Kolkata: A former assistant professor of English at St. Xavier’s University (SXU), Kolkata, has alleged that the university authorities forced her to quit on the charges of posting ‘objectionable’ and ‘inappropriate’ photos of herself on Instagram – which they allegedly said had ‘besmirched the reputation of the university’.
The academic, who has a PhD from two European universities, has further alleged that the process in which she was made to resign amounted to sexual harassment and deliberate character assassination.
The university has, however, refuted all the allegations and said that the assistant professor resigned voluntarily.
Nandini Guha*, an alumna of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and Jadavpur University, joined SXU as an assistant professor in English on August 9, 2021. On the morning of October 7, 2021, she received a call from the vice-chancellor (V-C)’s office asking that she be present for a meeting with VC Felix Raj at 4 pm that same day.
She reached the university without knowing the reason for the summons, and waited to be called into the V-C’s office. At 4.30 pm, she was taken to a conference room where seven persons were present, of whom, Guha knew only three at the time: V-C Felix Raj, registrar of the university Ashis Mitra and her own departmental colleague and head of the gender cell of the university, Medha Bhadra Chowdhury.
There were four other women, who Guha says she learnt later, were members of an ’emergency committee’ formed by the university.
‘Complaint from a guardian’
According to a police complaint lodged at Purba Jadavpur police station by Guha on October 24, 2021, once the meeting began, the V-C told Guha that the university had received a written complaint from a first year male undergraduate student’s father, saying that he had found his son looking at pictures of Guha, his university professor, on Instagram, which were ‘objectionable’ and ‘bordered on nudity’.
After the letter was read out, a piece of paper with thumbnails of some photographs printed on them was circulated in the room and Guha was asked to confirm whether they were her photos, she notes in her complaint. Guha found those were indeed her photographs, although she was not told how those photographs had been obtained or whether those were the pictures that the said student was found looking at or which were found objectionable.
“There were two pictures of me in a blue swimsuit taken in my room which I had posted as an Instagram Story in June 2021, nearly two months before joining SXU. There was no way those photos could be still accessible since an Instagram Story, by default, is live for only 24 hours. Moreover, my Instagram profile is ‘private’ and not ‘public’, thus only those whom I accept as my followers can view my posts and pictures. Those two pictures could not have been viewed by the said student in October, 2021,” Guha told The Wire.
“It is a mystery to me till date how the university accessed those pictures. I felt so distressed and humiliated at that moment that I couldn’t bear to examine the rest of the pictures. I was in a meeting where my private pictures were being circulated among people unknown to me, without my consent,” she added.
“The only way in which such Instagram Stories can be accessed by other parties is by hacking or if someone had taken screenshots of the pictures when they had been posted and subsequently circulated them…” Guha’s police complaint says.
Her complaint alleges ‘suspected hacking’ of her social media profile and ‘sexual harassment’.
‘Obscene, vulgar and improper’
The letter from the guardian, identified as B.K. Mukherjee by SXU in its legal response to Guha, states:
“Recently, I was appalled to find my son looking at some pictures of Prof. [Guha*] where she has posed in a sexually explicit way causing deliberate public exposure. To look at a teacher dressed in her undergarments uploading pictures on social media is utterly shameful for me as a parent, since I have tried to shield my son from this kind of gross indecency and objectification of the female body…It is obscene, vulgar and improper for a 18 year old student to see his professor dressed in scanty clothes exhibiting her body on a public platform.”
After the letter was read out, Guha was asked to explain how students could obtain those photographs, she told The Wire. When she said it was impossible for the said student to access Instagram Stories posted in June, her statement was refuted as mere speculation, she said.
Guha further told The Wire that one of the members of the committee reminded her that as a professor of an esteemed institution, she “had a duty to society to appear appropriate, and it was objectionable to put up such posts which might corrupt the minds of young men.”
‘Slut-shamed, taunted and harassed’ in a ‘kangaroo court’
According to her police complaint, during the meeting, the V-C remarked that Guha could be put behind bars if the complainant lodged an FIR, and asked the then 30-year-old teacher if “her parents approved of her Instagram posts,” she told The Wire.
The registrar pointed out that by posting objectionable pictures, Guha was besmirching the reputation of the university, according to her complaint. At the end of the meeting, she was asked to submit a ‘report’ to the V-C by noon of the following day, following which her future at SXU would be decided.
“For close to an hour, I was slut-shamed and harassed…,” Guha told The Wire.
What happened in the meeting can only be described as “a kangaroo court, where my client was intimidated, bullied and taunted with sexually coloured remarks and objectionable insinuations without any provocation or justification,” said Guha’s lawyer.
