Chandigarh University Under Scanner, as MMS Scandal Explodes
Campus closed, students allege forcible eviction
The Chandigarh University MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) scandal has once again raised questions about gender-based violence online, and how educational institutes try to cover them up.
On Saturday, Punjab's Chandigarh University witnessed massive protests by students demanding action on the alleged leak of objectionable videos from its girls' hostel.
Protests had erupted on the campus of the university over "rumours" that around 60 such videos of several women students were recorded. Students also claimed that the administration was trying to cover up the cases of suicides.
Punjab Police have repeatedly claimed there were no suicide attempts and that they have so far not found any other videos except for the accused's own recordings sent to her boyfriend.
Meanwhile, on directions from Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, a three-member all-women Special Investigation Team (SIT) under the supervision of senior IPS officer Gurpreet Deo has also been formed to probe the incident. Punjab's Director General of Police Gaurav Yadav appealed for peace and urged people to avoid rumours on social media. In a video message, the state's top cop assured that the privacy and dignity of everyone concerned will be respected.
The university administration has allegedly shut down the campus for a week, declaring holidays, where students have alleged that they are being forced out of the hostel.
Meanwhile, three persons, a woman student and two men from Himachal Pradesh, have been arrested. One of them was said to be the student's boyfriend.
The three were sent to police remand by a court on Monday. Police had produced the three accused in the Kharar court in Punjab's Mohali and sought a ten-day remand.
There is a lot of anger amongst the students with the case, who averred that both the administration and the police failed to take timely action and are trying to put the whole issue under the rug.
Speaking to The Citizen, Aman Kaur, president of Punjab Student Union - Lalkaar at Punjab University in Chandigarh said, "the CU administration has declared holidays now and all students have left. They are forcefully vacating the hostels."
She added that the girl accused has confessed that there are videos of 50 to 60 girls. "The police are investigating, but the worst part is that the university is trying to cover it up. They are more concerned about their reputation and how this will affect their admissions," she added.
The incident has scared a lot of students, Punjab University is also conducting counselling sessions for the students. "A lot of parents are asking their children to not stay in hostels and while PU is safe, there is still a tense environment in universities," Kaur added.
College administration were not available to comment on the matter.
Right to Privacy
Speaking about the incident and how the online cases have only increased, Punjab based scholar and activist Anuroop Sandhu said the whole idea of gender-based violence is inequality in India and many other countries as well. "I feel until this gender inequality, and this idea about really talking about sexuality, and other needs is not addressed, these kinds of problems will only aggregate such issues and only increase," she said.
Sandhu added that there is a need to find programmes and sensitise people about these issues, so that a sensible discussion can take place. "Because this is a time sensitive case, the more they delay, the more these videos are going to be circulated. This is only going to increase problems for the children or the people who are involved in this case, especially those who are the direct victims of this crime," she said.
She added that the university should have invited students to make a committee and to choose their own representatives and do a fair trial. "If they would have done that in the first place, then these kinds of problems would have been resolved in a better manner," said Sandhu.
As the case only escalates, evidence that the accused girl student was being "blackmailed" has also surfaced. In a video that has surfaced online, the accused MBA student revealed that she was being pressured by the two men accused in the case. A video has surfaced where the accused woman student is confronted by six other women students after they reportedly caught her filming them.
In the video, the six women who caught the accused while making the videos can be seen asking her why she made the videos. The accused student can be seen telling the women that she recorded their videos under pressure and deleted them later.
The accused woman said she made the videos under pressure from a man from Shimla, who has been identified as Sunny Mehta. She added that she didn't know who he was but later showed them the photo of Sunny Mehta who owns a bakery in Rohru, Shimla. "If someone is pressuring you, then tell us, we will take action against him," the accused woman student was asked in the video.
Kaur, meanwhile, said that initially the police said that there was only one video, but the sections mentioned in the FIR showcase a larger picture. "If this was not true, why did the police register an FIR under 354," she added.
Section 354 in the Indian Penal Code states that assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty. According to the IPC: "Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both."
Deputy Inspector General of Police GPS Bhullar on Tuesday evening said the SIT also visited the washroom at Chandigarh University. Notably, students of the varsity had alleged that some objectionable videos were made by the accused hosteller.
The hostel warden was also summoned for questioning, said Bhullar. He said the data of the mobile phones of three accused will be retrieved by the state cyber cell of the Punjab Police. Bhullar said the SIT would investigate the allegations of the women students about videos, "no loose ends will be left." The state forensic expert also visited the washroom, said Bhullar. He assured that the investigation into the matter will be impartial and fair.
Speaking about the incident Harpuneet Kaur, a student at Punjab University said, "the incident that took place at Chandigarh University isn't something we haven't witnessed before personally or indirectly in hushed whispers. The culture of snatching away autonomy from our identities and bodies is a deep-rooted institutionalised injustice.
