How serious is the Narendra Modi government about fighting sexual harassment? Turns out not so much. In the midst of the #MeToo movement reaching the doors of former minister M J Akbar, the Union Human Resource Development Ministry has cleared tainted Delhi University professor Bidyut Chakrabarty’s appointment as Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati University, a central university established by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in West Bengal.
That Prime Minister Modi and senior Cabinet colleagues (apart from three women ministers) of Akbar chose to remain silent when sexual harassment charges were flying around against him is known far and wide. Now, the go-ahead to Chakrabarty by the Modi government amounts to adding insult to injury for women who have been facing and fighting sexual harassment.
Academia and activists campaigning against sexual harassment are shocked by this decision. Speaking to Newsclick, Nivedita Menon, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “The move by the union HRD ministry has come as an absolute shocker, I am appalled at this development.” She added, “The man who has been accused of sexual harassment has been chosen for a very key position and given an important position, it goes on to send a message that the government does not take sexual harassment too seriously.”
More so, because Chakrabarty’s appointment announcement comes at a defining moment as women are taking to social media to call out their abusers. Menon said, “I am extremely glad that the women are coming forth and speaking out, for this government harassment against women does not assume the position of an agenda, when people like Chakrabarty are let off and given positions of power, it sends a message that the impact against them is not long term.”
Chakrabarty, a professor of political science at the Delhi University came under massive scrutiny in 2007 as allegations against him surfaced. He was then the Head of the Political Science Department at Delhi University and the director of the Gandhi Bhawan at the university. The charges against him surfaced during his tenure as the Director of the Gandhi Bhawan. A colleague at the Bhawan had stated that he made ‘bad-intentioned" gestures towards her.
In 2010, the Apex Complaints Committee (ACC) of DU had found Chakrabarty guilty of sexual harassment. After DU's committee on sexual harassment filed its report, it led to his removal from the post of the Gandhi Bhawan's director, as the head of the political science department and dean of the faculty of social sciences.
The ACC committee had also suggested he be barred from all administrative posts and supervisory duties in the institution for three years, and noted that even after Chakrabarty’s punishment is over the university should “keep his past conduct in mind” while considering him for any assignment. The report was accepted by DU’s Executive Council in 2012.
Not just the Visva Bharati University, Chakarbaty’s name was also suggested for the position of an Executive Council member of the JNU in the past, however, the move did not materialise in his favour as multiple activists and women’s groups had written to the president of India protesting this. His name was also doing the rounds for the position of the VC of the Delhi University.
Nivedita Menon added, “The process is kept under the wraps by the Ministry, so any further action will now be taken by the academic community at the Visva Bharati University itself.”
Chakarbaty’s appointment could mark the end of troubles for the West Bengal-based central university campus, as the varsity has been running without a permanent head since 2016, when the VC Sushanta Duttagupta was sacked on ground of irregularities by then HRD Minister Smriti Irani. However, administrative aspects aside, his appointment could open the gates for more controversies with regard to sexual harassment charges and how seriously governments handle it.