India : Campus gender politics

Universities are often seen as relatively safe spaces for students from all genders to interact more freely than they would be able to off campus. Many students get together to imagine a more equal society, one that does not tolerate discrimination, by organising demonstrations, awareness programmes, or social events. But recent cases of sexual violence against women on university campuses have raised questions regarding the safety of the university space, and revealed the pressing need for gender sensitisation through active and efficient gender cells in the form of Gender Sensitisation Committees Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH).

In recent months, the molestation and rape of female students on the grounds of Jadavpur University (JU) in Kolkata, English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi have led to student protests demanding better mechanisms to appropriately address such cases at universities. At JU, a female student reported to the university and police that she was assaulted, dragged to the boy’s hostel and molested by a group of male students during an annual festival organised by the Arts Faculty Students Union. Her male companion was also beaten up (on 28 August 2014). At EFLU, a female student was reportedly gang-raped in the Men’s Hostel after going there to visit a friend (on 31 October 2014). And at JNU, a PhD student reported that she was sexually assaulted by a research scholar and blackmailed to hide the incident (12 November 2014). While these cases are not the first incidents of sexual violence on campus, they have drawn attention to the fact that university administrations are ill-equipped to appropriately address gender violence.

University campuses are among the few spaces where there can be, and often is, some semblance of gender equality.

Reactions to each of the cases differed. Jadavpur University launched an internal investigation, but authorities were slow to respond and did not take immediate action against the perpetrators. Instead, female representatives of the university paid the girl an unauthorised visit, and questioned her presence near a boy’s hostel on the night of the incident, asking her what she was wearing and whether she was drunk. This violated the Vishaka Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at Workplace, which condemns the use of external pressure on the victim or the accused during the investigation period. The police had started an investigation, but also did not take immediate action based on the victim’s identification of the perpetrators.

JU Students were enraged by the university’s slow and inappropriate actions and called for a fast-track independent investigative committee that would look into the incident and make its proceedings public. They also staged protests demanding a public statement from the vice chancellor (VC) as to why a proper investigation was not taking place. When the VC ignored the protests, students began to stage an indefinite sit-in in front of his office. In the early hours of 17 September, police and unidentified men in civilian dress forcefully broke up the protests, injuring several students and arresting over 35. Reportedly, few female police officers were present, and students – male and female – were beaten and molested by male officers and the other men in plain clothes. This only enraged students more, leading them to organise further protests to demand the VC’s resignation. Eventually, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited the JU campus on 12 January 2015 to announce to the students that the VC would resign.

At EFLU officials decided to form a separate taskforce, specifically for dealing with the reported rape, instead of reviving the GSCASH which had been dissolved in 2012. University authorities, reportedly, did not make enough efforts to sustain the GSCASH. Students protested to highlight that the GSCASH had been lying defunct for some time, without any elected student representative. The accused rapists did not expect the victim to take recourse to the law. Instead, they thought they could ‘handle the situation’ and ‘talk it out’ with the girl. The assumption that they would be able to get away with it seems to underlie their statements ; perhaps they felt more confident as the girl had been drinking and gone to the Men’s Hostel, therefore not fitting the idea of an ‘innocent’ victim. Notions of women’s complicity in cases where victims did not conform to ‘norms’ of dress and behaviour, unfortunately, also prevail on campus. For these reasons, some students fear that universities, under the guise of a ‘taskforce’ for gender sensitisation, want to prevent cases from becoming public by internally dealing with the issue, potentially letting rapists get away with just a suspension.

Following the incident and protests, stricter rules and curfew hours were enforced at EFLU, mostly for female students, supposedly to protect them. Students were infuriated and with the support of student bodies and various committees, they began to protest. They demanded that a defunct GSCASH be reactivated with elected representatives from all sections of the campus community. For the students, gender segregation and moral policing were not the right solution to gender violence. Indeed, by forcibly keeping men and women apart and reinforcing the idea that men are constantly trying to rape vulnerable women, the authorities are strengthening a culture of segregation rather than one of sensitisation.

These incidents led to protests on campuses across the country, where students were dissatisfied – enraged even – about the fact many universities still fall short when it comes to basic requirements for gender sensitisation and complaints procedures. The University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines urges universities to establish GSCASH on campuses to take necessary action to prevent any form of violence within university premises :

The students are entitled to protection from sexual harassment by complaining to the Gender Sensitization Committees against Sexual Harassment. It is mandatory for each college/university to constitute and publicize this committee as per the Guidelines and norms laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

In response to the brutal Delhi assault and gang rape of a medical intern in a bus in 2012, the UGC created a task force which drafted the Saksham report to “review the measures for ensuring safety and security of women in campuses and programmes for gender sensitization”. The report states :

A major finding and deep concern for the Task Force has been that the weakest aspect of our institutions of higher education is their lack of gender sensitivity. This is evident from the mode in which the questionnaires were answered as well as the Open Forums. This means that there is a widespread culture of not speaking out on issues, one which affects the more socially and institutionally vulnerable students the most.

The report recommends that the focus should be on confidentiality and fair enquiries, not coercion, and that gender sensitisation should be required in all colleges and universities, for students as well as faculty, teaching, administrative and other staff.

Universities have urged that GSCASH be established everywhere in line with the UGC recommendations. The GSCASH is to be an autonomous body comprised of elected representative members from each section of the university community – students, teachers, and non-teaching staff. The function of the committee is not just to take down complaints of gender violence and set up enquiry probes ; one of the primary functions of the GSCASH is to bring about gender sensitisation within the university space.

JNU was one of the first universities to implement GSCASH in compliance with UGC directions. JNU has had a history of gender violence on the campus, and students and teachers have been seen turning to GSCASH to take appropriate action. At JNU, students and the university authorities, across party lines, are now proclaiming ‘zero tolerance’ with regards to sexual harassment. On the JU campus, posters for upcoming students’ elections mention the need for active GSCASH at the university. EFLU and other universities, such as Aligarh Muslim University, followed JNU and also implemented GSCASH. However, as reactions to the recent incidents at Jadavpur University and EFLU show, students, teachers and the university authorities do not always understand the importance of GSCASH as opposed to merely an internal complaints committee.

What the recent cases reveal is that sensitisation without segregation is needed more than ever. Women and men must be provided greater access to spaces within the university where they can meet and socialise as equals. This might be one of the early steps towards building a more egalitarian campus. A central university like EFLU has students from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds. There is no need to create more dividing lines than there already are. The university has the power to influence students and define the way they think and understand the world, so why not teach them a sensitive way of interacting with other genders ?

Sensitisation has to be a universal process – at home, in school, college, university as well as at workplaces. It may seem ‘convenient’ or ‘easier’ to curb the freedom of women, emphasising that such restrictions are for their own good, but this is no long-term solution to the problem of sexual harassment and violence. University campuses are among the few spaces where there can be, and often is, some semblance of gender equality. As alumni and ‘other concerned individuals’ wrote in a public statement following the rape case at EFLU :

While no academic space is free from gender discrimination and/or violence, erstwhile CIEFL and the formative years of EFLU were known for the relatively free ways in which men and women could access common space, move about the campus in relative safety.

At a time when such freedoms seem increasingly restricted, students are rightly protesting for better gender sensitisation through GSCASH, amongst other initiatives, in order to feel safe and move freely around campus.


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