How IIT Guwahati Fostered A Culture of Impunity To Sexual Offences

[Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual and  physical violence,which might trigger unwelcome and distressing memories or thoughts. We advise readers to use their discretion before reading.]

 

Guwahati: On August 13, the Gauhati High Court granted bail to Utsav Kadam, a pre-final year B-Tech student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati (IIT-G), and the prime accused in the sexual assault case of a junior student at the same institute. 

While granting bail, the  bench of Justice Ajit Borthakur, observed that the complainant and accused were ‘young’ and ‘talented students pursuing technical courses at the I.I.T, Guwahati’ and ‘state’s future assets’ and therefore, saw no reason for his continued detention if charges had been framed. Further, the court saw no possibility of the accused tampering with the evidence, since the case investigation was complete and the list of witnesses cited. 

The case of sexual assault rocked the IIT-G campus after Dr. Arnav Chowdhury of the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) filed a first information report (FIR) for sexual assault on the junior student at IIT-G, based on a medical examination on March 30, 2021. A day earlier, the victim was brought to the hospital for ‘ingestion of unknown substance with sexual assault’. A three member fact finding committee (FFC) set up by IIT-G after the assault, completed its investigation on April 1. Thereafter, a security officer at the institute filed a separate FIR adducing the FFC report. Kadam was arrested by the police on April 3 after East Mojo, a regional media outlet, reported the incident a day earlier. 

Established in 1994,  as the sixth among the group of eponymous technical institutes, IIT-G currently ranks seventh among the top ranked institutions in the country. Spread over 275 hectares of idyllic greenery and lakes surrounded by hills on the north bank of the Brahmaputra river, the institute boasts of state of the art facilities for interdisciplinary studies and research. 

Last year, IIT-G increased reserved seats for women students to 20% from the existing 17%, after the central government’s decision to increase the supernumerary seats (seats in addition to unreserved seats) across all IITs, in a move to increase women’s representation in technology. This has helped improve the representation of women students in the institute– from 8% in 2016 to 18% in 2021.

Even as female representation in student batches improves, the cultural and academic atmosphere of the institute is far from being inclusive and gender sensitive. 

During the course of our investigation into the current sexual assault case, Behanbox found that at least seven complaints were lodged in the last ten years alone, against students and staff at IIT-G for sexual harassment, sexual assault, attempted rape and campus molestation. While most of these complaints were filed with the police, an internal committee set up by the institute had also conducted an inquiry into the cases. 

The University Grants Commission (under the Ministry of Human Resources and Development) has explicit guidelines on sexual harassment in campus.  Under these guidelines, universities are required to file a mandatory compliance report every year, which is published by the UGC. The IITs, however, as ‘Institutes of National Importance’ established directly by an Act of Parliament, are exempt from the obligation to report. 

Behanbox looked at the three cases in depth and found that the institute authorities- the Dean of Student Affairs and Student Disciplinary Committee- arbitrated on criminal complaints of sexual offences filed by students.We spoke to the faculty members and students, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal  and the institute’s orders against speaking to the media.

We also analysed several reports filed by the fact finding committee and Internal Complaints Committee  or ICC (the legally mandated committee that institutions need to set up under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013) in the present case and the Working Women’s Committee (WWC), an internal group comprising of faculty members to look into sexual offenses complaints, in the past cases. 

Our investigation found that the institute often overrode the recommendations of the committees inquiring into sexual offences that proposed stricter punitive actions, such as suspension, against the offenders and let them off the hook with much lighter punishments. Most of these actions were taken without offering any explanation to the members of the committee, even though they are legally mandated to do so if they deviated from their recommendations, say legal experts. In many cases, the committee members were unaware of the actions taken by the institute. 

This culture of impunity to offenders and tolerance towards sexual offences, arbitrated by bodies dominated by male members, and an ensuing culture of misogyny leaves the women students vulnerable and devoid of institutional recourse. 

The Present Case

It was 7 PM on the  night of March 28, 2021, when  members of a student club (Behanbox is withholding the name of the club to protect the victim’s identity) on the IIT-G campus, gathered for an informal hand-over of duties to a new batch of office bearers. Normal classes were yet to resume on the campus after the COVID-19 protocol came into effect last year. Some second and third year students had, however, returned to the campus for their laboratory work.

