Bad News on Gender Justice From the JNU Campus

JNU is the only campus in India with an equal 50-50 representation of male and female students. So it is both surprising and disheartening to hear of the recent increase in disputes around gender justice.

‘Love Jihad’ Film Protests

On April 27, protests against a film screening turned violent, with several students and one guard injured.

The Global Indian Foundation and Vivekanand Vichar Manch of JNU screened In the name of love – melancholy of God’s own country, a film by Sudipto Sen on ‘love jihad’ and the religious conversion of girls in Kerala. ‘Love jihad’, an oft-cited bogey used by right-wing groups to say that Muslim men are converting Hindu women to Islam by convincing them they are in love, has been criticised by activists both for the communal nature of the allegation and because it does not account for women’s agency.

Members of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU) and (officially dismantled) Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) thus organised a peaceful protest against the film, which they said promoted a politics of hate. They issued a statement that asked, “Why is the ABVP/RSS hiding behind Vivekanand Vichar Manch? We won’t let the RSS’s venomous ‘Love Jihad’ myth be propagated.”

“No more Dhanyashree will die because of their hate campaign. No more Hadiyas will be imprisoned because of their hate campaign. No girl from Meerut will be forced to suffer because she loved,” it said. 

Their protest was met with eggs and stones from the organisers, which resulted in a scuffle between the protesters and ABVP members.

Twitter was abuzz over the weekend, with #CommunistviolenceinJNU trending. The immediate accusations and blurring of facts was a missed opportunity for a nuanced conversation on freedom of speech – and it’s limits when it comes with the intent to incite communal hatred and violence.

GCASH ‘break-in’

On April 24, the JNU administration and Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) attempted to break the locks of the former GSCASH office to retrieve confidential materials and case files. This is the latest in the disputes between the ICC and GSCASH since the decision to replace the latter in favour of the former was made on September 18, 2017.

“Why do we need a new anti-sexual harassment body?”

GSCASH, instituted in 1999 after the Supreme Court’s Vishakha judgement in 1997, has been a model for setting up other autonomous sexual harassment bodies in other universities. In a historic move, the students protested the administration order and continued to hold elections for GSCASH, despite it not being officially recognised.

Several GSCASH student representatives questioned the need to end an existing, functioning body that went above and beyond the minimum requirements of an ICC, by recognising complainants regardless of gender, including from gender-neutral individuals, and ensuring confidentiality without the fear of retaliation. This sensitive framework was a welcome respite in a misogynistic society where sexual harassment victims are viewed with disdain at best.

Shreya, a GSCASH student representative, said that it was an autonomous and elected body and this made the process of justice and enquiry fair and transparent. However, for the ICC, the JNU administration would nominate all non-student members, including three faculty members and two non-teaching staff. Shukla Savant, the elected and nominated chairperson of GSCASH in 2017, said that the ‘elected’ component, i.e. the student representatives, in the ICC is complicated. She argues that the students would be unlikely to pursue enquiries against powerful people due to the uneven power dynamics on the board, with its nominated members being close to the administration and so unlikely to encourage investigations into prominent faculty.

Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power, and Swati Simha, a student representative, argued, “the persons dispensing justice can’t be close to power, as per the UGC workplace act as well”. The fear of repercussions, for all students – complainant and ones on the board – is a valid concern, as only recently the complaints made to the ICC were leaked. This is especially dangerous in cases of sexual harassment, where victims often remain anonymous out of fear for their safety. Students have recently also undertaken the burden of proof on themselves, often resorting to filing FIRs, as the trust that the university will resolve their issues has waned.

Court battles

Student and faculty members have filed various petitions in the Delhi high court against the administration and the dismantling of GSCASH. Most recently, the high court had said that the complaints received by GSCASH must remain sealed in their custody till a further hearing on May 1st, 2018. However, the JNU administration bypassed this ruling to directly appeal to the Supreme Court – without informing the other parties involved. For this, they broke open the GSCASH locks to access the files. The members of GSCASH and JNUTA (JNU Teachers’ Association) questioned the unnecessary haste in breaking and entering, and the secrecy in going to the SC, arguing that this demonstrates dangerous intent.

Sonajharia Minz, JNUTA president said, “It is illegal and a misuse of power to interfere with the enquiry process and intimidate the students and staff members.”

The question remains as to why the ongoing investigations by GSCASH into the previous harassment complaints were stopped. The evidence-based enquiry, which worked on the premise of believing all complainants – women students and staff and those from oppressed genders – would weed out false complaints through their screening process.

Minz asserted that this saga is the “ultimate example of the autocratic rule that has recently begun more forcefully”. The VC has said that he is against sexual harassment, but for these to be more than just hollow words there is a need to engage more thoroughly in the process of gender justice – from ensuring privacy and transparency to swift redressals.

The systematic dismantling of inclusive practices has only been increasing in JNU. By clamping down on social justice and only promoting a myopic perspective – be it through film screenings or arbitrarily disbanding innovative committees – the university is moving away from its vision of a free, safe space for all its students.