Silent studentsUsually vociferous unions are keeping mum on harassment
It has been almost three weeks since Tribhuvan University lecturer Krishna Bhattachan was accused of sexual harassment by two of his former students. And it did not end with the two of them. An investigation led by this paper found that Bhattachan, an influential academic and indigenous rights activist, had harassed a number of students from the university’s Department of Sociology for years.
The allegations against Bhattachan ranged from his making lewd remarks to inappropriately touching them during advising sessions at his residence. Despite indulging in such a despicable act, no action has been taken against him yet. When probed why the university had failed to do so, Vice-Chancellor Tirtha Raj Khaniya repeatedly remarked how ‘his hands were tied’ since the accused lecturer was no longer associated with the institution. While this excuse is certainly not the most impressive one, it is disheartening to note that none of the student wing organisations has taken any initiative to further this cause.
The Nepal Student Union, the student wing of the Nepali Congress, and the All Nepal National Independent Student Union (Revolutionary), affiliated to the erstwhile Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), have time and again demonstrated to have their demands met and concerns addressed--be it pertaining to social causes like demanding the dismissal of Inspector General of Police Sarbendra Khanal over the Nepal Police’s lackadaisical approach and failure to arrest the perpetrator involved in Nirmala Pant’s rape and murder, or organising sit-ins in front of the vice-chancellor’s office when the fees are hiked. There have been instances where they have even padlocked the rooms of the vice-chancellor and the registrar. These deliberate congregations have helped put pressure on the government. But so far, these very student bodies have kept mum on the sexual harassment case--a very important but often overlooked issue. To say the least, their silence on this is deafening.
It is quite simple: Student activists campaign for social justice on or off campus. And when an issue as pertinent as this has been raised, all student wings should have realised the gravity of the situation and mounted pressure on the university authorities to take strict action against the accused. Activism is largely about identifying with a cause. If the student organisations at the university have failed to identify against sexual harassment and misconduct, there can be nothing more damaging than that. Such indifference will limit the ability of the survivors to get help. And it will only further promote the existing culture of silence and victim blaming that continues to prevent survivors from speaking out. If student activists fight back against such atrocities, the possibilities of establishing appropriate and effective institutional responses to such cases will open
Student movements help communicate the broader concerns of students. If pursued relentlessly, they have the potential to put such concerns on the national policy agenda, too. That is the kind of influence they hold. The student wings should be cognizant of this and choose their battles accordingly.