By Kunjila Mascillamani
A college that encourages sexual harassment? In the last decade, Christ University in Bangalore has acquired a reputation of being ‘strict’ among the earnest, and ‘jail’ among the honest.
Urban legend has it that in the 70s, when Mount Carmel College (MCC), Bangalore, didn’t have an elected student union for a while, other colleges like Christ College and St Joseph’s boycotted them. Until the management allowed the students representation, MCC would be persona non grata. (Back then it was of course just Christ College. It became a university in 2008.)
This mildly political avatar of Christ, and its being known as a ‘rowdy’ college from the early 90s, is almost erased from public memory. Christ University, Bangalore, in the last decade has acquired a reputation of being ‘strict’ among the earnest and ‘jail’ among the honest. For recent graduates from Christ, the news of students at their alma mater revolting must be a bit like what Russian dissidents felt when they heard that the USSR had collapsed. Could those dreams ever come true?
Until the incident in 2013 when a girl was sexually harassed by a National Cadet Corps (NCC) Trainer, Ajay Pavithran, Christ had not seen any protests. Perhaps that is why when a student decided to write about how they were asked to attend classes even during a state-wide strike, students began protesting against everything from the university’s draconian rules, to sexual harassment and the institution’s startling obsession with women students’ bodies.
Christ University has refused to acknowledge the existence of sexual harassment on campus altogether. But with every passing day, more and more stories are emerging of an institution that actively encouraged the discrimination and harassment of female students.
Where the protests started
The short timeline of the protests is already difficult to untangle. However, it does look as if it all started on 26th July, with the blog post by Sumedha Biswas, a second year BSc student. In a blog post titled “Dear Christ University, I Cannot Fly”, Biswas wrote about her plight as a student who had to try to attend classes even during a state-wide bandh to make the attendance percentage required by Christ. The post went viral and set the stage for the unrest that was to follow.
“As a person who’s maintained a blog for over two years now, writing is usually something I turn to when I feel too strongly about something,” says Biswas. “I wrote it simply because I was frustrated, felt completely helpless and wanted a solution to the problem I was facing. But after I’d posted it, the response I got was astounding. That’s when I realised that most people felt the same thing I was feeling.”
On 27th July, an assistant professor of Economics, who does not wish to be named, shared the same blog post in a faculty WhatsApp group. He told us that the post had become viral anyway, and if not for him, someone else would have shared it. He also says that he didn’t understand why sharing that post alone became a problem when a lot of posts were shared on that group anyway. “I think it is a valid concern from a student and I still maintain that,” he says.
On the same day, he was asked to meet the head of the Bannerghatta Road campus by the Associate Dean, Jyothi Kumar. His official e-mail id was then disabled.
On 28th July, when he met the priest in charge of recruitment he says he was presented with a rather convoluted metaphor, from which the professor gathered that he had to leave. Apparently the faculty fraternity was like a journey on the bus and that just because he (the professor) had got a bad seat, it did not mean that he could disturb other passengers. “The Father said that there were several other buses and that I could continue my journey on them. I don’t know what disturbance I was causing to the other passengers. That was the day I was asked to leave,” he said, adding, “I don’t have any regrets. I know I have not done anything wrong.”
The students’ protest broke out on Friday, 29th July. Around 200 students gathered in the quadrangle of the new campus and staged a silent protest regarding various rules. The main agenda of the protest was to address the problems of the 85 percent attendance requirement, strict dress codes, refusal to grant holidays on statewide/nationwide strikes, the dubious way in which the Student Council is appointed, and the different assessment systems on the two campuses of Hosur Road and Bannerghatta Road.
The students protested silently, wearing black. Their phones and id cards were confiscated and some were returned only after two days. When the students questioned this, they were told by Jyothi Kumar that, “If you are in a system the system will not change for you, you have to change for the system.” Preethi*, a student from the Bannerghatta Road campus, says, “She said we cannot expect privacy when you are part of an institution. Our concerns were brushed off.”
