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RGNUL students, Nalsar VC politely engage after Faizan argued NCW didn’t follow natural justice in campus inquiry

Nalsar VC loves a good debate with RGNUL students over NCW investigation
Nalsar VC loves a good debate with RGNUL students over NCW investigation

On 14 May, Nalsar Hyerabad vice-chancellor Prof Faizan Mustafa had published a column in the Tribune headlined “NCW has failed our women”, arguing for reform of the National Commission for Women (NCW).

In the final paragraphs of the Tribune article, where he is a regular contributor, he also addressed the recent NCW fact-finding report at RGNUL Patiala, that had been requested by students and that came down strongly against the administration.

Mustafa, who is a member of RGNUL’s academic council, argued that the NCW report contained several typos and that it had violated the “principle of natural justice” by only recording students’ complaints but not allowing accused faculty any right of response.

After a response from RGNUL students criticising his article, he counter-responded and requested that students should “treat by-gone as by-gone and look forward and take your university to the zenith of academic excellence. You are as good as students of any leading law university. Have faith in yourself and have a dialogue with your administration.

“I am sure your Vice-Chancellor will positively react to you and will leave no stone unturned in resolving all the issues that have been bothering you. Best General wins war without fight. My wishes are always with you.”

Mustafa claims NCW’s report was not good enough

In the Tribune article, which primarily criticised the NCW’s functioning, listing several historical incidents of the NCW (allegedly) failing in its duties, Mustafa concluded:

An NCW team last month visited Rajiv Gandhi National Law University (RGNLU), Patiala. Strangely, it gave one report to the university and sent another to the government. The covering letter to the university shows the inefficient work ethics of the NCW. The letter is dated as April 11, 2019. In the second paragraph, it says that in response to alleged gross inequalities, the commission constituted an inquiry committee on March 19, 2019, and the committee visited RGNLU on March 20, 2018, and while signing, Under Secretary Barnali Shome puts the date of April 12, 2012. Thus, three different years are there in the covering letter itself.

There must be wider dissemination of ICC in every institution, but RGNLU’s ICC constitution is visible on the university’s website and was uploaded in October 2017. In fact, a grievance committee’s link is also there, which was constituted on March 19, 2019. The inquiry committee had found the behaviour of certain employees as ‘rude’. It observed in its report that “it had been noticed that (certain professors) have been rude to the students and have passed anonymous marks against students.” The committee came to this conclusion without meeting or giving these employees an opportunity of hearing.

The NCW thus violated the principle of natural justice that demands that ‘no one shall be condemned unheard’. The NCW also went beyond its powers when it suggested that teachers should not be appointed as warden. This again is problematic as in most universities, teachers are doing a wonderful job as wardens. It has also suggested that the grievance committee members should be of the students’ choice.

RGNUL students respond

We have reached out to RGNUL students, whose legal representative, Amirta Garg, has responded to Mustafa’s article in an open letter.

Garg argued that Mustafa’s article, particularly with respect to RGNUL, had struck several “false notes” and were based on misinformation.

Dear Dr. Mustafa,

Apropos your article published in The Tribune, titled “NCW has failed our women” dated 14.05.2019, your stance on the role played by the Commission in reaching out to the students of RGNUL in the aftermath of the protest led by them against the authorities, has caused deep anguish and perturbation to us. As we are sure, it has, to the legions of ardent followers of your writings and admirers of all that you stand for. For an unrelenting champion of the rights of women and students, we can only hope that the false notes struck in this article are merely a result of conclusions drawn hastily from gross and malicious misinformation spread by those directly conversant with the facts.

We now speak to you, Sir, not only for ourselves, but also for all the students of the RGNUL, who have shown courage and conviction far beyond their years, in standing up against the tyrrany of a callous administration. In this David v. Goliath battle, the only weapons they are fighting with are the truth and an unwavering pursuit of justice. Thus we find it necessary, to apprise you and the readers, of facts that might hitherto have been kept from your knowledge.

The first attack launched by you on the work ethic of the Commission, based solely on what can easily be termed as mere typographical errors, came as a surprise to many of us who have been taught by esteemed legal luminaries like yourself, that equity must regard substance rather than form. While the copy of the Enquiry Report of the NCW supplied to the students did not come with a covering letter, nevertheless your summary dismissal of the contents of the Report on the anvil of minor technicalities is wholly unmerited. A bare perusal of the Report points to glaring instances of high-handedness and discrimination meted out to the students by the RGNUL University Administration. While nitpicking about inadvertent errors, we must not lose sight of the observations of the Hon’ble Commission, wherein it has pointed out the following grave issues faced by the students:

“OBSERVATIONS:

No Redressal Mechanism: Students were not aware of any such mechanism and authorities were never available to resolve the issues.Lack of Awareness for ICC: The students as well as teachers were not aware of the legal remedies available in terms of any complaint relating to sexual harassment at work place.No Interaction Programme: University Administration does not hold any student-teacher interaction programme where students could share their problems.Impulsive Behaviour of the Faculty: It could be noticed that Dr. Shilpa Jain, Professor SP Singh, Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma, Dr. Gayatri Sharma, Professor Vipin, Professor Anand Pawar have been rude to students and have passed anonymous marks against students.

