Kolkata: Students from various departments of the faculty of arts and social sciences at St. Xavier’s University (SXU), Kolkata, wore black clothes and assembled at the main quadrangle on the university campus in New Town on Friday, August 12, and held a silent protest in solidarity with a former assistant professor of English who was allegedly forced to resign over her Instagram pictures in October 2021.
This is the first time in the short history of the university that students held a protest on campus. Even the St. Xavier’s College campus on Park Street has not seen any students’ protest on campus in at least the last 30 years.
The Wire had, on August 8, reported that a female assistant professor of SXU-Kolkata was allegedly harassed, slut-shamed and forced to resign last year after the father of an undergraduate student reportedly wrote to the university saying he had found his son looking at the teacher’s Instagram photos which, according to him, were indecent, obscene and vulgar. The national media subsequently picked up the story and a huge uproar erupted over the last week, with most people condemning the university’s action saying it reeked of patriarchy, misogyny and blatant undermining of an individual’s personal liberty.
In a written statement sent to their former professor, the protesting students said on Friday, “… we all gathered in the quadrangle and protested… people had come from miscellaneous batches to stand in solidarity… our parents are also proud of how you’re battling against such an evil corporate who consider themselves invincible… you have ensured that none of us are ever humiliated and have agency over our own bodies.”
“You are not alone, we students are with you,” it added.
Previously, on August 10, a handful of students from different colleges and universities of Kolkata and nearby areas assembled in front of SXC on Park Street with placards, raising slogans condemning the action against the teacher. The college authorities tried to drive them away, but they stood their ground.
On the same day, the SXU administration convened an emergency meeting to decide its course of action in response to the report, sources have told The Wire. The meeting was attended by vice-chancellor Felix Raj, registrar Ashis Mitra and gender cell convenor Medha Bhadra Chowdhury.
“I am speechless and overwhelmed. The students have so much to lose and yet, putting their careers at risk, they took a stand against injustice. As an educator, nothing can be more empowering and humbling. I am so, so proud of them,” the young academic, who has recently joined a university in another state, said.
One of the protesting students told The Wire, “We went from classroom to classroom and asked everybody to come wearing black. Earlier, during the second wave of the pandemic, the university had forced us to come to campus. When we wrote a letter to the V-C, we were given a ‘last warning’ over our conduct. They said we could be expelled en masse. Still, we risked everything and protested because what happened to our teacher had shaken and shocked us beyond words.”
Meanwhile, over 13,000 people from different walks of life signed an online petition addressed to state higher education minister Bratya Basu seeking ‘disciplinary action’ against SXU V-C Felix Raj. Riddhi Sen, a stage and film actor known for taking a stand against social ills, told The Wire on Thursday that several eminent personalities of the state were planning to write a public letter to the university.
People from various sections of society – students, professionals and eminent personalities – have, in the meantime, expressed their eagerness to contribute financially to cover the academic’s legal expenses.
Anger, and frustration brim over
Over the past week, the alumni of the St Xavier’s College and University and many present and former teachers of the two institutes have taken to social media or reached out to this correspondent, venting their anger at the SXU administration. Most of them said they were not surprised at all at the incident.
A senior teacher who has taught for 30 years at SXC almost broke down over the phone while thanking The Wire, saying this was “the first time someone spoke of the plight of teachers”.
“We have suffered immense psychological torture over decades at the hands of the same administration,” she said. She was, ostensibly, referring to the present V-C and registrar of SXU, who were earlier academic council secretary at SXC.
A former teacher of the university who spoke to The Wire on Friday, on condition of anonymity, said, “During my working days at SXU, I found that the administration lacked basic respect for the teaching profession. In the name of discipline and propriety, they ran a repressive system and the university environment was not conducive to teaching-learning at all. Almost every teacher was disgusted with the administration. But a constant fear psychosis prevented them from speaking out.”
“If this was the condition of professors, that of the students can be guessed. What pained me particularly was how female students were treated. They were frequently humiliated for their choice of clothes. A general attitude of institutional misogyny was evident,” he added.
“Teachers and students of the humanities departments are trained to think critically. That is why they frequently came in conflict with the administration. I always felt the university wanted us to teach literature in the classroom but ensure that no critical discourse comes out of the classroom into the campus life,” he said further.
Another former assistant professor of SXU wrote on Facebook, “Universities certainly cannot operate on the corporate slogan, ‘Client is God’. Professors are not retailers… They are trained to form minds, help in creating thinking, discerning young adults. And it is sad, to say the least, that the university should claim to side with an individual who harbours such narrow, sexist and appallingly patriarchal views.”
“It is shocking to learn that the university used its gender cell, over and above everything else, to perpetrate what does seem to be a case of gender abuse,” she added.
On Facebook, several users have posted their pictures in swimsuits over the week using the hashtag #takethatxaviers.
Will the real B.K. Mukherjee please stand up?
In what is possibly the most intriguing twist to the entire plot, The Wire has reliably learnt from its sources within the university that a number of professors of the university, at least one of them very senior, have now expressed their doubts over the veracity of the reported complaint from a student’s father, based on which the university took action against the assistant professor.
In its legal response, SXU had said, “On 04.10.2021, at 7:44 pm, an email with subject matter ‘Complaint’… was received from one Mr. B. K. Mukherjee (identifying himself as father of a student of SXUK) from email address firstname.lastname@example.org … with copy to 1) the VC Office (SXUK), 2) the Registrar (SXUK) , 3) Prof. Medha Bhadra Chowdhury (Convener, Women & Gender Cell) SXUK and 4) Dr. Soma Sur (Chairperson, Internal Complaints Committee) SXUK.”
Since the authenticity of the letter and its sender came into question, The Wire tried to find out more about it. To begin with, the investigating officer of the case, Koushik Ghosh of Techno City police station, said he was yet to find the said B.K. Mukherjee.
During the meeting on October 7, the assistant professor was told that the complainant was the father of an undergraduate first-year student. The Wire accessed lists of names of all students from 2021 UG Semester I (there were only three departments then: English, Economics and Mass Communication). Only the English department had two male students with the surname Mukherjee taking admission.
One of them had left the university before the incident. The Wire has spoken to his father, who has denied sending the letter. The other student’s father is not named B.K. Mukherjee, according to records accessed by The Wire.
The Wire also tried sending an e-mail to the parent’s e-mail address mentioned by the university. The mail bounced and an automated response from Gmail said, “The email account you tried to reach does not exist.”
The university has not clarified whether it verified the identity of the complainant. An email has been sent by The Wire seeking further information on this. This report will be updated as and when there is a response.
The guardian’s complaint says, “During the UG orientation programme, we were informed that there is a gender cell functional in the university”, which seems to suggest that the guardians took part in an orientation programme. Multiple sources have confirmed to The Wire that no such programme was ever held in the five years of SXU’s existence.
The genuineness of the parent’s complaint is primarily in question since the assistant professor repeatedly claimed that two of her swimsuit pictures that were shown to her by the university in October 2021 were from Instagram ‘Stories’ posted in June, at least two months before she joined SXU.
“By default, they were visible for 24 hours. Only one person from the university fraternity, the gender cell convenor, was my follower on Instagram back then,” she has confirmed to The Wire. The said professor refused to comment when contacted on Saturday morning.
The Wire also tried to corroborate the V-C’s claim (according to the assistant professor’s complaint) that the said pictures had gone viral among students and they had been gossiping about them. Four undergraduate Semester III students (who should be classmates of the said boy who was supposedly found looking at his teacher’s Instagram pictures) The Wire spoke to said they knew nothing about any picture till The Wire’s report came out on August 8, 2022.
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