Sunday, July 02, 2006

Professor paraded

Last year, a young girl was violated inside a police chowky at Marine Drive. Public outrage boiled over and in a rare instance of justice not being denied but speedily delivered, Constable Sunil More was convicted for his heinous crime.

This week, another young girl claims to have been violated at the opposite end of Marine Drive. By her professor.

However, in this case the 'crime' is difficult to establish. There is no semen, no torn clothes, no witness. The girl claims the professor made lewd advances. He flatly denies the charge. The college stands by him.

So what does the girl do? She goes to the NSUI and gets 'justice' in another form:

TOI reports: National Students' Union of India (NSUI) supporters on Friday stormed the Wilson College staff-room and dragged biology professor Vilas Athwale to the Gamdevi police station after blackening his face and hanging a garland of chappals around his neck. The act, unprecedented in Mumbai, followed a girl's accusation that Athwale had molested her in college last year.

Looking at an 'elderly uncle' type dragged through the streets does not make a pretty picture. Which is precisely why it made such big news. And raises a deeply ethical dilemma.

In a democracy it is believed that any man is innocent until proven guilty. If Prof Athawale is innocent, then this is a gross injustice.

But what if he is guilty and yet there is no way to 'prove' it? What's more, public humiliation might even serve a larger social purpose. Because 'elderly uncle' type professors behaving in an inappropriate manner with female students is a rampant problem.

It's invisible because victims rarely come forward.

In America, 20 to 30 percent of undergraduate female students claim they've been victims of some form of sexual harassment by at least one of their professors during their undergraduate years.

There are no statistics in India, but I am pretty sure they would be equally high.

The 'truth' is out there
Here is the Wilson story so far. The victim, speaking to DNA recounts the incident which took place in August 2005:

I was standing near the college gate when the vice-principal, Professor Parkar, confiscated my phone. Professor Athawale paid the Rs 200 fine on my behalf and asked me to collect the phone from him the next day. I met him in a passage that is hardly used by students or staff. We were talking when he began moving closer to me and suddenly grabbed my hand, saying ‘I love you… I love you’. I pushed past him and ran away.

I immediately told my parents about the incident. The next day, my father and a family friend met professor Parkar, who defended professor Athawale, saying he was a senior faculty member with impeccable credentials.

After three days, Parkar said that the principal wanted to meet my father. Instead, Professor Bal Nerurkar, from the department of mathematics, and Professor Parkar met my father. Although Professor Athawale never spoke to me again, I came to know that Professor Nerurkar had been circulating nasty rumours about me. They tampered with my attendance and failed me in mathematics to make me appear an insincere student. I approached the Students’ Council in February 2006.

So it can't be said the girl 'did nothing' at the time she claims the incident actually took place. She did, first of all, go home and tell her parents. What could be her motivation for 'making up' such a story?

What's more, she did not press the matter until she obtained a leaving certificate from the college, which makes sense as well.

The political angle
What puts a blot on the case credibility is the involvement of the NSUI. As we all know, 'student' wings of political parties are hardly representatives of students. No student who is actually interested in studies joins ABVP or NSUI.

Real students are worried about jobs, about admissions, about quality of education. They want better facilities, more opportunities, accountability from the system. When was the last time you heard NSUI or ABVP raise their voice and/ or create an impact on such issues?

Granted, a sexual harassment case is a serious issue as well. But is rabble rousing and blackening someone's face the way to 'deal' with it? Because that seems to be the preferred modus operandi.

Instead of lobbying at a policy level to get student issues addressed by their respective parties, the 'youth' wings prefer to pick up an emotive issue or two, create a tamasha and earn a few brownie points with their senior counterparts.

The 'youth' wing thus serves as a kind of training ground for goondaism and other tricks of the trade. Wilson college claims that the NSUI had been pressurising the college to admit a few students, which the management has refused. Hence NSUI has taken up this cause - to malign the institution.

Sadly, that is completely believable. Although it does not mean the student's case may not have merit...

Role of the media
Lastly, one has to wonder about how easy it is to make 'news' today. And how self conscious the police has become in the presence of the media.

Additional police commissioner D Kanakratnam said to the press: "We will not tolerate those who take law into their own hands and we will ensure that Aboli (NSUI leader) is punished for his misdeeds."

But the fact is that this parading of the professor happened under the very eyes of the police. On TV, you could clearly see that the police was practically escorting the crowd instead of breaking it up.

Perhaps they had instructions not to create a lafda after their teargas and lathi charge on students during the anti reservation protest created a major embarassment.

In a rare show of sensitivity, a few TV channels pixellated Prof Athawale's face. However, the newspapers had no such qualms and went ahead published his picture.

So everywhere you look, it's grey and more grey...

New development
And now, another class 12 student of Wilson college has come forward and alleged that she too was sexually harassed by the same professor.

Mumbai Mirror reports: The professor had tried to touch her and other female students while they were in the laboratory. According to her the incidents were frequent but she did not complain to the principal as she was scared of being expelled from college or being failed.

All I can say is, this raises a serious new dimension... The truth can be found, if you look hard enough. The question is, can we hold up to the mirror to ourselves and acknowledge the ugly side of human nature?

Authority figures preying on young students is an ugly reality. Uglier still is everyone being fully aware that X or Y professor is a pervert and yet looking away.

And ugliest of all is the rare case where a false accusation is made, destroying a man's reputation forever...


  1. This (sexual assault by teachers) is a really sad incident. This is kind of moral corruption is affecting the credibility of the whole system. Mind that its the same country where we say "guru brahma, guru vishnu guru sakshat parabrahama..."