Utsav Kadam, the outgoing  joint secretary of the club, handed over his role to the complainant at the meeting. He appeared friendly and they seemed to have known each other from before, an independent witness told Behanbox on condition of anonymity. The overall atmosphere that evening was a cheerful one, with senior students goading the junior ones to introduce themselves, as they had escaped their ‘PDP’, a form of customary ragging practiced on the campus, due to closures, observed the FFC report. 

Kadam, then invited her to walk with her towards the Akshara hostel to discuss her new role, testified the victim to the FFC. The accused allegedly told her they would be joined by Sudhanshu Bhatia, a third year student, at the hostel. Kadam offered her a drink, even though he was aware of her medical condition which prohibited her from consuming alcohol. The complainant produced a Whatsapp chat with him as proof to the FFC. When she refused, he physically forced her to  drink. The complainant fell unconscious. She woke up at 5 AM, the following morning and found herself on the hospital bed at the GMCH.

Kadam, in his testimony to the FFC, mentions that the complainant consented to having the drink but passed out  at 9 PM after consuming very little. 

Kadam also testified to calling Bhavya Aggarwal, another third year student, at 9:30 PM, to bring lime and water. Aggarwal himself claims that he received the call at 10:26 PM, while his phone records show the call was made at 10:32 PM. Aggarwal came in along with fellow students Parth Bajaj and Shalmali Gaikwad and tried to resuscitate the victim with water, lime and ORS.

All four students- Sudhanshu Bhatia,Bhavya Aggarwal, Parth Bajaj and Shalmali Gaikwad are named co-accused in the FIR filed by the complainant.

Close to midnight, the students called the victim’s roommate, who came along with two other students, and found her completely wet with mud on her clothes and legs. The  roommate, in her testimony to the FFC, said that Kadam was resistant to the idea of calling an ambulance to get her medical help. The ambulance arrived after she insisted repeatedly to do so.

A source close to the FFC said that Kadam’s friends at the scene of crime said that they were reluctant to call  the ambulance to avoid disciplinary action against the complainant.

“But it was very clear that they were trying to protect Kadam, which was established later by the ICC as well,” they told Behanbox. The FFC report said that Agarwal and Bajaj had admitted to the committee that they were close to Kadam and ‘were willing to keep secrets for each other’. 

After recording the testimonies, the FCC concluded that  there was a possible sexual assault on the complainant and recommended that the ICC and the Student Disciplinary Committee (SDC) take over for further investigations. 

The first reaction of the institute in a meeting with student welfare committees was to suppress the incident and ask for it not to get leaked to the media, a source within the institute told Behanbox, requesting anonymity.

“All the details of the incident were not clear at the time, so it was a good decision to form a FFC, which did a good job in a short span of time,” they said. “But it was an amateur move on the institute’s part to try and suppress this. You cannot stop someone from speaking to the media or going to the police.” 

The ICC received the victim’s complaint on April 13 and completed it’s inquiry within the month. The ICC report observed that the Students’ Gymkhana Council, the elected student body, instead of taking cognizance and condemning the incident, repeatedly requested an audience with the complainant.

‘Instead of giving her space so she can recover from a traumatic life changing incident, they wanted to get a statement from the victim,’ observed the ICC report. Moreover, the report said that ‘student body members approached the administration so that they are not called to ICC meetings’. 

Behanbox reached out to Sai Sumanth Madicherla, the Vice President of the Gymkhana Council, but he declined to respond to the ICC allegations. His note of dissent was annexed to the ICC report.

Police And Judiciary

On April 7, the victim filed an FIR at the all women police station in Panbazar, Guwahati. In the FIR, she stated that the accused had ‘pre-planned’ the physical assault on her by luring her out of the student club meeting on the campus on the night of March 28, 2021. Kadam tried to fondle her as she fell unconscious, she added.

She also named four other students – Sudhanshu Bhatia, Parth Bajaj, Shalmali Gaikwad and Bhavya Agarwal – as part of the criminal conspiracy. The ICC report too, mentioned that the circumstantial evidence pointed to the involvement of these students. While Bhatia did not produce his call records, the other three students present at the scene of the crime, did not make any attempt to provide medical help to the complainant, said the report.

