No matter how well qualified a woman is, it is how she presents herself that is ultimately what garners greater interest from people.
In the words of Nandini Guha*, a former professor at St. Xavier’s Kolkata, the following is the ordeal she went through since October, 2021, when she was suddenly summoned via a call to immediately meet with the Vice Chancellor of St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata. She spoke about the happenings of October 7 and October 8, 2021, which has been termed by her as the beginning of “rampant injustice”.
On October 7, Ms. Guha received a phone call, summoning her to immediately meet the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Mr. John Felix Raj. In retrospect, she feels that such an extraordinary and urgent direction ought to have indicated and alerted her to the fact that something was truly amiss, as in an ordinary scenario, there would be no extreme urgency, a formal and detailed show-cause notice would be issued to her, and she would be given time to respond., and at least a little time to prepare and respond. However, when she reached the room of the VC, she found herself confronted by 7 individuals. 2 men and 5 women. Out of the 5 women, only 1 was familiar to her. “Everyone looked grave, and I panicked a little bit”, Ms. Guha told us.
She was then told that a complaint had been lodged against her by the father of a male undergraduate student who had recently been admitted to the University. Part of the text of the complaint was read out aloud to Ms. Guha, and it essentially said that the father had caught his son staring at pictures of Ms. Guha in a swimsuit on his phone. It is important to note here, that as per Ms. Guha, ever since this story has broken in the news, there has been hyper-fixation on the nature of these images, specifically by trying to characterize them as “bikini images”.
The complaint said: “I was appalled to find out that these pictures were extremely vulgar and obscene, bordering on nudity”. It further said that he was “he was ashamed to find professors putting up pictures like this, as we believe in the Jesuit values of the institution”.
“It was all very bizarre, I was asked weird questions, and sheets of paper were circulated in the meeting with thumbnail print outs of my images, and in order to gain maximum attention, there were two ‘objectionable’ pictures of me in a swimsuit at the very top of these print outs. My brain short-circuited at this point, but I recognized that it was an image which was from an Instagram Story, and not a Post, and that this Story had actually been put up a long time ago.”
Other pictures that Ms. Guha was shown of her own self had her clad in gym clothes, shorts, and sleeveless tops, and were all sourced from her Instagram profile.
Ms. Guha says that at this point her immediate feeling was of “dread”. She felt “nauseous”, and believed that her account had been hacked. When she voiced this belief to the head of the gender cell, the lady dismissed it as “mere speculation”.
“If they believed this was mere speculation, why was I being asked by them as to how these pictures were made public?”
Ms. Guha further added that “Every question was designed to portray me in a bad light, it was a pre-conceived jury”.
When she tried to explain to the group, which clearly did not have a grasp regarding the mechanical workings of Instagram, that the nature of Instagram Stories is such that they are automatically deleted within 24 hours of being put up, she was repeatedly told that these were Posts not Stories. They kept on making it sound like she didn’t know her own Instagram profile. She felt gaslighted.
Ms. Guha also said that at one point, where she was asked as to whether she was aware that women had to adhere to a dress code in the University, she replied by saying that “in the college, yes. However, women don’t have a dress code within their own homes”. The 7 people in the room also told her that the father of the undergraduate student is also possibly looking to press criminal charges of indecency against Ms. Guha, should the boy turn out to be a minor, which was something that they admitted that they had not investigated. Ms. Guha was then asked to submit a ‘report’ the next day, without specifying what this ‘report’ was supposed to cover.
“I never thought the ‘penalty’ of this will be termination. I thought I will be given a warning, and this will be a disciplinary issue. Termination was inconceivable.”
The next day, Ms. Guha brought the ‘report’ to the office of the VC, which she says was really an “apology” which she felt compelled to tender because she was “under duress”, and retrospectively feels was ill-judged. She does make a point to say, however, that the text of this apology was only in case she had inadvertently hurt the University, and was not for the pictures she had put up. At this point, she was informed that a 5-person committee had unanimously decided that she be removed from her job.
She was told that “offline classes will soon resume, and the boys having already seen titillating pictures of you will see you in a different light, and neither does the University want that, and nor would you.”
Ms. Guha was then asked to resign, and told that in the event that she did not do so, the University would terminate her employment, and that there would be a FIR registered against her. Ms. Guha recalls that at this point, she believed that “the line between suggestion and threat was blurred”.
“I realized that there was no winning here. I was told to resign by citing personal reasons, and that I had time till after the Durga Pujo vacation to do that. I am often asked why I waited so long to resign, and the answer to that is that I did not want to leave any pending work unattended, and I did not want to give anyone cause to say that my employment was terminated because I had underperformed in my work.”
Ms. Guha completed her pending work, and then tendered her resignation, along with her reasons for doing so, at the end of the Durga Pujo vacation.
“I realized then that what happened was that I had been sexually harassed. A witch-hunt was carried out against me, and aspersions were cast on my character and my teaching abilities.”
On top of this, Ms. Guha says that it is a “horrible feeling to realise that you are no longer in control of your own images.”
What then followed were endless rounds to police stations for Ms. Guha. However, the police failed to follow up and register an FIR on her complaint regarding the questionable acquisition and circulation of the images. Ultimately, she only heard from a police station in January, 2022, stating that they would investigate this case, and who registered an FIR against “unknown persons”. The source of the image leak has still not been found, and the investigation is still ongoing.
“I can’t be crucified for putting up a picture. There was no due process, no paper trail, all Vishaka Guidelines were flouted, and an admission of all this first came from the University when I wrote my resignation while citing that I was bullied, morally policed, and harassed. In that reply from the administration of the University, which came 5 days later, the University denied everything. I don’t even know who were those 5 women who constituted the ‘committee’. I was never even made to sign a contract that had a social media policy for professors”.
Ms. Guha says that there was a dress-code within the University for teachers, which she adhered to, but that it was all in a “nebulous realm of hearsay”.
Finally, on March 1, 2022, Ms. Guha sent a legal notice to the governing body of the University, asking for replies as to what service rules she had broken, how was the ‘committee’ that decided to have her removed constituted, who was the complainant, etc. She was then met with another response from the University administration which said that she has tarnished the image of the University, and as a result, she was called upon to tender an immediate and unconditional apology, and to also pay Rs.99 crores to the University as a penalty. “It again seemed like a threat to me, because the inflated amount is definitely a tactic to intimidate me.”
In the end, Ms. Guha wants an unconditional apology from the University, an institution with which both she and her father have been associated by virtue of having been students of St. Xavier’s College themselves. A University where she enjoyed teaching classes. A University that is now the reason for her ordeal, and has made her suffer considerable financial loss. Because of her monetary losses, she couldn’t adequately support her father when he was ill. Her father was further traumatized by it all, as he believes it to be his fault that his daughter has to suffer through this injustice, as it was he who insisted she take up the job at their alma mater.
“In my heart I know I did nothing wrong, and this is the conviction that has helped me through this entire ordeal”.
We have reached out to the University for their comment on the issue. The piece will be updated as and when we get a reply.
*name changed to protect the interviewee’s identity