"Consent matters, accountability matters, and ensuring a safe space for everyone around us is our duty. Nobody has the right to dictate the terms of our lives. We do have the right to actively treat people with dignity and respect."
History of Such Violations
This is not the first time that an MMS scandal of such a level has shocked people. In 2004, a few students were suspended after a video, taken non-consensually went viral at Delhi Public School (DPS).
The clip reportedly showed two Class XI students of Delhi Public School, RK Puram branch, "having oral sex on the school premises". The boy had shot the video with a mobile phone that had multimedia messaging service or MMS, the only technology back then to share multimedia or A/V content between mobile phones.
The video was circulated widely and eventually uploaded on the internet, where it was copied and stored forever. No FIR was registered against anyone for making and sharing the clip.
However, on December 9 2004, an article appeared in Delhi-based tabloid Today that sparked controversy. The writer Anupam Thapa published an exclusive story, which claimed that an online trading website named bazee.com was auctioning the video clip.
The police, after investigation, revealed that one Alice Electronics of Kharagpur, West Bengal, had sold eight copies of the said clip since 27, November, 2004.
Later, Delhi Police commissioner took cognisance of the news item and ordered the crime branch to register a case and investigate. Avnish Bajaj, the then CEO of the website Baazee.com was summoned by the Delhi High Court for having allowed this clip to be listed for auction under sections 67 and 85 of the I-T Act, 2000. The matter is still sub-judice.
This, Sandhu averred, has still not changed as even in the present time, a woman's right to privacy was not respected. "I feel that these institutions are nothing but the agents of patriarchal society. I think the way authority has dealt with this entire case in the 21st Century, is something that we really need to see, because they're still looking at it as the whole idea of honour being there in a woman's body," she said.
She added this was also the reason why so many victim's complaints were not registered initially. "They were, in fact, threatened that their reputation would be ruined. That is how society, this authority is also trying to control and curb this. A woman's right to their own body, woman's right to their own dignity has not really been respected here," she added.
Gender-based Violence Online
The incident has shifted focus on gender-based violence online, which has only increased according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau data. A total of 52,974 cases were registered under Cyber Crimes, showing an increase of 5.9% in registration over 2020 (50,035 cases).
The crime rate under this category increased from 3.7 in 2020 to 3.9 in 2021. During 2021, 60.8% of cyber-crime cases registered were for the motive of fraud (32,230 out of 52,974 cases) followed by sexual exploitation with 8.6% (4,555 cases) and Extortion with 5.4% (2,883 cases).
Cyber-crime also includes incidents like harassment via e-mail, cyber defamation, cyber-stalking, morphing, cyber pornography, email spoofing, hacking, cyber sexual defamation, doxing, and even cyberbullying. Sexual cyber-crimes also include sending unsolicited sexual images or content to others online.
The top five states that account for 61 percent of the share in Cybercrimes against women are: Karnataka at number one with 2,243 cases in 2021, Maharashtra with 1,687 cases, and Uttar Pradesh with 958 cases.
Telangana accounts for the highest share of all cybercrimes including cyber-crime against women, which has increased to 282 percent from 2,691 in 2019 to 10,303 in 2021. A total of 71 cases were registered under the IT act in Punjab.
The Constitution of India guarantees equal right to life, education, health, food and work to women, but the "modesty" of women seems not to be protected in general in the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Deepshikha Sharma, research scholar, H P University, in her paper said that there is no specific provision in the IT Act, 2000 that specifically deals with the crime against women as does the provisions of the Indian Penal Code.
"The substantive provision of Section 77 of the IT Act provides that the provisions of Indian Penal Code will still apply to all the circumstances and that the penalty under any provision of the IT Act do not release the offender from the liability under any other law. Crimes which are especially targeted against women may be enumerated as cyber- stalking, cyber defamation, cyber-sex, dissemination of obscene material and trespassing into one's privacy domain is very common now-a-days," wrote Sharma.
Despite the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860, that deals with issues related to cyber-crimes and electronic commerce, convictions in such cases remain low even though there is an increase in reporting of the crimes.
Delhi based lawyer Tahini Bhushan, meanwhile said that the cyber laws are weak in India, while the police is not properly trained to handle cyber-crime cases. "We have cyber security laws, but the implementation is weak. The cops at cyber cell are supposed to be trained but they are not," she said.
According to a report in the Indian Express in May, there have been only two convictions in cybercrime cases since 2008 in Chandigarh. As per reports in December last year, a total of 2,369 cases related to cybercrime were filed in Mumbai from January to October 2021 out of which only 657 people were arrested.
The low conviction rates have been blamed on lack of manpower in cyber-cells and cybercrime teams across state police forces. "The idea of providing safety within the campus should be on the shoulders of the authorities around the campus," said Sandhu.