Monday, June 22, 2015

Piyasree Dasgupta - St Stephen's shame: Victim's FIR reveals true horror of sexual harassment


Thampu would have done a favour to the idea of a truly liberal educational institute had he backed the victim in her fight against harassment. Instead now he looks like a principal for whom the institution's reputation came first, way ahead of the victim's plight.

How has India taught you to respond to sexual violence? With outrage? Not really. With fear? Somewhat, yes. With shame? Most definitely. No one should know that your breasts have been groped by random strangers in public spaces or by men you know in professional spaces. No one should know if your butt has been pinched, your body rubbed against or touched in ways that made you want to puke. In popular understanding of sexual violence, it is your body's shame first. So the first response to it should be denial and silence. Till the trauma just spills over. The Delhi University PhD student, who has accused a St Stephen's College assistant professor of sexual harassment, followed this widely endorsed though unwritten rulebook of responding to sexual violence in India.

So it took her over three years to to take resolute steps in acting against the supervisor, who she alleges began harassing her in 2012.  Firstpost now has a copy of her FIR, where she details how Satish Kumar, the chemistry professor she was working under, had taken complete advantage of his position of superiority and subjected her to sexually coloured remarks relentlessly and then taken to touching her inappropriately. She writes in her FIR that on October 15, 2013, Satish Kumar had 'sexually assaulted her'. "On that day, he pulled me toward himself, he puts his hands on my breasts and he completely grabbed me and he put his hands on my private parts," the complainant writes in the FIR.

And that was the culmination - for want of a better word - of a year-long, systematic process of verbal and physical sexual harassment. The complainant recounts in her FIR how Kumar had tried to hug her (apparently, a creating a new compound in the lab would make him want to hug her), touch her breasts several times and even touch her thighs. On one occasion her had asked her if she had a 'thigh gap'. "It's good to have gap in women's thighs and you have gap in your thighs..." the FIR quotes him as saying.

He showed her pictures of naked women on the pretext of showing her software he had downloaded for work, he talked about videos women shoot with their boyfriends and most of his conversations were sexually coloured. On the other hand, he also made sure that his sexual overtures would go unreported thanks to the victim's fear of endangering her thesis.

So he covertly kept recounting anecdotes about the importance of a supervisor in a PhD student's life. From suggesting that students who speak up against their guides never get other professors to guide them to saying that it is necessary to get a supervisor's recommendation while applying for jobs, Kumar intimidated and blackmailed the student into silence by suggesting that everything she cared fiercely about - higher education, a job, the magic letters of a Ph.D - depended on his whims.

These are all allegations in the FIR. And Kumar will get to tell his side of the story. But the question is what could allowed and empower someone to harass his student with such brazen impunity?

Firstly, it's the absence of a culture of reporting sexual harassment. As we mentioned above, abusers are sharply aware of of the burden of shame that that a victim of harassment carries. And from past instances, the likes of Kumar, know that most victims prefer to lug the shame around instead of dealing with the additional discomfort of moral scrutiny and character assassination.

Then again, forget a culture of reporting, we are not even sure about the right way to hold a conversation around sexual violence especially in professional and private spaces. For example, imagine walking up  to the principal of your college and saying that a professor asked you if you have a gap between your thighs. Chances are victims feel embarrassed to go into the grimy details of such incidents, wondering how it would reflect upon themselves.

That apart, the St Stephen's incident is complicated by class. The victim mentions in the FIR that she hails from a 'humble' family from Teekhi village in Gurgaon, Haryana. She definitely doesn't fit the profile of the upper middle class and affluent students who study in the college. In fact, the college's principal, seemed to emphasize the fact that the victim was a registered research student of Delhi University and not really a student of St. Stephen's college in his NDTV oped too. It makes you wonder what would have happened if her father had come from an economic class which gave him the confidence to demand justice instead of pleading with "folded hands" to save his daughter's future?

The op-ed which says "facts do not lie" leave other questions unanswered. Thampu writes he had no authority over the student since she was not a student of his college. But of course Kumar was a professor in his college. Did Thampu take up the complaint with Kumar separately? Did he, even for the purpose of verification, ask Kumar what made a woman student level such allegations against him? Did he warn Kumar against doing anything that would make the student uncomfortable? By his own admission, he didn't. He says he asked her to file a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee and called a meeting with both the complainant and her advisor and in that meeting she does not "utter a word about sexual harassment". 

In fact, his NDTV oped is entirely devoted to countering the victim's FIR, though he doesn't deny that she may have been sexually harassed. Dr. Thampu lashes out instead at wolves in sheep's clothing and those who seek "sadistic media limelight" at the expense of the college.
The St Stephen's case reiterates the idea that in spaces with a hallowed reputation, victims of sexual violence are further burdened with the responsibility of not tarnishing the reputation of the institution. That, in turn, allows sexual predators to behave with the kind of impunity that Kumar allegedly did.

The pattern is the same - from the Tehelka sexual violence case to the Greenpeace sexual harassment case. The accused in all these cases are alleged to have invoked their positions and their organisation's larger-than-life reputation - directly or as insinuation - to send the victims scrambling for support elsewhere.

Thampu did what Tehelka and then Greenpeace did. He hoped that this too shall pass, that this too could be managed without raising a stink because the victim, humbled by the mighty reputation of the institution she was up against would eventually give up. She had already shown enough signs of being anxious about the repercussions on her career and the institution looks like it took full advantage of it to hush up the case.

Dr. Thampu - the head of one of the country's most coveted educational institute - did nothing to allay her or her family's fears that filing a case of sexual harassment would tarnish the victim's reputation first. Thampu recalls meeting her father, "With folded hands, the father pleads with the Principal not to turn this into a complaint of sexual harassment as it could result in a scandal and also affect his daughter's chance of getting a Ph.D." 

Instead of assuaging the man's desperation, Thampu now stands accused of having used it to protect the reputation of his institution. Whether he followed the rulebook to the barest minimum or not, Thampu would have done a favour to the idea of a truly liberal educational institute had he backed the victim in her fight against harassment. Instead now he looks like a principal for whom the institution's reputation came first, way ahead of the victim's plight.