Jyothi Kumar refused to answer calls and messages, and blocked us on WhatsApp when we asked for her comments regarding the issue.
Sexual harassment at Christ University
It was against the backdrop of this protest that one female student, Manasi*, mustered the courage to speak up against sexual harassment, which is also part of the vast urban legend of Christ University. She who wrote a blog post that appeared on The News Minute on 1st August, titled, “Bengaluru’s Christ University has stifled those who stood up to sexual harassment.”
Manasi’s post talks extensively about the sexual harassment she has faced in Christ University. She wrote about two teachers who had sexually harassed her, and about how a priest, who is known for his inappropriate behaviour with women students, had made nasty comments about her clothes and body. Another English professor had asked her in class if she would like to go for a movie with him — known to be a common practice by the professor. He had also asked boys if they had scored “maal”, referring not to weed, but to their female classmates on campus.
According to Manasi, the level of sexism has reached absurd heights in Christ. Apart from inappropriate behaviour towards women students, professors regularly pass sexist comments in class. She says that her post was triggered by an incident that had happened to her friend, Pinky, two weeks ago. “My friend was made to cry after they [the teachers] accused her of behaving inappropriately because she wore bangles and lipstick.” She added that she knew many more girls who had faced similar problems. Pinky, says that the Dean told her that her “made-up face” clearly indicated what she goes to college for: “to distract, according to him,” she says. “I had worn nothing except kajal and lipstick,” Pinky said.
Sudarsana*, a student at Christ University’s main campus, spoke to us through her friend Manasi. She mentioned how the English teacher (who Manasi writes about in her blog post) had made similar sexual advances, like prolonged handshakes or inappropriate patting. “He also passes derogatory comments on boys who sit amongst girls. Once he told my friend not to sit among girls because he needed some [girls] for himself.” she added. The professor even asked the boy if he was ‘different’, insinuating that he was gay, as if it was something to be ashamed of.
In 2013, a 19-year-old student tried to commit suicide after what she said was six months of sexual harassment by an NCC trainer. A police case was registered against the trainer by the girl’s parents on charges of sexually harassing their daughter. Christ University then shockingly asked the father of the student to forgive the accused. The student’s father criticised the university’s response, but later withdrew the complaint he made to the police.
Manasi told us that she had heard that the student had been rusticated by the university. We have not been able to confirm this, or the rumours that are considered common knowledge among students, that the family was threatened with a defamation suit. Whether this is true or not, this is part of the general atmosphere that prevents sexual harassment from being reported.
But from the look of things, it doesn’t end there. As in most cases of sexual harassment on campuses, the perpetrators have long histories as repeat offenders. About the priest that Manasi refers to in her post, she says, “Speculation in my campus is rampant about Father’s sexual indiscretions. He is alleged to have molested a girl. The case about the Father is common knowledge. Apparently, that girl was rusticated. All this is speculation.”
A reporter who was working for DNA at the time and didn’t want to be named, said that Bangalore reporters had been alerted to a case of sexual harassment that happened in the Department of Psychology in 2008. According to the reporter, the student had run out of a priest’s room with bite marks on her neck and back.
Swarnalatha Iyer, who was the head of the Psychology department when this happened, confirmed the incident. She said that she was the HoD for the undergraduate programme, and that the student was doing her postgraduation. The reporters had arrived, but left without doing the story because by then, the student’s father had withdrawn the FIR. Iyer says that the student was then “chucked out” of Christ. Apparently after this case, a farcical Internal Complaints Committee for Sexual Harassment was set up. It was headed by a priest. According to Vishaka guidelines, the Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its member should be women. There was another priest on the committee who recorded the student’s testimony on video.
Iyer says that a counselor on campus was asked to provide a certificate saying that the student was insane. “This was done against her [the counsellor’s] wishes and she left Christ soon after that,” Iyer added. “She had an MSc in Physics and was in no way qualified to give a certificate like that. Even I couldn’t give such a certificate,” she explained. The priest who assaulted the student was transferred from the department of Psychology to administration. And as in the case against Ajay Pavithran of the NCC, the woman student’s parents mysteriously withdrew the FIR.
