messaging and then stalking. Eventually, I filed a complaint with the principal, who refused to believe me and was convinced that it was an affair gone sour. He (the teacher) later came to me and pleaded with me that I was ruining his life, even talked about it with my own classmates, some of whom took his side. Eventually, I withdrew my complaint because I just wanted to move on with my life.” He is still teaching at the college.

A sexist attitude is something that has always been a big part of the Indian problem when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment. In so many liberal colleges across India, stories of sexual abuse and harassment have done the rounds as hushed whispers between colleagues and students. That people are abused is routine. That nothing much is done about it is also routine.

HoDs and PhD mentors are most likely to get away with harassment because often the students being harassed fear for their careers. A lot of time a complaint means a due process (which may or may not exist). And if it does, it may take a long time to come through, which would mean that your degree or your monthly stipend may also get affected. Some of them also fear jeopardising their future, fear that they may be called out for being “troublemakers”.

So, a lot of them just bear the harassment in the hope that it will pass soon.

Take the statement made by one of the women sexually harassed by Prof Atul Johri. She told the police that, (his) “statements were always unwelcome and very embarrassing. When I shared this with my lab mates, and he got to know about the fact that I was informing other women students about his unwelcome acts, he became vindictive towards me. He made the work environment hostile for me, stopped giving any attention to my work and delayed all my academic assignments. Then, when I tried to change my lab, I was not supported by my department. I asked the dean to change my supervisor and informed that I was sexually harassed. Since I could not change my lab, I had no choice but to continue under him.

In January 2017, I sent the manuscript of my research paper to him but till date he has not responded. Whenever a girl denies a sexual favour to him or, like in my case, resists his unwelcome actions, he delays the academic publications of the girl. I am extremely depressed, and worried, because I have to submit my thesis in July. Till date, I did not report it (the harassment) since I did not receive any conducive response from my rest of the department and was always worried regarding the completion of my PhD...”

A lot of those abused and harassed are also marginalised, which makes it harder for them because they fear the academic reputation of their harasser is going to supersede their complaints, which — in all honesty — happens most of the time. Add to that the fact that most academic circles are tight-knit communities, built of friends and colleagues bound together.

There is a strongly propagated culture of impunity and if you’re not solidly backed by some sort of a political organisation willing to take up your case, you might as well bid your future career goodbye.

Who would like to stand up to this nexus? Especially as a lone individual, there is obviously strength in numbers and it is easier to prove your case when you have people backing your claim, but what happens when you are the only one?

If universities like JNU and DU, which are often heralded as the mecca of student politics and gender sensitisation, have to fight so hard to remove academics accused of sexual harassment, can you imagine the plight of other universities which are not in the capital?

Last year, when women of Banaras Hindu University complained about sexual harassment and protested, they were lathicharged. Just like JNU students were over the weekend. Why is our knee-jerk reaction to protect sexual predators? Why, as a society, are we still making excuses for them and why are universities and college campuses, places which spearhead change, independent thought and action, festering in this exploitative environment?

Also read: What Daisy Irani’s account of rape reveals about the dark world of child artists in Bollywood

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Gunjeet Sra Gunjeet Sra @gunjsra

Writer, Reporter, Editor @sbcltr.in

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