Sexual Harassment in Indian Science

A panel discussion on sexual harassment in STEM in India brought forward difficult-to-digest realities and valuable perspectives from institutional leaders, researchers, students, activists and lawyers.
By | Published on Dec 31, 2021

When Gagandeep Kang, the then Director of THSTI, a Faridabad-based research institute, took the call to terminate the employment of an award-winning scientist who was found to be a sexual harasser, she received several calls and messages asking her to reconsider her decision. She was urged to think about the impact this dismissal would have on the institute and on the discipline, and questioned if she was sure that the case was genuine. “It is a completely ridiculous burden that is placed on people who make these complaints,” she said, recollecting the episode during a webinar on sexual harassment in STEM conducted by (TLoS) on November 27, 2021. 

The discussion was moderated by TLoS editor Nandita Jayaraj, and featured on the panel were physicist Bibi Francis, gender scholar Babitha Justin, science, technology & society studies scholar Bishal Dey, and lawyer Anand Grover, besides clinician-scientist Gagandeep Kang.

The event was organised as part of’s Season 6, in an attempt to address the lull in public conversation when it comes to sexual harassment, an issue as widespread in STEM as it is in any other professional or social setting. The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA), an effort coordinated by lawyer Raya Sarkar in 2017, was the first major wake up call in India to this fact. Despite the crowdsourced list causing influential voices, men and women alike, to rise up in defense of their peers and of due process, LoSHA was successful in establishing in our psyches that power abuse and sexual harassment is a reality even in our most elite academic spaces. It also set the stage for India’s #MeToo movement to erupt in 2018. 

However, like in LoSHA, the #MeToo movement also failed to create a noticeable enough dent in the more insular spaces of STEM academia in India. This can be attributed to the poor social sciences training included in our science education and the discouragement of people in science to be bothered by anything ‘political’ and matters such as our rights, history and any sort of activism. This allows powerful figures in science to get away with many kinds of misdemeanours involving abuse of power, including casteism and sexual harassment. It is unthinkable for many that a revered scientific genius would fall prey to such weaknesses and prejudices. Any such claims are immediately ridiculed, if not hushed up. It is incredibly hard under such circumstances, to stand up and be the one to make these claims.

Yet, more and more young scientists in the country are signalling that they have had enough of this culture of silence. When the High Court of Gauhati granted bail to Utsav Kadam, a student at IIT-Guwahati accused of rape, it based its decision on the grounds that he was a “future asset” of the country. The complainant, his peer at IITG, responded to the High Court asking ‘then who am I?’ 

During the webinar, Bibi Francis, who is currently Senior Research Fellow in Physics at a Coimbatore-based NGO called Aaivalayam, shared her journey from being hushed up and pushed out, to speaking out against her abusers. “As a student, a professor threatened me with disciplinary action to go on car rides with him and call me at odd hours at night. The college being autonomous, all my internal marks, external marks, everything was in his hands. I didn’t know what to do, I was scared. Fortunately, after many months, a senior professor helped me, saved me that time. But this was a devastating experience for me. I lost my academic performance and my low scores from then still haunt me in my professional chances.” Many years later, as a lecturer, Bibi was once again harassed – this time by a colleague. While on a department tour, the male lecturer in charge of recording the official video focused the camera on a part of Bibi’s body continuously for over three minutes. This video was viewed by all the staff and also the students, and instead of the person responsible for this being penalised, Bibi had to suffer the embarrassment and eventually leave her job. “I was broken,” she recalled.

“I was broken,” she recalled.

Without a strong support group, survival in STEM for people from marginalised genders can be really hard, especially so for non–cis-gender persons. Bishal Dey, who is a PhD scholar in STS studies, spoke about the difficulties of navigating an ignorant and transphobic educational environment. “Coming from a small town Purulia in West Bengal, Hyderabad was a huge shock for me. Fortunately for me, my partner was already enrolled in the master’s program at the university, so I had that support. We met other queer people on campus, and we had an informal support group. And it was always a good experience to meet up every week and share thoughts and experiences, and those are the people who are still my friends. These were the only queer pockets in the vastly queerphobic and Hindutva atmosphere in HCU.”

