‘I Feel Hopeless,’ Says SRFTI Student Alleging Sexual Harassment
The man Smita* accuses of sexual harassment continues to be present on campus.
The man Smita* accuses of sexual harassment continues to be present on campus.(Photo: iStock)

‘I Feel Hopeless,’ Says SRFTI Student Alleging Sexual Harassment

“After the incident, why did you run towards the classroom instead of having him caught red-handed with the help of your friends and other students?”

“How could you push Shri Deshmukh away when he (had) grabbed your legs?”

“What dress were you wearing on that date?”

A 28-year-old female student at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) was asked these questions by an internal complaints committee (ICC), during a cross-examination by the ICC on behalf of the accused. The female student had accused a member of the non-teaching staff of sexually harassing her, more than once. The accused continues to work on campus.

Too busy to read? Listen to the story here:

The woman, a final-year student who lives on campus, told The Quint:

“He’d done this to me multiple times. Manoranjan Deshmukh (the office boy she accuses of harassment), had, once, in March 2018, come up from behind me in a corridor that my friends and I were walking down. He grabbed my leg as I started to climb a staircase – and I kicked off his grasp with the sole of my foot and ran away. I was too scared to do anything at the time and I complained to no one. Then, in September 2018, while two friends and I were sitting in the staff room, hunched over some work, he came up from behind me once again and tried to squeeze through the space between my chair and the wall. As he passed behind me, his hands pressed my shoulders and he quickly walked away.”

A copy of the oral deposition that Smita* gave to the ICC has been accessed by The Quint, and it details the questions she was asked about both incidents – as well as the inquiries into her apparel.

Names of the ICC members have been blacked out to protect privacy.
Names of the ICC members have been blacked out to protect privacy.
(Photo: The Quint)

Interestingly, this ICC wasn’t the first to hear her story either. As Smita alleges, she officially presented her case to two subsequent bodies, the first presided by Putul Mehmood and the second by Sanjukta Ray Pahari – stretching out her wait for justice to an interminable five months. An ICC is supposed to submit its fact-finding report within a period not extending three months, so why the delay?

How a Professor Allegedly Asked Her to ‘Amicably Settle’ Her Complaint

According to Smita, she couldn’t accrue the gumption to forward her complaint to anyone until December, and to the then-student body president, Nairita Thakurta.

Thakurta confirms:

“Smita’s complaint came to me on 6 December – one that I immediately forwarded to the director of SRFTI’s Gender Committee, Madhavi Tangella, who incidentally, forwarded it on the same day, to the director Debamitra Mitra.”

Smita alleges though, that she heard nothing from an ICC for weeks – although something entirely unpleasant and untoward did happen.

“Within hours of registering my complaint with Nairita and post the Gender Committee’s telling the director, I presume, I saw a large meeting being conducted by Dr Mitra, attended by various members of the faculty, HODs, et al. Initially, I was sure it couldn’t be about me since mine was a sexual harassment complaint – definitely not something that could be discussed without breaching confidentiality – and yet, when I heard the word ‘complainant’, I suspected they were talking about me.”

The Quint had reached out to the director for a comment on the alleged meeting, and Dr Mitra – in an emailed response – has said:

“The complainant sent the complaint to the President of the student body, presumably for onward transmission to the ICC. In fact, the aggrieved woman was not required to and she has not submitted her complaint to the Director. Sub-section (1) of Sec 9 of the Act, inter-alia, states that any aggrieved women may make, in writing, a complaint of Sexual Harassment at workplace to the Internal Complaint Committee (ICC). Therefore, I could have no business to interfere when | received a copy of the complaint, not from the complainant or the student body but from the Proctor. There could, therefore, be no sensible reason why | should have held a meeting with the faculty on this issue.”

(The full copy of her letter to The Quint can be found at the end of this article.)

