The ugly face of sexual harassment prevalent in Indian research arena!

India accounts for the second largest pool of technical workforce, and if all goes well, we might end up producing the largest no. of engineers in the world, and also the largest no. of female engineers in the world! (Ref: TOI report) Not just engineering, but different fields like financial analytics and medical science also see a sharp rise in the number of researchers joining in every year.

While we aim towards a society where women are free to pursue any career without being subjugated to any form of violence or harassment, only a few of us are aware of the danger that lurks for women who choose to serve the nation by being an asset to its R&D sector, in some of the most reputed institutions of India.

It came as a shock to me when a very close friend of mine, gold medalist from one of the most reputed universities of Bengal, decided to opt for civil services preparation. Though most of her family members weren’t much concerned about this decision, I felt hurt! Well, to me it was a waste of nation’s research aptitude for a life of bureaucratic slavery. I am not stating that cadre services are useless but, it definitely doesn’t offer the amount of fruitful application of one’s technical knowledge as compared to the R&D sector. On questioning about what made her change her mind, she gave me two reasons-

  1. Research is a time-taking prospect and all postgrads are eligible for the vacancies of lecturers so having a P.hD. doesn’t really help much in NET or SET examinations and,
  2. For women, life inside the laboratory is bit challenging as the professors therein are …………. not always good!

She did put her point in the most discrete manner  Slowly, as we talked about this, I was shocked to hear some of her own and her female professor’s (with whom she shares a friendly relation) anecdotes. Coming from an engineering college in Bihar, where such things are unheard off, it was an eye-opener for me.

Her professor was a student of P.hD. at JNU, when she was touched inappropriately by a man for whom she once had a fatherly respect. My friend’s project guide was a professor in his late sixties and had a female assistant. The assistant once confessed to her that she didn’t wear sleeveless Salvars or Kurtis! The reason is quite obvious. One of her university professors faced a sexual harassment charge a few years back.

It was shocking to hear that such things happen at highly reputed institutions of the country. As a PhD student, the professor was touched inappropriately by a male professor whom she’d held in high regard! In another example, another male professor had faced sexual harassment charges a few years back.

What the Stats Say…..

Well honestly speaking, nothing much because even though sexual harassment law has been in place for quite a long time in our country (most prominently, since the Vishakha Guidelines-1997), it was only in 2015 that UGC asked for a detailed report on the no. of incidents reported to the management of all universities in India, and  the actions taken therein. Now, going by the report, we are probably not shocked to hear that Delhi reported the highest no. of such incidents. JNU had the largest share, and other reputed universities whose names appeared in the list include Delhi University, Jadavpur University (Bengal) and Punjab University. A private survey by TOI found that 71% of PU female students had faced sexual harassment in some form or the other. Another survey by TOI also reported that in Delhi University, students found North Campus relatively unsafe for women.  Here are a few links that provide a little more information on the same.

Ref: Sexual Harassment in Indian Educational Institution and How to Stop it?

Ref: Sexual Harassment in Indian Institution: It exists but is Ignored!

What Options Exists….

  1. The most availed option is doing nothing! Look, it’s not a lack of knowledge that actually stops people from reporting, but rather the fear of repercussion and the societal perception that prevents the victim from being vocal. As per most of the researchers who faced some or the other form of harassment at the hands of their professors, it all begins when one is almost at the end of her P.hD. studies, and is about to be awarded a degree. Another thing is, their behaviour gets changed all of a sudden, which means that when one thinks of reporting the issue, she already knows that her credibility is at stake because of these two questions;
  • “The person you are complaining about is the same person you have worked under for past three years, and you needed so much time to understand that he was harassing you?”
  • “Are you trying to blackmail him and get leverage in terms of the academic importance of your research, or recommendation for highly funded projects?”

But dear girls, putting a finger on your lips is not going to get a solution for you. Talk to the offender directly, preferably in the presence of someone whom you can trust. Tell him, your relationship with him is strictly professional and it would be better if he respects it. Be outright and vocal. 90% of offenders actually get scared once you start to retaliate.

  1. Reporting the matter to HOD, followed by the Sexual Harassment Prevention Cell of Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of the university, followed by the dean or director of the institute, and if no help is offered still, do go for a legal option. The State Commission for Women, The Central Commission for Women, State Human Rights Commission and National Human Rights Commission, are the agencies to look out for in case the management is busy hushing up the issue. Dear girls, it’s very important to know few points pertaining to our nation’s legal machinery :
  • The Right to Equality given under the article 14-18 clearly mentions that the state shall ensure that a person doesn’t face any type of discrimination on the ground of sex in terms of employment opportunities. Now, this paves the way for protection from sexual harassment in the workplace as well as academic institutions too, which was very aptly depicted by the Honorable Supreme Court of India in the Vishakha V/s State of Rajasthan Case-1997. In the context of this case, the Supreme Court of India declared a set of directives popularly referred to as Vishakha Guidelines. This laid the foundation of anti-sexual harassment law in India, which was finally passed by the parliament in 2012, and came to be known as The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, prohibition, and Redressal) Act-2013. The definition of Workplace as interpreted in this act clearly includes educational institutions and research laboratories. Prior to this, the UGC had made all the educational institutions compulsorily constitute a Permanent Women Cell as a part of its compliance with the Vishakha guidelines. Moreover, in 2015 it made sexual harassment a gender-neutral issue and asked the universities to act accordingly. 
  • Other than this act, legal complaints can include the section 354 of IPC 1860 that deals with the “Criminal Assault of a Woman with an Intention to Outrage her Modesty” section 509 that deals with “Use of Words/ Gesture/ or Action intended to Outrage a Woman’s Modesty”, section 209 dealing with “Passing lewd Comments or Singing lewd Songs Directed towards Women”, and section 499 dealing with “Morphing of a Woman’s Image without her Consent”, as per the severity of the case.


The response of the Institution’s management in case of any complaint being placed by a female student is of particular importance because we are very well aware of the price of legal recourse in terms of time. If the management takes the issue sincerely then the matter seldom requires a police intervention. It is often said that the management trashes the victim’s complaint because it cares for the institutions’ glorious image and fears negative perception in the eyes of the public. I don’t remember where exactly I heard this, but I feel that this needs to be heard by the institution’s management too;

“To make a nation great, the first step is to accept that it isn’t great still….

To solve a problem, the first step is to acknowledge that a problem exists!”

Image Courtesy: TOI, EMAZE, Pinterest and Jindal Global Law School website



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