NUJS VC accused of power abuse to “subvert outcome" of sexual harassment complaint against him

Accusations range from chairing a hearing of the complaint against him to not letting the victim to the hearing and initiating retaliatory and farcical inquiries on her
The students of the varsity demand the suspension of the VC until the investigation is over.
The students of the varsity demand the suspension of the VC until the investigation is over.Illustration: EdexLive with Canva

With the Vice-Chancellor of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, facing an inquiry on allegations of sexual harassment against him, he is also being accused of abusing his power to “subvert the outcome of the investigation”.

To recall, Prof NK Chakrabarti, VC of NUJS, has been accused of subjecting a female professor of the varsity to sexual harassment on multiple occasions between 2019 and 2023. In her complaint, the professor further alleges that she also faced delays in receiving her salary, was denied opportunities for promotion, and was subjected to other professional threats after rejecting the alleged advances of VC. 

When the professor filed her complaint with a local committee (LC) of the North 24-Parganas district of West Bengal constituted under the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act on December 26, 2023, the LC rejected her complaint on the grounds of limitation on March 5, 2024, as the complaint was filed six months after the last instance of sexual harassment. 

The committee found that the last instance of sexual harassment took place in April 2023, and the complaint was filed in December 2023 and that nothing that has been alleged during that period constituted sexual harassment. 

Further, when the professor submitted a formal complaint directly to the university’s Executive Council (EC) on November 6, 2023, of the harassment she was undergoing, she was asked to meet the EC on November 27, 2023. 

However, when she saw that the VC was also present at the meeting, she refused to participate. She also asked that he recuse himself, which the latter refused stating that he was the Chairperson of the EC. Further, the hearing of the case was deferred to December 21, 2023. 

At the EC meeting on December 21, she was never called for the hearing, despite being on campus until 8 pm that night. Moreover, the VC, “had not even allowed the EC to discuss the harassment complaint”, she alleged. 

Students of the varsity allege that this was a result of the VC's meddling. 

“The VC enjoys a lot of political power and clout, locally. He used this influence to manipulate the EC meetings and suppress the professor and her complaint, instead of recusing himself from them,” claims a student of the university, on the condition of anonymity.

Harassment and a false allegation campaign against the petitioner

In August 2023, the professor was allegedly removed from her post as the Director of the Centre of Financial, Regulatory and Governance Studies based on allegations of not completing projects and having to refund a sum of rupees one lakh to the National Foundation of Corporate Governance (NFCG) as a result. 

In her complaint, the professor alleges that the VC drafted the minutes of the meeting of an earlier EC meeting “in a confusing manner”, to make it seem like an enquiry had been ordered against her by the Department of Law, Government of West Bengal – when, in reality, the inquiry had nothing to do with her, and related to the misutilising of a development grant issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC).

Despite protests by the Principal Secretary of the Law Department, Government of West Bengal, the VC clubbed the NFCG issue and the UGC grants issue into one agenda. 

In addition, in the December 21 meeting, the VC allegedly “manipulated the EC into appointing a one-man enquiry committee to enquire into the false and trumped up allegations”, says the professor.

“In harassing and victimising me, the Vice Chancellor has left no stone unturned to misutilise his position as the head of the institution and has jeopardised my career prospects,” the professor writes in her complaint, adding that the VC has also made the workplace toxic for her. 

Rejection of complaint not sustainable, says the court

When the professor moved to the Calcutta High Court Court after the LC rejected her complaint, the bench headed by Justice Kausik Chanda on May 22, 2024, took these developments into cognisance and remarked that the committee “erroneously held that the complainant of the petitioner was barred by limitation”.

Justice Chanda observed that the “circumstances of victimisation and detrimental treatment allegedly taken place between April 2023 till December 2023 have a nexus with the alleged sexual harassment of the petitioner between September 2019 and April 2023”, and count as sexual harassment under Sections 2(n) and 3(2) of the POSH Act. 

Further, he noted, “Therefore, if the complaint is read as a whole, would lead to a conclusion that the same was within the period of limitation in terms of Section 9(1) of the Act of 2013,” and declared the rejection of the complaint by the LC as not sustainable. 

He also ordered the LC to conclude the investigation initiated based on the complaint by the professor on merit, as per the provisions of the POSH Act. 

VC’s actions violate natural justice, students say

In a letter to Justice DY Chandrachud, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and Chancellor of NUJS, the Student Juridical Association demands the suspension of the VC until his acquittal.

The association condemned the “deliberate attempts by the Vice Chancellor to circumvent the appropriate legal procedure by abusing his position of power” against the professor’s complaints. 

Noting that the VC’s actions are a blatant violation of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences Staff Ethics and Code of Conduct (MCC), the association wrote, “It is evident that the Vice Chancellor’s actions in circumventing established procedures to quash the complaint against him, refusing to recuse from a committee meeting addressing the allegations against him, and making appointments without EC approval is a blatant violation of the MCC which cannot be sustained,” adding that the VC’s refusal to recuse himself from the EC meetings is a violation of the principles of natural justice. 

Further, owing to the lack of confidence in the VC from the student body, as well as the allegations, the association demands that no extension be given to his tenure as the VC. 

“We note that the Vice Chancellor has allegedly attempted to immunise himself against allegations surrounding inappropriate sexual conduct by abusing the authority vested in him as the Vice Chancellor and Chairman of the EC, and in doing so, has betrayed the trust placed in him as the head of an institution such as NUJS,” the letter reads. 

According to the student, the LC has yet to resume the investigation into the complaint. 

In the meanwhile, over 130 students of Gujarat National Law University signed a petition today, May 28, expressing solidarity with the professor, and support for the students of NUJS in the realisation of their demands.

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