The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of Jawaharlal Nehru University has stoked a major controversy with its circular for conducting a counselling session on sexual harassment on January 17 next year. The circular said that such sessions were required as “girls” were supposed to know how to “draw a tangible line” between them and their male friends to prevent sexual harassment from taking place.
The circular reads,"ICC come across a number of cases where sexual harassment takes place among close friends. Boys generally cross (sometimes advertently, sometimes inadvertently) the thin line between friendship's bantering and sexual harassment. Girls suppose to know how to draw a tangible line (between them and their male friends) to avoid any such harassments. Girls suppose to know how to draw a tangible line between them and their male friends to avoid any such harassments [sic].”
The circular was vehemently criticised for its tone by the teachers and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who alleged that the it defied the purpose of the ICC for creating a conducive environment to prevent sexual harassment. The Internal Complaints Committees are the bodies formed in any institution or workplace where the male and female staff can complain about sexual harassment as per the Vishakha Guidelines stipulated by the Supreme Court of India.
Ayesha Kidwai, a linguist and a professor at JNU, said that the circular “shows us why women complainants do not want to complain to the ICC for fear of being punished themselves. It also explained why the loss of GSCASH had effectively silenced all discussions on sexual harassment on the JNU campus altogether, as the ICC and its supposed awareness programmes have created an atmosphere that is virulently hostile to sexual harassment being seen as a misconduct, a human rights violation, and a blatant exercise of patriarchal and hierarchical power in the workplace.” She added that the tone of the notice was important to note and it reduced sexual harassment, which is a crime, to boisterous bantering between girls and boys.
In a statement published on social media, Kidwai added, ”The Sexual Harassment Act 2013 defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature that creates a intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment for a woman, creating an interference with a woman’s interference and/or subjects her to humiliating treatment that could affect her health or safety. For the JNU ICC, however, it’s just a slightly more boisterous form of the playful banter between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’! (hello, the ICC doesn’t cater to anyone but students? And they are also not boys and girls either by the way)." She added, "In JNU, Sexual Harassment is just a form of ‘joking’, or what it was called earlier ‘eve- teasing’, at least as far as the ICC is concerned. This suspicion is only reinforced by the objective no. 3 listed in the notice—“Girls suppose to know how to draw a tangible line (between them and their male friends) to avoid any such harassments.” Aka: a ‘girl’ is always “asking for it”. So if a woman do complain to the ICC then the onus is on her to prove that she did draw that lakshman rekha dark enough. Whether this inking is enough to preclude a ‘not guilty’ verdict because of an ‘inadvertent’ breach of it by a ‘boy’ is of course another story [sic].”
Aishe Ghosh, President, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, told Newsclick that the ICC in JNU “makes a blatant victim blaming remark where it asks ‘women to draw a tangible line to not get harassed by their male members’.” She said, “The ICC in JNU has time and again passed such regressive remarks or conducted itself in a way to ultimately moral police the survivor. Such a remark creates a space where harassment committed along such lines will become rampant and will lead to (the university) becoming an unsafe space for women.”
The ICC in the university was constituted through a resolution taken in the 269th meeting of the Executive Council by replacing the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) -- a body revered in university circles for its programmes to promote gender sensitivity and uphold gender justice.
Speaking to Newsclick, Gaurab Ghosh, former presidential candidate at the university and a student at the Department of Arts and Aesthetics, listed out why the ICC was a weak body with a compromised mandate and not competent to deal with sexual harassment cases. Ghosh, who came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said, ”The ICC members are generally appointed by the administration who have failed in taking any proactive action against harassment in the university. For example, the university community was aghast when the girl students came out against Professor Atul Johri for harassment attempts made in labs and premises of the campus. However, he continues to serve in his position till date.”
Ghosh further compared the ICC to the GSCASH and said, “The GSCASH was a more empowered body to deal with such cases as the members were democratically elected by all sections of students. Second, the GSCASH dealt with such cases and we have examples where perpetrators who made the campus unsafe were thrown out of jobs. It followed the procedure of a civil court to hear complaints. Unfortunately, the ICC members cannot justify the Committee’s existence today.“
In September 2017, JNU students went against the administration’s warning to hold elections to the GSCASH even though the administration had put put a circular saying that the committee was non-existent and it had been replaced by an Internal Complaints Committee.
Although the JNU administration had called the election illegal, members of the University Grants Commission (UGC)-appointed Saksham Task Force, which was formed to ensure gender sensitisation in universities, wrote an open letter to the administration saying, “We are consequently at a loss to understand why a well-functioning body in JNU needed to be disbanded?” Contradicting the administration’s justification that the ICC had been brought in to comply with the Vishakha Guidelines, the letter said that the GSCASH was already in compliance with the guidelines.