Numerous Complaints Against a Jadavpur University Student Raise Questions About Laws Tackling Sexual Harassment on College Campuses

At Jadavpur University, in July 2016, a Facebook post by a student alleging that she had been sexually harassed and assaulted by a classmate received unforeseen support. Many other young women stepped forward and shared their experience of being harassed by the accused student. The post also kick-started a conversation on sexual harassment on college campuses in India. CC BY-SA 3.0
25 August, 2016

On 7 February 2016, Eklavya Chaudhuri, a third-year undergraduate student of English at Jadavpur University (JU) in Kolkata, stepped up to the stage at a poetry slam event to perform one of his poems. A rising star in the city’s burgeoning poetry scene, Chaudhuri, the son of a senior professor at the university, was a face familiar to much of the audience. The event was at a local café, and in attendance where about 20 or so people—regulars in the poetry circuit. His performance that night, his friends later said, was in his characteristic style: dressed in an oversize shirt with his hair unkempt, the lanky Chaudhuri recited his poems in a high-pitched voice, moving energetically across the stage. His act was met with loud applause from the people in the room.

By the end of July, all of this had changed. On 27 July, a student of JU posted a photo to Facebook. Taken through the window of a classroom, the image showed a lone Chaudhuri sitting on a bench. “Eklavya Chaudhuri attending class as his classmates stand outside in protest,” the student wrote. Chaudhuri’s classmates had refused to sit with him. Many of the students, including his friends, had boycotted the class. Chaudhuri attended the class with only one other student in the room. When he left the classroom at the end of the lecture hour, the students gathered outside applauded, as if cheering his exit.

The applause was a form of protest—an expression of boycott for Chaudhuri. Four days earlier, on 23 July 2016, a student of JU had uploaded a post to Facebook alleging that nearly a year ago, she had repeatedly been sexually assaulted and harassed by Chaudhuri. “I was molested by a classmate of mine, Ekalavya Chaudhuri, on four different occassions within the space of my department,” she wrote. “The person who did this to me was a respected student, a budding academician and an influential member of the exclusive urban intellectual circuit,” she added.

She wrote in the post that she had lodged a complaint against Chaudhuri with the English department, on 24 August 2015. “It was the best thing I ever did,” the complainant said. But even though the department handled her complaint “carefully and with attention,” she said, the harassment continued. “The molestation and the forcible pressing of penis against my crotch stopped,” but “the glares and the stares did not stop.” The complainant alleged that, for several months following her complaint, a friend of Chaudhuri’s had continued to harass her on his behalf. Chaudhuri’s friend, a student from another university, the complainant said, “bullied me online several times,” and subjected her to “endless stalking, making cheap comments on Facebook.” The complainant also attached screenshots of her conversations with Chaudhuri and his friend to the post. “MY HARASSMENT WAS NOT JUST SEXUAL, NOT JUST ONLINE, NOT JUST OFFLINE. HARASSMENT, FOR ME, WAS EVERYWHERE,” she wrote. “Those who have followed this molestation incident would also know that I am not the only one Ekalavya Chaudhuri has sexually harassed,” she added.

The post went viral. It was shared widely by hundreds of students, within and beyond Jadavpur University. Over the next few days, several young women in Kolkata—some even underage—shared their own stories of harassment by Chaudhuri, all of which were eerily similar. Many shared screenshots of conversations they said they had with Chaudhuri over Whatsapp and Facebook as proof of the alleged harassment, which were then shared by other students, who added comments and posts declaring their support for the women. Though Facebook took down the complainant’s original post saying it did not abide by their community guidelines, countless students took screenshots of the post and shared them. On 25 July, two days after the original post, two students registered an official complaint against Chaudhuri with the college. The next day, 13 women issued a joint statement alleging that they had been sexually harassed and assaulted by Chaudhuri. “We have been touched without our consent. We have been objectified filthily. We have been made to feel like pieces of meat by a man who is utterly despicable,” their statement said. He is, they alleged, “A molester. A sex offender. A sexual predator.”

