Uma Chakravarti and Tripta Wahi
For eight years a highly qualified woman teacher struggled in the University of Delhi to be heard on her sexual molestation. The issue did become public, but not through the intervention of the university structures and personnel, but through a woman's journal. An enquiry followed, guilt was established, but almost the entire university establishment stood up to keep the culprit in his position and power. The teachers' movement failed to intervene effectively to get the culprit punished. In the other case there was threatened rape of the females of the household of a widowed gardener with several daughters. The culprits were caught, guilt was established, but the authorities scuttled action and the Crime (W.) Cell closed the case with full knowledge of the crime. It is remarkable that these two cases could occur in a premier university in the capital of the country. In one case it could happen to a highly educated woman with high social connections.
It was a black day in the history of Delhi University when its Executive Council voted last year to continue the services of the sexual molester, S.C. Bhatia, despite a clear and unambiguous verdict by the Wad Committee, headed by retired Chief Justice I.C. Wad, that Bhatia was guilty of sexually molesting two of his women colleagues, the enquiry committee had been appointed by the very same Executive Council which had earlier formulated charges against Bhatia following preliminary investigations which had revealed that there was sufficient ground for pressing charges against him. After completing the enquiry Bhatia was held guilty not only of the charges of the sexual molestation of the two women complainants but also of abusing his power as Director of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education and Extension (DACEE) where the two women, who had complained of sexual harassment, worked under him. He was held guilty of using physical threats, intimidation, and violence against the women complainants, of wrongfully denying them the benefits of Provident Fund and increments, and of wilfully spoiling their academic records. Further Bhatia was held guilty of causing mental and physical suffering to the women complainants by his harassment and of creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in the DACEE so as to punish the women for their refusal to submit to his lustful advances, to break their resistance during their long struggle for justice, and to terrorise them so that they would not bring his gross misconduct to the attention of the University authorities.
The decision of the Executive Council to allow S.C. Bhatia to continue as a faculty member of the 'prestigious' Delhi University is doubly reprehensible because it is rare to expose sex crimes in our society since the victims rightly fear that it is they who will get stigmatised instead of the perpetrators of the crime. The vulnerability of women on this count is the cover which men use to effectively get away scot free without their crimes ever coming to light. But in Sushma Merh and Elizabeth Bharti we had the rare and courageous example of women who took the risk of being stigmatised but did that in the hope that since they were employees of a 'liberal' public institution, committed to upholding the constitutional guarantees for women, they would get fair treatment on their complaint. What is shocking is that the University authorities have let these women down forcing them to face the degradation of a continued interaction with Bhatia. At the same time other men engaging in similar activities can feel reassured that they will be able to get away because the verdict has shown that most men stand by each other, and men in authority ensure that they cover up each others misdeeds so that, together, they remain in power. Lest this appear to be a rhetorical statement it may be noted that the Wad Committee had also pointed to the nexus of corrupt people in authority who made certain right through the years of harassment that the University did not act on the complaints of the women and thus made it possible for Bhatia's gross misconduct to continue unchecked.
It is important for us to recognise that the verdict of the Executive Council has dealt a major blow to women all over the country on the issue of sexual harassment at the work place. If a 'normative' institution like Delhi University, often regarded as liberal and democratic, subject to public accountability and at that point headed by a Vice-Chancellor who lost no occasion at public gatherings across the globe to proclaim his 'feminist' position, could vote to continue the services of a sexual molester, then what can we expect from intrinsically authoritarian places of work such as business organisations, factories and fields where there are no norms of conduct for men in positions of authority. Delhi University could have provided an example of an institution which effectively acted to ensure the security and dignity of women at the work place, something all women have a right to. Instead it has provided an example of a negative kind, one that will give a free signal to sexual molesters. In sum the Bhatia issue has become an exemplary case of how those in positions of power are encouraging the criminalisation of the society. including our academic institutions. This inevitably demoralises people, who feel that no matter how much they resist crime, the corrupt individuals continue to flourish because of the patronage they enjoy.
