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Internal Panel Finds IIT Madras Professor Guilty of Sexual Harassment

Internal Panel Finds IIT Madras Professor Guilty of Sexual Harassment

Right: IIT Madras associate professor Mathava Kumar (Photo: Left: A sign at the IIT Madras entrance (Photo: Karthik Tripurari/Flickr, CC BY NC 2.0).

New Delhi: An associate professor at IIT Madras has been found guilty by the internal complaints committee of making sexual advances towards a PhD student he was supervising.

The five-member Internal Complaints Committee against Sexual Harassment (CCASH) has recommended stringent action against Mathava Kumar, an associate professor in the civil engineering department.

“It is very clear that Mathava Kumar misused his position as guide and complainant’s vulnerability as a single parent, and did make sexual advances to her for a temporary relationship,” the minutes of the committee’s meeting record, according to New Indian Express.

“The complainant had to persevere the perverse attitude of her guide for more than three years, as she wanted to complete her PhD that will help pursue a good career. She did not report earlier as she had already asked for a change of guide,” the committee said.

The committee recommended that the institute should make Kumar undergo awareness training, be demoted to the rank of assistant professor and be barred from supervising any PhD students for two years and female students for five years.

Though the committee met in August and September 2020 and IIT Madras director Bhaskar Ramamurthi had signed off on its recommendations on October 15, action against Kumar had been pending since he appealed the decision in the Madras high court.

According to Times of India, Kumar is currently supervising nine PhD students, some of whom are women.

The five-member committee initiated proceedings after receiving a formal complaint from a PhD scholar, who accused Kumar of sexual harassment. The complainant registered for a PhD in 2015 and started pursuing her research under Kumar from May 2017.

According to New Indian Express, the complaint said that Kumar was very supportive and encouraged her to work hard at first.

“His character changed over a period of time. When my divorce proceedings were going on in the family court, he started asking me personal questions,” the complainant’s deposition statement reads, according to the newspaper. “Many times, he told me to get remarried. Whenever I visited him for research meetings, he would discuss my personal issues.”

Kumar’s intentions “became clear” on April 2, 2020, the complainant said, when he invited her to visit his house for “thesis writing and correction” and wanted her to cook for him in his kitchen.

“During the telephonic conversation, I was uncomfortable and scared to say anything offensive… He even texted me on WhatsApp and told me that he will give me training when I come to his house. When I asked for details, he told me that he does not know what to call it and will explain it to me in person,” the statement adds.

Also Read: Why Indian Academia’s Harassment Woes Need Radical Rethink of Its Structure

She also submitted detailed WhatsApp chats as evidence of Kumar hinting at having a sexual relationship with her, while constantly asking her to keep the messages discreet.

Screenshots of the chat show Kumar saying, “Your involvement and consensus is required. Hope you got it. Hope you want my help. Are you interested to get trained from me?”

The PhD scholar told CCASH that it became apparent to her through these conversations that he was asking to be sexually involved with her and that she “should take it in a professional way”.

When the New Indian Express spoke to her, the complainant said she had been informed by CCASH – before the director approved its recommendations – that Kumar was ready to “reconcile and expressed his willingness to apologise” to her in front of the committee. “But I turned it down, which was recorded by CCASH,” the complainant, who completed her PhD recently, said.

In its report, the committee observed, “Asking [the complainant] to visit his home for thesis correction while Google Meet is possible during the lockdown; asking her to cook for him, thus seeking personal favours; steering her WhatsApp conversation away from work to her personal issues and commenting on her mannerisms violates every issue of privacy and personal space.”

The committee said that Kumar also tried to assassinate the complainant’s character and tried to “pursue her through other students”. It said, “Such acts are detrimental to the institute where gender equality is a given. Based on this recent violation, the committee does feel that it must be pointed out that a repeat act … can lead to termination.”

Over the past few years, an increasing number of students and faculty members have gone public about harassment at premier STEM institutes around India. Significantly, a number of accusers came forward in October 2018 when the #MeToo movement swept through the country.

Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj wrote for The Wire in November 2018 that the rigid hierarchies fundamental to Indian scientific institutions must be dismantled to tackle instances of sexual harassment, which are “hushed but commonplace”.

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