The complainant’s post spurred a wider conversation on the JU campus about sexual harassment, one that is still ongoing. “After the initial 13 girls came out with their statement, a few others have also spoken out against him and shared their accounts of molestation on different platforms, taking the cumulative count to around 25,” Shounak Mukopadhyay, a student in the English Department, told me. “The post has essentially lead to an outpouring of shared experiences and mobilised people to speak out.” As of 29 July, three official complaints had been registered with the college. Soon after the first complaint, the university suspended Chaudhuri and launched an official investigation into the matter. In an exclusive published on the Indian Express website on 29 July, Chaudhuri denied the allegations against him, saying he would not be “responding to any trial on social media.” Over the past month, I spoke to many students at the university, including friends of the complainant, to try and understand what led her to put up the post, and the response it received within the student community. The complainant and the women who issued the joint statement declined to speak to me because they were wary of jeopardising the ongoing enquiry. Despite repeated attempts to contact them, both Chaudhuri and his mother, who was poised to become the head of the English department at the beginning of August, declined to comment as well.

But there was consensus among most students I did speak to: the allegations against Chaudhuri, they said, exposed a structure that allowed him impunity, which included but was not limited to power, influence, and the lack of clear laws governing sexual harassment at educational institutes.

Many students I spoke to believe that the position Chaudhuri held within the English Department by virtue of being the son of senior professor, and a fairly popular member of the city’s academic and poetry circuit, had a huge role to play in what he assumed he could get away with. In her post, the complainant, too, noted that her hesitation to speak up was partly due to this nexus of influence and power: “The person who molested me was the son of my professor, a respected teacher in my department. And who was I? Nobody,” she wrote. “My parents were not a part of the ‘intelligentsia’ of this city, they were as I like to call myself now ‘plebeian.’” At the time, she added, “I worried myself sick about complaining against Ekalavya Chaudhuri.”

But in August last year, she mustered the courage to complain. “There comes a time when you just cannot take the pain anymore, cannot take being followed around anymore,” she wrote in her post, referring to her decision to make the complaint. Students told me that the department held a general body meeting to hear the allegations against Chaudhuri, which was attended by the faculty and his classmates. Syamantakshobhan Basu, a Masters of Philosophy research scholar at the department said that, during the four-hour meeting, the class cornered Chaudhuri and got him to “admit his mistake.” But, since a complaint with the department does not qualify as a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)—the body that, by law, is empowered to hear complaints of sexual harassment—no formal action was taken against Chaudhuri. “The departments in the university are not empowered to take stricter measures than issuing directives and verbal warnings to offending parties,” Sujaan Mukherjee, a PhD scholar at the department, told me. He said that when the complainant approached the department, she was informed of the procedure but opted to go with a general body meeting instead. “His friends believed that counseling or psychiatric help is more likely to help than punitive action,” Mukherjee said. Chaudhuri was let off with a warning, Mukherjee told me, on the condition that he would seek help. “This, apparently, did not happen,” he added.

The harassment, the complainant wrote in her post, continued in the form of bullying and intimidation by Chaudhuri’s friend. Sometimes, the complainant wrote, this friend would appear on “key days, like the day of our results” and sit in class with Chaudhuri to “commit what I am guessing is a scare tactic.” “I think the complainant finally decided to publicly come out and put things in the open for a number of reasons, most important of which is that she felt that her grievance seemed to not have been fully addressed when she complained in the department last August,” Shalmi Barman, a recent graduate of JU and a friend of the complainant, told me. “She continued to be harassed, bullied, persecuted and intimidated.”

I reached out to Chaudhuri’s friend, whom the complainant names in her Facebook post. The friend denied all allegations. “I am not guilty of either harassment or bullying. I may have made aggressive comments on social media, but they were brought on by similarly aggressive comments by the complainant,” Chaudhuri’s friend said. “I am actually very glad that an enquiry has been initiated and I also need to know what the truth of the matter is.”

I asked Barman why the complainant had chosen to express her concerns on Facebook instead of approaching the university again. She explained that the complainant thought the social media website was a safer space. “The same way rape survivors are reluctant to approach the police, sexual harassment survivors within universities are hesitant to complain to the university—the formalities, the need to testify in the presence of your oppressor or his aides creates an atmosphere of distrust,” Barman said. “Facebook on the other hand is a much safer space — you’re speaking up among friends who will support you. Also, word of mouth and sharing creates a network of support that is absent in institutions,” she added. This assertion was made evident by the response the post received: though the first complaint was made against Chaudhuri a year ago, the outpouring of support and stepping forward of other young women came only after the complainant posted about her ordeal on social media last month.

