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A leading private university in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) has been embroiled in an ugly controversy in recent months.
A former assistant professor of the St Xavier’s University has told the BBC that she was forced to quit her job for sharing her photographs in a bikini on Instagram – a charge the university has denied.
The 31-year-old, who requested not to be named, has accused the university officials of “sexual harassment” and says that she “was bullied, browbeaten, and subjected to moral policing”.
She has lodged a police complaint and sent a legal notice to the university, which has responded by accusing her of defamation and demanded 990m rupees ($12.4m; £10.5) in compensation.
‘I was led into an interrogation room’
The assistant professor says she joined the faculty on 9 August 2021 to teach English to undergraduate and postgraduate classes.
Two months later, she was summoned to the vice-chancellor’s office for a meeting.
She was “led into an interrogation room” where she was questioned by a committee comprising Vice-Chancellor Felix Raj, Registrar Ashish Mitra and five women.
She was informed that there had been a complaint against her from the father of a first-year undergrad male student.
“The vice-chancellor said this parent had found his son looking at my photographs on Instagram where I was wearing just my undergarments. He said they were sexually explicit and requested the university to save his son from such vulgarity.”
A piece of paper was circulated amongst the members of the board with “five-six photographs” and she was asked to confirm that they were hers.
‘I realised I was being gaslit’
The photographs, in which she was wearing a two-piece swimsuit, were selfies taken in her room, she says, adding that she had shared them on Instagram as a “story” – which means that they had disappeared after 24 hours.
But the panel rejected her explanation that the photos were posted on 13 June 2021 – nearly two months before she had even joined the university and before she had accepted any requests from her students to follow her account which is private.
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“I was shocked. When I saw the pictures I had a panic attack, it felt surreal that my personal photographs were being shared without my consent,” she told me.
“For once I couldn’t bear to look at my own photographs, the way they were presented to me and the conversation around them made even me think of them as cheap. I realised I was being gaslit, I started feeling sabotaged.”
‘Have your parents seen your photos?’
“I was asked why did you even do it? As a woman don’t you think it’s objectionable? As a professor, isn’t it your duty to society to conduct yourself appropriately? Don’t you know that women have a dress code?
“They told me that I was bringing disrepute and shame to the university. I was asked if my parents were on Instagram and if they had seen those pictures? I felt nauseous and traumatised.”
She was asked to return the next day with a written report.
The apology and the ‘forced resignation’
The teacher returned to the vice-chancellor’s office the next day and submitted an apology, “written on advice from some faculty members that included the head of the gender cell” – a former classmate and an assistant professor at the university who was also a member of the panel that had questioned her.
“If my images were interpreted in a way that they had tarnished the reputation of the university, then I was sorry,” she wrote.
It was “a very unpleasant experience”, she said, but she expected the matter to end there.
“But the vice-chancellor told me that the board had unanimously recommended my dismissal. He said your photographs have gone viral, most students have seen them and they will not take you seriously and parents would complain. He said it would be better if I resigned voluntarily.”
If she didn’t do it, he said, she “would go to prison because the parent wanted to lodge a police complaint and I would be arrested”.
“I felt cornered – and I quit,” she says.
“But I also felt very angry and sought legal advice. Because my photographs were downloaded, screenshots were taken and shared without my consent, my lawyer suggested I lodge a complaint of sexual harassment with the cyber-crime police,” she said.
‘We did not ask her to quit’
Father Felix Raj declined to comment on whether the committee had recommended her dismissal, but denied all the allegations against the university and himself.
“We are a sacred institution of learning and knowledge. As her senior and the head of the university, I told her that she shouldn’t have put up those pictures.”
Even then, he says, he “did not force her to resign and she left of her own volition”.
“She gave an apology letter on 8 October . We accepted it. I thought it was a good gesture. But then she sent in her resignation on 25 October – the day we reopened after the Puja festival break.
“I’d expected her to return to work after the holidays. I have no idea what happened in these two weeks,” he says, adding that they have “no grudge against her” and that “we have been very good to her”.
On being asked about her assertion that the photos could not possibly be available on her Instagram feed after she joined the university and her accusation that she’s being sabotaged by a faculty member, Father Felix Raj said he was “not an expert on technology”.
‘A savage form of moral policing’
The action against the teacher has been criticised by many students and former students for being “regressive”.
A change.org petition, started by former university student Gaurav Banerjee and addressed to the West Bengal state’s education minister, has received more than 25,000 signatures.
Mr Banerjee told the BBC that he wants the university to apologise to the professor and is asking the government to take disciplinary action against the committee for its high-handed behaviour.
“I’m glad that just like me a lot of people are horrified that the university could do something like this,” he said.
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Recently, dozens of students of the university, dressed in black, held an impromptu silent protest outside the university canteen to express solidarity with the professor.
“We came to know about this savage form of moral policing that one of our professors has been subjected to,” one of the participants told me.
“This is completely unacceptable. Why should anyone be bothered about what I’m doing in my private space? Our personal space should be inviolable,” he said.
“What is frightening is that the committee members that included five women did not think that this was moral policing?” he added.
‘I may not win…’
The teacher at the centre of the row said she was “overwhelmed by all the support and grateful” to those who had supported her.
“After months of feeling low, I feel affirming that people are seeing it for how ridiculous it is.”
The right to privacy and self-expression, she says, is inviolable and given to us by India’s constitution and this “surveillance” has extended beyond the workplace.
“How does my conduct before joining the organisation flout their social media protocol or guidelines?” she asks.
“My firm conviction is that I haven’t done anything wrong. I may not win this, but for me it is an important fight,” she says.