Gaikwad, a female student, testified before the ICC that Kadam had pulled the victim by her hair and threw her against the wall, a testimony denied by the other three students present at the scene. The three, however, admitted to the ICC that they believed some sexual activity occurred between the two but presumed it to be a consensual one because of their ‘high opinion of Kadam’. When asked by his fellow student Bajaj, Kadam denied any sexual activity between them.

However, part 1 of the investigation report filed by a Special Investigative Team (accessed by Behanbox), which was formed on the direction of the Gauhati High Court on May 28, showed that the GMCH medical records found ‘minute scratch abrasions’ that were ‘colour bright red’ in the vagina, an evidence of strain. The first investigating officer (IO) in the case, Mukut Baishya of Amingaon PS, also stated that he was of the opinion that Kadam had committed the offence of rape, which was supported by medical reports. The chargesheet submitted to the Gauhati High Court concluded that there was a prime facie case of crime committed by Kadam.

Despite the definitive indictment of the other students present at the scene of the crime, IIT-G has not taken any punitive action against them. The first IO of Amingaon PS had picked up Agarwal, Bajaj, Bhatia and Tushar Bohra for questioning but released them for lack of evidence of their involvement.  

On May 18, the complainant filed a writ petition in the Gauhati High Court for non-action on her complaint. In her petition, she stated that the IO recorded her statement on April 2, two full days after she filed the FIR on March 30. Taking cognisance of the findings by the FFC and ICC, the court directed the investigation to be completed within 3 months by a new investigating team led by a woman official. The court remarked that ‘even though the IIT authorities are not parties in this proceeding, it is expected that they shall take all the necessary consequential institutional punitive and remedial actions’, apart from fully cooperating with the investigating team. 

The supplementary chargesheet (final) was submitted to the court on July 8. Sources in the Assam Police told Behanbox that eight DVRs (digital video recorder) of CCTV footage seized from the IIT Guwahati hospital, SAC building (where the student club meeting was held) and various hostels of IIT Guwahati were ‘allegedly tampered with’ and therefore, no longer relevant to the FIR.

Past Case of Sexual Assault

This is not the first case where students of the prestigious institute were accused of sexual offences, though the first one in which the institute filed a police complaint. 

On February 7, 2017, a Gauhati University student lodged a police complaint against second year B-Tech students, Ajeyo Dey and Kunal Kumbhakar for molesting her and two friends during Alcheringa, the annual festival of the IIT-G, held on February 3 that year.

The FIR, a copy of which was accessed by Behanbox, stated: “It was at about 3 AM that Ajeyo Dey and Kunal Kumbhkar offered them beverages. After having it, the complainant with her friends started feeling dizzy. It was then Ajeyo Dey and Kunal Kumbhkar molested the complainant and her two friends using criminal force. They were physically in no condition to resist. The complainant lost consciousness. When she regained consciousness, she and her friends were in Narayana Hospital.” 

Dey and Kumbhakar were arrested the next day, according to media reports. However, on February 9, Vice Chancellor of Gauhati university, Mridul Hazarika said that two of the alleged victims – the friends of the complainant – denied being molested in a written statement in the presence of their guardians. Hazarika told the media the institute would not file an FIR due to the ensuing confusion and constituted a nine member committee to inquire into the matter. The complainant, at the time, said that the institute had put pressure on her not to approach the police as ‘it would bring a bad name to the institution’. 

Behanbox tried accessing a copy of the inquiry committee report but sources with access to the institute’s internal records said that there was no trace of its whereabouts. A source within the institute, requesting  anonymity, said that a committee member never received the final report although they were part of the proceedings. It is unclear if an ICC was formed thereafter. 

Seven months later, on October 23, the two students were acquitted by the Court of Judicial Magistrate at Amingaon, Kamrup on the grounds that the prosecution could only produce a sole witness to testify for the crime, while the other two witnesses turned hostile. One of the witnesses deposed that she did not know why the complainant lodged the case against the accused they had met on the night of the festival. 

A security guard on duty, who had taken the accused and the girls to the hospital in an ambulance, deposed that all five of them were found to be drunk and not in their senses. ‘He did not see the accused committing any obscene acts upon the alleged victims which were against their modesty,” the judgment noted. 

No material evidence appeared to have been offered or examined nor was there any mention of the nine member committee report or its findings.

