Students at Jadavpur University fight for justice against alleged molestation on campus

At 2 a.m. , 17th September, following the orders of the acting VC of Jadavpur University, protesting students were lathi-charged and brutally uprooted from outside his office. Several were arrested and some had to rushed to the hospital. Outsiders (read ruling party goons)  were viewed beating up girls, all this while the campus lights were switched off deliberately. In protest, there was a massive rally on 17th afternoon. What follows is an account by Comparative Literature student Srishti Dutta Chowdhury and Sahana Mukherjee of the English Department about the events leading upto this brutal repression of democracy. However, this is only the first report among a series of features we will be carrying over the coming weeks about campus violence and how gender, caste and class identities play out here. Clearly there is no black and white.

In Jadavpur University (a State aided university of West Bengal), the Arts Students Faculty Union organizes a students’ fest Sanskriti every year. On the second night of the fest, this year, an incident of violence occurred in the campus that resulted in a chain of events.

On the night of 28th August, during the ongoing festival, a second year student from the Department of History, Jadavpur University, was allegedly molested by a group of people from the hostel inside campus premises, and her male friend (a non-JU member) was beaten up. According to the victim, she had gone near the hostel to relieve herself given the unavailability of bathrooms at the time, accompanied by her friend. On their way back, a group of hostel boys allegedly passed snide remarks which led to a scuffle, and then escalated to something bigger. While her friend was allegedly dragged away and beaten up, she was dragged into the hostel, where the victim claimed she was molested.

She tried to get in touch with the University authorities immediately the following day (29th August). On meeting the VC, he maintained that he would need 15 days to act on the issue, and asked her to stay away from college for those days due to ‘security issues’. When asked that it was his responsibility to provide security to the students, he claimed that the students would protest if he tried to enforce strict surveillance in the campus. The victim was not even informed of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Cell, an autonomous body that does not work under the VC’s supervision. Faced with such apathy, she was forced to lodge an FIR at the Jadavpur Police Station on 1st September.

The general students, regardless of their political affiliations, organized a GB meeting on 3rd September where a deputation to the Dean of Students was finalised. This deputation demanded the setting up of an independent investigative committee constituting external members such as a retired judge, a psychologist, a gender rights activist, a Women’s Commission member, a Human Rights Commission member, among others. It also demanded that the investigation procedure should be processed within 7 days, and that each and every student should be kept abreast of its proceedings.

In the FIR that was lodged, the victim had already identified one of the accused. In any case under the IPC, the police can make prima facie arrests based on the identification made by the victim. The identified accused can be brought in for their statements to be recorded. Since the police remained inactive despite the VC’s supposed approval, the general students organised a protest rally to Jadavpur Police Station on 5th September. Representatives of the students’ body were informed by the police that they were through with seventy percent of the list of alleged perpetrators and would require ‘some more time’.

The same day saw two representatives of the University authorities paying the victim an unauthorised visit. They refused to present identification and questioned the victim’s clothing and sobriety on the night of 28th August – a clear violation of the Vishakha Guidelines that assert that there should be no external pressure either on the victim or the accused during the investigating procedure. The victim, quite traumatised with the entire incident, lodged a general diary on the same day at the Bidhan Nagar Police Station. On 8th September, members of the AIPWA (All India Progressive Womens Association) accompanied by members of the general students’ body went to submit a deputation to the VC on whose absence the pro-VC received it. The pro-VC’s only response to every question asked on the matter was, ‘I don’t know.”

The same day (8th September) saw a protest rally organised by the general students to the VC’s office demanding an explanation for the victim-blaming, but the ICC (Internal Complaint Cell) members refused to make any public statement. The students’ representative of the ICC, also the GS of AFSU (Arts Faculty Students’ Union) resigned from her post as member in protest of the biased nature of the investigation. It was decided through general consensus that the ICC members should not be allowed to leave before making any constructive statement. In the process of preventing them from leaving, students (both male and female) faced violent resistance from the unidentified men who were accompanying the members for their protection. Afterwards, when few representatives from the students’ body were finally allowed an audience with 3 members of the ICC, the latter altogether denied a part in any kind of victim-blaming, and urged the students not to sensationalise the incident in the media.

