The Committee against sexual harassment at IIT Madras has refrained from taking action against the erring faculty. Students, however, want the CCASH to be more transparent.

he winds of change are breezing through the verdant campus of IIT Madras (IIT-M) where the students are campaigning for a reformed Complaint Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CCASH). For the first time in several years, gender sensitisation emerged as a key issue in the just concluded institute elections. A complex mix of issues has triggered a demand for significant changes in the committee’s structure, visibility and autonomy.

“It would be difficult to pinpoint one specific issue. At a general level, we are not content with some of the decisions taken by the committee and its lack of transparency,” said a student representative. The culture of misogyny prevailing in a predominantly male environment, incidents of sexual harassment allegedly faced by some of the female research scholars and other gender-related issues contributed to the demands for a reformed committee.

But the matter involving “look-alike” porn videos served as the tipping point. The students were shocked to learn that pornographic videos wilfully renamed as videos featuring some of the female students of the institute were being shared using an internal file sharing software—DC++. “All of these issues led us to believe that we need to go to an empowered body without feeling scared and vulnerable,” said another female student.

Charter

The committee in its present form deals with the complaints of sexual harassment in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. “The rules of the committee leave a lot unsaid. We need to elaborate on those rules and make them clear. We have prepared a list of recommendations for the CCASH charter and are in the process of getting legal opinion on it,” said a student engaged in a dialogue with the committee.

“As far as specific complaints are concerned, the Committee is competent to take care of the issue,” says Professor Nandita Das Gupta, Chairperson of the Complaint Committee. However, the students say that the lines of authority between the administration and the committee are not clear.

“We are not an executive body. But generally our recommendations are honoured by the administration,” said Prof DasGupta. Her colleague, Prof L.S. Ganesh, Dean of Students, IIT-M, clarifies: “The power distribution between the CCASH and the administration is vertical, not horizontal.” But the administration and the CCASH “work in an integrated manner while dealing with cases of sexual harassment.” Students say that most of the complaints don’t reach the committee as very few know that such a committee exists and even if they do, they have no reason to trust the committee. A former research scholar who allegedly faced sexual harassment at her department recounts her experience: “Whenever I would go for a meeting, I made it a point to dress appropriately so as not to invite harassment. I was determined not to quit and leave.” She explains why she did not approach the committee, “I reported the incident to senior faculty members who were willing to help. But when they heard the name of the Professor involved, they backed out.”

“We have sufficient mechanisms to deal with such cases in a fair manner and with the required discretion and sensitivity. If a lady student is not aware of and/or cannot exhaust the mechanisms available to deal with sexual harassment, it will be a sad situation,” said Prof Ganesh. However, some of the female students who approached the committee say that it was a “traumatising experience.”

“I accept it. It is traumatising to talk about it in front of strangers. The Committee does ask questions as it has to consider both sides of the story, but we don’t want it to be traumatising. We try to be gentle in our approach,” said Prof DasGupta. “We need a body whose protocols are laid down clearly. The system right now is arbitrary,” said a student representative. “We have received the recommendation of students for the CCASH charter and are in the process of getting legal opinion,” said Prof DasGupta.