A leading private university in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) has been embroiled in a nasty controversy in recent months.
A former assistant professor at St Xavier’s University has told the BBC she was forced out of her job for sharing her bikini photos on Instagram – a charge the university has denied.
The 31-year-old, who asked not to be named, accused university officials of ‘sexual harassment’ and said she was ‘bullied, intimidated and morally policed’.
She filed a complaint with the police and sent a legal notice to the university, which responded by accusing her of defamation and demanded 990 million rupees ($12.4 million; £10.5) in compensation.
“I was taken to an interrogation room”
The assistant professor says she joined the faculty on August 9, 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 “taken to an interrogation room” where she was interrogated by a panel consisting of Vice-Chancellor Felix Raj, Registrar Ashish Mitra and five women.
She was informed that a complaint had been made against her by the father of an undergraduate freshman.
“The Vice-Chancellor said this parent found his son looking at my photos on Instagram where I was only wearing my underwear. He said they were sexually explicit and asked the university to save his son of such vulgarity.”
A piece of paper was passed around among the council members with “five-six photographs” and he was asked to confirm that they were his.
“I realized I was gaslit”
The photographs, in which she wore a two-piece swimsuit, were selfies taken in her bedroom, she says, adding that she shared them on Instagram as a ‘story’ – meaning they disappeared after 24 hours.
But the panel rejected her explanation that the photos were released on June 13, 2021 – nearly two months before she even joined the university and before she accepted any requests from her students to follow his account which is private.
“I was shocked. When I saw the photos I had a panic attack, it was surreal that my personal photos 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 even made me think they were cheap. I realized that I was gaslit, I started to feel sabotaged.”
“Have your parents seen your photos?
“I’ve been asked why you even did it? As a woman, don’t you think it’s wrong? As a teacher, isn’t it your duty to society to lead you in a proper way, don’t you know that women have a dress code?
“They told me I was bringing discredit and shame to college. I was asked if my parents were on Instagram and if they had seen these photos? I felt nauseous and traumatized.”
He was asked to return the next day with a written report.
Apologies and “forced resignation”
The teacher returned to the vice-chancellor’s office the next day and issued an apology, “written on the advice of certain faculty members, including the head of the gender cell” – a former classmate and assistant professor at the university who was also a member of the panel that interviewed her.
“If my images were interpreted in a way that tarnished the reputation of the university, then I was sorry,” she wrote.
It was “a very unpleasant experience,” she said, but she expected it to end there.
“But the vice-chancellor told me that the board unanimously recommended my dismissal. He said your photos have gone viral, most of the students have seen them and they won’t take you seriously and the parents would complain. He said it would be better if I resigned voluntarily.”
If she didn’t, he said, she “would go to jail because the parent wanted to file a complaint with the police and I would be arrested.”
“I felt stuck – and quit,” she says.
“But I also felt very angry and sought advice from a lawyer. Because my photos were uploaded, screenshots were taken and shared without my consent, my lawyer suggested I wear complaint of sexual harassment to the cybercrime police,” she said.
“We did not ask him to resign”
Father Felix Raj declined to say whether the committee had recommended his dismissal, but denied all allegations against the university and himself.
“We are a sacred institution of learning and knowledge. As dean and principal of the university, I told her that she should not have posted these photos.”
Even then, he says, he “did not force her to resign and she left of her own free will.”
“She sent a letter of apology on October 8 . We accepted it. I thought that was a good gesture. But she then sent in her resignation on October 25 – the day we reopened after the Puja festival break.
“I expected her to go back to work after the holidays. I have no idea what happened during those two weeks,” he says, adding that they have “no hard feelings against her” and that “we have been very good with her”. .
Asked about her claim that photos could not be made available on her Instagram feed after she arrived at college and her accusation that she was being sabotaged by a faculty member, Father Felix Raj said he doesn’t was “not a tech expert”.
“A savage form of moral policing”
The action against the teacher has been criticized by many students and former students as “regressive”.
A change.org petition, started by former university student Gaurav Banerjee and addressed to the Minister of Education of the State of West Bengal, received over 25,000 signatures.
Mr Banerjee told the BBC he wanted the university to apologize to the professor and call on the government to take disciplinary action against the committee for its high-handed behaviour.
“I’m glad that, like me, a lot of people are horrified that the university can do something like this,” he said.
Recently, dozens of university students, dressed in black, staged an impromptu silent protest outside the university canteen to express their solidarity with the professor.
“We learned about this savage form of morality enforcement that one of our teachers was subjected to,” one of the participants told me.
“This is completely unacceptable. Why should anyone worry about what I do in my private space? Our personal space should be inviolable,” he said.
“What’s scary is that the members of the committee which included five women didn’t think it was a moral police?” he added.
“I may not win…”
The teacher in the center of the row said she was ‘overwhelmed with all the support and grateful’ to those who had supported her.
“After months of being depressed, I feel like I’m saying people see it how ridiculous it is.”
The right to privacy and self-expression, she says, is inviolable and given to us by the Indian constitution and this “surveillance” has extended beyond the workplace.
“How does my conduct prior to joining the organization violate its social media protocol or guidelines?” she asks.
“My firm belief is that I did nothing wrong. I may not win this, but for me this is an important fight,” she said.