Her friends added that the complainant, at the time of writing her post, had not foreseen the extent of the support that she would receive. Many took her example and shared their experiences on Facebook, sharing screenshots of messages they said Chaudhuri had sent them. The messages, most of which contain graphic details, are also telling: in many of them, despite repeated requests to stop, Chaudhuri insisted on texting the women and describing what he would like to do to them. In one of the screenshots shared by a student who was a minor at the time of the interaction, Chaudhuri told her, “Deepdown I know you want some lovemaking.” “That’s not true,” she insisted. Through the conversation, she repeatedly made it clear that she was not interested, but Chaudhuri refused to relent. “I want to make love to every inch of you. I want to cream all the pores of your hot quivering body in hot wet sticky mess,” he writes. Many of the messages the women said Chaudhuri sent them contain similar details. “You know you like that,” he told one of the women after describing what he would like to do to her. “Nope,” she replied, but he continued, “Your swells and thrusts will.” When she repeated that this won’t happen, he said, “Oh they will, in time.” The student told Chaudhuri that she was in a relationship and would prefer to stay only friends with him. He responded: “Okay. How bout you let me sext you too. I am very gifted in writing I promise.”

Chaudhuri’s disregard for consent or age seemed common in the conversations the women shared. In an exchange with a school-going student, he wrote, “I’m intrigued. You’re 15 and you aren’t horny?” “No, not really,” she replied. In another conversation, he said, “I love this dp [display picture]. Makes me want to rub my musty cock all over your face.”

Many young women also wrote about their experience of having faced physical assault and harassment by him. One student, a recent high school graduate, wrote that she had gotten in touch with Chaudhuri to seek advice on how to crack the Jadavpur University entrance examination. Chaudhuri soon introduced sexual undertones to their conversation, she said. However, she wrote, she didn’t rebuke him for fear of appearing “prudish.” In her post, she said that she met Chaudhuri for a movie and that they “did get intimate in the theatre itself.” “But I wanted to put a stop to it and maintain a purely platonic friendship with him,” she continued. “So I called him over to my house one day. He started again. I objected, he paid no heed. I asked him to leave, no results. My grandmother was present but he regardless shut the door to my room. Next thing I know, he had pinned me down to the bed and had already started with what he was about to do, even as I protested violently and vehemently.” The student also wrote that, when she asked them for help after the incident, all her acquaintances declined because of the influence Chaudhuri wielded. Others accused her of misunderstanding the situation since she had given consent on another occasion. “However, my consenting to a specific instance does not justify his pinning me down on the bed and forcefully taking off my clothes even as I kicked and screamed, on another occasion,” she wrote. “I should also add that I’m yet to come of age.”

Though the disgust for Chaudhuri and support for the complainant and the other women on social media was widespread, many students’ posts seemed to indicate that the allegations against Chaudhuri came as a surprise them. This was puzzling, since the first complaint was made against him about a year ago, and seemed to have been dealt with publicly. “Yes, his behaviour was known,” Mukherjee, the PhD scholar at the English department, told me. “There was no measure taken to hide the fact.”

“The truth is that Chaudhuri was a very gifted student, one who was valued by the department,” Barman, the complainant’s friend, told me. “I’m sure he made a lot of women very uncomfortable, he wasn’t a raging, sexist maniac in his everyday dealings with everyone,” she said, before adding, “We thought he was like any other awkward but talented student.”

On 25 July this year, the day that the first two complaints against Chaudhuri were officially lodged at the university, the Arts Faculty Student Union, a prominent student body in JU, submitted a deputation to the vice chancellor. The AFSU demanded a swift and transparent probe into the allegations by an independent committee, and not the university’s ICC. “Since the Internal Complaints Cell has no student representation, therefore we insisted that an independent committee be constituted including student representation,” Basu, the M.Phil scholar, told me. Two days later, on 27 July, the AFSU held a general body meeting that was attended by nearly 350 people. The high attendance reflected “the support the complainants have from the student body,” said Mukopadhyay, the student in the English department. “The reactions that have come up so far, present hope that we have progressed a few steps in the matter of gender justice,” Basu added. The student body then presented a set of three demands to the vice chancellor: student representation in the committee probing the incident, Chaudhuri’s suspension for the duration of the inquiry, and a stay on his mother’s impending accession to the Head of Department post at the English department.

