This is a story about a girl Riddhi, and a boy Akshay. It is a fictional story; because if it wasn’t its subject would face grave repercussions for speaking up.
It begins one night, when Akshay, the student head of a committee Riddhi worked for, asked her to come for a committee gathering to complete some urgent work. When she got to the isolated room he’d selected, she saw that it was just the two of them. And, as she realised too late, there was no pressing work. As Riddhi focused on completing the mindless tasks allotted to her, Akshay took the liberty of draping one arm around her and running his other hand up her thigh.
Riddhi, with full (and naive) faith in the law, complained to the college authorities. However, her college didn’t have the legally mandated Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) that could accept her complaint and investigate the matter. At first, instead of constituting the ICC, the registrar of the college asked her to instead resolve the issue via mediation. Riddhi refused.
By now, most of the student body had heard about the incident – and the administration’s response. Finally, after a full-throated, yet peaceful student protest, the college agreed to constitute an ICC and asked Riddhi to appear before it.
Then, she was questioned. The committee grilled her on irrelevant details, such as whether she took the stairs or the elevator when she left the room that night. Riddhi didn’t have answers to these questions. It had been a month since the incident, and everything except the hair raising feeling of Akshay trying to touch her had faded into the background. By this time, Riddhi had been forced to recount her ordeal in excruciating detail and provide a written account of it no less than three times. The committee seemed unaware or unconcerned with the mental and emotional toll their investigation had taken on Riddhi.
When the ICC finally provided its verdict, Riddhi was left reeling. The committee had accepted Akshay’s statement that he had ‘merely put a comforting arm around her as she was stressed about work.’ According to Riddhi, she had no reason to be stressed; and even if she was, any sort of physical contact from Akshay had always been unwelcome. The ICC drew a distinction between ‘harassment’ and ‘sexual harassment’, concluding that Akshay did harass Riddhi, but did not sexually harass her.
To add insult to injury, the university imposed sanctions against Riddhi for filing a “false complaint” against Akshay. The administration justified its actions by suggesting that Riddhi had filed a false complaint to malign the university’s reputation, even though she had, at no point, spoken to the media or initiated legal proceedings against the harasser or the university.
All Riddhi wanted was to feel safe in the place she called home. A place that had a responsibility to ensure her safety and was legally obligated to address the sexual harassment she faced. Instead, she was punished for demanding redressal. It wasn’t just her, the university also targeted the people who had publicly spoken up in Riddhi’s support. The focus had shifted from the matter of a student being sexually harassed to the potential damage the university’s reputation had incurred. The punishment was irrational and left Riddhi absolutely shattered.
After almost two months of ignoring Riddhi’s requests for a meeting, the vice chancellor finally agreed to meet see her and lift the sanctions against her.
However, it was limited respite. In the same meeting, he told Riddhi, “Aapke charitra par daag lag gaya hai.” (Your reputation’s taken a hit.) The VC also told Riddhi that she had had handled the matter immaturely and imposed a financial burden on the administration. There was, of course, no financial accounting for the anguish Riddhi and her family had felt during the process.
All through the course of the inquiry, and even later, the university tried to dissuade Riddhi from pursuing due process. At first, the administration tried to force an informal mediation and attempted to delay the constitution of the ICC; then, it punished Riddhi for making supposedly false allegations. And, as if that wasn’t enough, repeatedly refused her requests to be shifted to a different section, effectively forcing her to see her harasser every day.
College administrations have long tried to ‘protect’ women by enforcing discriminatory, and often irrational, rules on them. Administrators take great care to restrict women’s movement on and off campus, but when it come down to addressing women’s own concerns or acting against sexual harassment, the same administrators develop an inexcusably laid back attitude.
Instead of providing efficient and unbiased redressal mechanisms for complaints, college administrations engage in – and excel at – victim blaming, slut shaming and delaying due process. We’ve reached a point where women have begun to question whether their colleges are able to protect them at all.
Conversely, men are considered irreproachable and simply because of their gender. And that is what every feminist fights against. Men have been safe on their pedestal until now. But that stops now. With Riddhi. With you. With me.
Shrungar Bhuva is a full time law student, feminist and foodie.