Recently, in a judgment dated 22nd July 2019, the Kerala High Court in the case of Sree Shankar vs. The Principal, Sacred Heart College and Ors. held that an internal committee and Principal of a college looking into student accused of sexual harassment must take a lenient view keeping in mind the age and future of the student and provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“Law”).
Facts: Sree Shankar (“Petitioner”), a student of Sacred Heart College (“College”), filed a Writ Petition challenging the show cause notice dated 14.06.2019 (“Show Cause Notice”) by which he was asked by the Principal of the College to submit his explanation as to why he should not be removed. Petitioner submitted that he was given oral directions not to enter the college since the commencement of the classes on reopening of the college in June 2019, well before the Show Cause Notice was issued, which contained certain allegations against him.
Arguments: According to the Petitioner, the love affair between him and his College junior started during his 2nd year course; and ended in their marriage solemnised at a temple after which they lived together without any inducement. It was stated that when the girl’s parents came to know about this, they detained her. It was stated that the girl then filed a petition before a Family Court to get the marriage annulled. Based on a crime registered against him on the complaint of the girl and her parents for offences under the Indian Penal Code, he surrendered before the Police and was later released on bail. Further, when he along with his parents met the Principal he was asked not to attend the classes and not to enter into the premises of the College, pointing out the incidents connecting him and the junior. He submitted that he was a student of good academic records and there was no complaint against him from any corner. Further, he submitted before the Principal, an explanation of the incidents which led to the Police case, his arrest etc.
He further requested that an inquiry on the basis of complaint relating to such sexual harassment has to be conducted in accordance with the provisions contained in the Law. He also pointed that the UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Education Institutions) Regulations, 2015 (“UGC Regulations”) must be complied with. It was also pointed out that in case such an inquiry was conducted after constituting an internal committee, he could also seek justice, as there was a provision for punishment for false or malicious complaints and when false evidence is given. The Petitioner prayed for a direction to restrain the Principal from conducting another inquiry pursuant to show cause notice and for a direction to reinstate him and to allow him to attend the examination after condoning his absence.
A statement was filed on behalf of the Principal, stating that a complaint was received from a female student and her parents in respect of a fraudulent marriage and sexual abuse based on which they requested for appropriate action against the Petitioner. The Petitioner and his father met the Principal at his office; thereafter when the matter was discussed in the staff council, a detailed inquiry was found necessary; an Internal Committee (“IC”) was constituted to look into the matter. It was stated that the IC had taken statements from the victim as well as the Petitioner; the Principal had got the inquiry report on and the matter was under his consideration. The Principal stated that since the Petitioner had not attended the classes even for a single day in the current semester, it was not possible to allow him to attend the internal exam. Further, if strong action is not taken, it will affect the discipline in the College and moral of the students as well as the reputation and goodwill of the College.
Observation: On the issue of the criminal case, the Court opined that “Having heard the contentions on both sides it would appear the two students who have attained majority fell in love and they on their own entered into marriage in October, 2018 and lived together apparently outside the campus. The criminal case is going on against the allegations raised against the Petitioner. The disputes are purely private matters which would be considered in the criminal case and also before the Family Court. In case, Petitioner has not committed any act of indiscipline inside the campus and is a bona fide student with no past records of misconduct, the respondents have to seriously consider whether the retention of the Petitioner under oral suspension till this time itself based on which he was disabled from attending the classes and appearing in the internal examination is not sufficient and whether any further extreme action which would spoil the career of the Petitioner would further the interest of the College. A love affair which led to a marriage by itself cannot be said to be an act of indiscipline or which is likely to affect the discipline of the College or studies; it is also not one which can be restrained by the college authorities. The registration of the crime on allegations relating to blackmailing, etc. are to be proved in the criminal court. Therefore, the College shall finalise the inquiry against the Petitioner at the earliest.”
Regarding the issue of lack of attendance, the Court observed that “It is seen that Petitioner could not attend the College after the reopening, on instructions from the Principal. Petitioner is a final year student. In order to appear in the examination, 75% attendance is necessary. The incidents based on which the oral suspension and Show Cause Notice are issued, do not have any connection with the College. It is also to be kept in mind that if at all any offence or act of indiscipline is seen committed, the students of this age are to be given proper counselling instead of adopting harsh action against them, spoiling their future and career, especially when both the students are participants of all these activities.”
Further, the Court adopted a lenient view on the whole proceedings taking into consideration the impact it may have on the future of the Petitioner and held that “There cannot be any dispute over the requirement, that the College is bound to constitute committees in accordance with the UGC Regulations. At any rate, any action against a student shall be consistent with the principles of natural justice. From the pleadings and contentions it is seen that incidents which led to show cause notice arose because of incidents which occurred in the private affairs of two major students, though the Petitioner had not attained the marriageable age of 21 years, which admittedly occurred outside the campus. The college has taken steps admittedly based on the complaint of the girl and her parents. Therefore, though both the parties involved in the incidents are students of the College and the Principal and the College have to enforce discipline in the College and to safeguard its integrity and good will, I am of the view that adopting any severe, harsh or extreme action against such a student without any regard to his young age, the future or career cannot be said to be in furtherance of interest of the College. Petitioner claims that he has been scoring good marks; he is in the 5th Semester of the course. While taking any disciplinary action, the College shall see that the life and career of the student, whether it is male or female, is not tarnished. In the above circumstances, the College has to take a lenient view taking into account all these aspects.
Held: Thus, the writ petition was disposed of, directing the Principal to finalise the action against the Petitioner by taking a lenient view avoiding coercive action, within a period of ‘one week’ and in case the inquiry was not finalised within the aforesaid time, the Petitioner would be allowed to attend the classes.
– Adv. Shivangi Prasad – Corporate Lawyer, External Member & Trainer, Head – Legal & Compliance, Partner POSH at Work