Senior resident at Odisha medical college faces no action for sexual harassment despite ICC findings, FIR

The building of the undergraduate hostel for nurses at the Srirama Chandra Bhanja Medical College and Hospital, in Odisha’s Cuttack city. The hostel houses the COVID-19 quarantine and isolation centre of the hospital. On 9 September 2020, a junior resident was sexually harassed at the isolation centre by a senior resident of the hospital, on the first day of her COVID-19 duty.
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12 February, 2021

Less than three months after an internal complaints committee of a government medical college in Odisha prima facie held that Sarthak Patra, a senior resident in the institution, had sexually harassed a junior resident, he returned to work without facing any action. “First they said that he is missing,” the JR said, referring to the police’s investigation into her complaint. “After that, they said that he is not missing. Now, they said that they are finding grounds to arrest him.” The JR is employed at the Srirama Chandra Bhanja Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack. On 9 September 2020, Patra sexually harassed her, video recording her while she was in the bathroom, and was caught doing so in CCTV footage. Five months later, the JR is disillusioned with the college authorities and the local police. “He has come back to the campus. He is working normally,” she said.

The survivor told me that the incident happened in the bathroom of a nursing hostel of the campus—she was changing when she noticed a phone above the wall of the bathroom, which was recording her. “On 10 September, we caught him,” she said. “I saw him in the CCTV footage. We all recognised him.” She identified Patra and that evening, the JR and members of the Junior Doctors Association—a student body on the campus—confronted Patra and recorded the proceedings. Patra accepted his guilt on camera, while reading out from a written statement. The next day, the survivor filed a written complaint with the college principal who set up an internal complaints committee on 14 September. The JR said that she was unhappy with committee’s attitude towards her complaint and hence filed a complaint at the local police station at Mangalabag on 16 September. The police registered a first-information report against her complaint that same day.

The ICC’s report, submitted on 19 September, clearly states “the committee is of the view that the incident appears to be primafacie case as alleged by the complainant … that the matter may be forwarded to the IIC Mangalabag for further action.” The ICC referred the case to the inspector in-charge of the Mangalabag police station. Despite this, the college has not taken any disciplinary action against Patra. Patra did not appear before the committee and it is unclear if he ever submitted any response to the ICC. In the week following the incident, Patra stopped coming to college but he rejoined sometime in mid-November. The police, too, has made no progress in the case, in spite of the CCTV recording that shows Patra entering and running away from the women’s bathroom on 9 September, and the video recording where he admitted filming the JR. When I first spoke to DKM Bhuyan, the police inspector in charge of the case, on 17 November, he said, “We don’t know his whereabouts. Once we do, we will arrest him.” However, now that Patra is back, the police has still not arrested him.

On 14 January 2021, Bhuyan told me that the investigation has been handed over to a senior official, Amitabh Mohapatra, inspector in-charge at the Mangalabag station. Amitabh told me, “We are investigating the case. We have seized the video.” He added that, “The deputy superintendent of police has taken over the investigation. He will make the arrest and produce him in court.” When I asked him about the delay in action against Patra, Amitabh got agitated and said, “You think there is a delay? This is the process of investigation. We will arrest him after examining the evidence, right?”

The JR told me that 9 September was her first day of COVID-19 duty and she had gone to the quarantine centre of the nursing hostel on campus after her shift, at around 2.20 pm. In the FIR, she noted, “I went to my room on 2nd floor which was exclusively allotted for female doctors while the 1st floor and 3rd floor was exclusively for male doctors. Then I went to the bathroom for a bath. While I was bathing, a few minutes later, I suddenly saw a phone being pointed at me from above the wall separating the adjacent bathroom. I screamed and quickly opened the door within seconds where I saw a tall man, average body built, with curly hairs in an untucked blue full shirt and a dark colored pant running out of the bathroom going towards the right. But in my state I couldn’t dare to chase after him.” Her statement says that she immediately called a senior at 2.41 pm but could not get through to him. She also informed the hostel warden, who checked the CCTV footage, “but, couldn’t come to a conclusion.”

The JR said that the next day, she approached the college authorities and with the help of the JDA, she accessed the CCTV footage of the building. As per her statement, “On hostel camera number 2 on 2nd floor, we saw a tall person dressed in a blue shirt lingering in the corridor for 2-3mins around 2:30pm. He then hid on the stairs and was also peeping towards my side of the corridor. At 2.33pm, I got out of my room to go the bathroom. After I entered the girls common bathroom on 2nd floor, he came out of hiding, from the stairs within a minute and entered the same common bathroom, where I went into. At 2:41pm, he was seen running out of the bathroom, and then ran upstairs …On checking the hostel camera number 1 on 1st floor corridor, at 2:42pm we saw him entering his room on first floor.” The JR said that with the help of the footage and members of the JDA, they identified the man as Patra.

A friend of the survivor, who is a doctor and did not want to be named, shared the nine-minute video where the accused is confronted by the survivor and members of the JDA. In the video, speaking in Odiya, the JR repeatedly demands an explanation from Patra who remains silent for most of the duration of the recording. One of the survivor’s colleagues asks Patra to write a statement admitting to the crime. Later in the video, he reads out a statement accepting that he filmed the survivor in the bathroom. “I profusely apologise for it and ask for forgiveness. I will never repeat such incidents in future. If anything happens regarding the leaking of the video, I am responsible for it,” he read.