How has Bhatia, managed to get away with his activities for as long as a whole decade? It is because the University itself spawned and sustained a structure where Bhatia was a virtual king and therefore could unleash a reign of terror. First he himself was appointed director of the DACEE when it was founded in 1979 through a questionable selection procedure. The position was not advertised nor was he appointed by a selection committee. One of the most striking aspects of the Bhatia case is that the DACEE had only one permanent position - that of the Director: everyone else was temporary and therefore subject to the will of Bhatia as its permanent Director. This gave him autocratic power over all his colleagues, but made the female employees at the DACEE doubly vulnerable to his predatory behaviour. It was this power given to him by the university that made it possible for Bhatia to sexually molest the women employees and get away with it because these women could be terrorised into submitting to his lustful advances. At no point even following the knowledge of the goings on in the DACEE did the university intervene to ensure secure working conditions for the employees which would have changed the power relations somewhat for the women. It was under such conditions that over years, as many as 22 women were employed at the DACEE. Unable to tolerate Bhatia's disgusting behaviour but unable also to effectively resist him because of their vulnerability as temporary employees, all but the two who made the issue public, found 'quiet' and unnoticed solutions most women are forced to adopt in such situations. They simply left as soon as they could.
At the same time the fact that over the years only one male employee (apart from Bhatia), was made permanent also meant that no one else would reveal what was going on because they could lose their jobs. The unchecked power of the Director and the insecurity of the employees at DACEE was used by Bhatia to create an effective system of rewards and punishments. Those who submitted to his will, including his lustful advances and its consequent cover up were rewarded; those who resisted were severely punished as were the two women complainants. It must be stressed that this system worked to terrorise both men and women, humiliating and degrading them equally even in its distribution of rewards.
The most classic example of the rewards for complicity was the case of Lalit Mohan. Lalit Mohan is the son of the Registrar, Madan Mohan whose association with corruption is notable. He was a key figure in the M.D./M.B.B.S. admissions scandal in the year 1981 and figures in the Justice Bhargava Committee report made public in 1984. Lalit Mohan's employment in the DACEE was part of the system of 'mutual benefits' noted by the Wad Committee; in return for providing him employment Madan Mohan provided protection at the highest levels to Bhatia. But what is most significant is that in an institution where no one except Bhatia was permanent only Lalit Mohan was made permanent. He was also given a higher scale, with retrospective effect, on the last working day of the tenure of Madan Mohan as Registrar. In his turn Lalit Mohan was an obliging factotum even conspiring with Bhatia in trying to project Dr Sushma Merh as 'mad'. When Bhatia's misdeeds were finally enquired into, Lalit Mohan provided suitable statements exonerating Bhatia, Madan Mohan was even willing to be Bhatia's amicus curiae at the hearings of the Wad Committee. Lalit Mohan was also given an additional position in an NGO organisation where Bhatia was the Honourable Secretary since 1984.
The most striking aspect of the Bhatia issue is that given the structure of authority in which Bhatia lorded it over others in his department, and that the higher authorities protected him within the University, his gross and disgusting conduct could have continued even today if it had not been for the sustained resistance by the two women complainants and the beginnings of a resistance by others including male employees, because at some point Bhatia's authoritarian conduct became too much for his employees to take. The entire department went on a dharna for three months in 1992 but even then the university did not move. What proved to be a catalyst for the university to sit up and do something was an article published in Manushi documenting comprehensively, and in graphic detail Bhatia's acts of sexual misconduct. It was thus an external pressure, achieved through a public exposure of lurid misdeeds that forced the university to act.
Looking back, with hindsight, this was an indication of how unwilling and reluctant the University was about taking action, and therefore how little it would be committed to ensuring the security and dignity of women on the campus if it was required to dismiss someone in a position of authority. Earlier, numerous officials including a woman Professor Sushila Kaushik who heads a woman's centre in the university had tried to conveniently cast the misdeeds of Bhatia and the resistance of the women complainants as a case of a 'personality' clash. In keeping with this position it appointed a committee to go into the affairs of the department, without focussing on the charges of sexual misconduct. The committee, headed by Professor Baviskar, took no cognisance of the structure of authority in which almost everyone, including the women complainants, were temporary and insisted that all statements and complaints must be routed through the head (even when the complaints were against him). It is not surprising that the two women complainants refused to comply with a procedure which was loaded against them and which reiterated Bhatia's power over them.