Iyer had worked for 18 years in Christ by then. She left some months after this incident. Was it related? She said that after this incident in which she had expressed solidarity with the girl, Christ made sure that she was uncomfortable there in various ways. “I was not asked to resign but they created an atmosphere in the department in which I could not continue,” she says. She is now MD & CEO of Seshan’s Academy Infinity Pvt Ltd.
Ms Iyer spoke of one Sports Day when she was the HoD, when there was an incident in which a woman student had gone to the washroom and had run out seeing a man in there. The girls were instructed not to go alone to the washroom after that incident. That is when one of the girls stood up and asked “This was an outsider. What about saving us from insiders?” Iyer says that that was when she sensed something was seriously wrong. When she spoke to her former students, they said that the same priest who had assaulted the female postgrad student had a history of abusive behaviour and everyone knew about it.
Manasi’s mother says, “There is a dichotomy in Christ’s policies. They have parochial rules for students while having people such as the Father [who assaulted a postgrad] in their administrative set up. Allowing such people to come in contact with the students without paying attention to student complaints shows disregard for student safety. I feel dreadful until I see her [Manasi] safely back home every evening. It’s the mental agony that goes with being in Christ that bothers me the most.”
The priest in admin who assaulted a postgrad did not answer our calls.
Is this how your mother dresses?
How does sexual harassment live in plain sight in a large university? When ordinary everyday behaviour of women students is declared illicit and immoral, it gives male faculty and administrators a shocking degree of power.
Take the dupatta problem. Everyone talks about it. While the UGC has decided to do away with discriminatory dress codes, as an autonomous institution, Christ has continued its fine tradition.
Women have to wear Indian formals, which is kurtas and salwars/patialas/churidars. Palazzos are allowed, but you can get caught for them depending on the guards and deanery. No sleeveless clothes are allowed. Leggings and denims are not allowed. Kurtis have to be knee length. Dupattas are compulsory. Men have to be in Western formals: full-sleeved shirts and formal trousers. Ties are compulsory for a few deaneries. Slippers are not permitted.
While the dress code in itself is discriminatory, what is worse is the institution-sanctioned sexual harassment that evolves in its name. Almost all students we spoke to said that the male faculty and security personnel on campus were allowed startling leeway with the excuse of enforcing the dress code. Security personnel even touch the fabric of clothes to find out if girls were wearing leggings or churidars. Another student recollects that the harassment by another faculty on social media saying, “I remember the time when dupattas worn were lifted to check if the student was wearing a sleeveless outfit.” “Violating personal space by lifting kurtis [to check if students were wearing leggings]? That is harassment for me,” Manasi says.
This week, sharing Manasi’s post, another student wrote on Facebook, ‘During my first semester, I was caught for wearing leggings and a female teacher said, “Why are you showing off your shapely legs and trying to get the guard’s attention?” And this other time when I didn’t have a dupatta on, a male teacher called me after class and said “It’s distracting!“
Preethi tells us that when her friend had decided to not wear her dupatta because it got torn on her way to college, a male professor spotted her in the corridor and asked her, “Is this how your mother dresses?”
In three separate accounts, female students told us that the security guards stopped only busty girls for not wearing a dupatta, while flat-chested girls were allowed in. “I assure you no girl is trying to prove anything by not wearing a dupatta. Flat-chested girls are not asked questions, but girls with bigger busts are asked questions when they walk into campus by security guards. If you look at it from a larger perspective, a woman’s body is essentially very, very sexualised in any scenario. In an educational setting to have a dress code is okay. But to have these stringent rules, and to face these consequences if you slip even slightly I don’t think is done,” Preethi says indignantly.
One student from the Bannerghatta Road campus who had heard of sexual harassment that was rampant on campus said that, “The security guards were doing that [commenting on clothes and student’s bodies] a lot as well.” She said that, “This happened frequently from faculty and students as well, but it never surfaced because there has been a history of not saying anything. Nobody protested.”