Incidentally, on 9th September, the Bengali daily, Ei Shomoy published a report where a member of the ICC had claimed that she was physically assaulted by students. “I was shoved, kicked and strangled” was her statement to the newspaper, even though female students had only built up a human barricade to stop her from leaving. A GB meeting was organised on the same day where an open letter was written which was addressed to the said member questioning the authentication of her accusation and demanding proof in the form of CCTV footage since students were under CCTV surveillance the entire time during the sit-in.

The letter that was drafted goes as follows:

Most respected Maam,

On 8th September, we, the students of Jadavpur University, congregated outside the Vice-Chancellors office demanding a public statement about an unauthorised visit to the victims house by you (Professor Sharbani Ganguly, Department of Sanskrit) and Professor Aishika Chakravarty (Department of Womens Studies) claiming to represent university authority. A General Diary had been lodged by the victim regarding this unannounced visit, and the certain objectionable comments regarding her clothing which were consequently made. We read the news report published on the 9th of September in the Bengali daily, Ei Shomoy. The Ei Shomoy report quoted you saying that you were physically assaulted (kicked, slapped, punched and throttled) when you tried to leave the meeting.

However, when you had left the meeting, you had come to the collapsible gate and had asked the agitating students whether you could leave or not. Upon being told that we would like a public statement before you left regarding the events detailed in the GD, you went back inside. After some time, eight to ten men (not university guards) emerged to form a safe passage for you by pushing, punching, and kicking aside students without a single word! The women among us formed a human barrier hoping that these men would not raise their hands against university students outside the office of the Vice-Chancellor.

Nevertheless, several students (both male and female) were assaulted by these unidentified men, even though we did not initiate the violence. Several amongst us suffered bodily harm and some female students were punched repeatedly by these men. We assert that we did not physically assault you in any way whatsoever, despite facing an unprovoked attack ourselves. We object to the claim that we initiated violence, when in fact we tried to end it. Our claim, corroborated by certain eye-witnesses, can be backed up by the CCTV footage, which we demand be made public. Without this footage, accusations of direct assault cannot be substantiated. We wish it to remain on record that you did not provide the public statement we had come to get, and therefore our efforts to ensure a free and unbiased investigation into the on-campus incident will continue.

We, the students will keep fighting for justice. Anyone who attempts to blame/shame the victim will face the bitterest of criticisms. Brute force and slander may be used against us, but the conscience of the people will remain untouched and we shall continue to strive for justice.

Yours faithfully,

The General Students of Jadavpur University, who are fighting for one of their own with everything that they have against whatever you are throwing at us.

After writing this open letter, on 10th September another GB meeting was called where the students decided to go on an indefinite sit-in in front of Aurobindo Bhavan (the main office on campus) till a public statement is issued. The VC still refused to utter a word and kept expressing absolute nonchalance. In the evening on the same day, after another GB meeting, it was decided that students would rally to the Chancellor’s office demanding an immediate investigation into the matter, and would ask the VC to call an Emergency EC meeting on 12th September to set up the investigative committee since the ICC has clearly proved itself to be inefficient and criminal by violating the Vishakha Guidelines. The same evening, in an interaction with the student representatives, claimed that if he felt the necessity he would ask for police intervention and stated that the student’s week-old deputation would only be presented at the EC meeting scheduled for 16th September. Since this meant that the issue would be reserved as a zero hour topic, the students drafted a deputation for an emergency EC meeting to be held within 24 hours. The sit-in continued throughout the night despite disturbances in the form of attempts in intimidation by the police.

Various attempts have been made to divert attention from the main agenda, but students need to, and will, stay focused on the core issue. Students need to ensure that an impartial investigation is conducted and justice is meted out. Thus, the students need the support of people outside the campus, and the cooperation of the media. To work collectively is the need of the hour.

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury is a student of the Department of Comparative Literature in Jadavpur University, Kolkata and Sahana Mukherjee is a student the Department of English of the same university.

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