Smita alleges that soon after that faculty meeting, Assistant Professor Argha Sengupta of the Department of Animation convened a meeting of all students in the department – and right after the meeting, asked all other students to leave and for Smita alone to stay back. That gross violation of privacy in itself, Smita asserts, would have been tantamount to violating the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (PoSHA), but Sengupta – she alleges went further.

“He told me he knew about the matter and that I should settle the matter with the office boy amicably, by accepting his apology. His exact words were – ‘I am selfish about my department. If we shift Manoranjan who knows everything about our department, any other staff who comes in will be lazy. After all, do you want him to lose his job? I can make sure that he won’t talk to you or any other girls. I can officially order him.’”

Smita claims that she mumbled a refusal to his offer and left the room; Nairita Thakurta, meanwhile, claims that while Sengupta, in an email, did indeed accept that he had had this conversation with Smita, he denied having been told by the director or anyone in the institute to mediate.

In an email (a copy of which The Quint has accessed), the director Debamitra Mitra responds to an email sent by Woman Against Sexual Harassment (WASH) – a social media-based organisation “run by survivors of sexual violence in Kolkata’s campuses”:

“…It is totally incorrect that the details and the identity of the complainant were disclosed by the office to Sri Argha Sengupta, Associate Professor. Sri Sengupta is a member of the faculty of the complainant’s department and could have come to know about the complaint from some other sources. If he had tried to resolve the matter, it was his initiative as a gentleman (emphasis our own)...”

Below is a copy of the director’s response:

The director said, “It is totally incorrect that the details and the identity of the complainant were disclosed by the office to Sri Argha Sengupta, Associate Professor”.
The director said, “It is totally incorrect that the details and the identity of the complainant were disclosed by the office to Sri Argha Sengupta, Associate Professor”.
(Photo: The Quint)

The director’s response to the letter from WASH, denying any violation of the rule of law or of trying to intimidate Smita – and WASH’s rebuttal to the same, can be found in the screenshots of this email below:

WASH’s email, marked to the director, I&B Ministry and the Women’s Commission.
WASH’s email, marked to the director, I&B Ministry and the Women’s Commission.
(Photo: The Quint)

When The Quint reached out to Argha Sengupta for a response, he refused to answer this correspondent’s questions, insisting instead that the “complainant had “no right to talk about this case while it’s still going on.” He also directed this correspondent to “talk to the director instead.”

Dr Mitra, responding to The Quint’s questions on this matter, said:

“If any professor had taken any initiative to reconcile, he did so without my knowledge. In terms of Section 10 of the Act the power to contemplate rests with the ICC and that too only at the request of the aggrieved woman. The professor who is a gentleman may not have been aware of the said provisions of the Act while talking to a student of his own department.While I am not aware of the source from which or from whom the concerned professor had gathered information about the complaint or why at all he tried to reconcile, I think the effort of the Professor was in good spirit and there was no bad intentions.”

(The full copy of her letter to The Quint can be found at the end of this article.)

WASH’s Facebook post can be accessed here:

Thakurta claims that while Smita did mention to the student body that she’d seen a faculty meeting take place just before Sengupta had called the student’s meeting, there was no proof to suggest that Mitra had indeed intimated the faculty about Smita’s case – especially since, “he took the responsibility upon himself and in an email, said that he had acted of his own volition.”

Perturbed by not hearing from an ICC, however, in the midst of all this rigmarole, Smita approached Thakurta on 21 December, who, in turn, reached out to the ICC.

“When the ICC told me they hadn’t received the complaint yet, at that point I wrote to the director at once, CC-ing the ICC, and asking her why the student’s complaint hadn’t been forwarded to the ICC yet. After that, Debamitra Mitra immediately forwarded the complaint to the ICC.”

Ms Mitra, in response to The Quint’s query regarding the allegation of a delay in forwarding the complaint, said:

“As already stated, the complainant should have submitted the complaint directly to the ICC. She did not submit the complaint to me either. Instead, the complainant had sent it to the President of the students’ body. Thus, there can be no question of delay at my end.”

(The full copy of her letter to The Quint can be found at the end of this article.)

