The Shree Sahjanand Girls Institute in Bhuj. (Express)
A day after 66 girl students of Shree Sahjanand Girls Institute in Bhuj town of Kutch district staged a protest after they were reportedly forced to strip to “prove” they were not menstruating, police booked college principal Rita Raninga, hostel coordinator Anita Chauhan, hostel supervisor Rameelaben and peon Naynaben for sexual harassment, extortion, criminal intimidation and other charges Friday.
Students and officials have confirmed that the institute has followed a discriminatory practice of physically isolating girls during their monthly period but this is the first time that they were asked to strip.
“A team of our women’s police station went there along with a woman counsellor. After counselling, one student filed a complaint that they were not only made to strip but were also made to write an apology. Based on that complaint, we have booked the principal, the hostel coordinator, hostel supervisor and peon under IPC Sections 354-A (sexual harassment), 384 (extortion), 506 (2) (criminal intimidation) etc,” Saurabh Tolumbia, Superintendent of Kutch (West) Police told The Indian Express.
Both the institute and the hostel are run by the Swaminarayan sect of Bhuj. The college offers undergraduate courses in arts, science and commerce and certificate courses. Undergraduate students of the college had alleged Thursday that the college principal, hostel coordinator, supervisor and peon sought to know from 68 students if they were menstruating.
While two students answered in the affirmative, the administration allegedly forced the others to go to a wash-room one by one, strip, and prove to their teachers that they were not menstruating that day.
The college administration justified the action, saying it has a set of rules for girl students to follow during their menstrual cycle. A few weeks ago, the girls had been reportedly asked to enter details of their monthly menstrual cycle in a register maintained by the hostel.
Speaking to The Indian Express, students said that over a fortnight before they were made to strip on February 11, the management made the girls sign individual “apology letters”, in which they were forced to mention the monthly dates of their menstrual cycle. The institution, the students say, told them that the dates of their menstrual cycles would be tallied with a register maintained at the hostel in which the girls are expected to make a mandatory disclosure each month.
“They have a register at the hostel, in which every girl must write her name each time her period starts. This girl is then asked to leave her hostel room and stay in isolation in a dimly lit room in the basement of the hostel building, with no contact with others. She is not allowed to visit her room or the dining hall or participate in prayers at the institution till she has her period. If she needs something from her room, she can tell her roommate to leave it at the door of the isolated room. Meals are served to her in separate utensils and she should sit in the lobby of the dining hall and eat,” a student told The Indian Express.
The students said that they had “no option” but to comply with all the discriminatory practices around the menstrual cycles.
Another student of the college said, “Time and again, we are insulted and verbally told off for not following their rules around the menstrual cycle but they have never checked or stripped us earlier. This time, they went a step ahead and made us undergo this embarrassment. When one of us protested, we were threatened with extreme steps and asked to take a Transfer Certificate from the college.”
The students said that the February 11 incident was triggered after a hostel staff spotted a blood-soaked sanitary napkin outside the window of the toilet of the hostel. “The warden informed the principal of the college and asked her to take action. They made an announcement and asked all hostel residents to assemble in the lobby where the principal threatened to rusticate us from the college if we protested against the check. One by one, they called us into the washroom where the female peon made us remove the layers of our clothes until we showed her that we were not menstruating. It was hurtful,” a student recalled.
However, of the 66 who were checked, only about 25 girls are willing to lodge a complaint. A student said, “The rest of the girls belong to the sect and they don’t want to go against the institution since many of the families are closely associated with the spiritual order of the sect.”
Parent of one of the girls who was checked said they are contemplating legal action against the institution. “The girls live in the hostel. They are not even allowed to have mobile phones. So a lot of parents don’t even know about the incident yet. We are trying to gather everybody and will soon file a complaint as we don’t want this to go by like that.” The parent, however, added that the institution is currently holding an important internal exam which will be disrupted if a complaint is immediately filed.
The Gujarat Commission for Women (GCW) on Friday wrote to the Bhuj police to take cognizance of the matter. GCW Chairperson Leela Ankoliya said, “Our team is speaking to the students at the hostel and trying to ascertain the facts of the case. We have women constables as well as members of the Mahila adalat of Bhuj as part of this team that is visiting the institution to gather facts. They will send me a report by tomorrow. We have taken this action suo motu after watching the news reports. What has happened with the girls is unacceptable.”
Laxman Shiyani, secretary of the working committee of the SSGI, said he was not aware of the existence of such a register. “Our chairman Pravin Pindoriya looks after such details. I do not know if a new rule has been recently added,” said Shiyani.
However, Darshana Dholakia, in-charge vice-chancellor of Krantiguru Shyamji Krishna Verma Kachh University (KSKVKU) to which the SSGI is affiliated, told The Indian Express that the college administration had confirmed to the varsity that such a register did exist.
“After the matter came to light, we formed a committee to look into it. I myself was part of the committee and we recorded statements of students. In their statements they alluded to a register where information about their menstrual cycles is recorded. While we did not inspect the said register, trustees of the institute have confirmed that being a religious organisation, they follow certain customs with respect to menstrual periods and that they do maintain such a register,” said Dholakia.
The V-C said that the varsity has directed the college administration to remove the principal, the hostel rector and the peon with immediate effect. “We have also sent a report in this regard to Kutch district collector,” Dholakia added.
Shiyani said they suspended the principal and the peon pending an inquiry. “The students have complained against them and, therefore, we have suspended them pending an inquiry against them,” he said.
Asked how the college administration viewed the incident, the secretary said: “The girls have alleged that such an incident took place. Let there be an inquiry into it and then we shall be in a position to comment on its propriety.”