File sexual abuse complaint against a professor, but at student's own risk: SN College example

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Given the increasing number of women bold enough to open up about the abuses they had suffered, six students of SN College Chempazhanthy, Thiruvananthapuram, officially complaining about the inappropriate behaviour of a head of the department need not be considered shocking.

But the incidents that followed should be.

The identities of the victims, in a clear mockery of guidelines that govern such abuse cases, were revealed. Pressure was put on students and family members to withdraw the complaint. The principal, despite screenshots of WhatsApp messages that point to predatory behaviour, termed the complaint fake.

The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), a must under the UGC guidelines, was not properly constituted. And the ICC members, rather than putting the victims and witnesses at ease, doled out their share of harassment. As if all this was not enough, the principal refused to give 'good' conduct certificates to final year students who had either dared to complain or stood by their fellow students.

A public secret

The complaint was sent to the college principal, Dr Anil Kumar, but Onmanorama has access to an audio clipping of a phone conversation in which a teacher of the college reveals the names of the complainants to a student she had called for help. She wanted the student, a friend of one of the complainants, to convince his friend to retract her words and “save” the accused.

There is another clipping in which a senior SN Trust member is heard talking to the father of one of the girls who had complained. He is saying that the charge would bring disrepute to the college and the father is heard asking the SN Trust member how he knew his daughter's identity. Another audio clip has a local politician calling up the brother of a complainant.

Indifference and mass action

When inaction on the part of the principal was suspected, students smothered his official mail. Nearly 80 mails, mostly from students and some parents, demanding the formation of the Internal Complaints Committee were sent to the principal's email on August 11, twelve days after the complaint was filed on July 30.

Intent on making the college management act, students even forwarded the complaint to Governor Arif Muhammed Khan. The Governor, finding merit in the charges, passed them on to the state police chief, who in turn asked the Kazhakuttam police station to handle the probe. The police are yet to question anyone. “We are waiting for the ICC report,” said Hari, the Kazhakuttam assistant commissioner of police.

ICC, a distorted version

Eventually, when the SN College formed an ICC, the person picked as convenor/presiding officer was a head of the department (HoD). 

The UGC (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015, is very specific about the constitution of the ICC. “Persons in senior administrative positions such as Vice-Chancellor, Pro Vice-Chancellors, Rectors, Registrar, Deans, Heads of Departments, etc., shall not be members of ICCs in order to ensure the autonomy of their functioning,” it says.

The students pointed out this anomaly and got the ICC reconstituted. As per the regulations, a senior woman faculty member, an 'associate professor', should be the presiding officer. Even then, under the pretext that teachers were unwilling, an external member (a woman advocate) was appointed the presiding officer.

If teachers were reluctant, the UGC guidelines say that a senior faculty should be nominated from other units of the organisation; in this case, from any other SN colleges across Kerala. Such an attempt, too, was not made. Still, the students went with this defective ICC.

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Disturbing questions, combative answers

However, three of the complainants Onmanorama talked to said that the ICC hearings made them deeply uncomfortable. At least, the first set of students who appeared before the ICC felt intimidated. When a student, for instance, said the accused teacher (acting HoD, Political Science Department) had stared at her at the wrong place, she was asked where.

Her humiliation seemed to have steeled the others. During the later ICC hearings, when another victim spoke about the professor's stare and the ICC put the same question, she promptly told them in plain rustic terms that could easily unsettle a prude where it was that the professor ogled. Another victim was asked the date on which the accused had given her lewd looks and she quipped that it was not a precious moment for her to note down the date in her diary.

Onmanorama cross-checked with a member of the ICC and found that these exchanges did happen. “The girls were no demure cats, they were very offensive,” the source said.

The source also said that the question was valid. “It was part of a long series of questions, one leading to the other. You cannot pick this question out of context and say it shouldn't have been asked,” the source said.

Under 'Responsibilities of the ICC', here is one of the five things the UGC regulations say: “Ensure that victims or witnesses are not victimised or discriminated against while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment”.

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Late-night creeps

However, according to the complaint, the biggest trouble with the professor was not just his “obscene stare” but his 'accidental' WhatsApp calls and his insistence on having chats during odd hours. Students have collected WhatsApp screenshots that demonstrate what the students call the professor's “creepy” behaviour.