“Everything about the meeting was horribly wrong,” the lawyer told The Wire, adding, “before the photos were shown to her, the same were circulated in the room among the seven members who each had a look at these photos and made my client extremely uncomfortable by placing her in an outright hostile environment. Each member had some comment or the other including asking her – if her parents were comfortable with her ‘nude’ photographs.”
The following day, Guha submitted a letter of apology for “offending members of SXU by her social media posts.”
When she handed over the letter to the V-C, he advised Guha to resign because her images had reportedly become ‘viral’ in the student community. The committee had unanimously recommended her removal, the V-C told Guha, according to the police complaint. Guha’s complaint adds that V-C Felix Raj further said there were two ways to go about it — either the university terminates her service or she voluntarily resigns. The first would reflect poorly on her career, he added. The V-C told her that “what she had done amounted to a criminal offence” if it was proved that the said student was below 18 years of age.
Soon after this, Guha tested positive for COVID-19, and on recovering, resigned as assistant professor in English, SXU, Kolkata, on October 25, 2021.
Her resignation letter, addressed to the V-C, said, “You have not offered any explanation about… how the photographs — which were posted months before I joined the institution and which were shared with a select, tightly-controlled audience for 24 hours only — were accessed, neither have you provided any assurance that the photographs will be destroyed. Instead, arbitrary and primitive standards of ‘morality’ have been used to shame and objectify my photographs and my body…”
“I have also been repeatedly intimidated that criminal charges shall be pressed against me in the event the so-called complainant’s son is found to be under 18 years of age… to bully and browbeat me into submission. The humiliation that I have had to endure as a result of this is unbearable. This entire ordeal has left me feeling incredibly unsafe within the institution, and I do not see it possible to work here under present circumstances,” it added.
The V-C wrote back to her on November 1 denying there was any ‘trial’ conducted by the varsity; nor had there been any criminal intimidation from their side, he asserted.
“You decided to resign…with immediate effect,” he said.
Allegations ‘false, frivolous, fabricated’, SXU asks for Rs 99 crore in compensation
On March 1, 2022, Guha sent a legal notice to SXU, Kolkata, asking for a copy of the complaint letter from the guardian, the minutes of the meeting of October 7 and other relevant documents. The university responded through its advocate on March 28, saying the legal notice was an ‘ill-motivated’, ‘desperate’ and ‘dishonest’ attempt to open a closed chapter, and contained ‘false, frivolous, fabricated and ill-motivated allegations’.
It specifically rejected multiple claims made by the complainant including that she had been put through an unfair trial on October 7, and the meeting was like a kangaroo court.
It also vehemently denied the allegation that Guha was subjected to ‘torment or slanderous remark’ by anyone representing SXU Kolkata in the said meeting. The university further said that due to Guha’s association with SXU, Kolkata, the photographs gave the ‘misleading impression as if it has the tacit support of SXUK and thereby maligning, polluting and thereby causing extensive and immense damages to the unquestionable high image and reputation of SXUK.”
The university then sought an unconditional apology from Guha and a compensation of Rs 99 crore for ‘causing immense and irreparable damage’ to the university’s ‘good name, fame and goodwill.’
After seeing that no action was taken on the complaint she lodged at the Purba Jadavpur police station, Guha wrote to all senior officials of Kolkata police, describing her ordeal in early November. None of those she wrote to responded to the letters. Guha then twice visited the cyber crime cell of Kolkata police. Initially, she was assured that the police would write to Instagram to find out how the photos were accessed and by whom. “The second time, an officer point blank told me I was responsible for what happens to those pictures since I had put them out in the world,” she told The Wire.
“I felt at each and every step of the way that the police officials were under pressure not to act against SXU, Kolkata,” Guha added.
Meanwhile, the case was transferred to the Techno City police station. On February 24, 2022, an FIR was finally lodged on the basis of Guha’s complaint, against unknown persons.
Investigating officer Koushik Ghosh said there was no interference from anyone when it came to the investigation. “We have registered an FIR. We have also recorded the complainant’s statement. The investigation has made some progress. Our sources have been engaged to find out whether photos from her Instagram account were unlawfully procured and circulated with some ulterior motive, ” Ghosh told The Wire.
When approached by The Wire, SXU Kolkata registrar Ashis Mitra asked to be contacted through the university email. This report will be updated if and when The Wire receives a response to its inquiry mailed to the university.
Professor of English at Jadavpur University and former director of the School of Women’s Studies Paromita Chakravarti said she had come to know of the incident from the complainant, who is her former student. “I know only one side of the story so it is perhaps not right for me to comment. However, from what I have heard from her, I deeply feel for her and I think that she has been wronged,” she said.
*Name changed on request.
Featured image: St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata
This article was first published on The Wire.