Right to Privacy Is Infringed: The taking away of the mobile phone of the student and accessing the gallery is surely an infringement of right to privacy.”

Seen in the backdrop of the circumstances that led to the protests by the students of RGNUL in March 2019, it defies our understanding, how the actions of the NCW in reaching out to the students to resolve their grievances can be perceived as anything but the strictest regard for their statutory mandate and constitutional obligations.

You have further contended that the University constituted a grievance committee on March 19, 2019 and a link to the same was readily available on the website of the University. The authenticity of these claims is refuted by factual evidence to the contrary, available in the form of screenshots of the Quick Links page of the University Website, taken by the students on 30 March 2019, which displays no information about any such grievance committee. Infact, the said link seems to have been added as an afterthought and is in line with the usual practice of the University of issuing backdated circulars and orders, in order to absolve itself of all responsibility. Further, the circular pertaining to the constitution of the said Grievance Committee also states that a copy of the formulation of the Grievance Committee shall be uploaded on the ERP i.e. the university announcement portal. Unfortunately, the student records of the ERP for the date of the purported circular i.e. March 15, 2019 and the proximate period, are marked by a conspicuous absence of any such document. If deliberate, this would not only exhibit the University’s flagrant disregard for the spuriousness of its claims but also expose the systematic intimidation and manipulation and the utter moral deficit at the heart of this crisis.

Your allegations against the Enquiry team of the NCW, inasmuch as you state that it acted in violation of the principles of natural justice, suffer from being only a partial disclosure of the facts. It must be brought to the notice of everyone concerned that infact the Enquiry Report of the NCW itself mentions that the team met those staff members and authorities mentioned in the complaint filed before it by the students and available at the time of the visit. The absentees include Captain S.P. Singh, Chief Adminstrative Officer of RGNUL, who has been sent on temporary leave and restrained from entering the University premises, in pursuance of the mutual agreement reached between the students and Univesity authorities on March 19, 2019. Capt. Singh is currently the subject of an enquiry under orders of the Chancellor, the Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court, which is pending before Smt. Manjot Kaur, Ld. Addl. Sessions Judge at Patiala. Dr. Gayatri Sharma, another of the absentees, is a part-time gynaecologist employed by the University, against whom allegations of medical negligence and sexist comments have been made. It is not beyond the scope of imagination that, being a part-time employee, she might not have been present in the premises at the time of the visit of the NCW team. To make a blanket statement about the credibility of the entire process, based only on a selective appreciation of the situation, is wholly ill fitted to a person of your stature.

The assertion that the Commission has acted beyond the scope of its powers in recommending that the office of hostel warden be separated from that of teaching staff, cannot but fail in the face of clear statutory guidelines to the contrary contained in Section 10 (1) of the National Commission for Women Act, 1990, which provides:

“10. Functions of the Commission.—(1) The Commission shall perform all or any of the following functions, namely:—

(c) make in such reports recommendations for the effective implementation of those safeguards for improving the conditions of women by the Union or any State;

…”

In the case of RGNUL, the NCW has made exhaustive recommendations in exercise of its statutory powers and based on its interactions with the students and authorities of the University and its subsequent findings. The recommendation you seek to impugn is based on the fact that there were around forty complaints against Dr. Shilpa Jain, the girls’ hostel warden and current faculty member, showcasing her dictatorial behaviour. Moreover, your observation that“in most universities, teachers are doing a wonderful job as wardens”,must also necessarily collapse in the peculiar circumstances of this case, where it is clear that there is no proper separation of the two roles played by the same person and where the experiences in one sphere often inform their behaviour in the other. This becomes evident from statements regarding discrimination against female students by Dr. Shilpa Jain during vivas (in her capacity as a senior faculty member) and placements (in her capacity as a member of the Placement Cell) for wearing short clothes or walking with boys on campus.

As far as you seek to question the recommendation of the NCW that the grievance committee members should be of the students’ choice, we only implore you to desist from dismissing it without considering that the recommendations infact state that this Grievance Cell would be distinct from the ICC constituted by the University under the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. This recommendation comes in the context of the well-founded apprehension in the minds of the students, who have been constrained to suffer in silence in the past, only because of their fear of backlash and the vindictive attitude of the authorities.

It is imperative that we consider how this vindictiveness has already begun to manifest itself in the response of the University. Though the Vice- Chancellor himself, in an interview to The Indian Express, has confirmed receiving the NCW report and has stated that the University is already following the recommendations, this is belied by the reality. Students have already begun to feel the heat for standing up for their rights- in the form of threats of suspension, phone calls to the parents of the students in the foreground of this movement, mass failures in mid-semester examinations- instances that have been brought to the notice of the Ld. Enquiry Officer.

