The PSBB Sexual Harassment Case Dissipated the Smokescreen – Will Things Change?

I was nine. Whispered rumours about a teacher’s inappropriate behaviour were rife. Things were said, things were observed. But what could any of us say? How could we articulate this?

Around that time, my sister sat me down and explained the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’. She cautioned me against the vileness that exists in the world, even in our school. She lowered her voice when she cited the rumour about that one teacher as an example. “Please be careful,” she said. Her furrowed brow conveyed to me the gravity of what she was saying. But I’m not sure if I really understood why she was so scared.

The next day, I told two of my best friends about what my sister told me. Her palpable anxiety had terrified me, so I felt the need to warn my friends. Somehow, on that Tuesday morning, this whispered rumour became a booming noise. My sister, my friends and I were severely reprimanded for defaming a teacher. Our parents had to come and apologise to the management for our “recklessness”.

Not once were the allegations investigated. Not once was the teacher questioned. Not once were the victims in the said rumours approached. I still remember my class teacher threatening to get me expelled.

There were more rumours about the same individual as my schooling progressed. Everyone brushed it under the rug. As we entered the #MeToo era, it wasn’t shrugged off anymore. But, we couldn’t do more than talk angrily about it amongst ourselves. Everyone was scared.

Recently, screenshots were shared by a Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) alum, in which several students opened up about being sexually harassed by a teacher of that school. Those stories, and the subsequent arrest of the said teacher, triggered these memories. What struck me most were claims of the administration’s inaction, alleged by some students who tried reporting the teacher.

It also revived other fragments which I long tucked away in some forgettable corner – stories of my friends from other schools, about teachers pawing students, offering them cigarettes, inviting them to their homes, sending sketchy texts at odd hours and so on. I reeled at what the Pandora’s box threw on my face.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would have been had I stepped up. I sometimes ponder over how different things would have been, had those conversations over canteen samosas actually evolved into real change.

That powerlessness, fear and suffocation is something I probably never outgrew. Even today, as a 20-year-old student at a college that values autonomy and takes complaints of sexual harassment seriously, I feel insecure about speaking up.

Also read: What I Learned About Caste While Discussing the PSBB Incident With Family, Friends

I cannot count the number of times I have felt like I asked for it. I cannot count the number of times friends have felt the same way. This leads to a collective resignation to abuse. It is astonishing, the kind of power an abuser yields.

This inhibition and resignation is not only because of a fear of authority or debilitating self-blame. It is also because an eminent politician is at liberty to give perpetrators a free pass by saying “ladke hain, galti ho jati hai”. It is because the Indian judicial system is guilty of discrediting stories because a victim failed to “demonstrate normative behaviour” of an actual sexual assault victim. It is also because the supreme interpreter of our constitution can ask the rapist if he’ll marry the victim.

These twisted trains of thought run deep in the Indian ethos. They churn and chug away in the minds of parents who feel the urge to dictate what their daughters wear so that they do not inadvertently ‘ask to be raped’. They also run in the minds of school teachers and administrators who treat legitimate concerns of students as defamatory gossip.

Is it any wonder that I, and so many others, hesitate to speak up?

As much as that PSBB teacher’s actions disgusted me, I was in awe of the students who came forward. What they did takes immense courage, especially since administrators would often bury such cases for the sake of maintaining a facade regardless of their complicity in an unforgivable crime.

The confessions of many PSBB students tipped over a can of worms – more students from other branches of the school came forward with their stories. This further led to students and alumni from different schools sharing their experiences on social media.

Reading those stories was saddening. It revealed a frightening pattern – of teachers abusing their position of authority while being buffered by the image-obsession of the schools they work in. Schools in India tend to purport, nurture and secure a thriving rape culture.

While a few teachers being called out isn’t going to cause a seismic shift, it is a step in the right direction. It can potentially weaken the administrative walls which protect abusers cloaked in garbs of respect.

Unfortunately, these walls are cemented by ideas that justify violations of consent. These ideas are as old as time and stubbornly persist in the minds of many. Unless one of ‘India’s daughters’ dies a horrific death, long-term solutions are never fostered. Would it be naive to expect this furore to push schools to prioritise safety and the prevention of sexual harassment?

Shashwathi Sudhakar is a humanities student.

Featured image credit:PSBB’s official website