The question of the ICC and its purview for handling sexual harassment in college campuses is fraught. Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, educational institutions are classified as a place of work, and are therefore subject to its provisions. Under the law, each workplace with more than ten people is required to set up an internal complaints cell to hear complaints of sexual harassment and to recommend action to the management. This means that, on university campuses, the university’s ICC shall hear any complaints of sexual harassment. This provision is reiterated in the Saksham guide (Measures for Ensuring Safety of Women and Programs for Gender Sensitization on Campuses), the guidebook issued by the University Grants Commission, a central government body that oversees higher education in the country.

But under the law, the ICC at workplaces is required to be staffed by either employees or by external persons—which would exclude students from being its members. The act also does not clearly state that complaints of harassment faced by students fall under its purview. “It’s a grey area in the law,” Charu Wali Khanna, an advocate and a former member of the National Commission for Women, said. “It says that academic institutions are covered under ‘workplace,’ however students aren't mentioned in the ‘aggrieved women’”—those who can make complaints under the law—“definition. In any case, universities are supposed to have their complaints committees in place and since the law is slightly unclear, universities have to be proactive in dealing with cases of sexual harassment,” Khanna said.

After the meeting on 27 July, the vice chancellor agreed to the AFSU’s demands and set up a independent fact-finding committee to investigate the allegations against Chaudhuri. The committee comprised of “one student representative, the director of the Women’s Studies department, a professor from the Physics department, an NGO representative and one University officer,” Shraman Guha, the general secretary of the AFSU, told me.

The committee began its investigation on 28 July. About ten days later, a student told me, the report was filed with Suranjan Das, the vice chancellor. According to the student, the report found merit in the complaints made against Chaudhuri. “Prima facie evidence points to the fact that there was sexual harassment. The VC will now need to discuss this in a meeting with the executive council and decide on a course of action,” the student told me. In a telephonic interview on 11 August, Das said, “I have received the report and we are now proceeding according to the law,”—which, under the 2013 act, allows the administration 90 days to respond to the report.

The lack of clarity on the ICC has also led the students to demand a better and more pro-active system for dealing with issues of gender and sexual violence. “What we need is a body like a Gender Sensitisation Cell Against Sexual Harassment which is in accordance with the Saksham guidelines,” Barman said, referring to a separate body that could address the problems faced by students. This past week, the students of JU organised two protests demanding a GSCASH-like body for the university. Puranjani Ghosh, a first-year Economics student and an organiser of one of the protests, said, “The ICC is a handicapped structure and one that is neither autonomous nor representative of the student body. The ICC is also not equipped to hand out punishments to the accused. It is for these very reasons that we need a body like GSCASH that is not under the control of the administration and is representative.” “Given the recent events, we have realised it is now or never,” Ghosh added.

In July, before the allegations against Chaudhuri had surfaced, JU had prepared a draft policy that proposed the setting up of a student-elected panel to probe cases where complaints were made by and against students. But last week, the UGC issued a notification enabling the ICC to investigate charges filed by both students and employees of the institution. Following the UGC notification, JU dropped its plans for the student-elected panel.

Meanwhile, though most of the reactions faced by the women who spoke about the harassment have been encouraging, many questioned the complainants. Students posting on social media wondered why the women did not just block Chaudhuri, why they didn’t respond to his advances more firmly, or lodge a complaint. But these statements, which put the onus of reporting a crime on the victims, have made way for a larger discussion about the nature of sexual harassment, and how to tackle it in a university campus. “It’s really not for those standing on the sidelines to question the actions of survivors,” Barman said. “It is a very difficult process for survivors to overcome their fears and emotions and finally come forward and complain. So it’s no one’s business to decide when and how one should speak up.”

But breaking this silence surround sexual harassment isn’t just the prerogative of those who face it. “In this movement at least, we have been able to communicate the need to question those who abuse their positions of power. The students need to have more agency and a voice. We have been very vocal about the need to combat intimidation tactics and authoritarian practices,” Mukopadhayay said. “It is very important that this culture of silence around sexual harassment and the practice of intimidation by authority be put to an end.”