Storm in a Calm IIT Campus Over a Sexual Harassment Case: Pronoy Rai
Guest post by PRONOY RAI
The serene, picturesque campus of the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati has been witnessing some very noteworthy events in the recent past. According to reports in the popular media, a professor at the institute’s biotechnology department was accused of sending obscene text messages to his PhD student over her phone. Though the professor pleaded innocence, claiming that messages were sent from his sim card that was stolen, the local police found this hard to believe. The professor has also been accused of harassing the student during other instances on campus. Upon receiving the advice of the ‘Working Women’s Committee’ of the institute, the professor was recently suspended. This narrative constructs for us a simple, fair story of a just state-society system. A person breaks the law, and he is disciplined, as one would expect in a fair democratic society. If only that was the case.
The suspension of the professor was not immediately followed by the submission of the report, let alone the filing of complaint at the institute and with the local police. On August 13, Amingaon police in Assam arrested the professor for sending obscene text messages to a student. The arrest happened because the student had to file a FIR in order to request a telecom company to reveal the identity of the owner of the phone, from where the obscene messages being sent to her, were emanating. The delay in the inaction of the institute administration is unjustified, but perhaps not very inexplicable.
IIT Guwahati, like most IITs, is a space of contradictions. It is progressive and it is regressive. It encourages freedom and disciplines actions and voices. Freedom, of course, aimed at producing laboring bodies that could productively work with and contribute to increasing capitalist accumulation in the country. This process requires specialization of labor, and technology schools have learnt, very remarkably, to seamlessly blend the creative energies of its students with the demand forces of the market. On the lines of most institutions that select students on the basis of ‘merit’, access to the institute itself is highly restricted, and like most IITs, the institute dedicates resources to de-politicize its campus life, because ‘politics’ is constructed and represented as a bad, if not vulgar word in the typical IIT social life – something that staff and students of ‘those’ institutions (like JNU and Hyderabad University) practice. Constitutional mandates and judicial orders seeking justice and accountability, therefore, are accepted with a sense of rejection of the institute bureaucracy’s limits to power. So, for instance, IIT Guwahati, despite all existing judicial advisory, does not have an accessible, public grievance redressal system and does not have a legal representative on its Working Women’s Committee (WWC). For most scholars studying any critical social science, the very christening of the committee as a ‘Working Womens’ Committee must raise eyebrows.
IIT Guwahati does not have a women’s cell, and its WWC has no helpline and no online presence. In a note that was uploaded to an internal, ‘closed’ Facebook group of the institute, accessible to its alumni, the WWC quite lucidly pointed to the flaws in the grievance redressal system of IIT Guwahati. The WWC concluded in its report submitted to then Director of the institute that disciplinary action was to be initiated against the professor and an alternative adviser be appointed for the student. While the institute did show some efficiency with replacing the adviser, the suspension of the professor happened after thousands of current and former students discussed the case on the internal IIT Guwahati group in Facebook, and asked some very difficult questions to the institute administration. The victim also participated in the discussions and quite fervently put her arguments forth, with the then Director of the institute, whose term came to end very recently, defending his inactions and losing them to an increasingly aggressive student body on Facebook. It would seem unusual to imagine a victim of sexual harassment publicly defending her stand, but the unwillingness on part of the institute to act against the professor probably left her with little choice. My experience at IIT Guwahati and my reading of power relations in an IIT system made me doubt if these Facebook protests in a closed group would lead to movement of feet on the ground. I was proved wrong.
Students came out to protest. There were candle marches in the night, protests in front of the Institute administrative building, and the Director had to address the agitating students. This might sound like everyday practice of politics to student in universities, but this was a defining moment in progressive student politics in a system as regressive as the IITs. I term these protests as progressive because these were not students of yet another IIT-style ‘anti-reservation front’ or were not marching verbalizing state propaganda on terrorism or corruption. Further, women students (and staff and faculty members) represent a small minority in the IIT labor pool with little voice, if any, in institute administration. The students must be credited for having used the contradictions that came out in the process of fighting for justice for the victim. The local police (sadly, very surprisingly!) showed competence in moving through the case, right after the FIR was filed. As discussions on the online forum indicated, faculty opinion was split. Very few, but active faculty members protested against the inactions of the Director, who besides not putting in place the mandated grievance redressal system at the institute, decided to treat the WWC’s report as a preliminary report and not an enquiry one, and waited for legal advice, instead of suspending the professor . Most faculty members on the Facebook group, however, decided to remain silent, and to not come out as questioning the administration’s (in)actions.
The state is anything but a monolith. As the anthropologists Tania Li and Akhil Gupta have made us understand, it is an assemblage, and as this event would perhaps tell us, contradictory. There is action (disciplining, protesting) and there is inaction, and this contradiction provides the disempowered the opportunity to have their voices heard. The protests and the narratives that were being woven, both online and offline, were not reflexive or critical. They did not move away from the patronizing rhetoric that operates within the patriarchal structure. The protests happened around the time when the institute Director was almost ready to hand over charge to a new person and the institute was witnessing administrative changes (for instance, the Deputy Director had recently resigned).The institute administration was ‘attacked’ at its weakest point in time, but this was done when no formal student union exists in IIT Guwahati or in any IIT, which only goes to show that perhaps a large, historic de-politicizing machine that IIT bureaucracy is, has its limits, and that students should be on the look-out for more opportunities for ‘action’, if they seek change.
This incident is but one of the many occasions to learn from, that solidarity is not a just a word in queer/feminist theory but lives and breathes in everyday life, and that women struggle through a landscape of structures, and form alliances to attack the structures of subjugation. The immediate task in our hands as scholar-activists, however, is to bring up more difficult questions, such as why is the institute student body still accepting of the curfew that is imposed on the movement of women students after mid-night, and perhaps, what could be the gender-class configurations that lead to the presence of so few women on IIT campuses and how these could be transformed? You don’t have to be at a ‘prestigious’ institution to possess the ability to have your consciousness awaken by bureaucratic inaction in a case of human rights violation. What is a good theoretical question, perhaps, is if there is something specific about the political subjectivities of the people, who control hegemonic discourses in IIT campuses, that makes it possible/easier for students and faculty to ‘come out and have their voices heard’ when the issue is of corruption, terrorism or affirmative action? How is it that after much soul-searching, a community of students do, after all, come out and march for gender justice in a very narrow sense, but do very little about the class, caste, religious, gender, and sexual marginalizations that create the particular political (or ‘apolitical’) social environment at IITs?
Pronoy Rai is an alumnus of IIT Guwahati, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. Pronoy credits information available on a closed Facebook group for current and former IIT Guwahati faculty, staff, and students, newspaper reports, and his interactions with a few current faculty members, for the content of this post.