From the above account we can see how the university made evident at each stage that it intended to protect Bhatia. Thus when the Executive Council acted as it did, after the process of enquiry by the Wad Committee had been completed and had upheld the charges against him, it was simply being consistent with its earlier position. It is not surprising also that at the first meeting of the Executive Council in 1994 when action against Bhatia was to be discussed the entire all male, university administration, (except the Proctor), comprising the Pro-Vice Chancellor A.L. Nagar, Dean of South Campus, G.K. Das, Dean of Colleges, S.S. Rana, voted against the dismissal of Bhatia. The 'feminist' Vice-Chancellor Upendra Baxi took cover under an imaginary clause which denied him a right to take a position since he was in the chair! Thus Bhatia has got away with remaining in service in the very department where he sexually molested women, and drawing the same pay as he did as Professor/Director of the DACEE even though he is now supposed to be only a Reader. Both decisions are violative of the University's statutes where the only punishment for moral turpitude is dismissal.
The Executive Council's refusal to dismiss Bhatia was received with outrage by democratic opinion on the campus. (The Professors are characteristically silent.) Women in particular have been incensed by the decision of the Executive Council and they condemned Baxi's chicanery in not voting since the decision not to dismiss Bhatia was carried by one vote. Both teacher representatives were not present in the Council at the actual time of voting (even though one of them, Dr. Badri Raina had spoken in favour of dismissal but had left by the time actual voting took place) and their absence at the time of voting on such a crucial issue also came in for severe criticism.
It was the sense of outrage that provided the spark for the setting up of Swabhiman, a group that has been founded to resist the culture of violence growing rapidly on the campus. Swabhiman, comprising students and teachers, held dharnas, met all the members of the University administration who had voted to retain Bhatia. The group began by meeting Upendra Baxi in a some thirty person delegation, and demanded explanation of his - crucial - abstention in the Executive Council. Baxi, faced with heated cross-examination questioning his integrity, walked out of the meeting stating that he was not there for public interrogation. Within two days Baxi resigned ostensibly on the question of resource crunch, but actually to take up an assignment abroad. Even in his resignation he did not raise the moral issue of his differences with his team over the Bhatia case. Subsequently, members of Swabhiman met the acting Vice-Chancellor and on the day of the next Executive Council meeting gheraoed him and made evident their condemnation of the anti-women stance of the administration. They plastered the campus with huge posters demanding that the university should stop protecting Bhatia who had been indicted for sex-crimes by the Wad committee. They also made sure that some of these posters were prominently displayed outside the houses of S.S. Rana, the Dean of Colleges, who had earlier told Swabhiman members that he was not accountable to women, or the university community, but only to his own God, the Acting Vice-Chancellor and other officials of the university.
The initial response by Swabhiman both genuinely triggered off other groups on the campus to express their outrage on the Bhatia issue and forced reluctant bodies like the DUTA, which had shown no genuine interest in the case at any point in the long struggle of the two women, to take an open stand on it for fear of eroding their credibility with the general public, since the case had become an issue of public debate. This led to a unique protest, rarely seen on the campus, of students, teachers and karamcharis joining in together to call for a strike. Looking back on the events of the last year around the Bhatia issue the one thing that stands out is that Bhatia and the university have been fully exposed - Sushma Merh and Elizabeth Bharti's long struggle has borne some results, even though they have not been given their due by the university. This is no small achievement for women and for other democratic forces on the campus.
Most important, Swabhiman has not given up; they have refused to accept the verdict of the Executive Council and have moved the High Court of Delhi seeking the intervention of the judiciary. Their plea is that the court should order the University to uphold its own statutes on the issue of dismissal for moral turpitude. The Court has sent a notice to the University seeking an explanation why the University acted as it did. While the judiciary may yet force the University to act according to its statutes and dismiss Bhatia, Swabhiman has demanded that the new Vice-Chancellor should initiate the setting up of a permanent body to examine cases of sexual harassment and suggest action within a limited time frame. Such a standing body had also been recommended by the Wad Committee. No woman should have to wait for as long as eight years for her degradation at the hand of sexual criminals to end as Sushma Merh and Elizabeth Bharti had to in the 'premier' University of Delhi.