Without any institutional support or recognition for trans persons, Bishal had to stay in the men’s hostel and keep their gender identity to themself. Still, there were rumours that they were “gay”, and as a result Bishal had to get used to whispers and stares as they went about their scientific education. “So, it was not an overt event of sexual harassment, or a violent act done by one person… it was [happening] on an everyday basis, a covert sort of gender violence and sexual harassment. It kept on happening; we didn’t have [the] money to stay outside the hostel; so we had to face this on a daily basis.”

Bishal went on to become an elected representative in the University of Hyderabad’s Committee for Transgender Persons, which had only recently been revived and, until then, had no trans people on it. “We had to fight to even secure a position in a committee made for us,” they said. The administrative hurdles in the way of a person wanting to stand up for their basic rights deeply affected Bishal. “All that bureaucracy exposed my identity against my wishes, and it was up for exhibition basically. The people who were employed there had their sideways glances, and they had their own vernacular inside jokes,” they recollected. However, Bishal persisted in the communities’ demands for gender-neutral hostels and washrooms which would help protect queer students on the campus who were at very high risk of sexual harassment. They faced several transphobic reactions to these requests, even from within the very committee that was designed to address this problem. Eventually, the committee agreed to designate one washroom on each floor as gender neutral, although sources at the University of Hyderabad confirmed that the decision is yet to be implemented. The situation is still far less-than-ideal at the university today. Bishal summarised: “Sexual harassment goes unreported all the time. People don’t want to go through all of this process. Neither is there any robust sensitisation efforts by the administration, nor is there anybody to tackle the harassment which trans people face. And the Committee for Trans Persons is again defunct in the university. They are cutting down the forest, they are destroying wildlife and they are making huge amphitheatres, but there are still no gender-neutral hostels…” 

They faced several transphobic reactions to these requests, even from within the very committee that was designed to address this problem.

Babitha Justin, a gender activist and professor of women’s studies at Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) in Thiruvananthapuram, confirmed that gender sensitivity in the science community is worryingly low. “I was also in the University of Hyderabad, and while we had a strong support group in humanities, we could never see science and technology students around. They were always in the lab, [we thought] perhaps they didn’t have any troubles,” she said. Babitha shared how even the simple act of supporting each other led to her and fellow women being labelled as rebels, and people from science especially considered her ilk as ‘interfering’ and ‘people who have no other work to do’. “Now, working in a science and technology Institute, [I see that] gender & sexual harassment is not just about students and faculty members – there are also contract labourers, women workers, administrative staff… I interact with contract workers and I see that the kind of harassment they face in institutes is limitless. They cannot even speak about that, they are silent because the moment they talk about it or they decide to talk about it, they lose their jobs.” 

Gender & sexual harassment is not just about students and faculty members – there are also contract labourers, women workers, administrative staff.

Can we trust the Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) tasked with handling sexual harassment complaints when the ICCs themselves are deeply patriarchal? This was a crucial question that Babitha confronted the panel and audience with. “ICCs are formed by patriarchal values embedded in them. I am not critical of the entire thing, but from my experience, what I have seen is that a lot of people who in fact support patriarchy, who are hand-in-glove with patriarchy are the ones who are chosen,” she observed. 

During the webinar, Anand Grover, a senior advocate practising in the Supreme Court, ruminated on what could be the reason that sexual harassment is so pervasive in our society. Anand, a biochemist by training, pointed out that the scenario is a reflection of the patriarchal structure and the way we are brought up, where boys and girls have specific roles. He saw this firsthand during his experience as a teacher at a school. On request from some of his female students, Anand tried to arrange for a sex education session at the school. He was surprised to find out that the other staff members were uninterested in the idea, as were the male students. “This unequal way in which the girls wanted to know and boys did not want to know at all actually set me thinking – boys are brought up to think that the way things are is okay… that unequal treatment at a gender level is okay. They don’t know about anything about sex, you know…[they don’t know that] a person is treated to be with respect, that consensual sex is beautiful – they are not taught that. They learn from pornographic movies and 90% of them are based on violence, so that’s their training.”