Smita claims that it wasn’t just a faculty member, but that eventually, news about her sexual harassment complaint leaked – and travelled around wildfire – on campus, with several students coming up to her hostel room to ask her, “but why are you doing this? He hasn’t done anything like this to anyone else.”

“I’ve been feeling tormented and harassed by all this attention for a very long time. In the meantime, the ICC also got changed and I’ve had to wait a really long time to hold on to any hope for justice,” she says.

This, the student body and ex-ICC members claim, was partly because the previous ICC to which Smita deposed in front of, had finished its three-year-old tenure – and had to be replaced by a new, re-constituted ICC.

The fact that the previous ICC had completed its tenure was confirmed to The Quint, by a previous member on the committee.

The Mysterious Case of the Two ICCs

The preliminary ICC hearing was conducted on 26 December 2018.

Smita confirms that she received a copy of her own witness statement from that ICC and that she was told by Putul that the ICC had indeed established that hers was a case of sexual harassment that needed to be investigated. The ICC’s preliminary report, she was informed, was submitted on 4 January 2019.

Smita, however, claims that her wait was compounded by the fact that a second ICC – despite being set up on 21 January – asked her to depose only on 8 March – months after she had originally complained. It was this ICC, presided by Sanjukta Ray Pahari, that saw certain members ask her entirely irrelevant questions about her attire – although they were on behalf of the accused, during her cross-examination. These can be seen in the copy of the cross-examination she shared with The Quint.

“He (the person who asked her the questions) questioned me for at least a couple of hours, and I answered as best as I could. But I was uncomfortable because of them.”

She is also upset at the fact that she has to continue seeing the accused on an almost daily basis, as the latter has simply been transferred to a department/building she accesses all the time:

“I access the admin building almost everyday, so I have to see him all the time. It makes me very uncomfortable. Sometimes, I feel really hopeless. I want my complaint to be considered, to be valued and addressed; why hasn’t this man been suspended?”

Thakurta confirms that the accused is indeed, currently working in the admin building – something that director Debamitra Mitra herself confirms when she argues in the email sent to WASH:

“…the accused has been shifted from the Animation dept. to the Tutorial section in a different building in accordance with Section 12 of the Sexual Harassment Act.” A screenshot of this from the director’s email, below:

The director claiming the accused has been shifted “in accordance with Section 12 of the Sexual Harassment Act”.
The director claiming the accused has been shifted “in accordance with Section 12 of the Sexual Harassment Act”.
(Photo: The Quint)

Mitra, in this case, has indeed acted in accordance with Section 12 of the POSH Act, which states:

a. During the pendency of an inquiry, on a written request made by the aggrieved woman, the Internal Committee or the Local Committee, as the case may be, may recommend to the employer to.

i. transfer the aggrieved woman or the respondent to any other workplace; or

ii. grant leave to the aggrieved woman up to a period of three months; or

iii. grant such other relief to the aggrieved woman as may be prescribed.

Reiterates Jyotica Bhasin, a practising lawyer, an NGO member and an expert in the field of POSH laws who has served as an external member to companies’ ICC’s before –

“As per the provisions of the Act, the above remedial measures can be applied. However, ‘Suspension’ has not been mentioned. Instead, during the pendency of the inquiry, the IC can ask the complainant or the respondent to go on leave. Suspension is a punitive measure – a punishment – that cannot be meted out to the respondent while the IC inquiry is going on. That is, unless the situation is so very aggravated that one has to take such action.”

WASH, however argues in the reply to director Debamitra Mitra’s email, that “the complainant was not informed of this decision and she is in more discomfort now as she has to see the man more often now. Manoranjan has been speaking with her classmates and turning them against her.” Screenshot of their response below:

“...she is in more discomfort now,” says the WASH letter.
“...she is in more discomfort now,” says the WASH letter.
(Photo: The Quint)

Responding to The Quint’s queries about the same, the director said:

“It is correct that the accused is available in the campus during office hours on working days. This institute is a single unit establishment and, therefore, the accused could not be transferred to any other station. Secondly, and most importantly, the Internal Complains Committee did not make any recommendation either for transfer of the accused or grant of leave to the complainant as required under Section 12 (1)of the Act. Even then, I had the accused transferred from the animation department to the Tutorial Section in a separate building.”