Sir, as a member of the Academic Council of RGNUL and as Vice- Chancellor of the prestigious NALSAR, of whose General Council, the current Vice-Chancellor of RGNUL is a member; your actions in mounting so vehement an attack on the NCW, as far as its findings with respect to the authorities of RGNUL are concerned, may be considered by many as a direct conflict of interest. Moreover, the fact that you have been a long- standing acquaintance and colleague of the RGNUL Vice Chancellor, Dr. Paramjit Singh Jaiswal and have worked closely with him as fellow member of the CLAT Academic Council behoves greater caution on your part- more so, as your words wield substantial influence. This disturbs us profoundly, as young lawyers who have always looked to you for inspiration.

We can only beseech you that it is time for us to stand together, as a community, to root out the rot that threatens all that is good and worthy in our institutions. We must strive to preserve the vision of the Late Sh. N.R. Madhava Menon, who sought to establish spaces that foster a culture of questioning the status quo. The article written by you, coming as it does from one of the leading lights of the profession that the students of RGNUL wish to join, can only have a disempowering effect on their morale and take this movement several steps back into the shadows from whence it has finally begun to emerge. Let it not be said, Sir, that the lifelong learners and upholders of the noble ideals of the Constitution and the law of this land, failed it just when the battle came to their doorstep.

Yours, in dismay, Amrita Garg

(The writer is an Associate Advocate at Vaakya Legal, Chandigarh and is a part of the legal team representing the students of RGNUL in the ongoing enquiry against Captain S.P. Singh before Smt. Manjot Kaur, Addl, Sessions Judge, Patiala.)

Faizan Mustafa: Immense satisfaction with response

We have reached out to Mustafa for a response to Garg and the RGNUL students’ open letter to him.

He wrote:

The beauty of teaching law and civil liberties is that students first experiment the newly acquired knowledge and skills on us. It gives immense satisfaction to see students making an argument. I really love it and therefore I am really glad to see this response from RGNLU students. I do learn a lot from students and that’s why in my administration they play a leading role.

My brief response is following-

1. There is no conflict of interest as my piece is primarily on NCW not RGNLU. I have criticised NCW and not justified or condoned RGNLU’s administration. Moreover if I accept student’s logic, I should not be writing against court judgments as NLUs have a close relationship with High Courts and Supreme Courts. Yes I am the member of RGNLU’s Academic Council but in last three years I did not attend any meeting of its AC. I only once joined through Skype.

2. In my opinion universities are all about students. They are the most important stakeholder and all of us exit to facilitate them. I am really happy to know that students of RGNLU have so much of respect for me. Ideally we should sort out our issues within the university. If a university is in news for wrong reasons, it does adversely affect student’s placements. Thus RGNLU students could have written to me as I am currently President of Consortium of NLUs. I would have taken up their grievances with the University administration and persuaded them to give a prompt and sympathetic consideration.

3. Coming to lovely and very well written response to my piece, here are few clarifications and questions-

(a) Is it not a fact that strike really started on the issue of food. I myself saw the video of students first finishing their food and then shouting against the administration. Quality of food is beyond the mandate of NCW. Similarly NCW can primarily make reports for the Union and States not universities. It has not made any report about the appointment of wardens in any university.

(b) You are talking of as many as 40 complaints against Dr Shilpa Jain but I have found out from the university that not a single complaint was filed prior to strike not only against her but against anybody including wardens.

(c) How come three different reports were sent to Govt, University and students. The signature and date by the Deputy Secretary at the bottom of covering letter my dear students are in handwriting and therefore cannot be termed inadvertent typographical mistake. How can you justify putting 2012 as year?

(d) I was also informed by the university that Manoj Kumar, Anand Pawar and Vipin Kumar were very much on campus yet NCW did not interact with them yet condemned them unheard. This is clear violation of natural justice. In fact even SP Singh who was locally available should have been summoned by the NCW and given a hearing. Did we not teach you that even the worst criminal has a right to due process? Similarly a grievance committee picked up by the students must be compatible with natural justice. They cannot be judges in their own cause.

(e) In a law university where in the first class we teach Ignorance of law is no excuse, you are saying students and teachers were not aware of ICC. I have been told ICC was established in 2017 and that some lectures were also organized on sexual harassment law. In any case, both teachers and students must regularly visit university’s website.

I have a very high opinion about the students of RGNLU. As your elder and co-learner, I would request you to treat by-gone as by-gone and look forward and take your university to the zenith of academic excellence. You are as good as students of any leading law university. Have faith in yourself and have a dialogue with your administration. I am sure your Vice-Chancellor will positively react to you and will leave no stone unturned in resolving all the issues that have been bothering you. Best General wins war without fight. My wishes are always with you.

Lots of love

Faizan Mustafa

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