One has him sending a 'kiss' emoji, which a student politely says is disturbing. 'Please, don't send this again, sir," she says. The time: 10.16 pm. 

Another chat has him telling a student that he required no reason to call her. In yet another chat, he tells a student he knows how to make her panic and cry. Another has the accused sending a student an old WhatsApp DP of hers and making loaded comments about the picture.

In another chat, the accused seems to employ a deadly scheme to either evoke sympathy or to sustain a chat. He says he has suicidal tendencies. And while the student tries to wriggle out of the situation, the accused professor slips in this sentence: 'I like you'. The time: 2.30 am. One student, finding the professor's call at odd hours too uncomfortable, invites her male friend to join in. 

There is also an audio clip of the accused speaking about his first night with a student late in the night. Like the chat screenshots and other audio clips, this too has been presented as evidence.

Under the UGC regulations, sexual harassment means, among other things, any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. Sexually coloured remarks also fall under the definition.

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Vismaya's death and tumbling skeletons

Students had kept the assistant professor's behaviour mostly a secret; each one keeping the shame and disgust they felt to themselves, very few sharing this with close friends. But during an online discussion triggered by Vismaya's dowry death in June, students opened up, recounting incidents that had deeply unsettled them but without divulging names.

Some of the students were quick to spot a pattern: the perpetrator claiming that the late-night video call was the result of an accidental brush of his fingers and his tendency to delete his most incriminating chats. The realisation quickly dawned: the assistant professor is a serial abuser. 

“Some of us were traumatised by this teacher's behaviour when we were in our first year and this made us fear for our juniors. That's how we collectively decided to complain,” one of the complainants told Onmanorama.

Principal's logic

Nonetheless, the college principal, Dr Anil Kumar, remains unconvinced. He told Onmanorama that the complaint was fake. “You will realise this once the ICC submits its report,” he said. But how can he foresee the ICC's report when he was not part of the committee. “I am not anticipating anything. I am just saying that there is a big caucus at work,” he said.

The principal seems so sure that the students had lied that he has refused to sign a 'good' conduct certificate for four students who were passing out, all of them complainants. Here is what the principal told Onmanorama about one of the complainants he had denied a 'good' certificate: "She was not even taught by the accused professor". It was as if the principal was implying that to qualify as an abuse victim in an educational institution, the accused should at least have been the complainant's teacher; in other words, it was impossible for a teacher in the Political Science Department, say, to behave badly with a student in the English Department.

Another student fought this denial of 'good' certificate, went right up to the director of Collegiate Education with her grievance. The principal relented but still held on to his belief. He gave the student a limited-period 'good' conduct certificate that was valid till July 21, before she filed the complaint. The student ceased to be 'good' the moment she filed the harassment complaint.

Vellapally Natesan, the SN Trust general secretary, too sounded deeply intolerant of the charges. Like the principal, he too hinted that certain teachers were conspiring with students to discredit the college. He was even bitter that Onmanorama was asking him about the charges made by the students.

The accused professor termed all the charges baseless. He said the screenshots the students had given belonged to him but said they were just snatches pulled out from long conversations. "I have given the full, unedited chat transcripts to the ICC," the accused professor said.

He also said he did not know six of the nine students who had filed harassment charges against him. “These students are from the Physics and Chemistry departments," he said. "There is a conspiracy to destroy my career," he said.

Even if the ICC absolves the professor of all charges, as per law, the complainants can approach the police and file an FIR against him.   

College stands rebuked

But Vellapally's college, perhaps in its frenzy to twist events in its favour, did something highly improper.

On October 13, former Rajya Sabha MP and CPM leader T N Seema had visited the Chempazhanthy SN College to attend a function organised by the Women's Study Cell and the Gender Justice Forum of the college. She had said that forums like the ICC should allow students to air their problems freely and without fear. “When a complaint is openly made, it will not crush the image of the college. Its stature will only be enhanced,” she had said.

Instead, a press note issued by the college quoted her as saying that women safety laws were now being misused. She took to Facebook to blast the college. "It was only later that I knew that some students had filed a complaint about certain problems they had faced. In such instances, forums like ICC should be used in a just and fair manner," Seema said.

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