Fight moves to the courts after sexual harassment panel at JNU gets replaced
Another storm is brewing inside Jawaharlal Nehru University, this time with regard to sexual harassment on campus.
As students and teachers alike allege that the administration is attempting to dilute JNU's independent sexual harassment panel by replacing the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), a writ petition on the suppression of the GSCASH rules & procedures and the dissolution of the GSCASH was filed in the Delhi High Court on Tuesday.
The petitioners include three teachers and three students - Prof Madhu Sahni, Prof Rajat Dutta, Prof Hemant Adlakha, Ritika Kar, Rituraj Sharma, and Sonam Goyal. The legal team is being led by Indira Jaising.
The feud between the JNU administration and its students and teachers escalated on Monday after the university officially replaced the sexual harassment complaint body, Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), with an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
The decision, taken by the administration during an Executive Council meeting, scrapped the GSCASH citing 2015 University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations. The GSCASH, by contrast, was formed in 1999 under the Vishakha guidelines.
ICC vs GSCASH
GSCASH has been replaced by the ICC under the UGC regulations. All universities across the country have adopted the ICC, why shouldn’t JNU? ICC will immediately take over the functioning of the GSCASH,” Pramod Kumar, the registrar of JNU, told Catch.
He also added that the elections for the ICC's three student representatives will be held soon. However, the administration has already issued the names of six nominated ICC members, including present JNU chief proctor Dr Vibha Tandon as chairperson. Meanwhile, the NGO representative appointed by the administration to the ICC is from Sampurna, an NGO run by BJP leader Vijender Gupta’s wife.
All of this, according to students, is a violation of UGC regulations, 2015. Unlike with the ICC, all members of the GSCASH, both teachers and students, were elected.
This decision of the JNU administration has caused a massive uproar among the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) and the students on campus.
Ayesha Kidwai, the president of JNUTA, told Catch, “The independence of GSCASH was what separated it from any other body. The independence of GSCASH was ensured because of the election of its members. Elections allow for public scrutiny of a candidate’s credentials and their commitment to the cause."
“Elections also ensure accountability. The Vishakha guidelines, the sexual harassment law and the UGC regulations all say that a body like this must be insulated from pressure of senior level. GSCASH had elections for both teachers and student representatives. Now with the constitution of ICC, there will be an election for three student representatives but not for faculty and staff,” she added.
Kidwai points to the present UGC guidelines to underline her point. “In fact, the UGC regulations 2015 clearly state that all the members of the committee should have demonstrable proof of working for the cause of women. None have that background. The chairperson was the chief proctor till yesterday.”
An unnecessary move
Ravi Srivastava, a senior professor in JNU, explained how the current move by the administration was not just wrong, but essentially unnecessary.
“The formal name of the body may have been called GSCASH. However, in 2015 when the UGC regulations came into being, the committee under the former VC went through the provisions of the act, consulted the legal team and came up with an amended version of the GSCASH which brought on board the nature and concept of ICC and made it consistent with the UGC regulations,” Srivastava explains, adding, “This bridged the character of GSCASH with the requirements of the ICC under the act in the ordinances and acts. This was already being done. The GSCASH was not in violation of any UGC regulations.”
Kidwai further added, “GSCASH created an environment of comfort, confidentiality and accountability which is why students, especially women, could come to us with cases which would otherwise go unreported."
“The purpose of GSCASH is lost with the creation of ICC. For instance, if a female student were to be harassed by someone in the administration who is responsible for setting up the committee, how would the student ever file a complaint against them with the ICC?” she asked.
Kidwai accused the administration of dissolving the GSCASH because of its autonomy. “GSCASH has been disbanded because it is an independent body over which the administration had no control. That is not something that the university is okay with. There has been no discussion with the committee members before this decision was made. There has been an absolute violation of rules and procedure,” she stated.
However, there is a flipside: the GSCASH has also been criticised for having massive institutional powers. A former faculty member who was sacked by GSCASH on charges of sexual harassment told Catch on the condition of anonymity, “Apart from the fact that the constitution of the new body is based on the guidelines of UGC, if you see the actions of GSCASH, based on my own experience, the body defends the complainant to no extent.”
“In my case, the complaint against me wasn't disclosed to me till the very end by which time I was already declared guilty. I got no chance to defend myself. It is not that I don’t support a body that defends gender-based issues, but there have to be checks and balances. In so many cases, just the existence of a complaint was enough to punish the accused. GSCASH believes that the principle of natural justice does not apply to cases on sexual harassment.”
Another senior faculty member also claims that there have been false implications of sexual assault by GSCASH. “It is an institutional issue. I have an issue that the members are elected. The elections are political. Student representatives fight the elections on student wing tickets and faculty on teacher unions. How can a body function independently when the body itself is political. The way the body is designed, there is no way of challenging their decision. Proper protocol is not followed by the GSCASH.”
When asked about the allegation of false implications, Kidwai responded, “Nobody in JNU would say that GSCASH does not follow protocol. It has a very rigorous process of dealing with sexual harassment cases. There is an appeal process. All testimonies and statements are shared between the complainant and the accused. The inquiry report has to give detailed reasons for punishment. If a complaint does not have substantial evidence, cases have been dropped.”
Meanwhile, the status of ongoing cases being investigated by the GSCASH before it is dissolved has many worried.
JNUSU president Geeta Kumari, who was the student representative of GSCASH, told Catch, “The administration tried to seal the GSCASH office and take over all the files. But we did not let them. The GSCASH has sworn secrecy and confidentially in his proceeding of all its cases. How can we trust them with such confidential files? What will they do with them? Why is the administration so interested in taking over them?”
The ICC will likely take over the inquiry of pending cases, but GSCASH does not want that to happen. Kumari said, “The ICC should not be allowed to take up these cases. How can the administration think it is alright to change the committee members in the middle of various investigations. The statements and testimonies of victims and witnesses were given in presence of certain members. It is very problematic if they now were to be investigated by entirely new people.”
Interestingly, a senior JNU professor who wished to remain anonymous told Catch that some of the pending cases were against powerful people of JNU who were not only close to the V-C, but also to the ruling party. According to this source, there has been tremendous pressure on GSCASH to drop cases against these individuals, but it did not.
“If the ICC takes over these cases,” our source mused, “one can assume what will happen to them.”