In another case pertaining to the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, gender, caste, class, opportunist trade union politics, liquour and corruption all coalesced. The victim was an illiterate female gardener, Anarkali, working in an apparently premier educational institution, Hindu College of the University of Delhi. Anarkali, who lives in a cluster of hutments in Hindu College, is a widow with four daughters and one son with their ages ranging between 12 to 21 years. She got this job with considerable mobilization after her husband's death a few years ago. She is socially ostracized even within her own fellow backward caste persons since her daughter had married a chamar. At the time of her husband's death the social occasion involving eating was boycotted by all. It is against this background that we come to the specific incident involving two karamcharis, who broke open the door of Anarkali's hut with the intention of sexual molestation of the females of the hutment.
On the night of 12th-13th July 1993, two karamcharis of Hindu College, Abhay Singh and Ram Karan, went to Anarkali's hut at mid-night and demanded that she open the door. On her refusal to comply, they applied force to the door and broke it open. However, they could not easily enter the hut since the entire family was holding it back from within. Both men were drunk and were abusing and threatening with criminal assault the females of Anarkali's family. Anarkali and her family raised an alarm, shouted for help and Shyam Lal, another gardener living in the neighbourhood did come to their rescue when the two had actually succeeded in entering the hut. On Shyam Lal's intervention to save Anarkali the duo physically assaulted him besides abusing him. A scuffle ensued and the two sped away. In that scuffle, the rail pass of one, and the identity card of the other got dropped at that place. Shocked, Anarkali immediately went to the residence of the Administrative Officer, who lives on the campus, and the lights of whose house were still on, to complain and to seek help. She was asked to come the next day. She then went to the Principal's residence but was turned away by the watchman stating that the Principal had just returned from outside and had just gone to bed. Early morning she again went to the Principal's residence and while the Principal was having his morning tea, she cried and held his feel, narrated the incident, entreated for help and protection as also action against the culprits.
At 8 a.m. started the karamchari's politics when they learnt of the incident. P.N. Mishra, a karamchari leader of dubious credentials, belonging to the group opposed to the one to which the culprits belonged, took up the matter and talked to the Principal. The Principal suggested that the administrative staff and the karamcharis should talk it over among themselves and whatever be their decision, it would be acceptable to him. The victim wanted the culprits to be punished socially by having them paraded through the college with blackened faces. This punishment was not acceptable to anyone in an almost exclusively male assembly. P.N. Mishra helped the illiterate victim in making a formal representation to the Principal, giving details of the incident and demanding appropriate action against the culprits. Copies of this representation were sent to the Institutional Women Welfare Society, Delhi, D.C.P. Women Cell, Crime Branch, Delhi and The Hindustan Times and the Times of India the two national dailies. Anarkali was helped by a few colleagues in giving her representation to the Crime (W.) Cell, P.S. Civil Lines, Delhi.
In the meantime, the culprits having been definitively identified because of the railway pass, identity card combined with the fact of the matter having been referred to the Crime (W.) Cell, began to threaten Anarkali and her family with dire consequences, if the issue was not dropped. Anarkali, with the help of a section of karamcharis, because of their internal contradictions, persisted with the issue and continued to demand action. On 16th July, 1993, she again wrote to the Principal urging him to take disciplinary action against the culprits. Four days later she made a general appeal to all sections in the College to help in getting justice from the authorities. A copy of this letter was sent to mega-industrialist Dr. Bharat Ram, the Chairman, Governing Body, Hindu College. She was supported by fourteen karamcharis who wrote to the Principal demanding disciplinary action against the culprits. But no action was forthcoming.
Anarkali, with the support of a section of karamcharis, began dharna near the Principal's office (outside the grills) on 20th July while continuing to appeal to all for help. The Teachers' Staff Association took up the issue and in a meeting of the Association held on 28th July 1993 a three-member committee comprising of the Secretary, Dr. Saroopa Mukherjee, Mr. K.K. Misra and Dr. Leela Gandhi was formed to enquire into the incident. With the institution of the enquiry, the Staff Association requested Anarkali to lift the dharna which she did. After the formation of the enquiry committee, the Karamchari Union sought co-option on the committee, but the enquiry committee worked on its own and within the stipulated period of two days carried out investigations and prepared the report.
