‘SRFTI, I Won’t Let Go,’ Says Student Alleging Sexual Harassment
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo Courtesy: iStock)

‘SRFTI, I Won’t Let Go,’ Says Student Alleging Sexual Harassment

Smita* isn’t sure if she will have to graduate from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) without ever seeing her sexual harassment case to its conclusion. “When I registered my complaint on 6 December 2018, I had no idea it would take this long,” she says, on a phone call from Kerala.

On that day, the 28-year-old student forwarded a complaint to the then-student body president of her college, Nairita Thakurta, who passed it on to the director of SRFTI’s Gender Committee, Madhavi Tangella, who in turn, forwarded it to SRFTI Director Dr Debamitra Mitra. The gist of her complaint, as she told The Quint was:

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“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.”
The SRFTI campus.
The SRFTI campus.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Her grievance today? It has been six months since her complaint and the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of the college in whose campus she’s lived for three years, is yet to submit its final fact-finding report.

“I feel like they’re just waiting for me to graduate. I graduate in October, and I think they’re just hoping I’ll leave and drop this for good. But I won’t,” says Smita, who is currently in her hometown in Kerala on a break.

Also Read : ‘Tried to End My Life’: A Sexual Harassment Survivor Opens Up

A Curious Case of Delays and the Two ICCs

The delays began early – within days of Smita first writing to the student body president.

While she alleges that the complaint was received by the director on 6 December 2018, a preliminary hearing was conducted weeks later on 28 December. The director responded to The Quint at the time and clarified the alleged delay saying,

“...the aggrieved woman was not required to and 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).”

However, Smita claims that problems with the manner in which SRFTI was handling her case didn’t end there. There was also the case of the two ICCs and the delays in between.

While the preliminary hearing was conducted on 26 December 2018, that ICC, which was presided over by Putul Mehmood, had to step down when its term ended in January 2019. Before the end of its tenure, it submitted a preliminary report to SRFTI – a copy of which was also sent to Smita – confirming that Smita's case was one of sexual harassment and needed to be investigated.

This report was submitted on 4 January 2019.

A second ICC, presided over by Sanjukta Ray Pahari and comprising of entirely new members, was set up days after on 21 January. However, Smita claims she was called to appear before it only on 8 March.

A copy of that deposition has been accessed by The Quint (below):

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)

Smita has been waiting ever since.

“An ICC is supposed to submit its fact-finding report within a stipulated period of three months. Then why the delay?”

The Dubious Re-Sending of an Old Report

Her anguish at the delay was further aggravated when she wrote to the ICC for an update on her case and received only platitudes – and finally, a copy of her preliminary report from January that she’d been sent months previously by the first ICC.

The Quint has accessed copies of both.

Below is the post from SRFTI (first image) which mentions that SRFTI is enclosing the ICC’s preliminary report from before. The concluding page of the preliminary report can be seen below as well (second image) which states that the “ICC (SRFTI) is of the view that there seems to be a prima facie case in the complaint made by Ms. –”
The cover letter from SRFTI which says it is forwarding the ICC’s preliminary report.
The cover letter from SRFTI which says it is forwarding the ICC’s preliminary report.
(Photo: The Quint)
The letter, zoomed in.
The letter, zoomed in.
(Photo: The Quint)
“The ICC (SRFTI) therefore recommends that the complaint needs to be inquired into.”
“The ICC (SRFTI) therefore recommends that the complaint needs to be inquired into.”
(Photo: The Quint)
“The first time I communicated with them was in late March-early April and they responded saying they were doing their best and that they would submit the report by the end of April. They then stopped responding to (my) subsequent emails.”

Also Read : What Next for the Complainant on the CJI Sexual Harassment Issue?

Below are the last emails the complainant claims she exchanged with the ICC, where the latter can be seen responding both times in April, saying they hoped to complete the process by the end of the month.

All names have been redacted.
All names have been redacted.
(Photo: The Quint)

After the Emails Poured in...

An online campaign organisation called Jhatkaa.org took up Smita’s case at the time, encouraging people to sign a petition which demanded the suspension of the accused and an efficient investigation.

The organisation demanded the accused be suspended.
The organisation demanded the accused be suspended.
(Photo Courtesy: screenshot from Jhatkaa.org)

Smita says,

“When Jhatkaa took up the onus of my case and called the director, pressing her for a response, the ICC, within days, bizarrely sent me this old report!”

Punita Maheshwari, Gender and Sexuality Campaigner at Jhatkaa.org reiterates,

“After the ICC missed its deadline to submit its report, we sent an ETT (email to target) to our petitioners who, in turn, sent emails to the SRFTI director asking her to act ASAP. Dr Debamitra Mitra received 160 emails from our signatories in one day. When I called her the next day to follow up, she sounded overwhelmed by the number of emails she had received.”

Maheshwari claims she asked Dr Mitra why the report had been so delayed, to which she says the director responded “We are following procedure completely.”

“I also asked her for an approximate timeline by which Smita could expect a decision, and I was told that she would speak to the ICC.”

Smita claims she received the preliminary report a few days later.

The Quint reached out to Dr Debamitra Mitra to enquire into the ICC's delay and that Smita was sent an old report in response to her queries but is yet to hear back from her. The copy will be updated once she responds.

The Quint cannot reach out to the ICC for a statement at the moment since an internal complaints committee cannot comment publicly on a matter it is in the middle of investigating.

Also Read : Alleging Sexual Harassment at AIR, Woman Begins Fast Unto Death

Meanwhile, Smita awaits her return to college in order to rake up the matter again. “I had the option of taking three months’ leave at the time (an ICC can recommend that the aggrieved woman be granted leave up to a period of 3 months) but I didn’t. I stayed on campus, hoping something would be done. This has affected my break at home too. When I go back, I shall enlist the support of the student body to protest the injustice.”

Smita continues to run the risk of running into her alleged harasser, as she has been the last several months. After the incident, the director had the accused transferred from the complainant’s Animation Department to the tutorial section of a separate building (as she had mentioned in a previous email to The Quint), a move that upset Smita as she claims to access the building almost every day.

“I feel really hopeless,” she says. “Why hasn’t the man been suspended?”

However, as Jyotica Bhasin, a practising lawyer, an NGO member and an expert in the field of POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace) Act told The Quint at the time:

“Suspension has not been mentioned in the POSH Act. 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.”

SRFTI’s History with Sexual Harassment Allegations

SRFTI has had a long and troubling history with sexual harassment allegations on campus.

In 2017, an SRFTI student called Kunjila Mascillamani, said that she had attempted to end her 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 founding-members of WASH. Speaking to The Quint, she had 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.”

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

Maheshwari now asserts she will call and write to the director again. So will Smita. “I have been waiting for justice for a very long time,” she says.

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