He further added: “Any act of sexual harassment, civil sexual harassment (prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace Act) or if is it sexual harassment in the Indian Penal Code or rape, it has to do with a lack of consent and respect, and not treating a person with dignity. You can differ with that person, you can disagree on an issue, but you have to respect that person’s views even though they may be opposed to you. So that is not instilled in us and we see a result in the society that is coming up.” Anand pointed out that in terms of law, intentions do not matter as much as perceptions in cases of sexual harassment. “A person, a woman or a transgender person or maybe a few men too, who are subject to any kind of sexual harassment know what’s happening. They know it’s unwelcome, non-consensual. [For example] I may be very fond of hugging, but another person doesn’t want – his or her or their private or physical space to be intruded. You need to respect that and what she thinks or what a transgender person thinks about that is the most important.”

Anand emphasised that The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 (POSH) was enacted to instill in institutions the responsibility to have a safe environment for all persons, to make sure that nobody does what they are not supposed to do. Like Gagandeep Kang, he also feels that sensitive women in the administration can make a difference, however he cautioned that women are just as capable of being pro-male as anyone else. He brought up the example of the woman High Court judge who recently said that ‘skin-to-skin contact’ was necessary to for a complaint to qualify as sexual assault under the POCSO Act (the Supreme Court later overruled this).

Today, as a researcher herself, Bibi Francis is determined to not allow the cycle of sexual harassment to perpetuate. “When I shared this event poster in my social media profiles, a senior from my college contacted me and said that the same professor who had harassed me had harassed one of his classmates. I wondered then if she had red flagged this, then I could have benefitted from it. If I had the opportunity to place a red flag, my juniors would have benefitted from it. But nothing happened. If we spend so much energy solving the problems of life and fighting with the world, I don’t know when we can focus on PhD problems…”

In 2018, TLoS began collecting #MeToo stories from Indian STEM using a Google Form. The idea was to understand the extent of the problem, the nature of sexual harassment that is happening in our institutes and exploring how we can begin reporting this issue as science journalists. There has been a steady trickle of responses over the years. The responses have emphasised how badly our due process systems are working. Just in October, a PhD student from an IIT reported her experience of being sexually assaulted by a peer who took advantage of her during a casteism-triggered depressive episode. Upon taking her complaint to the ICC on the campus, she was further traumatised by being made to face an all-Brahmin committee including people who were known to hold anti-reservation views. “The complaint closed after an investigation which took my mental energy for months. They later sent me a deposition where they portrayed me as a mere mental[ly] unstable person,” she wrote in the form.

Shortly after the webinar on November 27th itself, the form received it’s 53rd response. A PhD student at a CSIR research institute described how she is having to constantly dodge inappropriate advances by her PhD supervisor including coffee outings, drives, and demands to be his ‘confidante’. “When I confronted him saying his statement made me uncomfortable, he started pressuring me using his position as guide. This has led to loss of mental peace and also panic attacks. It has affected my work performance,” she wrote. Upon seeking advice from a member of the Women’s Cell, she was urged to focus on her PhD. “They said that my guide is not sensitised enough to respect my boundaries, so it’s better to not take any legal route. I feel betrayed by the institute as they want me to sit and talk with the same person who makes me undergo panic attacks. I am losing time and this is affecting the scientific contributions from my side…” 

Transcript of the webinar is available (coming soon)

Acknowledgements: Season 6 is supported by contributors to our crowdfunding campaign, STEMpeers, and also by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage. The featured image for this piece has been illustrated by TLoS season 6 artist, Ayesha Punjabi.

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