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MeToo at Gujarat University PhD student accuses guide of harassment; Chem head reacts: ‘save our image, beta’

March 26, 2019 06:39 AM

COURTESY MIRROR MAY 26

MeToo at Gujarat University
PhD student accuses guide of harassment; Chem head reacts: ‘save our image, beta’
Female PhD student accuses Prof Bhatt of sexual and mental harassment; complains to head of Chemistry department, who asks her to ‘save the image of the department if possible’; after students’ union raises issue, GU sends prof on forced leave, institutes inquiry
| Niyati.Rana@timesgroup.com
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When a PhD student from Gujarat University wrote an email to the head of the Chemistry department about the ‘mental harassment, molestation and lewd behaviour’ that her guide had subjected her to, she expected to see justice done. What she got in return was a plea to “save the image of the department”. Stunned by the response, she emailed her complaint to the Vice-Chancellor and GU Women’s Development Cell that handles complaints of sexual harassment on Sunday.

Forty hours later, when no attempt was made by the HoD to ensure that his department was a safe, inclusive and welcome space by establishing ground rules and calling out toxic behaviour, she finally contacted the students’ union who took up her case with varsity officials. Following this, the varsity forced her guide Prof Vashishth Bhatt to go on leave and barred him from entering the campus.


Institutional failure

The girl allegedly faced harassment on March 20. “Frightened to the core by the nasty incident”, she finally gathered the courage to report the incident three days later. She wrote an email to department head V K Jain on March 23 detailing the harassment that Prof Bhatt had subjected her to.

She told Jain how Bhatt had taken her out for lunch to a hotel in Juna Vadaj. “There, he insisted on checking out rooms at the hotel,” she wrote. When Bhatt allegedly asked her to stay in one of the rooms at the hotel for two hours, it left her “shocked, shivering and numb”. When she refused, he allegedly insisted, saying: “Chalo 2 ghante bethenge, phir shaanti se sham ko challenge (We will sit for two hours, and go back in the evening).”

Instead of swinging into action and forwarding the complaint to the WDC and Internal Complaint Committee, Jain emailed back to her at 7 pm, saying: “Oh My God. Beta. If possible, save the image of our department. I will do the needful. I assure you, justice shall prevail.”

However, when nothing happened for 40 hours, the student then emailed her complaint to Vice-Chancellor Himanshu Pandya and the WDC on Sunday. However, the WDC and Pandya both claim they did not receive the complaint.

When these authorities also failed to take action, the student approached the students’ union and shared her plight.

The allegation

Narrating the incident, the student told Mirror, “I was working in the department laboratory on March 20 when Bhatt asked me to come to his cabin and asked me if I would like to join him for lunch. Since this was a normal practice, she did not think anything untoward about the request. After finishing lunch, however, the professor began talking of checking out rooms in the hotel.”

Prof Bhatt allegedly went to the hotel reception and inquired about availability of rooms.

In her letter to Jain, she wrote: “At first I was shocked and confused as I did not understand Dr Bhatt’s motive. He then insisted that I check out the rooms with him. I thought he wanted the rooms for some personal reason. Initially, I refused to accompany him. However, he insisted so much, I went to check out the rooms with him. We returned to campus where Dr Bhatt tried to brush away his behaviour as ‘miscommunication’.”

She further wrote: “Dr Bhatt then told me, ‘ shaadi ke pehle ke mazze alag hote hai. Enjoy kar lena chahiye’. To settle the issue, he told me not to mention the incident to anyone. A while later, he called me to his cabin and said, ‘You are a very touch-me-not type . Ismein kya ho gaya? Mazze karo life mein, itna conservative bhi kya hona?’”

The girl told Mirror: “I thought about keeping the incident quiet. However, after being unable to sleep for three days, I wrote to GU for help. I requested them to change my guide.”

‘Checking if complaint genuine’

When Mirror contacted Jain, he said he did not take immediate action as he wanted to make sure the email was genuine. “I had to verify she was my student. I wanted to be sure that someone was not playing a prank,” he said.

Asked why he did not forward the email to WDC immediately, he said, “I got the email on March 23. I was very busy up to Sunday evening. Also, I did not have the student’s phone number. I called another colleague on Monday to get her number. I asked her to come to the department but she did not come. I went to the WDC on Monday morning to submit a copy of the letter,” he said.

When contacted about the allegations, Prof Bhatt told Mirror, “We did not go to a hotel, but a restaurant, for lunch. I treat my students like my family. This (taking them out for lunch) is not a new thing for us.”

On Monday afternoon, the V-C who is also president of WDC at GU called for an ICC meeting where the student and the guide presented their versions. According to sources, another student from the department supported the girl’s claims. Following this, the committee sent Bhatt on forced leave till enquiry is over.

“We have written to the police for CCTV footage of the hotel that the student mentioned in her complaint,” said Pandya.

WDC chairperson Savita Gandhi said, “We have spoken to the victim and the accused. We have carried out a basic investigation. We will have to check various aspects and do further process. Based on this, we will recommend action to the V-C.”

‘Take decision soon’

On why the girl chose to approach the department head instead of the WDC despite numerous awareness campaigns they have held, ABVP member Kush Pandya said, “Instead of comforting the student, the WDC questioned the girl on why she went to the media and students’ union instead of approaching them. This can scare a student. This could be a reason why students do not approach them first.”

Ayesha Shah, a first year student at GU, said, “We want a safe environment at Gujarat University. The ICC and WDC should take a decision about the professor soon. Such men are the reasons why educational institutions are not safe and people have to roll out campaigns like #MeToo.”

 

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