It's been less than a week since the story of N*, a former assistant professor of St. Xavier's University (SXU), Kolkata, being fired over an Instagram story of her in a swimsuit was published. It sparked widespread outrage not only in the city, but throughout the country. Just two months after starting at SXU in August 2021, she was summoned to a meeting in October 2021, where she was informed that a parent of one of her students had accused her of being "obscene" and "vulgar" due to photos she had posted on her private Instagram account before joining SXU.
While N said she is "pleasantly overwhelmed" by the support she found since The Wire first reported about her case, her journey for the past year has been nothing short of a nightmare. "I have extreme trust issues, I think 20 times before putting up anything on social media. I have permanently disabled location tracking because what if someone is tracking where I am?" she told BOOM over the phone.
As N's story spread, more former students came out in support of her, saying that it wasn't surprising because "it's Xaviers," referring to the institution's history of policing students and even professors for what they wear and share on social media.
'Horrible way to live'
When N walked into the meeting where she was summoned, she said everything felt strange. Seven people were present in the room of whom she knew three — VC Felix Raj, university registrar Ashis Mitra, and head of the gender cell of the university, Medha Bhadra Chowdhury. One chair was set aside from the rest, like an "interrogation set up".
N, who is an alumna was shown printouts of her Instagram photos, a private account, and was told that the institution had received a complaint from a parent that their son was found looking at her photos in a swimsuit. The parent allegedly said that it was 'objectionable' and bordered on nudity'. "I don't take this term lightly, but I had a panic attack. I assumed the worst, I thought my profile had been hacked and I thought has somebody morphed my images that have just landed up on the dark net? What will I see next? Deep fakes?," N said.
When she saw her swimsuit photos, N felt nauseated and perhaps started dissociating, because of which, she said, she could not recall what other photos they showed her. The humiliation that followed would stay haunt her for days. She was asked to resign without an explanation on who the parent was, or the student, how they had access to the photos she put up as an Instagram story before she joined SXU and why she was being punished for something she did in the privacy of her own home. "It was incredible sorrow, humiliation and a sense of injustice. I had a breakdown," she said.
The gross breach of privacy and the way it was used against her, has affected the person she is. "It's this fear of persecution, and I can tell you it's a very horrible way to live. I hate that they have taken that from me," N said.
SXU's social media surveillance
Since then, she has filed a police complaint and has faced several hurdles during her fight for justice. "But the memory of what had happened in that room, being verbally harassed by seven people who were just holding a witchhunt. It is just that memory of that evening that kind of inflames me with such rage, it propels me forward," N told BOOM.
Before she joined SXU, she had a fair idea of the "regressive attitude" the institution has towards social media posts and clothing. She had heard that both students' and professors' social media accounts were under surveillance of the SXU administration. When the administration decided to hold offline exams during online classes because of the pandemic, some students had written about it on social media. "Professors who shared those students' posts got showcaused," N said.
Other former students too recall that both students and professors were forbidden from mentioning the name of the university on social media. Sramana Ray, a student of the English Department from the batch of 2015-18 told BOOM, "There have been incidents where our qualified professors were pulled up for their Facebook posts. Those posts were majorly from the sociology department professors about different issues in the world or if they denounced the regressive policies of the college." The college even introduced social media guidelines for students and professors.
"The professors were made to convince us that never to post anything with the college name on it or anything against the institution. Otherwise, we would get penalised," Ray said.
N had taken steps to lock her social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram. She was left baffled when they managed to show her photos from her past, from Instagram stories that disappear in 24 hours. It made her wonder if someone was out to destroy her. "Someone had been gathering ammo on me and used it with malafide intent in a concerted attempt to destroy me. Why I am so important I don't know. Why was I targeted? I don't know," she said.
BOOM reached out to Raj and Chowdhury over email asking for clarification on the matter and will update this article if and when they respond.
Ray said, "They have been very demeaning towards professors who have a life of their own. I do not know how they keep a tab on them, but they do I guess."
