(Trigger warning: Descriptions of sexual abuse. Reader discretion advised.)
"I came to Visva Bharati to study with great hopes and dreams, but it has turned into a nightmare and curse for me. I have been a victim of sexual misconduct since the second year of my graduation," alleges 26-year-old Bidisha Moitra (name changed) – now a postgraduate anthropology student at Visva Bharati University, located in West Bengal's Santiniketan.
"I have been running from pillar to post to get my grievances heard, but it has fallen on deaf ears," she adds.
Bidisha has sat on two hunger strikes between August and October this year, along with at least four other women research scholars and students, who have accused Arnab Ghosh, Associate Professor and Head of the Anthropology Department, of sexual harassment and torture.
In response to these multiple allegations and complaints filed as early as March 2021, Mahua Bandopadhyaya, the Public Relations Officer of VBU, tells The Quint that the university is aware of them – and has recommended action against the accused professor.
"The ICC [internal complaints committee] has taken cognisance of the complaints against Ghosh and conducted a thorough probe into it and has recommended action him. The details of the action will be made public in the coming weeks," she adds.
Ghosh, however, has not responded to The Quint's calls and messages.
'Threatened to Ruin My Career'
Mohona Mukherjee (name changed), a research scholar at the university since 2020, alleges that Ghosh, who was assigned as her PhD guide, had approached her with an 'indecent proposal'. When she turned it down, he vowed to make her life miserable.
"He approached me with an indecent proposal in 2021. He said he would give me extra marks in exchange for certain sexual favours at a hotel. When I turned him down, he threatened to ruin my career. He used foul language, and told me that he would see to it that I don't get work anywhere," she alleges.
Mohona also alleges that she has received zero assistance from Ghosh on her research work.
"I joined the department three years ago on a part-time basis for my PhD as I was simultaneously teaching in another college. However, my research work which is mandatory for me to get the PhD degree is at a standstill, thanks to zero assistance from Ghosh. I was, in fact, pressured to drop my work and join as a full-time scholar, which, of course, is not deemed necessary given the University Grants Commission (UCC) norms. But all that was for nothing. He has just wasted three years of my life,” she claims.
'Ghosh Did Not Approve Maternity Leave'
Titli Ghosh (name changed), another research scholar at the Anthropology Department, claims to The Quint that her maternity leave was not approved by Ghosh, and he tried to 'silently fire' her the PhD programme.
"Last year when I got pregnant, I applied for a maternity leave. As the HoD, he needed to approve my leave. After my delivery, I realised that my maternity leave had been not been approved. He was trying to silently fire me from my PhD programme," she alleges. Titli further claims that while Ghosh did not sexually harass her, he did on several occasions, lewdly told her to "go and have fun with her husband."
Titli says that they have been requesting the university administration to act on the complaints for more than a year now.
"We have been complaining since March 2021, and have submitted nearly 30 letters with all proofs for the university administration. We have been scared for our lives and careers," she alleges.
On 21 August, Mohona along with four female students and researchers from the department staged a hunger strike registering their protest against Ghosh.
Dismissing allegations that the university has been sitting on the complaints since a long time, Bandopadhyaya told The Quint, "Everything has happened as per procedure. The ICC initially called three out of the four protesting students us separately and recorded their statements. The fourth complainant was only summoned since the panel was verifying all the facts related to the cases. Ghosh has also submitted a written reply which was being studied."
What Survivors Told in Email to PM Modi?
On 29 August, the three research scholars and wrote to Prime Minister Narenda Modi, seeking action on their complaint of sexual harassment against Ghosh.
"It’s been nearly a year that the four of us have been reaching out constantly to the university administration and the ICC with all the proofs, requesting them to take appropriate action to save us from this daily traumatic ordeal that we are subjected to in our department,” said the August 29 email sent to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
“As no action has been taken on the complaints, he (the accused) has turned into serial predator,” said the email.
Visva-Bharati is run by the Central government – and is the only Central university in West Bengal. Its Chancellor is the Prime Minister of India.
Similar emails were sent on the same day to the President of India's Office, the UGC, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, the National Human Rights Commission, and the West Bengal Commission for Women.
In response to the petition, President Droupadi Murmu referred the matter to the Chief Secretary of West Bengal for probe.
Mohana explains that what has left them flabbergasted is that a "public" university like Visva Bharati has chosen publicly to "ignore the letters" from the President of India, the Governor, and the Women's Commission on the matter.
"If this is not trying to save Ghosh, then I don't know what it is," she adds.
Not an Isolated Case: VBU Faculty Association
Professor Sudipta Bhattacharya, who is President of Visva Bharati University Faculty Association (VBUFA), tells The Quint that "unfortunately, a large number of cases of harassment by research supervisors are being reported in the university."
In June this year, a professor from the education department was arrested by the local police following sexual and mental harassment charges filed by a woman working on a PhD thesis under his guidance since 2016. According to The Telegraph, authorities had been sitting on the ICC report on the accused professor for months. They also, as per the newspaper, allegedly “hedged” the victim’s queries seeking details of action taken against the accused in response to her Right to Information (RTI) application.
The professor did not lose his job and was reinstated after he got bail.
On 11 and 12 August, two posts surfaced on a Facebook group called ‘VB Confessions’. In the posts, students claimed that they were “physically and mentally tortured by multiple teachers” in the music department.
The university, instead of probing these claims, dismissed the allegations outrightly, labelling them as a malicious campaign against the university.
"Individuals like them receive protection due to the complicity of the Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty. But then what can what one expect from someone who has faced punitive actions at Delhi University (DU) due to sexual harassment allegations," Bhattacharya says.
Chakraborty, meanwhile, has not responded to The Quint's detailed queries on why no action has been taken against the complaints and the delay in addressing them.
Notably, Chakraborty in his earlier stint in Delhi University's political science department, had faced several sexual harassment allegations during the #MeToo movement in 2018. His tenure comes to an end on 8 November, Wednesday.