Ashoka University Sexual Harassment Case Closed: Irregularities in Due Process

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Around five hundred and fifty days have lapsed since the first complaint of sexual harassment was registered but the complainant says that she has not received the requisite answers and justice even after following due process.

A year-and-half has passed but there has not been any respite for the woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint against a professor from Ashoka University. The complainant and Anonymous Website claim irregularities in due process.

Even after repeated pleas, the survivor tells Delhi Post, she still has not been informed about any action taken on the perpetrator, even after following the due process under CASH or Committee Against Sexual Harassment which is mandatory in higher educational institutions ‘for prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and students’.

Timeline of events  

It was in April 2017 that a sexual harassment complaint against Sonepat-based Ashoka University’s professor Dr. Mitul Baruah, who teaches sociology and anthropology, was filed by the complainant. The complainant earlier worked as a Teaching Assistant at Ashoka University in 2016. She filed the complaint for “continuous emotional exploitation and at least one incident of non-consensual sexual intercourse in early February, 2017” in the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where she is a research scholar. JNU’s GSCASH then asked the enquiry to be forwarded to the Internal Complaints Committee at Ashoka University.

The Committee held that the defendant also held that the defendant should be declared “out of bounds” from JNU.

“GSCASH noted that the relationship between the complainant and the defendant had been “mostly consensual, but it involved manipulative consent on the part of the defendant with abuse of patriarchal power in the professional sphere centred around the workplace”.

Following the “due process”, an Ad-Hoc Committee was formed by CASH at Ashoka University in October 2017. On October 19, 2017, the Committee held “…the defendant engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour given his position in the hierarchy vis. a. vis the complainant…” The woman was then informed about the Ad-hoc committee formed by Ashoka University CASH through an email on the basis of her complaint. After her deposition on November 6, 2017, the survivor received an unsigned CASH report from the University.

“Expressing her disappointment with the report’s findings, the survivor in a mail said that the Ad-hoc Committee didn’t ask her for any evidence or list of witnesses before her deposition.”

The survivor also says that the report provides an incomplete narrative by saying that the complainant furnished evidence after the enquiry, since she wasn’t asked for it; The evidence was submitted to a CASH Committee member on “personal request” after the enquiry and that she would have submitted the evidence to the Committee if there was an official request and the transcriptions of her deposition weren’t handed over to her even after asking about it, which violates the University’s CASH policy.

“A three-member Disciplinary Committee on December 27 was formed by the Board of Management at the University which after further depositions stated, “The Committee finds Dr. Baruah’s conduct unbecoming of a faculty member of Ashoka University and in violation of the norms of adherence to the highest academic standards” and held Dr. Baruah “guilty of professional misconduct”.

However, the survivor stated in her repeated e-mails to the University that she wasn’t communicated about the action taken or the inquiry report didn’t speak of punitive measures taken on Dr. Baruah, which is her right as part of The Principles of Natural Justice – considered as basic human rights.

The University’s Vice Chancellor, Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an internal email on August 27, 2018, addressed to the Ashoka Community stated, “All Committees that have looked into the matter found Prof. Baruah, NOT GUILTY, of sexual harassment. This includes in total three Ashoka Committees, and the JNU Committee as well. In short, four committees have found him not guilty of the charge of sexual harassment. This is the verdict of all the committees, and we should respect that verdict.”

He also stated, “Any other infractions, not relating to sexual harassment, were dealt with as per Ashoka University Norms.” The University held that since Dr. Baruah was not found guilty of sexual harassment, therefore, “there was no question of informing the survivor about the action taken”.

Anonymous Website

This and the entire timeline of events can be found in the website put up anonymously by concerned students and alumni of Ashoka University on July 5, 2018. “The website came up after the last email of the survivor to the administration asking for the action taken against Dr. Mitul Baruah to which the administration asked for a few days for replying. However, the administration did not express the action taken against Dr. Baruah to the survivor. Parallelly, concerned alumni and students had also internally mailed the administration demanding to express the action taken to the survivor during the same time,” a former member of the alumni council, who is in touch with a friend of the survivor and is closely pursuing the case in an “individual capacity”, tells Delhi Post.

“The petition was written on June 9, 2018, by about eight alumni and was signed by about 25 alumni in total. The e-mail conversations between the alumni-students and administration have also been put up on the website.”

Ashoka University VC’s Letter

It is also to be noted that Dr. Baruah was earlier named in a list of sexual predators on campus. The list, brought out by a student of law Raya Sarkar in a social media post attracted huge attention. “I first got to know about the case through Raya Sarkar’s status based on which we had already asked questions to the administration before circulating petitions internally,” the former alumni member tells Delhi Post.

The website also raises questions on “where is the Ad-Hoc Committee report?” based on which both the CASH and Disciplinary Committee made its findings along with, why the survivor was not allowed to make comments on the CASH report by Ashoka University as per Section 20 (e) of their policy.

According to Section 13 of Ashoka’s CASH policy, CASH has to designate five persons amongst its members to screen complaints. This five-person screening committee has to carefully study the complaint and determine if a formal inquiry by CASH has to be instituted.

However, the website asks “why an ad-hoc committee was constituted involving one member who is not, in fact, part of CASH and why a screening committee was not constituted as per Ashoka’s CASH policy?”

It is also alleged that one of the charges was rape against Baruah. “It shows how Ashoka University did not take this complaint seriously enough based on how they have handled it,” says the former alumni member.

Why was a police complaint not filed? “The survivor is currently focusing on self-care and isn’t pursuing a police case anytime soon. Also, because she doesn’t have the financial and mental resources,” the former alumni member tells Delhi Post.

However, the survivor recounts that she “received threatening calls from male callers and there were attempts made to hack” her emails after she filed the complaint. She then registered an FIR. “The police conducted this investigation and Dr. Baruah was the prime suspect and was questioned twice during this investigation. After the investigation, the threatening calls and hack attempts stopped and the police closed the case,” the survivor tells Delhi Post.

Despite Delhi Post’s repeated attempts to reach out to the administration and the defendant, there has not been any response as of yet. The story shall be updated as and when a response is received.

The alumni of Ashoka University have raised multiple questions on a variety of issues over the past two years, says the former alumni member, but he is of the opinion that the administration has let the issues die down.

“Most of the issues die down because either the alumni do not have the energy to pursue it continually or the administration stops responding or provides assurances that they take the matters seriously,” he says.  

He further adds, “In this case, the administration has done the same. They have expressed that the case is closed and that they have taken necessary action expressing that they take cases of sexual harassment seriously, and has not responded to any of the queries raised on the website. We, as a team, have also proposed to meet the administration to have a minuted discussion regarding the case and we haven’t gotten any response for that too.”