Sexual Harassment Complainants at Kolkata Film Institute Face Growing Hostility

Several complainants at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute find themselves caught between hostile fellow students and an insensitive administration.

No institution is perfect. Every institution tries to keep dystopia in check. But at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata, the effort is apparently failing as turmoil on campus, and divisions between students, academic staff and the administration over complaints of sexual harassment threaten to get worse.

The facts, as disclosed by students, and administration and faculty members, are that four complaints of sexual harassment, including one specific complaint of rape, have been filed by some women students at SRFTI to the internal complaints committee (ICC) headed by Putul Mahmood. The complaint of rape was referred to the police and one person was arrested in connection to it. 

According to SRFTI Chairperson Partha Ghose, the complaints of sexual harassment were a “new and shocking” experience, one that he had never faced before. He described it as a “disciplinary problem” on which the institution had acted as the law required. 

Between the facts and the administrative action, there is a seething world of rumours, anxieties and at least three different narratives. Each of them corroborate and contradict the others in ways that reveal deep divisions, spreading dissension and pointing to an impending crisis.

Ostracisation of complainants

The focus has shifted away from the problem – sexual harassment on campus – to an ugly blame-game. There have been concerns about “in-house matters” being leaked to media and civil society, complaints and counter complaints of intimidation by students, the isolation of two of the women who complained, lobbying by the alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment and a division within the SRFTI community into the ‘complainants’ side’ and the ‘anti-complainants’ side’.

There is an intense build-up of tension; the isolation of SRFTI from other academic institutions in Kolkata has increased the vulnerability of the people involved.

Ghose’s appeal for “patience” to the student community so that the ICC can complete its enquiry and submit its report has been ignored. His assurance that necessary action would be taken based on the findings and recommendations of the ICC has also gone unheeded.

A student who had complained against two faculty members had expected her complaints to be redressed. Now, she does not “hope for redress and getting justice in the end”. This disappointment is over how the SRFTI administration, which she differentiates from the ICC, is handling the proceedings after the reports by the ICC have been submitted along with recommendations.

“I have been ostracised. Students don’t talk to me; I am isolated. Filmmaking is teamwork. And I am finding it difficult to put together a team,” she says. Her anxiety is intensified by the fact that she has another 18 months to go before completing her degree. “As a former journalist, I have handled many tough situations. But this is worse.”

The message the complainant is conveying is that in November, when the director of SRFTI met the women students and the ICC explained how the procedure for complaints against sexual harassment worked on campus, there was hope. Now that is fading fast. “I am disappointed. I don’t think this can end well,” is her blunt assessment.

With this there is a growing sense of persecution, perhaps inevitable under the circumstances. The worst affected women have sought out women’s organisations for support and assistance: to deal with the legal issues, to handle the trauma and for moral support. Expecting the worst seems to have been baked into the response of complainants and their comrades: “I thought there would be three-four days of maybe even violence against us after the administration acts on the basis of the ICC report, but that would have ended. Now I feel there is no end to this.” The despair reveals the total absence of confidence in the institution and its systems, which instead of nurturing and supporting the student community seems to have handled it with astonishing insensitivity.

Narratives of power

On campus, everything is personal. There is “anxiety about how to go forward,” and from the “anti-complainants’ side” an active effort to “bring back the suspended professors,” as a student described it. In contrast to the response of students of Jadavpur University, the overwhelming majority of whom fought for the rights of the female student who complained about sexual harassment, the majority of students at SRFTI are on the ‘anti-complainants’ side’. The middle ground of ‘neutral students’ is insignificant, both in numbers and because these students do not voice their opinions.

The dystopian distortion is very evident. Instead of the ethics of the situation being under intelligent scrutiny, there are narratives of power in circulation. Two of the women complainants are being described as “mad women” displaying hyperactive responses. One woman student, who complained of sexual harassment by a fellow student, has been co-opted by the ‘anti-complainants’ side,’ and is reportedly lobbying for the return of the faculty suspended for sexual harassment by the administration.

