The lurking Hydes of research institutes

There are cases where scientific institutes are reluctant to let go of its illustrious “Jekyll-and-Hyde” faculty member even if he has been found guilty in sexual harassment case.

Recently, an online petition was initiated by Susnata Karmakar, a PhD Student at the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, regarding a sexual harassment case in the institute. The petition demands action against an adviser to a PhD candidate for making sexual advances on the student. The incident happened on September 4 and a complaint was made ten days later.

The student body got to know about this in a gathering on September 21. They were promised by the authorities that suitable action would be taken, and then the internal complaints committee was asked to make a report.

When The Hindu contacted Sourav Pal, Director, IISER, Kolkata for a response, Bhaswati Bhowmik, Public Relations Officer, wrote back: “The matter is being dealt with seriously at the appropriate level as per GoI regulations.”

Mr. Karmakar’s petition states that the particular faculty member may have engaged in such behaviour in the past too. He told The Hindu that authorities had not pressured him to take down the petition, an indication that they are taking the matter seriously.

According to the petition, nearly fifty girl students may have left that particular lab over the last four years because of alleged misbehaviour, a number arrived at by compiling the estimates of various students.

A comment at the end of the petition by Prof. Pal indicates that the concerned faculty member has left on a long leave, and the committee is looking into the matter. A student of the institute, who does not want to be named, remarks, “The institute offers BS-MS and PhD as well as temporary projects, which can even be a stop-gap arrangement for a few months. These students are not registered, and they are paid from the PI’s [Principal Investigator’s] lab funds. So, many times, when the temporary visitors cite an unhealthy environment and leave, it is not registered anywhere. In this case, the complainant turned out to be a PhD student, and the truth came out.”

The IISER Kolkata Faculty Association added an update to the petition pressing for a swift resolution and that appropriate action be taken against anyone found guilty of gender-based discrimination or sexual harassment and assuring the IISER Kolkata community that they would do everything to ensure a safe and vibrant work environment in the institute.

Reluctance to punish

In another case, Marie (name changed), a post-doctoral fellow at Harish-Chandra Research Institute (HRI), Allahabad, complained to the ICC that the faculty member was engaging in inappropriate behaviour. On investigating, the committee found her complaints genuine, and also that the faculty member had misbehaved with many girl students earlier, mostly short-term visitors who had left without complaining, said a source at the institute who has knowledge of the case.

“We need to spot such behaviour early on and cannot turn a blind eye. While one instance could be missed, and the second may only be half-spotted, we cannot allow it to pass [say] 30 times,” says P Balaram, former director of the Indian Institute of Science.

The director of HRI, Pinaki Majumdar said, “There are grades of harassment and, in this case, it was implicit because of the power inequality. The person who has more power needs to act and speak with care. The post-doc has left the institute and the council reprimanded the faculty member. We are holding meetings where a lawyer explains to members what sexual harassment is and what’s done and what’s not done.”

There are cases where the institute is reluctant to let go of its illustrious “Jekyll-and-Hyde” faculty member even if he has been found guilty in such a harassment case. “Even if the committee makes a quick and sincere effort, they can only make a recommendation, it is up to the administration to take action,” says Sumathi Rao, a senior scientist from Harish-Chandra Research institute, Allahabad. She advocates strengthening the role of the committee.

A common way of dealing with a case of sexual harassment is that the affected woman student is transferred to a different lab, or a different PhD adviser, in the same institute, and the perpetrator is let off with a reprimand and not punished. This can be hard on the survivor, according to V. Geetha, a feminist and historian. “Even if he [the perpetrator] is an extremely productive and brilliant scientist, if he has acted inappropriately, public acknowledgement of his wrong-doing is necessary. Unless you do this, there can be no closure for the victim — so if a person cannot be removed, for whatever reason, we might have to persuade these institutes to issue a public apology of some kind,” Ms. Geetha adds.

At another research institute at Kolkata, the faculty member filed a lawsuit against the institute as well as individual members of the ICC. Geeta Ramaseshan, advocate, says that Section 14 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act allows such an option to the perpetrator. “No other legislation has a specific provision of this nature, and it can deter women from filing complaints,” she adds.“While punishing the perpetrator, especially serial offenders is important, as a deterrent, it is very important for the institute to take steps to protect the survivor and help them come out of the trauma and not further victimize the victim,” says Prof. Balaram.

Looking for precedents

In one case in 2013, in IIT Madras, the offending member was suspended, following a stronger precedent set by IIT Bombay in 2011 when a professor was sacked for a similar offence. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director of IIT Madras, advocates strong action as per the statute. However, he is not in favour of publicly naming the perpetrator, out of consideration of repercussions on his family, etc.

Enakshi Bhattacharya, Professor from IIT Madras and formerly a member of the ICC, insists that there should be no delays. “The committee should include male members. In cases dealing with students, the hostel warden and student general secretary should be part of the committee, so that the process is transparent,” she adds.


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