Appalling Case Of Sexual Harassment Of TN Dalit Woman Prof Proves POSH Needs Caste Sensitivity

A Dalit woman professor in an Ooty college was sexually harassed by a colleague, and even after her complaint, she didn't get justice - an example of how caste affects even justice systems in place.

A Dalit professor from Government Art College in Ooty, Tamil Nadu has shared her experience of being subjected to caste and gender based harassment and discrimination at the hands of a colleague. Unsurprisingly, not only was she discriminated against for having spoken up and pursued a complaint in the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) set up under PoSH guidelines, but the committee, too, let the woman down.

What happened in this case?

According to this article in The News Minute, in February 2022, Dharmalingam (the accused) who is a professor at the same institute, passed sexually coloured remarks about her and commented on her sex life. The Principal of the educational institution, Eswaramoorthy, who is of the same caste background as the harasser, had allegedly constantly tried to shield Dharmalingam from having to suffer any consequences of his actions.

What followed was a harrowing experience for the Dalit woman. The accused and his supporters attempted to brush the entire incident under the carpet. Even though the first Internal Complaints Committee had found the accused guilty, suspended, and booked by the police for the offences, Eswaramoorthy set up a second such committee to look into the matter. This is illegal according to Indian law.

After this, the woman was transferred to another institute, but she then appealed to the HC which stayed the transfer order. Further, October saw guest lecturers staging a protest against the woman despite she being the victim here, demanding an unconditional apology for “doing sexual harassment drama” and “spoiling the college name”.

My experience of how the ICC doesn’t do its job

As a student of a public university, I have closely followed some ICC proceedings and also participated in another as a witness. I have noticed that the ICC more often than not leaves disappointment and further trauma to the survivors in its wake.

We need to take a closer look into the many ways ICC and PoSH are failing to do what they are expected to do. ICC’s functioning often prove to be less than satisfactory, or even safe, for the survivors, like

  • the recommendations of the committee not being executed,
  • the findings of the enquiry not being sent to the complainant,
  • the accused loitering outside the enquiry meetings with the intention to intimidate even though venue and timings of such meetings are supposed to be confidential.

It needs a radical upheaval and policy-makers need to take into account the different reforms feminist activists and students around the country are demanding.

How the ICC let down the Dalit woman

In the Dalit professor’s case, too, the ICC failed to advocate for justice. Instead, here it penalised the victim and did not safeguard the misuse of its tenets.

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According to the rules under PoSH, the entire process of the enquiry should be completed within a period of 90 days, upon which the report gets forwarded to the Principal of the Institute or the Vice-Chancellor of the University. The committee found Dharmaligam guilty and sent their report to Eswaramoorthy, the Principal, who did not take any action against the harasser – which is where the problem began.

Despite shielding and enabling the harasser, Eswaramoorthy was promoted to the post of Director of College Education, from which capacity he called for another committee to look into the complaints.

According to the News Minute report, the committee constituted did not follow the guidelines of the PoSH Act, did not have adequate female members, and finally, it discarded the complaint on the grounds that there were no witnesses. The committee recommended the transfer of both the victim and the harasser. The entire second committee proved to be a sham, constituted to shame and harass the Dalit woman into submission.

ICC rules are sensitive to gender, but not to caste

The harassment the Dalit professor faced, at the hands of the abuser as well as her colleagues and seniors, was two pronged. It was not simply a case of gender-based harassment. Caste plays an integral role in the harassment and discrimination of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women. If a committee overlooks the power structure that comes into play when a Dalit woman is harassed by a non-Dalit man who is socially positioned higher than her in the caste hierarchy, the body is ill-equipped to mete out appropriate penalties or bring about justice.

Equally important to what is written in the documents of each university or workplace’s ICC Rules is what isn’t written. What realities the Rules refuse to take into consideration, what it takes for granted as sewed into the fabric of the society without questioning the role these realities play in enabling abuse.

ICC guidelines by and large skim over the realities of caste hierarchies and how these impact and compound the power structures established by gender. Sexual harassment and abuse cannot be understood and prevented in a vacuum that’s devoid of an understanding of caste and class relations.

Usually there is a perfunctory mention of how vulnerability can be compounded by social realities of caste, class and so on, as these ICC Rules of JNU shows, but there are no actual guidelines on how to tackle gender based abuse that’s also casteist in nature.

What a savarna woman has to deal with in its interactions with ICC is vastly different from the experience of a DBA woman with the same ICC. What the Dalit professor from Tamil Nadu had to go through was horrifying, outrageous and deeply casteist, and its redressal can only be possible when the quasi-judicial bodies start giving marginalised identities and genders their due. For that, radical reforms need to be under way.

Image source: shutterstock

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About the Author

Kamalika

A postgraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Describes herself as an intersectional feminist and an avid reader when she's not busy telling people about her cats. Adores walking around and exploring read more...

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