#MeToo advocacy or disciplinary issues? Row over Symbiosis Law School's expulsion of two female students

Disciplinary action, or a penalty for speaking out about an errant professor amid the #MeTooIndia movement?

That question seems to be at the heart of two female BA LLB students’ expulsion from Hyderabad’s Symbiosis Law School.

The students — Apoorva Yarabahalli and Singdha Jayakrishnan — say they are being targeted by the institute for drawing attention to incidents of sexual harassment involving a faculty member — assistant professor Srinivas Methuku. The institute claims that the students have been expelled because of disciplinary issues such as lack of attendance and writing negatively about SLS on social media.

Whatever the trigger, the outcome is that Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan were served eviction notices by the institute on 26 October, and were made to leave the campus immediately.

The harassment case that Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan say they were penalised for highlighting goes back to 2015-16, when 60 students unanimously complained about assistant professor Srinivas Methuku. The students accused Methuku of ogling at their bodies and making them uncomfortable; the institute reportedly reprimanded Methuku for the same, Yarabahalli told Firstpost. Later, even as more complaints against him emerged, Methuku was promoted as head of the Examination Department, she said.

Disillusioned by the institute’s response to sexual harassment cases on campus — Yarabahalli says students who had suffered from such behaviour were often made to give undertakings to the effect that what they had experienced was not in fact sexual harassment — she and Jayakrishnan wrote to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the National Commission for Women, and other organisations, in April this year. Apart from Methuku’s case, they detailed several other incidents of alleged harassment on campus.

 #MeToo advocacy or disciplinary issues? Row over Symbiosis Law Schools expulsion of two female students

Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad. Facebook

"We also informed them that an Internal Committee (IC) has never been properly constituted and there is no victim-centric mechanism on campus," says Yarabahalli.

In receipt of Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan’s letter, the ministry directed SLS to respond to the charges raised. SLS sent back a reply on 2 May; the registrar Dr MS Shejul listed the actions taken by the institute in the cases mentioned. Shejul wrote that Methuku had been “severely reprimanded” for his action; of another case (a campus administrator passing ‘coloured remarks’), it was said that “advice had been misconstrued”.

The nature of the “severe reprimand” issued to Methuku is not disclosed in the letter, and the professor was seemingly made a member of the grievance committee for the academic year 2018-19. Yarabahalli further alleges that SLS didn’t respond to the NCW’s request, nor did it relay an asked-for report on the IC to the ministry.

Matters came to a head this October: As the #MeTooIndia movement experienced a resurgence, Yarabahalli shared a screenshot quoting an anonymous student's account of being harassed by Methuku. This was on 10 October.

Three days later, Dr Puja Malhan, head of student affairs, informed Yarabahalli that saying that by 4 pm the next day, she must get together those who wished to complain against Methuku. Yarabahalli says Dr Malhan told her the IC would meet a day later, and declare Professor Methuku innocent unless the complainants had stepped forward by that time.

Yarabahalli says some eight students stepped forward in the stipulated time and made their complaints against Methuku before the IC. “The IC asked some really uncomfortable questions. They ridiculed us and said we don't require courage to report incidences of sexual harassment. Later, I reached out to them saying the progress of the IC should be informed to the complainant and also said that Methuku should be removed because there were enough women who have collectively reported against him in these years. They replied saying that collective complaints don't matter," Yarabahalli says.

Then, on 25 October, the dean of SLS — Dr Shashikala Gurpur — told Yarabahalli that she had been rusticated from the institute. Yarabahalli alleges that Dr Gurpur not only refused to provide her with a copy of the rustication letter but threatened to send it to the Bar Council of India, asking them to never give her (Yarabahalli) a licence. "Dr Gurpur said if I want the letter I should go to court... She also said that I would suffer because she is going to drag this case for years and will finish me off," Yarabahalli said.

She says the institute tried to discredit her and Singdha Jayakrishnan by depicting the latter as “mentally ill” and warning students who had “liked” a Facebook post shared by the duo to “unlike” the same under threat of suspension. Yarabahalli called the action against her and Jayakrishnan a “real witch hunt”.

Meanwhile, SLS management insisted the action against Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan was a disciplinary measure for issues dating back to 2016. SLS’ director Dr Sukhvinder Singh Dari told Firstpost, "Their expulsion is not related to that (flagging sexual harassment in the campus), it is something different. For the last two years, these two students have been found guilty in disciplinary issues. Now they have joined this with #MeToo movement, which is not correct (sic)."

Principal-director of Symbiosis International (Deemed) University Dr Vidya Yeravdekar said that Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan had failed to appear before three disciplinary committees. “Some 300 students filed a petition to the director saying they (Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan) be removed because exams are going on. To maintain some discipline, these students have been asked to vacate the campus. In any case, they cannot take the examinations as they have got a 'term not granted' notice like many other students."

Neither Dr Dari nor Dr Yeravdekar specified what the disciplinary issues involving Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan (beyond lack of attendance) were.

Dr Yeravdekar said the two students’ parents had been called and asked to take them away “in their own interest”. “These girls have been writing terrible things about the institute, about the director; they even had issues with other students. Their posts were not only maligning the institution but also maligning the careers of so many students. There is a whole batch of students who are going to be placed this December, what happens to their careers? You can't go on social media and start writing what you feel and spoil the careers of other 1,000 students," Dr Yeravdekar said.

Dr Yeravdekar insisted that the sexual harassment case against Professor Methuku had been resolved previously: An IC was convened, an interim report submitted (although a final action report has not yet been delivered), and Methuku was asked to be suspended. Whether the IC’s findings were submitted before or after Methuku was made Examining Department head, and a member of the Grievance Committee is not clear.

"Linking #MeToo with disciplinary issues isn't fair. There is a case against a professor which has been dealt with as per UGC guidelines much earlier. There were girls who had issues with his behaviour. We took action immediately. Why didn't Apoorva Yarabahalli and Singdha Jayakrishnan (approach) the media then? They even didn't do it when they wrote that letter to the ministry. Why right now?," Dr Yeravdekar said.

Meanwhile, as reports of Yarabahalli and Jayakrishnan’s expulsion from SLS began to circulate, the Students' Federation of India, Telangana State Committee, has demanded a comprehensive inquiry into the matter. A copy of their notice can be seen below:

Students' Federation of India, Telangana State Committee's notice

Notice from Students' Federation of India, Telangana State Committee

Updated Date: Oct 27, 2018 18:31:48 IST