The Enquiry Committee came to the conclusion 'that the two accused did reach Anarkali's jhuggi late at night,.. were abusive and threatening to her and entered the house against her wishes. They also physically assaulted and were abusive to Shyam Lal who intervened on Anarkali's behalf.' Although the committee found 'no evidence to substantiate claims of sexual molestation or attempted rape' (which, in any event, was not Anarkali's contention) 'the enquiry committee felt that had Shyam Lal not intervened there was actual danger of sexual molestation'. The report further noticed that 'they were (by all reports) under the influence of alcohol, and went to Anarkali's quarter with the intention of harassing her and her daughters. Their reported behaviour on her premises is a clear case of sexist, verbal and physical violence and moral turpitude'. The committee recommended that the culprits be suspended till further notice and that a show-cause he presented to them on the issue. It further recommended stoppage of their increment 'with immediate effect for a reasonable period of time, and that they not be given any profitable work.'
The only punishment that the culprits received for forcible entry into Anarkali's hut after breaking the door open with threats of rape to the females of the household was their suspension for a few days after the enquiry committee's report was submitted to the Principal. Their suspension was revoked within a week. In all likelihood even the mention of their criminal act has not been put on record in their personal files. The Crime (W.) Cell filed the case. Anarkali could not succeed even in getting the social punishment that she had initially wanted for the culprit. She failed to get justice in a premier educational institution of the country which pretends to be based on democratic values. Why were the.culprits able to go scot-free despite the fact that the issue got raised publicly and the charges got substantiated?
The answer to this vital question lies in the complex interlinkages between the politics of corruption of the authorities as well as sections of trade unions, administrative structures and the service conditions governing the conduct of class four employees, class pressures to scuttle the issue, leverage derived out of raising such issues by a section of trade unions and the apathy and inefficacy of the 'democratic' and 'left' forces in the college to comprehend the intricacies of the issue and to struggle against corruption at their place of work. Caste played its own role in varied ways.
The way Anarkali's issue got raised, discussed and resolved (or remained unresolved) was part of the complex politics of divisions based on caste, regional and personal loyalties, politics of appointments and corruption in the college. The issue was taken up by a leader with dubious antecedents ranging from sabotaging struggles to fomenting intensely factional and opportunist policies. He took up the issue since the culprits belonged to the Jat lobby from Haryana with personal and social links with the Administrative Officer in the college as reflected in daily get togethers for drinking in the evening.
With the issue having become public, obviously there was pressure on the Principal to take action. The Principal and the Administrative Officer, with full knowledge of each others myriad acts of corruption, were one on the issue, notwithstanding contradictions between them. Having opposed the social punishment suggested by the victim, P.C. Verma tried to scuttle the issue in various ways at different levels. He attempted to dissuade the Staff Association from taking up the issue by impressing upon its members the dubious record of the karamchari leader who was supporting Anarkali. Concurrently he was trying to scuttle any action by the Crime (W.) Cell. It is believed that he together with the Administrative Officer had gone to see the Incharge of the Crime (W.) Cell after Anarkali had lodged her complaint. In any event, he tried to divert the issue by raising doubts about Anarkali's 'morality'. This was the story given to the Incharge Crime (W.) Cell when she visited the college in connection with the case. Finally Mr. P.C. Verma was successful in persuading the committee of the Staff Association not to make the report public by presenting it to the Staff Association. The culprits were suspended for a week to defuse the situation. The enquiry committee had, among other things, suggested that the two 'not he given any profitable work in the college', but P.C. Verma on the eve of his retirement, promoted one of them to the position of additional caretaker. This was the punishment given by P.C. Verma for intended rape!
P.C. Verma's having shielded and promoted the criminals is not surprising. This was part of his politics of corruption involving money, appointments and admissions in the college. The culprits were cogs in this machinery of corruption which is smoothened with liquour. On the larger scene P.C. Verma is integrated with the self-styled 'left' Congress in the university which operates on similar lines. At another level he is integrated with the 'left' establishment of the Indian History Congress who dedicated their collection of articles on the Mode of Production to this man P.C. Verma, on his retirement. D.N. Jha, R.L. Shukla, K.L. Shrimali, Satish Chandra, Irfan Habib, Shireen Moosvi all came (some from outside Delhi) to felicitate this paragon of academic and ethical virtue, P.C. Verma. One might wonder whether these historians would have come to felicitate Verma if they had known of the Anarkali incident.