Case Against A Member Of Faculty

In August 2013, the Working Women’s Committee (WWC) investigated allegations of sexual harassment by a research scholar against Lingaraj Sahoo, a faculty member of the department of Bioscience and Bioengineering. The WWC was the only committee looking into complaints of sexual offences against women at the IIT-G before the establishment of the ICC in 2014. 

The WWC report found that the student working under Sahoo’s supervision was subjected to ‘harassment, mental agony and indignity’, reported the  Indian Express in 2013. The report observed that ‘the Professor abused his position…behaved in a manner… that caused embarrassment… can be inferred as unwelcome behaviour which amounts to sexual harassment at workplace.” 

The committee added that Professor Sahoo’s conduct disrupted the student’s research work, causing conditions in which she could not continue under his supervision, and which amounted to “obstruction to her right as a student to pursue education in liberal academic conditions”.

Sources familiar with the case at the institute said that Sahoo was accused of sending lewd messages to the student, coercing her to accompany him to outstation conferences and threatening to ruin her academic career if she did not reciprocate his advances. 

“In fact, he filed an FIR claiming that his mobile phone was lost or stolen,” a source close to the WWC told Behanbox, in an attempt to refute the claims that he had sent lewd texts to the student.  The police, however, confirmed that the SIM card was in his possession when the messages were sent.

Sahoo was arrested after the scholar filed a police complaint against him. IIT-G, however, suspended him only after students held continued protests against the institute’s inaction. Inspite of the WWC’s findings and recommendations, Gautam Barua, the Director of the IIT-G at the time, told Indian Express that ‘it was a legal requirement to set up a new committee’. The POSH Act, which mandated the formation of an ICC, had already come into effect in April 2013, but the ICC was set up only in 2014, sources told Behanbox

Committees formed, recommendations overlooked

Several members of the faculty that Behanbox spoke to said that in a majority of the cases dealing with sexual offences against students and staff, the recommendations of the ICC and the other committees before it, have not been taken seriously enough by the institute. 

In April 2021, the ICC recommended action against Agarwal, Gaekwad and Bajaj for putting the complainant’s life in danger and remaining silent about the sexual assault, battery and substance abuse. The committee also acknowledged that the students had  caused mental trauma to the victim as well as loss of a career opportunity since the complainant resigned from her post as the vice president of the student club. The ICC recommended that the students be expelled for one semester with immediate effect, a year from the hostel and a payment of 50,000 rupees by each of the students to the victim.  It also recommended a suspended rustication if sexual abuse is proven in court. 

The committee also held Bhatia and Bohra accountable for being in the know of the pre-meditated criminal activity against the woman and their failure to report it. It also indicted them for discussing the victim’s name in an unfavourable manner within different social groups, which affected her mental and physical health. It recommended their expulsion from the hostel for a year and payment of 40,000 rupees each to the victim. The committee indicted Bhatia as part of the the criminal conspiracy and recommended his rustication from the institute if sexual abuse is proven in court. 

Except for the suspension of the main accused Kadam, none of the ICC’s other recommendations for punitive action on the students were acted upon by the institute. Kadam has been asked to vacate the hostel since his release from judicial custody.

“The ICC’s recommendations were implemented in full only in one case until now where a student had complained of molestation during Holi celebration by another student. The accused was suspended for a semester along with a fine payment”, said a faculty member, requesting anonymity. 

IIT-G has had a chequered history in dealing with complaints of sexual offences, said the faculty member.

“For a whole year after the POSH Act, there was no sexual harassment committee. The ICC was only formed after a student complained that there was no committee to approach. Instead, the security section of the institute was entrusted to handle complaints of sexual offences,” they said. Security officers, when approached by women with their complaints, would click their pictures and interrogate them, instead of the accused, they added.

Formation of the WWC itself was a hard won fight before it was disbanded in 2015, said the faculty member. The chairman of the councils and boards looking into student affairs, as well as the Students’ Gymkhana Council, were men, who prescribe different sets of rules for male and female students. 

“Girls were not allowed to work in the labs beyond 6 PM but male research scholars could work till 3 AM,” they told Behanbox. “A lot of sexual harassment complaints were coming in at that time”

In 2013, the WWC had recommended Sahoo’s suspension for a period of 1-2 years but the suspension lasted for less than a year. “He got a project in Arunachal Pradesh where he spent a nice time. So effectively, it was not a punishment”, said the source close to the committee.