Preethi was quick to respond to the question of why there was silence regarding this matter. “Students are absolutely scared. They’ll [the management] single you out and threaten you. I have heard of a lot of times when students were threatened with expulsion,” she said.
Not all students are giving up though. When asked what the protestors were planning next, one of the girls said defiantly, “I don’t want nasty comments to be passed by teachers and students alike on my friends for not wearing a dupatta. I don’t want my privacy to be invaded. We want answers.”
See no evil, see no suspension
When we contacted the Dean J J Kennedy and sought his response on the charges of sexual harassment, he replied thus: “They are merely allegations. Ours is one of the safe and secure campuses in the country, most student-friendly with qualified, committed and proactive staff and faculty. From what has been going on I see a concerted effort to malign the name of the institution by some vested interests. Christ university, in all its years of existence has stood for quality, progressive thinking, holistic development and lifelong learning. We will continue to work towards strengthening such values in our students.”
An official from Christ University told the media that they had a “well constituted set-up” to deal with sexual harassment according to the UGC guidelines. The UGC directive has set 31st August, 2016 as the deadline for Vice Chancellors to update the commission on the enforcement of its Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions Regulations, 20l6. According to a 29th July UGC directive, even students who have sexually harassed other students must be expelled and denied re-admission.
I asked students if they knew if there was a sexual harassment committee in Christ University. All said no.
A student from the Bannerghatta campus tells us that she knew there was something called a gender equity committee. “We have not seen any action being taken by them. We don’t know who is heading this committee or who its members are. We have not been told how to approach it, what comes under its purview,” she adds with resignation.
Edwin Thomas, ex- Christ student and sub-editor at Youth Ki Awaaz, said he wished the Christ University administration was little more sensitive to issues of sexual violence, abuse and harassment, “Because for most women, the cards are always stacked against them, which forces them to voice grievances anonymously and send it to platforms like ours. If there were redressal agencies at their level, they wouldn’t need to do that.”
Women students also told us, “We have the Open Forum to address student issues and we’re instructed not to talk about it [sexual harassment].” Manasi says, “Once I was discussing the Vishaka Guidelines with a student council member and she said bringing it up would just mean that they’ll suspend me. In an Open Forum which was held last Wednesday[3rd August 2016] in Mini Auditorium, Block 1, when someone brought up the issue of sexual harassment a senior council member said it’s all baseless,” she said.
Preethi, who had only heard about Manasi’s post and didn’t know her, was optimistic and told us, “Now that this has come out I am sure everybody will speak up in her support.” But what would she think if she heard of this shocking sample of the university’s response.
On 4th August, Vice Chancellor Thomas C Mathew made a statement at the inaugural ceremony of a national-level media summit called ‘Media meet’ held at the Shell Auditorium, Block 4 of the main campus. According to Manasi, he said, “The girls might now think that just because a Father smiled at me he must have a thing for me.”
For the highest authority of this institution, it is the girls who are being silly by thinking that priests who sexually harass them have a ‘thing for them’. Mathew did not stop there. Guessing that the complaints against sexual harassment have risen from the media wing, he said, “We are all scared of Media Studies students because you’re all creating problems.”
After that it isn’t surprising that the statement from the Controller of Examinations and Student Council, Johny Joseph, sent to the student council, said that the protests were “deliberate attempts to disturb the academic culture of Christ University”. He said that he spent three hours in BGR campus and found “students very relaxed and also a few with unshaved faces, half rolled sleeves, engaged in chatting and eating in the canteen during class hours.”
Does this mean that there is no sexual harassment in Christ University? That’s one of many explanations that we are waiting for.
*Names changed to protect identities.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Johny Joseph’s statement agreed with Sumedha Biswas’ blog post and was released on social media. This has been corrected.
Photo credit: Rameshng via Wikimedia CC by SA 3.0