The survivor told me that the next day, “I wrote a written complaint to the principal. He set up the Vishakha committee which took place two-three times a week.” The ICC met for the first time on 14 September. The 27-year-old added, “Initially, they were like it will only affect his career. They can’t do anything else.”  The survivor told me that the ICC was not keeping her informed of the proceedings and that she wanted action against Patra, so she decided to file a complaint at the Mangalabag police station on 16 September. In it, the survivor noted, “Seeing that, even with all the documentation and proofs, the proceedings are going slowly which could hamper my post graduation course and I don’t feel satisfied with extent of punishment that the committee can impose, so, I hereby want to seek legal help.”

According to the JR, she had to chase after the ICC members for news of any developments. “I myself called them to ask what they are doing. They were only mailing me. Who is checking the mail daily?” she asked, questioning why the emails were not followed up with calls. On 16 September, the ICC mailed her and summoned her to record her statement on 18 September, a Friday. She told me that at the meeting she had offered to present the evidence she had collected. “They told me, ‘No need, give it next week. There is no need of hurry.’ They told me to bring it next Friday.” However, the JR said that the next day, 19 September, “around 10:50 am, they emailed me asking me to bring the evidence by 12 pm,” elaborating on an instance of how communications from the committee came at a short notice. She said she saw this email days later.

The ICC report also stated that the complainant failed to furnish “necessary electronic evidence.” The JR was deeply upset about this and told me that the report sought to misrepresent her as negligent whereas she had offered to present the evidence at the earliest.

According to the ICC’s report, Patra was summoned by the committee to submit his statement of defence on 19 September but he responded via email that he was out of station and sought a period of 15 days to submit his statement. It is unclear whether the statement of the accused was eventually recorded.

The survivor said that after these hearings, she approached the superintendent and the principal of the medical college multiple times for a follow-up on the inquiry against Patra but was stonewalled. The ICC did not officially inform her that the case had been handed over to the police—she found out when she called one of the ICC members for an update. Finally, on 8 October, she filed an application under the Right to Information Act requesting for a copy of the report submitted by the ICC. The report makes it clear that the ICC acknowledged that the JR’s allegations were correct. “When they saw the CCTV footage, they realised it is a criminal offence and they simply transferred it to the police station. Nothing else,” she said.

The JR said that by November, it had become clear that neither the police nor the college were making any progress in the inquiry. When I spoke to her on 11 November, she told me that the police “are saying that he is about to get arrested but he is not there in his place. That he has fled away and they are searching for him.” In the following days, she reached out to Bhuyan multiple times but he refused to return her calls. In the second week of November, she visited the Mangalabag police station again and was told that the investigation was still ongoing. When I first called Bhuyan, he reiterated what he had already told the complainant. “We will see. The accused is absconding. We don’t know his whereabouts. Once we do, we will arrest him,” Bhuyan said.

The friend said that other students have not taken any initiative to organise support for her. “Nobody has staged any protest for her. Not even the student union of SCB. People use so much of social media. But they did not even stage a protest on social media, not even on Facebook,” she told me, speaking to me on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t know if it’s because he is a Brahmin,” the friend added. She believed that there is a deliberate attempt to suppress the allegations raised by the survivor who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe. At least three members of the ICC members are also Brahmins. Amitabh, the inspector, told me that the police added charges under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 against Patra when during the investigation they realised that the survivor was a member of a Scheduled Tribe and Patra was an upper caste.

The survivor, however, did not think that the caste location of the people involved had affected the proceedings. “Not discrimination. He is a rich person. His father-in-law is a rich person. So, anyhow they will try to protect him.” She said that Patra’s father-in-law owns Moon Hospitals Pvt Ltd in Cuttack.

The survivor’s friend questioned the college authorities for not declaring Patra guilty in the inquiry report despite all the evidence. The Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace states that the employer should initiate “appropriate disciplinary action” against an employee found guilty of misconduct, in accordance with service rules. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 also stipulates deduction from the salary or wages of a respondent found guilty of sexual harassment. I attempted to reach Chinmayi Mohapatra, the presiding officer of the ICC at SCB medical college and the medical superintendent and the principal, for their comments on the action taken against Patra. I did not receive a response from any of them by the time this article was published. Patra, too, did not respond to calls, texts and emails.

Around middle of November, Patra came back to the campus and re-joined work. The survivor told me that she has not run into Patra herself since they are in different batches. She heard that he is back on campus from other students. While the police had earlier claimed that they could not arrest him since he was missing, Patra has still not been apprehended even after joining work. When I spoke to the JR on 11 January, she told me that the police “said that they are trying to arrest him. They have not yet arrested. This was before ten days ago.” She told me that around mid-December, she spoke with a reporter at Odisha TV about the case. When OTV contacted the police inspector, Bhuyan called the survivor on 26 December to update her but did not take any action.

The JR said that Bhuyan “called me and discussed with me. I asked what are you doing, you are getting so late. They said that they are finding grounds to arrest him.” I asked the survivor what grounds is the police looking for when she has already submitted her complaint and the evidence. “I don’t understand. What will I do? They said that they will find grounds. They said if they arrest him, he will get bail. I said, ‘I don’t know, you arrest him first.’” She added that it was impossible for her to chase the police constantly, “I am also on duty. My Post Graduate time is going on.”

The survivor alleged that she had faced indirect pressure to withdraw her complaint. “His friends were asking others to come and tell me that I should withdraw it. But it has stopped now,” she told me. Some of the faculty members offer tacit support, for instance, by permitting her to take time off from duty to pursue her police complaint. “But nobody wants to be involved directly. I have to fight this by myself.”