The WCC, on its part, recommended a further set of punitive actions against Sahoo— reconsidering his probation and further promotion, lower stage of time scale of pay not exceeding two years so that it doesn’t affect his pension, withholding of increments for a considerable period of time and prohibition from academic programmes related to the student and department programmes including supervising PhD scholars for a period of two years. 

Though assigned another supervisor, the complainant confided in a member of the WWC about her disappointment with the institute’s action or lack thereof, against Sahoo.

“She completed her scholarship in the university and went away quietly after one or two years,” the source close to the WCC said, adding that the scholar has not kept in touch with the faculty or the alumni network.

Sahoo, meanwhile, continued to enjoy the patronage of the institute, leading three sponsored research projects and collaborating on another three projects with other researchers, according to the 2013-14 annual report of the institute. 

“He is very influential in the department and is valued by the institute as someone who brings in a lot of projects. Many in the department were involved in those projects,” she added. “That is why the department had discouraged the student from taking the complaint forward” 

When asked whether the institute has been more responsive and accountable since the ICC began conducting  inquiries into sexual offences, the source close to the WWC said that even with the legal standing of the ICC, the difference has not been significant.

“It depends on who the complainant is and who is being accused of sexual offences,” they said. 

After the 2013 case, ICC had conducted an inquiry into one more complaint against Sahoo, according to the source. Behanbox could not independently confirm this. 

The attitude of the authorities towards sexual offences against the working class staff of the institute is even worse. In 2015, when a female sweeper lodged a complaint of sexual assault by members of the cleaning staff, the ICC’s recommendations were not implemented at all. Worse, she was forbidden to work in the academic section of the institute.

 “Meanwhile, the male sweepers refused to clean women’s toilets”, said the faculty member. 

While the POSH Act requires an employer to constitute an ICC when a sexual offence complaint is received,  the recommendations of the committee are not legally binding on the organisation. The IIT-G website mentions that once the ICC makes its recommendations to the Director, the latter would direct it to the Dean of Student Welfare, Deputy Director for non-teaching staff and Board of Governors for Class A officers/faculty members for necessary action. 

Since the scope of the ICC is limited to civil action against the accused, legal experts say that the final decision falls on the executive authority of the company or institution. Amba Salelkar, co-founder of Paarvai Advisors, a firm that works on anti-sexual harassment law compliance, told Behanbox that the organisation cannot change the findings of committee but they can alter the recommendations. 

“However, whatever action is eventually taken should be reasoned and recorded because it can be appealed”, said Salelkar. If the executive authority agrees with the internal committee, then they do not need to offer any explanation. If they decide to deviate from the recommendations, they will have to explain the reasons for doing so, she added.

In a university where women remain a distinct minority, faculty members said that few women are inclined to speak up against a culture of misogyny, sexism and lack of gender inclusivity by the institute. 

“I can afford to speak up since I have the security of a faculty position here,” said one of the sources. “Students are a lot more vulnerable”

Not everyone agrees with her. A fourth year student told Behanbox that the campus culture was far from hostile towards the increasing number of female students in the incoming batches, who are encouraged to actively participate in all the clubs. When asked why the Students’ Gymkhana Council did not have a single woman representative, they said that not enough female students had contested the election this year despite being encouraged by senior students. 

“Kadam did not have a good reputation but we were shocked when we first heard of the case. We didn’t think he could force himself on someone,” they said. 

The student said that they were not aware of any group messages or posts by fellow students where the complainant’s image was maligned, adding that sexist jokes or jibes are not tolerated by senior students and the Students’ Gymkhana council. 

The concluding message by the ICC, however, paints a different picture. The committee recommended that the authorities send out a message of zero tolerance towards sexual offences to the campus residents. 

‘The current atmosphere of fear and anxiety among women on the campus must be viewed as a detrimental factor to its growth as an institute of international importance’, observed the ICC. 

A source within the institute, who spoke to Behanbox on condition of anonymity, said that although the student disciplinary committee has approved the recommendations, the director is yet to implement them or announce the action that will be taken against the students.

Behanbox called the public relations officer at IIT-G for a response and emailed a set of questions to the Director. This story will be updated when we receive a reply.

Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati based journalist covering India’s Northeast for several national and international publications. You can reach her on Twitter @makesyoucakes

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