Harassment in College Campuses: Where Are the Safe Spaces?

“He seemed like a good person. A feminist. A revolutionary. Someone who ticked all the boxes. This made it very difficult for me to accept that people like him can also be [sexual] predators,” says Pihu*, a postgraduate student at the University of Delhi (DU).

The ‘he’ being spoken about here was a doctoral student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who was accused of multiple sexual harassment charges by DU students. “He approached me online. I looked up to him because he was a master’s student at JNU while I was still in my first year of bachelor’s. I thought he could guide me academically, so we met,” claims Pihu.

Initially, he projected himself as a feminist and a champion of women’s rights. However, as time passed, he asked several uncomfortable questions. “He asked if I had other hot friends,” she continues.

A similar encounter happened with Heena*, a former postgraduate student at DU, who claimed that he asked her uncomfortable questions about her sexuality. “He took me to an isolated graveyard and told me that it is a great place to make out…while walking towards the metro station, he held my hand while I resisted,” she says.

On February 3, 2019, ‘DU Beat’ – an independent student-run newspaper at DU, published an article outing the alleged perpetrator, who faced multiple sexual harassment charges. “It was when I read this article it hit me that I could have been one of those girls,” Pihu sighs. She informs that one of her friends was also sexually harassed by him. “It was one of the most emotionally damaging episodes of my life. I was retrospectively scared of this man,” she says.

Multiple complaints were filed against the alleged perpetrator from JNU, which led the Women’s Development Cell of Miranda House College to issue a statement. Further, he was expelled from the All-India Students’ Association (AISA). Despite this, no legal actions by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) have been taken against him. A former student of Kirori Mal College (KMC) informs that the alleged perpetrator has a pattern of sexually harassing women who are new to the college environment. However, due to a lack of inter-university redressal cells, such complaints are often not dealt with in the way they ought to be.

Also read: ‘He Escaped Every Time’: DU North Campus Residents on Serial Sexual Harasser

Sexual harassment on college campuses has penetrated the most reputed colleges across the country. Despite having mechanisms such as the ICC or redressal cells, required actions against the alleged perpetrator are not taken.

Many students believe that ICC is not equipped enough to handle such cases. “ICC is just one of the many time-taking processes which do not pay heed to the delivery of justice. At most, the ICC will suspend the student. What will a suspension do? It is a free holiday for the accused. How [can] suspending someone be an act of redressal?” laments Ashima*, a former student at National Law University (NLU), Ranchi, a survivor of campus sexual harassment.

In Ashima’s case, despite informing the authorities, no action was taken. Instead, she and many other women who reported the harassment were socially boycotted. “There were messages on the official class WhatsApp group where students had sent disturbing voice notes and agreed to boycott a few other girls and me, socially. All of this happened in the presence of our course coordinator, who was also a participant of that WhatsApp group,” claims Ashima.

Ashima eventually dropped out of college and outed her perpetrators on social media. As a result, she faced backlash from the student body of NLU, Ranchi, who continued to bad mouth her in her comment section. They also insulted her present college she was enrolled in and used queerphobic slurs. “It was too much for me to process. On top of that, I received emails from the university stating that defamation charges would be pressed against me if I continue to out the person on my social media,” she claims.

A case of harassment was finally filed on April 27, 2020. However, despite several follow-ups on the case, no action has been taken.

Also read: What Does a College Do When a Man Harasses a Woman? Nothing.

There are many other cases of harassment where one can trace a familiar pattern. Kiran*, a former student of KMC, speaks of how she was also able to identify a pattern when she was sexually harassed by one of her seniors on a college trip. “We celebrated my birthday on that trip, and my senior offered me drinks despite my resistance,” she says. She mentions that since her room was locked, she stayed in that senior’s room in the presence of many other people, including women. “He asked me to show him the photos we had clicked earlier, so I sat next to him. I was drunk, so I lay on the bed. After a while, he started caressing my hair, kissing me on my cheeks, and touching me inappropriately,” she says.

She was then taken to the washroom, where the senior asked her to have sexual intercourse, to which she explicitly said no. “That was it. I came out of the washroom. Since I had nowhere else to go, I went back into the room and slept to avoid further conversation. No one was in that room when I woke up the next day. Everyone was weird to me.” Kiran claims she was also socially boycotted because her senior had bad-mouthed her.

Coming back to college, it was revealed to her that her senior had spread rumours about her having sexual intercourse with him. However, she did not report this to the ICC because she was suggested not to do so by some of the members of the college’s gender forum and a faculty member. “They told me that the ICC cannot do anything about this case as my senior was a very influential person who had political ties,” she says. She was also informed of one case where the ICC denied filing a complaint against the same person. However, a former ICC member who also served as the president rejected such claims, saying, “From my limited experience [with the ICC], I have not seen any complaint going unaddressed.”

“He would initially seem very approachable and start hanging out with you. After a while, once you are drunk, he will molest you. Something very similar happened with one of my juniors, too,” she claims. Kiran, her junior, and many of her classmates outed the person on social media. Immediately after this incident, Kiran received calls from students’ political parties. “I had to survive on this campus. Getting calls from the members of students’ political parties was not something you would want to face, and it is very scary. So, we all took down our posts,” she says.

Commenting on this case, Advocate Supriya Yadav, For Women In India, says that the ICC cannot deny filing a complaint; if it does, the aggrieved person can always reach out to the higher authorities. “There are several NGOs as well as the National Women’s Commission that can also help out the aggrieved person in case the ICC fails to do so,” says Yadav.

In many cases, Advocate Garima Gupta mentions that aggrieved persons are socially conditioned not to speak out. “There is societal pressure, parental pressure, and many more reasons that might shun the aggrieved person,” claims Gupta. Further, with the failure of these mechanisms, the campuses become unsafe and inaccessible to the aggrieved. Though ICC, redressal cells and gender forums are in place, there is still a long way to make such mechanisms accessible and uniform across campuses to create a safer space.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the aggrieved persons

Note: The colleges mentioned were contacted by the author, but no comment was received from their end. This piece will be updated as and when there is a response.

Ishita Roy is a student of Journalism at New Delhi’s AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia. She covers stories on heritage and gender.