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Nalsar's sensible blueprint for how to deal sensitively with campus sexual violence

Nalsar committee: Recognise all forms of sexual violence, be reflective instead of derisive
Nalsar committee: Recognise all forms of sexual violence, be reflective instead of derisive

The Nalsar Hyderabad Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and its Cases Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) volunteer group has come out in support of the anonymous student of the law school who, through an open letter on social media, alleged campus sexual assault by another unnamed Nalsar student.

“An attempt to create a supportive environment cannot be overstressed. The CASH volunteers group is one such measure,” wrote ICC head and Nalsar faculty member Vasanthi Nimushakavi in an email addressed to the entire student body of Nalsar, as a response to the open letter.

Nimushakavi states in the email that “extreme violence” such as rape and molestation are not the only form of sexual violence that women encounter, and that the entire range of assaults which can be categorised as sexual need not be dismissed as “extra sensitive behaviour” and bystanders should steer clear of the tendency to “trivialise” or express “disbelief or derision” of the victim’s version of facts. She also recognises that gender sensitive behaviour is not the norm even in law schools and those bothered by it are asked to “pipe down” or are “put down quite brutally”.

Nimushakavi suggests in her email that forums to deal with this problem “not in a non-adversarial manner but in a restitute manner” need to be developed.

She commented yesterday in an email to Legally India: “As I am the chairperson of the ICC at Nalsar, I am concerned that this should not be seen as prejudging the issue. My concern is to direct the conversation towards a reflective mode by all stakeholders rather than being judgmental on the issue. I am also concerned on whether this will be seen as closing a conversation rather than keeping it open. I was trying to do several things with my letter, addressing concerns that the University is being silent on the issue and not engaging with or expressing support for the complainant as well as ensuring that there is enough space for a dialogue on the important things that the letter has raised.”

Nalsar vice chancellor (VC) Faizan Mustafa in his statement on Friday said that Nalsar is a liberal space committed to open conversation and engaging all its students in a dialogue on the broader issues raised in the student’s open letter. Mustafa’s statement followed the Nalsar Student Bar Council (SBC) statement on its commitment to foster discussions and sensitisation on campus.

Nalsar professor Amita Dhanda commented on the post carrying the open letter on Nalsar’s community page on Facebook, that it was important to speak out both in public as well as in private about “what is meant by consent”. The letter went viral on social media and was picked up by some non-legal media as well after it was posted on Nalsar’s Facebook page on 14 September.

Nimushakavi’s full letter:

The anonymous post on the nalsar community page raises important concerns around sexual assaults on campuses. The first is the need for anonymity, both of the person who bears the assault and the one who commits it. The anonymity of the post is both a whistle blowing act, trying to throw light on an issue that many face but who perhaps don’t even see it as an issue of sexual assault and in that sense giving voice and breaking a sinister silence on things some would consider too shameful to even acknowledge. It is also an act that refuses to individualise the behavior.

The matter of pursuing the individual case has not been taken up on the wishes of the complainant. The fact that there are institutional mechanisms, support groups both among students and faculty has been acknowledged. There is prima facie clear evidence that this is indeed an issue of sexual harassment and needs to be identified as such and the decision of the complainant was to flag this as an issue for a larger debate, sensitization and consciousness raising rather than to isolate the individual incident. This it is hoped will also reflect the experiences of those who do not report, since the general pattern around sexual harassment is that for every complaint filed, there are at least three complaints reported but not filed.

The issue that needs to be debated is of identifying behavior as problematic and not least of all acknowledging that this could happen to anyone and breaking the myth that sexual violence is only the kind that receives maximum public attention, like the gangrape of a student in public transport. The extreme violence by random strangers is not the only form of violence that women encounter. The majority of cases are those suffered in silence and by the hands that one trusts and yes, even cares about. Cares about enough to not want punitive, disciplinary action against that person. This gesture should not be lost out in the battle for seeking justice.

While survivors battle these conflicting emotions, by standers are often also conflicted in the need to balance out versions and the need to seek ‘objectivity’. The other concern is the constant undermining and at times dismissing, concerns of sexual harassment. Sexual Harassment cases are often condemned as extra sensitive behavior and students often trivialize the experience of others. When faced with extreme violence of course most turn around to condemn it strongly, but the more normal routine attitude is one of either disbelief or derision.

While law schools have broken several barriers for women, gender concern and issues of sexual orientation remain at the fringes. Gender sensitive behavior is not the norm and those bothered by it are asked to pipe down or are put down quite brutally. Legal and institutional mechanisms have been in place for a while but the reluctance to access them remains. Individual complaints do not also sensitise the environment as the investigation, the results are often private and not in the public domain. The challenge to create a less hostile environment remains. Appropriate forums to engage with these questions in a non-adversarial manner but in a restitute manner still need to be designed. In the meantime an attempt to create a supportive environment cannot be overstressed. The CASH volunteers group is one such measure. The group will meet tomorrow to take this discussion further.

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