P.N. Mishra, who raised Anarkali's issue had a dubious reputation in the trade union movement. Arising out of inner sectional contradictions he took up the issue. It appears that the group used the case for bargaining for the promotion of one of its leaders from the Department of Zoology. It does not appear to be a sheer coincidence that in this promotion case, which had been in the court since May 1991, the two sides made a compromise in September 1993 and finally the promotion was given through several manipulations in May 1994. In any event, Anarkali's case was kept back from reaching its logical conclusion by P.N. Mishra to whom Anarkali had entrusted the whole matter. He kept her back from pursuing the case with the Crime (W.) Cell firstly because being illiterate, Anarkali did not know the content of the communications received from the Cell. The victim stated that she was dissuaded from following the matter with the police by Mishra. She was persuaded that the matter should be resolved 'within' the institution without going out!
The Teaching Staff Association also did it's job only partially. Firstly, the enquiry committee made a serious mistake by submitting the report to the Principal and not to the Association. Secondly, it did not suggest punishment commensurate with the crime. For intended molestation it did not feel the necessity of recommending termination of services of the guilty. Although at the abstract level it used data from the Frontline to say that in India 'Every seven minutes one woman is the victim of a criminal offence' and that Anarkali must be offered protection, but through its own acts of omission and commission, it failed to get justice for Anarkali. Class biases are revealed in their recommendations and actions. It is significant that the enquiry committee asked the culprits to give a written apology, not to the victim but to the Principal. Further they stated that 'in case the matter is pursued by the special Women's Cell, the members of this enquiry committee are willing to give evidence'. They did not insist that the matter must be pursued with the Woman's Cell. It is remarkable that despite their findings that sexual molestation would have occurred if another karamchari had not intervened, the committee did 'not feel it necessary to terminate their services'. Would the committee have made the recommendations if the victim were of their own class?
The caste factor also played its role since Anarkali did not have the sympathy of most karamcharis with her daughter having married a chamar albeit several years earlier. The visits of her son-in-law and members of his caste were resented by her colleagues. In August 1992 complaints were made against her on account of 'disturbance' caused by 'anti-social' and 'undesirable' elements visiting Anarkali. In terms of caste taboos and painted immorality, Anarkali was already in a vulnerable position to become a victim. From the complaints about 'anti-social' and 'undesirable persons', it was only a step to make charges of 'dhanda' against Anarkali and her daughters. This 'dhanda' business was fed to the Police Officer who came to enquire into the complaint.
The role of the Crime (W.) Cell is also serious for its implications for scuttling action in the case. On meeting Ms. Chander Prabha, Incharge, Crime (W.) Cell, North Distt, Delhi, who had pursued the case, one of the authors learnt that Ms. Prabha, along with the SHO Amarjeet Singh, had visited the college the day after receiving the complaint and they had found that the door was broken, but the accused were on leave for a few days. It is significant that Ms. Prabha filed the case since Anarkali did not go to the Police Station all the three times that she was summoned. So technically the case could be filed away. The victim maintains that Ms. Prabha (who had a teacher cousin in the college in the Deptt. of Commerce and who was very close to P.C. Verma) visited the college a few times and got her signatures on a few documents. Once this was done in the presence of an officer, believed to be the Dean of Colleges (belonging to the Jat lobby in the university). Class pressures and class considerations worked against the victim in the special cell for crime against women.
It is evident that feudal structures reflected in illiteracy and caste, weak democratic forces and the absence of any democratic movement, a divided and corrupt trade union movement, authoritarian administrative structures steeped in corruption and class pressures all combined and contributed in varying degrees to scuttling the issue. The victim was denied even the social punishment that she had suggested. It is significant that the special structures created to deal with crimes against women themselves become instruments of covering up sexual harassment. In fact, they remain out of access for such victims as Anarkali who do not have mediators.
Anarkali lives in fear of a reoccurrence of what happened in July 1993. Having failed in getting protection from anywhere, she has called her brother to stay with her so as to be able to 'protect' the family.
Click here to return to the September 1995 index.