How JNU administration launched a targeted attack on anti-sexual harassment watchdog

Ajachi Chakrabarti
Ajachi ChakrabartiSep 23, 2017 | 14:51

How JNU administration launched a targeted attack on anti-sexual harassment watchdog

On a Friday night last month, Collective, a political organisation in Jawaharlal Nehru University of which I am a part, organised a public meeting on “Understanding Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment”.

It was held in the mess of one of the women-only hostels, and despite three other events being scheduled at the same time - it was election season, after all - over a hundred students participated in a constructive discussion about the meaning of affirmative consent, what constitutes sexual harassment, the jurisprudence and regulations governing complaints, and the support systems available to the complainant.


As we were preparing the mess for the event, we noticed a curious set of posters stuck on the water cooler and the wall behind it. We hadn’t seen them anywhere else on campus; they had been put up earlier in the evening, only in this hostel.

All of them were titled, “Ban the Khap”. One demanded "rule of law, not your pseudo-progressive khapi ideology for politically backed boost [to] your flagging career". Another accused "corrupt and thieving khapis of embezzlement of public money without authority of law". At first, we were all bewildered about who they were talking about.

It became clear when the speakers finished and the floor was thrown open to the audience. The first questioner went on a rant about how the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), which investigates all such complaints on campus, has no legal basis to exist.

As this week’s events have shown, the latest target of the vice-chancellor is the GSCASH itself.

His argument was that under the Sexual Harassment at Workplaces Act, 2013, and guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission in 2015, all complaints must be handled by an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), and therefore the GSCASH is an extra-legal body, much like a khap panchayat.


It’s an odious comparison. No one says that the GSCASH is a perfect institution. It could focus more on gender sensitisation work, for one, and elections to the committee have not been held since 2015 because, the organisations that have controlled the union in the interim say, of the unprecedented attack on JNU over the past two years. There is also a provision in the UGC guidelines that the university could benefit from, but has not yet adopted, stating that campus safety "should not result in securitisation, such as over-monitoring or policing or curtailing freedom of movement, especially for women employees and students".

However, the GSCASH is based on sound principles and was forged through years of struggle by both students and teachers. The democratic nature of the body, in which student, faculty, and staff representatives are elected, ensures that there is robust debate about what needs to be improved at every election. At a time when dysfunctional institutions are the norm, it is a body that works.

Its existence has enabled complaints against sexual harassment to be pursued in a sensitive manner, protecting the privacy of both the complainant and the accused, with safeguards against the shielding of powerful figures as well as further harassment of the complainant by issuing restraining orders. Many of these provisions are not included in the UGC guidelines, which are intended to provide minimum standards for universities throughout the country.


Again, it is not my argument that the GSCASH has made JNU an idyll of gender justice; such idylls can only be worked towards through a constant struggle. But the GSCASH was a prominent milestone in that struggle. And such a struggle must be democratic in nature.

Despite the panellists repeatedly explaining to him why his “legal” argument was specious - how the GSCASH amended its rules and procedures in 2015 to incorporate the provisions of the Sexual Harassment at Workplaces Act; how the UGC guidelines specify that existing bodies such as the GSCASH need only be reconstituted as an (ICC), as has happened at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and the University of Hyderabad, and not be replaced by one; how the GSCASH is a model for similar institutions across the country - he continued his heckling for a few minutes, then left.

The posters showed up a few weeks later at different places around the campus. As you would expect from their viciousness, they are anonymous, just like the Islamophobic graffiti that showed up in Najeeb Ahmed’s hostel around the time he went missing a year ago.

Whoever was behind this guerrilla postering, it is now evident, was merely a useful idiot for the university administration in its never-ending quest to dismantle all that is remotely progressive about JNU. As this week’s events have shown, the latest target of the vice-chancellor is the GSCASH itself.

Using the same Orwellian logic as our heckler, the registrar issued a notification on September 12 that the GSCASH elections scheduled for this Friday (September 22)  would not be held, and that the body itself would be replaced by an ICC, with members nominated by the vice-chancellor. (Three student posts are to be elected, but the guidelines prevent anybody with pending disciplinary proceedings against them from contesting the elections. The administration has been using similar provisions in the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations to prune the field of potential candidates by instituting farcical inquiries against undesirables. Nothing would stop it from pursuing similar tactics here.)

On Monday (September 18), this decision was ratified by the executive council of the university over the protests of some members. Nivedita Menon, who was one of those who spoke up, and whom the university administration has sought to make an example of in their attempts to stifle dissenting voices on campus, was later removed as chairperson of the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, the position from which her membership of the executive council stemmed.

Within an hour, without even having the minutes of the meeting signed by all present, two further notices were published: one naming a panel of six nominated members, including the wife of Vijender Gupta, the BJP leader in the Delhi Assembly; another relieving chief proctor Vibha Tandon, who has been at the forefront of the administration’s persecution of student activists, of her charge so that she can head the committee.

Soon afterwards, administrative staff showed up at the GSCASH office, demanding that everyone leave so they can seal the premises. GSCASH members resisted, citing the privacy of complainants and accused perpetrators whose case files the administration wants to seize. They eventually locked the room themselves, only for the staff to put another lock on the door. On Thursday, the Delhi High Court issued an interim order for the status quo to be maintained until the next hearing of a petition challenging the decision.

And so, with a few strokes of a pen, another hard-fought victory of the students’ movement is nullified as the tyrant in the pink palace, guarded by G4S personnel and a high court order banning protests within 100 metres, continues dragging JNU back into the dark ages by the scruff of its neck.

If this decision is allowed to stand - and it must not - a functional, sensitive, well thought out and accountable institution will be replaced by one which provides complainants fewer protections, one whose chief purpose is not gender sensitisation but doling out punishment, one whose constitution and decisions are determined by those who wield the most power.

You know, like a khap panchayat.

Last updated: March 18, 2018 | 21:32
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