The Delhi High Court today rebuked the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for not taking constructive steps to provide safe working environment for women who have levelled sexual harassment charges against a professor. “I thought you were taking constructive measures to provide a safe environment to them. You (JNU) said on the last date that you were setting up a fact-finding committee which will hear them. “I see a complete turn around as you are saying you do not know who the eight students are and do not call them (to be heard before the committee),” Justice Rajiv Shakdher said and asked the varsity “Do you have the power to sanitise the environment?” The observation by the court came after it perused a report of the fact-finding committee (FFC) set up by JNU to probe the alleged misconduct by the professor.
The court also said the report contained no findings and the panel has not even called the eight complainants or Prof Atul Kumar Johri. It observed it had expected the university to put in place a mechanism for providing a safe environment to the women, but the committee’s report was silent on the issue. JNU, in its defense, said the FFC cannot go into the issues of alleged misconduct by the professor or the complaints of sexual harassment as these aspects will be examined by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) according to the central civil services rules. It also claimed that the ICC was unable to take up either of the two aspects as the complainants were refusing to appear before it.
Advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for the complainant women students, told the court that her clients did not have any confidence in the ICC in view of the varsity’s conduct towards them till now. She said that despite the high court’s May 2 order directing that Johri should not visit or use laboratory no. 409 of the Department of Life Sciences where the students work, it is still under his control and he has access to it. In support of her claim, she showed emails indicating that Johri still had keys to the lab.
Grover also said two of her clients who are pursuing Ph.D and wanted change in their supervisors, have received no communication on the aspect from the varsity. JNU said both students have been assigned three supervisors each, but it was yet to find someone to sign their thesis. Apart from the varsity and the complainants, the court also heard the stand of Johri, whose lawyer contended that his client as well as his family were being targetted by some students who have pasted posters on his house and vehicle.
The lawyer also said his client had only sent an e-mail to certain students, including one of the complainants, warning them against their irregular attendance pattern. Johri has also claimed that some of the complainant students were asked to work harder and, in retaliation, they had levelled the allegations against him. The court said it was not saying who was right, but in his “best interest”, it would be helpful if he keeps away from the varsity campus.
However, Johri’s lawyer said his wife and daughters stay in the campus so it would not be possible for him to stay away. After hearing all the parties, the court said it will issue directions on May 29. The court was hearing a petition filed by several women students seeking suspension of the professor, against whom eight FIRs have been lodged alleging sexual harassment, and to restrain him from entering the campus. The plea has sought the provision of a safe working environment to the students.
The court had on April 25, directed the JNU to treat the representations of women students as complaints and initiate a probe against the professor on charges of sexual harassment, while questioning the varsity for not taking any steps in the matter. Students, professors and women rights organisations have been demanding his arrest, after several students had accused him of sexual harassment.