Regressive dress code
By Thursday, Facebook was inundated with posts by former students recalling their own experiences of humiliation over a strict and often bizarre dress code, that has made headlines in the past. The college does not allow sleeveless tops, bottom wear that shows ankles, v-necks for women, or round necks for men. One can't wear anything with a logo or a quote. These rules don't find mention on the college website. "When you stand near the notice board, the first thing you see is a list of rules, a very regressive set of rules," Ray said.
Ray once wore a sleeveless top and covered it with a dupatta because she had allergies. She was chases by guards who are tasked with catching students breaking the dress code. "In an educational institution, the main focus should be on education. We go there to study and gain knowledge, we do not go there to get judged by the kind of clothes we wear," she said.
She said she felt sad and embarrassed when she heard N's story. "The administration needs to wake up and stop this nonsense because our teachers are not so regressive," she said.
While Ray has been lucky to have teachers who have stood up for her, another student of the English Department from the 2009-12 batch, who wished to remain anonymous, said a math department professor accosted her for wearing capris (pants covering three-fourths of the leg) on the first day of college. The Kolkata-based photographer told BOOM, "She said do you think you are walking into a film set? And that was a shocker for me because nobody told me anything about dress codes and that a capri, which covers even my knees, was a problem."
The college expects even students to monitor their peers. When she was in the second year of college and a class representative, the photographer was penalised for not outing another student who was wearing jeans that showed only a part of her ankle. "Not only was she suspended, so was I," she said.
Students turned away from the college gate, even if that costs them attending a class. This has led former students such as Indrabati Sarkar to believe that the institution holds morals above education. Sarkar, an English Department student from the 2009-12 batch, said she was made to go back home from the gate during a
Fine Arts Society exhibition because her skirt was till her ankles and showed a part of it. "My photos were there in the exhibition to showcase but I was not welcome there because of a skirt that was till my ankle," she said.
Sarkar is one of the many who took to social media to criticise the treatment meted out to N. "I have gone on to study at another institution for my masters. We used to wear shorts for our classes, and I don't think it hampered my studies in any way. There is a need for a disciplined life, but regulations which are baseless, and make children go through trauma, that's not important," Sarkar said.
She also said that nobody stood up for them when they lost out on attendance or had to pay a penalty for missing classes. Sarkar, who is from Kalyani, a town in Nadia district, lived alone in Kolkata during her time in St Xavier's. This meant, that sometimes she lived on very little money. During a time when she could not afford to buy shoes and had to wear slippers to college, she was turned away from the gate and missed an honours class which affected her attendance. "When I was telling my professors that I was outside the gate (and did not miss classes deliberately), I was told 'sorry can't help it' these are rules and you have to follow them. How is somebody's dressing more important than them attending classes?" she said.
All the three former students said they were absolutely shocked and appalled by what happened to N. Sarkar said, "Shaming women on what they chose to wear or their agency, is counterintuitive to everything education stands for."
Will things change?
The way N was fired has drawn criticism from all quarters. Now a petition has been started by the alumnus of the institution for action against Felix Raj. While Raj is the current VC, the history of regression runs older than his tenure. "It just makes me feel angry we had to wait till this," N said.
She plans to fight for this for as long as she can. "I plan to continue as long as I can fight just to see justice served. They can't do this to people and get away with it all the time," she said.
However, she said that even large-scale public outrage against them is unlikely to change their mindset. "Strictness is a selling point for them. The complainant also has said that we sent our son there because we believe in Jesuit values. What Jesuit values do they believe in? Sexual repression and control, and surveillance, there are parents who actually want that for their kids."
N said that massive donations from the alumni association "well-known for being quite stringently orthodox" also mean things are unlikely to change. The rules on personal choices like clothing have not changed with the times at SXU. Sarkar said, "It is very shameful that the institution that I graduated from, and hold some amount of fondness for because of all the memories, has not moved on in the last 10 years when the world has moved on."
Ray said that she has seen teachers being "pulled up, bothered and traumatised", even though no one had been sacked so far, and added, "I can guarantee that nothing's going to change."
*The name of the professor is being withheld to protect her identity.
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