A professor at one of Germany's oldest universities apologised on Monday for denying an internship to an Indian student because of the “rape problem in India” after the German ambassador strongly condemned the incident.
The matter came to light after a colleague of the Indian student posted emails exchanged between Annette G Beck-Sickinger, the professor at Leipzig University, and the student on the question-and-answer site Quora. Neither the student nor the colleague identified themselves.
The issue emerged amidst a renewed debate on the country's poor record in women's safety, especially after the controversy generated by the banned documentary, India's Daughter, which purportedly highlights the misogynist mindset of Indian men.
By Monday evening, another student came forward to tell the media that Beck-Sickinger had refused his PhD application in March 2014 on similar grounds. In an email purportedly sent by the professor to this student, she wrote she no longer accepted “any male Indian guests, trainees, doctoral students, or post docs due to the severe rape problem in India”.
In a statement posted on the German Embassy website, Beck-Sickinger apologized, saying: "I have made a mistake. I sincerely apologise to everyone whose feelings I have hurt."
Beck-Sickinger, a professor of biochemistry and bio-organic chemistry, did not deny the email exchange with the Indian student who initially accused her.
Reached for her comments through email, she told Hindustan Times that the matter was a "misunderstanding" and the outcome of an "unpleasant discussion" with the Indian student.
She claimed the university did not discriminate with Indian students and that she had accepted several Indians in her department in the past.
"Unfortunately, this mail was a misunderstanding. Of course, I have nothing against male Indians and I have accepted several Indian students in the past. Currently, two male Indian students work in a lab course with me in my labs," she said.
"However, my lab is full and I cannot take any additional student in summer. This led to an unpleasant discussion with one of the Indian student," she added.
On the Quora post, the Indian student's colleague said Beck-Sickinger had also sent him an email in which she said it was "unbelievable" that Indian society had not been able to solve the problem of rape.
"I fully agree that this is a generalisation and may not apply to individuals. However, it is also unbelievable that the Indian society is not able to solve this problem for many years now. Reports reach Germany on a weekly base (basis), and especially these 'multi-rape crimes' are threatening, but for me also demonstrate the attitude of a society towards women. Also female tourist are kidnapped by groups of males and then abused," Beck-Sickinger wrote.
She claimed that "many female professors in Germany (have) decided to no longer accept Indian male students for these reasons, and currently other European female associations are joining."
German ambassador Michael Steiner reacted strongly to the professor's denial of internship and endorsed India's efforts to deal with violence against women.
In a letter to Beck-Sickinger , which was made public, Steiner said, "Your oversimplifying and discriminating generalisation is an offense to these women and men ardently committed to furthering women empowerment in India; and it is an offense to millions of law-abiding, tolerant, open-minded and hard-working Indians.
"Let's be clear: India is not a country of rapists. I would encourage you to learn more about the diverse, dynamic and fascinating country and the many welcoming and open-minded people of India so that you could connect a simplistic image, which -- in my opinion -- is particularly unsuitable for a professor and teacher," Steiner added.
Leipzig University was founded in 1409, making it one of Germany's oldest universities. Its website describes it as an "interdisciplinary, international comprehensive university" that was placed among the top 25 in Germany for four consecutive years by a global ranking agency.
Last week, the Indian government barred the screening of India's Daughter, a documentary by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin on the brutal gang-rape of a young student in December 2012.
Despite the ban, the film has been viewed on the internet by many Indians, triggering a fresh debate on rape and steps to counter violence against women and the mindset behind such attacks.