    But again, what NSUI did is not at all acceptable. Political parties corrupted the college culture by introduction of such youth wings. These groups constitute young goondas and mawalis who are actually not studying in any colleges. There wholoe aim is to enter politics.

  2. Mid-day ran a story yesterday about how they verified the locks on the door where the girl alleged that she was locked up. Mid-Day found out that there was no locks on door from inside and concluded that atleast on this front girl was lying.

    And the fact is growing goondaism of unions like NSUI is not a good thing.

  3. It is unfortunate that such things still happen, and that even today, a large section of our people supports what the NSUI did.

    In no civilized society is a 'legally untried' citizen dealt with this way, at least not with the support of police.

  4. This is no way to treat any individual much less a Professor with years of experience and assiduously built academic merit. I can understand a road side romeo being treated in this manner but the indecent assault on the Prof betrays the erosion of sensitivity, propriety and decorum. A departmental enquiry or police investigation was in order. There is no evidence to suggest that he was indeed guilty of molesting the girl(s) and he remains innocent till the time proved otherwise. NSUI and their ilk are bogus organisations which serve as a front for unemployed and frustrated guys to vent their sense of 'nonfulfillment'.

  5. "Uglier still is everyone being fully aware that X or Y professor is a pervert and yet looking away" :-- Yes,true ,but that does not only pertain to such heinous crimes like rape,it should involve all kind of misbehaviours ,irrespective of the seriousness attatched to them.Its only the other 'less serious' misbehaviours which go 'unnoticed' or 'ignored' that pave the way for such abominable crimes.Though,in this case,the victim seems to have informed her parents immediately after the incident,most of the cases take place,because such misbehaviours are not reported in time to the guardians which leaves further room for the convict to commit worser crimes.

    Whether the charges put on the professor are true or not,is something that only the court can decide,and if the crime gets established,its really disgusting and shameful for such a civilized society...but something that concerns me even more - 'what if the accusation turns out to be false ?' - what justice should the professor demand in such a case ?? Should that mean an imprisonment for the student who is accusing him of such charges ??

    Some days back,there was a case telecasted in some 'crime related' programmes on some channel,in which "a girl at 17 had accused her father of committing a rape on her,and her father was sent for an imprisonment ,she grew up to be 27 and gave her statement in the court that she would like to take back her accusations on her father,who was NOT guilty of raping her,she had accused him due to being pressurised by her mother "---the case was from the rural areas,so didn't gather much media attention but that left me dumbfounded,I mean..what happens to her father,who spent an important part of his life in prison just for no reason.And atleast,the programme nowhere hinted that there would be any action by the court against his daughter.

    So,if the person is found guilty in such cases,agreed,that he should be sent for a life-time imprisonment,but shouldn't the person who accuses him be given an equal punishment in case the accusations are found to be false ??

  6. Sexual harassment accusations are hard to prove. Also, it produces an instinctive response of outrage, which is why many people might (grudgingly or not) be agreeable to the treatment the professor got.

    This problem will not go away. But we need to fix our law enforcement agencies/judicial system so that people in general stop feeling that they take too long to decide cases, can be influenced by money and political power, and result in too few convictions.

    That will be one strong counter-balancing force to the emotional reaction of taking the law into one's own hands and publicly humiliating an accused person.

    Such acts have no place in a civilized society, no matter how morally offensive the (perceived?) crime is.

  7. Bottomline is we all agree that unions like NSUI are nusisance.

  8. Bottomline is we all agree that unions like NSUI are nusisance.

    Amen to that. This sort of vigilantism DOES NOT serve any purpose. All the student unions in India are political fronts. Maximum harassment to women is in the hands of these people. Those professors and other staff who toe the party line are given unconditional immunity.

    Girls/women need to start informal networks and support groups to reduce this sort of situations. They can tip off each other as in: Yeah that Prof is a little fruity, etc.

    What was with the cellphone confiscation? Does anyone know? Why can't a grown up girl carry a cellphone?

  9. A student wrote this comment on my blog on the same issue:


    Mr.Athavale confiscated her phone for using it on the campus.And he came by an objectionable cip on her phone. He then counselled her on the matter and asked to pay the fine. The girl freaked out and made an isntant spooof story on what happened to save the wrath from her parents. She contacted the students council who contacted the NSUI and they decided to stage this drama now during admissions(so that it hits the college hard).


    Now another girl has told the ( see now its not the police but) THE NSUI that she too is a victim of molestation.

    ------------------------------ Bottom line is - A VERY LARGE NO OF STUDENTS (lets say all of them except shriya and the latest complainant) believe and trust that their proffesor is innocent.

    I do too because he has caught my friends and myself for lack of attendance and he hasnt behaved like this to any of the girls.

  10. Cliches like all student political parties are bad, sources of goondaism are not true. Agree that there have been rampant cases of misbehaviour by certain sections of students under guise of student politics (be it SFI, ABVP or NSUI), but thry don't represent the majority. Remember they have produced the likes of not just Mohd Shahabuddins or say Pappu Yadavs, but also leaders like Vajpyee, Sushma Swaraj and Sheila Dixit.

    Secondly, words like "No student who is actually interested in studies joins ABVP or NSUI" is far from true. I have been part of ABVP for 4 yrs in college and I never felt being part of such a group has pulled me down in academics, rather it has helped me gaining confidence as a speaker and leader. I belive it was a potent tool to put our case forward on issues including better facilities for students. I very well remember a case when the rival SFI was pulling up a shrill campaign terming LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation & Globalisation) as the key issues facing the students and ABVP had proposed a counter campaign terming basic facilities for students, increasing the recruitment levels as the more important needs. Hence such sweeping remarks on student politics is incorrect and unjust.

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