Friday, 8 November 2013

Groundbreaking Struggle against Sexual Harassment and Ragging in Pondicherry University

The Pondicherry University (PU) administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect criminal elements who indulged in sexual harassment, ragging and intimidation of girl students in the campus. Instead of punishing those who engaged in such criminal activities, the administration suspended the girl complainants and others who stood by them! The students are on indefinite hunger strike now, and the Madras High Court has stayed the suspensions.

The series of events that led to this began when Jithu, a senior male student, verbally abused two girl students (Kavya M and Vidya T Appukuttan) a few weeks back. When the girls told him that this is not the way to talk, he threatened to rape them. A complaint was filed against the aggressor, and the police filed an FIR against him under IPC sections 506 and 509. In the subsequent days, the students who supported the girl students were threatened and abused, and on October 1 morning, a gang of hooligans manhandled them. They threatened that they would cut off the legs of the students who stood with the girl students if the assailant was suspended from the University because of the complaint filed by the girl students. The gang also brutally beat up one of the students; his tooth was broken and he had to be admitted in JIPMER, Pondicherry. The security personnel of the University remained mute spectators throughout even as the gang unleashed violence.
When one of the girl students who were harassed approached the Vice-Chancellor with her grievance, she was discouraged from filing the complaint – the VC’s prime “concern” was that the “reputation” of the institution would be spoiled. Ever since she filed the complaint, the girl student has been continuously subjected to intimidation and threatened that she wouldn’t be allowed to complete her course of study in the University. Even more shockingly, the attempts to intimidate her were being led by Mr. Praveen, a faculty member of the Department of Physical Education. There were also attempts to slap false cases on the students who helped the girls in filing the complaint against the attacker.
The students of the University conducted a massive protest on 1 October night against these criminal acts in the campus. The protest saw massive participation of girl students and others, who demanded that the University must take steps on an urgent basis to stop ragging, sexual harassment and goonda raj in the campus, and that the University must set up a Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) to address complaints of sexual harassment in the University.
The subsequent days saw further attempts to harass the girl complainant. The university administration issued showcause notices to Kavya and Vidya along with the students who stood by them, for "creating a tense situation in the campus", for talking to the media and so on! The students of PU, however, did not take it lying down. They fought back the patriarchal administration’s machinations fearlessly through campaigns and protests. Students and other democratic sections led by SFI and AIDWA staged another protest demonstration on 23 October in Puducherry demanding strict action against the sexual harassers and the setting up of GSCASH.
But in a decision that could only be termed illogical, irrational and shocking, the PU administration issued a memorandum, signed by the university Registrar, suspending the two girl students and five other students who stood by them. In the memorandum, the university administration sought to equate the aggressors and the victims by portraying the acts of sexual harassment and ragging as merely a case of “mutual fight and exchange of abusive words”. The other charges were even more ridiculous – “having approached the media to release the news without obtaining due permission from the University” and having organised “unauthorised protests within the university campus” are the other “crimes” that the students have supposedly engaged in. 
Since when did talking to the media and holding peaceful protests become crimes in this country? Since when did "the right to freedom of speech and expression", and "the right to assemble peaceably and without arms" cease to be part of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India? The right to protest against injustice constitutes the very essence of democracy, the suppression of which has become the hallmark of the Pondicherry University administration.
Kavya, one of the complainants suspended by the University, was on an indefinite hunger strike from Monday (4 November 2013) against the despotic, vindictive measures by the University administration. Most condemnably, the police forcibly arrested her on Thursday night. But her mantle was taken up by Vidya, Abhijith and Rony, who went on hunger strike immediately. Within hours (on Friday, 8 November), the Madras High Court issued a stay order on the University's decision to suspend the students. The struggle of the student community for justice will now continue with renewed vigour.
SFI has demanded that the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, the UGC and the Vice-President of India (who is the Chancellor of PU) must intervene to ensure the safety and security of girl students in the campus and to ensure that the culprits in the case are given exemplary punishment. We demand that a GSCASH be set up in the University immediately as the students have been demanding, and that action be taken against those in the administration who sought to protect those who engaged in sexual harassment and ragging.

It is of deep concern to the student community that 16 years after the Supreme Court in its Vishaka judgement of 1997 laid down binding directives regarding the formation of committees to deal with cases of sexual harassment, GSCASH has still not been formed even in most central Universities. SFI demands that GSCASH be constituted in all Universities and colleges in the country in order to effectively address cases of sexual harassment in campuses and to sensitise students on gender issues. The incidents in PU underscore the need for intensifying our struggle for gender justice and against ragging in campuses across the country.

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