The recent case of sexual assault reported from inside the famous Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), campus has once again raised questions about the safety of women on educational campuses.
While the case is said to have been cracked with the arrest of Chandran Kumar, a contractual employee working at a juice shop inside the campus, the institution is facing outrage for putting the onus of safety on the students.
Having stayed in a hostel myself, I continue to ask how safe campuses are, especially at night. My answer would still be ‘very unsafe’. While one would like to believe that an esteemed institution with a closed campus would be a safe place, incidents such as these make us believe otherwise. But is the onus only on the students to remain safe and not move around out at night? Should it not be the responsibility of educational institutions with hostel facilities to maintain tight security and surveillance, especially when the campus has reported cases earlier as well?
Coming back to the IIT-Madras incident. On July 24, a female student who was returning to her hostel on a cycle was waylaid by the accused and pounced upon near the NAC complex on the campus. After having struggled while the perpetrator sexually assaulted her, the student — who was bleeding — managed to escape and rushed to her room in a state of complete shock. The incident was reported to the IIT authorities two days later by her friend and an investigation was launched. The already traumatized victim was shown pictures of over 300 people to try and match the description of her attacker. Camera footage that was obtained from the CCTVs also did not prove helpful.
A statement from IIT-M given to News18 says “the gates of IIT Madras are adequately secured and at every 100 meters, there’s a security guard posted. The Institute also has a buddy system in place and facility to call for Institute buses, along with a security staff at odd hours. The student is not interested in filing a police complaint. The investigation is still continuing”. Interestingly, it was only when the police probe began that there was some movement in the case and the arrest made.
So, what has caused the outrage? The email response from the Dean of Students (DoST) on July 27 advises the students to follow ‘protocols meticulously’, especially during the night, causing furore.
The student’s body advice comes just days after the incident and mentions that if a student is outside their hostel at night, then the laboratory in-charge must be informed or permission obtained to visit the laboratory outside working hours.
“A buddy system should be followed in the laboratory (working in the presence of laboratory co-students) for safety purposes,” the memo said.
It added: “Moving with friends would be safer in case of any untoward incident /accident,………..although it is quite challenging to maintain safety on a campus which is spread over 600+ acre area, all of us can work together and assist the security stand to overcome the challenges.”
Apart from this, DoST suggests that students avail the bus service if they are returning late from their laboratory while the institution works on developing an SOS application to ensure the safety of women on campus.
“Instead of asking us for suggestions on how to improve the security, we are being told how to keep ourselves safe by staying inside hostels at night? The campus is supposed to be a safe zone where one can work till late as researchers. Why should the onus be only on us? Why can’t they add more surveillance?” a student asked on condition of anonymity when News18 approached a few of them about the incident.
Another student who preferred to remain anonymous recalled an incident a year ago where a PhD scholar from the same campus had filed a case of sexual assault. The case is yet to see any development, let alone an arrest. The survivor, in her complaint to the police, had mentioned how on March 29, 2021, a fellow scholar sexually assaulted her and later, she was mentally harassed by seven others on campus. The survivor had written to several forums, including the National Commission for Women, where she detailed how she was subjected to body shaming, sexual harassment and rape within the IIT-Madras campus.
“There are several other students who have shared similar experiences of sexual assaults or close calls with offenders inside the campus, but they have been taken lightly. I hope the Dean’s office takes the issue of safety more seriously and does not resort to victim-blaming,” said another research student from the campus.
Educationists who have been closely monitoring the developments talk of other incidents that have occurred in campuses across the country like National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and National Law School India University, Bengaluru.
Clearly, if punishment and justice is meted out at the right time, then there would be a fear of law among such criminals. It is the slow process that gives these demons the false feeling of being able to get away with crimes, while the survivor’s mental tenacity is put to the test.