Sexual harassment as a problem on campus was acknowledged by the SRFTI administration only in November last year, when the then director of institute, Sanjaya Pattanayak, called a meeting based on complaints that had accumulated and remained unaddressed over time. “It was prevalent, but never addressed,” said Prabhdeep Singh, ex-president of the students’ association.

Only women students were called to the late November meeting. The women students were vocal about the widespread nature of the problem. When told about the ICC, the women responded by filing complaints, including the complaint of rape against a member of the faculty.

After the complaint of rape became known to the institute’s administration it responded by informing the police. Other complaints to the ICC prompted the administration to suspend “three academic staff,” as the law required, according to Ghose.

Surprisingly, at this point, the SRFTI administration did not nothing to address the larger student community on the issue and sensitise it on sexual harassment. Nor did the administration deal with the flood of rumours, speculation and manipulative narratives that spread through the campus after the three faculty members were suspended. This was the case even after the administration found out that students, including the complainants, were being intimidated. “They have been threatened, but it is mostly verbal. There has been no physical intimidation” said Ghose. There seem to have been no measures taken to address the problem by engaging with the entire body of students. Instead, Ghose and the director held “meetings” with the groups that came to them.

Actions of suspended faculty members

The hostility of the majority of students against the minority that complained about sexual harassment has been allowed to fester, it would appear. According to one of the very few students sympathetic to the complainants, the student community’s reaction initially was not hostile. It turned so after the faculty members were suspended and investigated by the ICC began scouring the campus for ‘witnesses’ to testify for them and against the complainants.

Shockingly, the identity of the complainants was revealed when the suspended faculty members at the time. In what appears to be a counter measure, the faculty turned the search for witnesses into a subversion of the complaints process, and attempted to undermine the credibility of the ICC and the procedure that was followed to enquire into the complaints of sexual harassment. The situation has by any reckoning gotten out of hand as blogs, video clips and counter narratives have exploded over the Internet, revealing the deep divisions within SRFTI. The rape complainant was so unhappy about the way the administration handled the matter that she expressed her feeling in a blog that went viral.

The suspended faculty were “professors who were very popular. In all fairness, they were good teachers,” said a student. The rape complainant, however, described the suspended faculty as “godfathers” of the campus. Others said there are a “lot of things going on”. These include the following: the suspended faculty “had contacts in the industry,” they “could help with placements, since SRFTI has no placement cell,” and they could “recommend students and their work for festivals, even overseas projects”.

The complainants, particularly the woman who complained of rape, on the other hand, were highly unpopular with the student fraternity. The woman who complained of rape has consistently complained about ragging on campus and actively confronted it. Another complainant had annoyed fellow students by complaining against one of them for sexual harassment. As soon as the identity of the complainants became known, the student community turned against them, clearly wanting to settle scores.  

Inaction by the administration

In SRFTI there seems to have been no effort to educate the community on the ethical and criminal issues that underlie the need to protect women students against sexual harassment. Nor has any effort been made to educate the student community on ragging and bullying. Students confirm that there is an entrenched hierarchy at work and it is based on seniority; the relationship is forever cast as junior and senior. Because the film-television industry operates on the basis of references and recommendations, staying on the right side of seniors is a survival strategy, students said.

Two months after the complaints surfaced, students organised a training and awareness meeting that was addressed by an expert, Shoma Sengupta. This was only after the situation snowballed into a confrontation. The administration avoided the meeting, but turned up when another meeting was called to address the issue of alcohol consumption on campus. At that meeting, the students were aggressive in defending their freedom to consume alcohol in “public places” on campus, the ICC chair was told not to talk “so much” and the “face of complaints,” identified as ‘Kunjila Mascillamani’ on her blog, and the focus of hostility was shouted down for raising the sexual harassment issue.

The highly unequal relationships seem to characterise SRFTI and the harassed are vastly outnumbered. The ICC report, which is due very soon, will tilt the balance and make it worse for the complainants. Can the administration with a “dark middle ages mindset,” as a distinguished academic from another Kolkata university put it, steer SRFTI out of its present crisis? Or will it plunge deeper into the morass?