“I was not allowed to enter college one day because my jeans were a little ripped on the knees. I had an exam that day which I missed,” recalled a 26-year-old woman, a former student of Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College (SXC).
A 32-year-old woman, also a former SXC student, claimed that she was reprimanded by college authorities for sporting nail paint one day, while another ex-student alleged that “men and women weren’t allowed to sit together anywhere in college as they might indulge in ‘suspicious activities’.”
In the backdrop of an assistant professor at St Xavier’s University (SXU) alleging that she was “forced to quit” by authorities due to her Instagram posts, The Quint spoke to several former students about their time spent at SXC, and the moral policing they faced.
It is pertinent to note that a self financing private university by the name of the St. Xavier's University Kolkata was established through the St. Xavier's University, Kolkata Bill, 2016. Both St. Xavier's College (Autonomous) in Park Street, and St. Xavier's University in Newtown, however, are a part of the Calcutta province of the Society of Jesus through the St. Xavier’s College Kolkata Educational Trust.
The assistant professor, who alleged she was “forced to quit,” was employed at SXU in August 2021.
Strict Dress Codes and Moral Policing
Merely days after the assistant professor’s allegations were reported, a former student, on condition of anonymity, alleged that in 2015, SXC authorities made him delete the climax of a film he had produced as a part of his college project. Why? “Because it depicted god as female character,” claimed the 28-year-old.
He said that the head of the department didn't offer any explanation. "We didn't re-shoot it either and submitted the film without a climax. We were furious but couldn't do much about it," the former student told The Quint.
Meanwhile, a 25-year-old woman, a former student of SXC, on condition of anonymity, claimed that the “security would size up students before letting them through the gate.”
Hiya Chatterjee, 33, an assistant professor, told The Quint, “It was in my third year of college (2009-2010), when capri pants were in fashion. I was standing in front of the staff room, dressed in a capri and a top, when the then-dean of science, who was a woman, came up to me and rapped sharply on my shoulder. I turned and was faced with a look of stern disapproval. She asked me my name, the department I was in, and my college ID.”
Chatterjee claimed that she was then “dragged to the vice-principal's office by the dean, who said, ‘look at what she’s wearing’.”
The 33-year-old claimed that the “vice-principal sized me up and replied, ‘I can see’. He then asked me to go back home and bring a letter from my parents stating that I will not come to college dressed in this way. This happened just because my ankles and calves were visible.”
The assistant professor, who alleged she was “forced to quit” by SXU in October 2021, said that the authorities told her that a parent of a student had complained to them about her photos on her private Instagram account. “Print-outs of my photos were circulated in the room where I was being told all this by the V-C. No one told me how they got these photos since my account is private. Plus, the photos were uploaded as ‘stories’ which last 24 hours, two months before I even joined SXU,” she told The Quint.
She also claimed that SXU “did not check the veracity of the complaint.” An FIR against unknown person under IPC sections pertaining to voyeurism and outraging modesty of a woman was filed in February this year.
Almost all the former students The Quint spoke to elaborated on how they had to adhere to a strict dress code. Former student, Omar Rashid, a 33-year-old journalist, claimed that round-neck t-shirts and those with text written on them ensured one didn’t get past the entry gate of SXC.
“Women were not allowed to wear sleeveless tops, skirts, clothes with any cuts on them, or any piece of clothing that would leave their ankles exposed,” said a former student, a 32-year-old woman.
She told The Quint, “Imagine how it feels when you’re at the college gate in the morning with hundreds of other students and the guard is not letting you enter because of your attire. Especially as a woman, in the kind of society that we live in, it is so deeply embarrassing.”
She recalled how she was reprimanded by a professor for wearing nail paint while giving her exams. “As a girl from Darjeeling, I was already overwhelmed about being in a big city for the first time. After school, when you’re in college, clothing becomes a form of expression for many. SXC imposed restrictions and that was the worst thing it could do to a student,” she told The Quint.
Many former students said that the “school-like,” “suffocating” atmosphere of SXC prompted them to keep quiet during their tenure in college.
Naming and Shaming
On Tuesday, 9 August, the assistant professor told The Quint, “I was repeatedly shamed by the members of the meeting (V-C Felix Raj and six others) for continuously uploading ‘provocative’ and ‘inappropriate’ photos, which ‘might corrupt the minds of young men'.”
Beyond the dress code, former students recalled several other instances where the college authorities tried to “project their views of the world” onto the students.
Rashid claimed how students were reprimanded if they were found sitting with someone from the opposite sex. He said, “If you were seen with another person from the opposite sex at the staircase outside the chapel or in any of the empty classrooms, then the professors or fathers would school you. If you were in a group, it was okay.”
Many former students claimed that they felt they were being constantly monitored by college authorities.
Chatterjee said, “Men and women were not allowed to sit together anywhere on the premises where they could indulge in ‘suspicious activity.’ We were routinely scolded for sitting on the stairs outside the chapel or anywhere during our free periods.”
A 30-year-old, who is a former SXC student, alleged that he was “repeatedly singled out by a certain professor in class. I had not come out as gay at the time but the professor’s behaviour made me feel like I was being outed. It got too much, and I began skipping his classes.”
The former student also recalled how a professor “shamed and schooled” him when he was seen carrying a music CD of Devdas, the Hindi film. He also alleged that in 2004, he was slapped by a Father for trying to skip a college event.
Another former student said that “anyone who was different (behaviour and lifestyle-wise) was looked at with suspicion and disdain, especially by some teachers.”
The Impact it Had
Former student Chatterjee spoke at length about holding “bitter feelings towards college” even after all these years. She said, “Looking back, I think it does not haunt me in any way but it made me feel bitter towards the college. I took back very few positive experiences from it, and those too were only because of some good teachers and friends.”
In a conversation with The Quint on Tuesday, the assistant professor said that she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She said, “It has cost me everything I have, from mental fortitude to financial resources, in this pursuit of justice.”
Former students who The Quint spoke to claimed that they were outraged at the incident, but not shocked.
A former student said, “I was not surprised when I saw the incident. I was angry. But knowing and studying there, it was not surprising. If you want to study there, you must accept this toxicity.”
While the incident has garnered significant attention on social media, with even a petition being circulated which demands action against V-C Raj, several college students are still scared to speak up. Students fear being reprimanded by the college authorities and thus the resistance has been restricted to WhatsApp groups.
The professor has received many messages of support and endearment from her students. She told The Quint, “Some students knew about it but now that the story is officially out, many more are reaching out.”
Former and current students claimed that this is how it has always been. “There's a reason why Xavier's students can't mobilise and protest as easily. They will expel you without batting an eyelid,” said a former student.
(Update: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that SXC was awarded the status of a university in 2016. It has now been updated to state that a new private institution called St. Xavier's University Kolkata was established through the St. Xavier's University, Kolkata Bill, 2016. The error is regretted.)