Countering sexual harassment in the academia: the case of Atul Johri

JNU professor accused of multiple incidences of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by his students was arrested after four days of FIR and many days of protests. Known to be a BJP sympathiser, the professor was granted bail within 80 minutes.

Johri has claimed that he is being targeted for trying to enforce compulsory attendance rule and that the protests are politically motivated by the left. However, the complaints against him date back to 2011 and continue up to 2018. The students have said that they are now being pressurised to withdraw the case. Moreover, they argue that compulsory attendance cannot be an issue since only two of the students among eight are his former students. Additionally, some of them are registered members of the ABVP.

The charges against Johri are serious. Statement by the students notes that Johri comments on his students’ bodies and makes open demands for sex. Girls who resist are threatened and girls who agree get authorship to papers. This harassment and discrimination have led to students in his lab being depressed and demotivated and many are seeking medical help for clinical depression. He visits girls in the drunken state at odd times. Besides sexual harassment complaints, the document notes his corruption – he uses fake bills for projects and consumables and crores of rupees have been spent without getting any instruments for many years. He used his influence to help a colleague’s wife with unrelated background get PhD fellowship in life sciences and she has been absent while getting fellowship through forgery. He also pressurizes students of his laboratory to attend ABVP/RSS talks.

The Delhi police, however, have not even sought a remand for the accused and even JNU administration has not taken any action against him. Initially, the police chose to register only one FIR on one of the complaints and it is only after the intervention of DCW chief that separate FIRs were registered. The case was also under Section 354 of the IPC and Section 509. Section 354 is non-bailable and states, “whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than one year, but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine”. Despite this bail was given.

The callousness with which this case is being treated is very worrying for women safety in academia. Students are anyway hesitant to come forward against professors because of power imbalance and fear that they might not be taken seriously and may face further persecution for speaking out. Me too movement that gained momentum last year and is still going strong especially looked at sexual harassment and abuse within academia.

One of the first such personal accounts was by academic C Christine Fair (now taken down by Huffington Post) where she details harassment by professor Dipesh Chakravaty. Subsequently, Raya Sarkar published a list of sexual abusers in academia compiled through testimonies and reports of women who faced this assault. The list quickly became controversial where many criticised name and shame technique, while others praised the initiative of finally putting out in open what was known in academic circles anyway. The list was seen as perhaps only way in which students could warn others and seek some form of retribution in a system rigged against them, where due processes were missing, and most complaints were either ignored or treated with hostility.

Students, battling institutional power and institutionalised patriarchy, have now started speaking out. As JNU students continue to brave police beatings on a peaceful protest, students in Kerala are protesting against sexist and shameful remarks of a professor who asked the women students to cover up and compared their bodies to watermelons on display. A case has now been filed against him.

In the current times, student protests have been labelled seditious and politics in the campus has been denounced or cracked down. However, when personal is political, institutional mechanisms routinely fail students and there is collusion between perpetrators and powerful, student politics is progressive, indispensable and need of the hour.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Swati Saxena

Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit organisation. She has a PhD in Public Health and Policy from University of London and MPhil in Development Studies from University of Oxford. She tweets at @SwatiSaxena1231

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