(The full copy of her letter to The Quint can be found at the end of this article.)

SRFTI’s History With Structural Silencing of Sexual Harassment

In 2017, an SRFTI student called Kunjila Mascillamani, said that she had attempted to end her own life after penning a note, shared on FB, where she said: “I am ending my life after trying everything”. The note also mentioned how, “if you are a student of SRFTI, and you are sexually harassed, raped, there is no way you can survive.”

While Kunjila survived the suicide attempt, she alleged that she had been sexually harassed for years by professors of the government-run film school. She is currently one of the founder-members of WASH. Speaking to The Quint, she said:

“The campus continues to repeat its cycle of sexual harassment, year after year. It’s like, they keep assuming that they’ll be able to get away with harassing and disbelieving a new batch of students. I was also a complainant once. We had protested, but didn’t really gain much. Violations continue to happen.”
The entrance to the SRFTI campus.
The entrance to the SRFTI campus.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2015, three members of faculty at SRFTI were suspended – and later dismissed – after several female students registered complaints of sexual harassment against them. Kunjila was one of the complainants. A few male students were also charged.

“Our victory at the time was that these professors were eventually dismissed from their jobs. But what was the point of what we did?” she says.

WASH’s Facebook post also alleged that, the complainant had found the reconstitution of the ICC “terrifying” and that,

“...People against whom intimidation charges (against previous complainants) were made have been inducted. An award winning NGO worker with more than two decades of experience in the field who was the external member has been REMOVED....”

Dr Mitra responded to this allegation, through an emailed response to The Quint’s questions, saying:

“The award winning NGO worker referred to completed her three year’s term on Jan 20, 2019. Hence, the allegation is baseless, frivolous and malicious.”

(The full copy of her email can be found at the end of this article.)

Has anything changed? A faculty member who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Quint that, following 2015’s sexual harassment allegations, “those in positions of power still remember the allegations and hold grudges. They continue to remain in denial that harassment on such a large scale occurred and attempt to quash voices of dissent.”

In the past couple of years, a major change that SRFTI has witnessed has been the hasty constitution of a Gender Committee (comprising two students of the institute and a couple of members of faculty and the registrar) to redress such issues.

Madhavi Tangella, proctor and head of th Gender Committee, says there has been “constructive change in the right direction” in recent times –

“If we hear of a case of sexual harassment – be it a female or a male student – we immediately intervene. We start by making sure a support system is in place. We also have a counsellor on board, who is on standby 24x7.”

The Gender Committee, its members tell The Quint, also no longer waits for written complaints but acts on verbal intimations of any sexual violence – and intervenes. Nairita Thakurta, incidentally, is also a member of the committee, and had forwarded Smita’s complaint to Tangella who’d immediately sent it to the director to pass on to the ICC. The director allegedly did not, until the second mail of 21 December.

SRFTI Director Responds to The Quint’s Questions:

The full copy of the email sent by SRFTI director Debamitra Mitra, responding to The Quint’s questions about allegations raised over the poor handling of the case, can be found below:

A petition has been launched by digital advocacy and campaigning site Jhatkaa.org demanding the suspension of the accused until the ICC investigation is over, a screenshot of which, too, can be seen below:

The organisation demands suspension of the accused.
The organisation demands suspension of the accused.
(Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Jhatkaa.org)

In the meantime, Smita continues to wait to hear from an ICC that hasn’t offered justice yet, trying, in her own words, “to keep” herself “sane”. “The ICC is supposed to conclude its investigation by the end of this month. My friends and I have already deposed. So has the accused, from what I am told. I’m just tired of waiting.”

(*The name of the complainant has been changed to protect privacy.)

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