Toxic campuses: Sexual harassment and gaslighting are a reality in Indian colleges

How safe are colleges for women? Is it just a perception that sexual harassment rarely occurs in prestigious institutes?
Toxic campuses: Sexual harassment and gaslighting are a reality in Indian colleges
Toxic campuses: Sexual harassment and gaslighting are a reality in Indian colleges
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Over the past few days, several brave women have come out and spoken openly about the sexual harassment they have faced from fellow journalists. KR Sreenivas, the Resident Editor of Times of India, Hyderabad has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment. While several women spoke about workplace sexual harassment in various newsrooms, a parallel conversation has taken Twitter by the storm. Several women, alumni of prestigious journalism colleges in India, have spoken about the sexual harassment and sexual assault they faced at the hands of multiple men on these campuses. These are some of the men who are currently working in prominent media organisations.

The conversation on Twitter has brought to fore several crucial issues: How safe are colleges for women? Is it just a perception that sexual harassment rarely occurs in prestigious institutes? Is the environment so hostile and toxic that women are scared to speak up?

“I was studying the undergraduate course in Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication. We were in our final year. I have seen so many guys misbehave with women when they got drunk at parties. There were so many women who were targeted and the men in our batch would also speak to them with sexually coloured innuendos,” says Vishaka* an alumna of SCMC.

“If the women spoke up, they would say ‘but I was joking, can’t you take a joke?’ There was also a case of extreme sexual assault and physical assault in my college. One woman had to get admitted to the hospital after being seriously injured when a guy assaulted her. The guy was suspended for one semester, and then he was allowed to come back and get a degree. This is so unfair,” she says.

Just like Vishaka, several other women have spoken about predators lurking behind masks of being “woke” – a term used to denote a person who has an understanding of social issues and hierarchies like gender, caste, class, ability, etc. The disheartening experiences of women which are now on Twitter has ended up shocking most fellow journalists, as the number of predators being named is huge.

Priya*, a journalist from Mumbai, spoke out against her former batch mate, currently a senior correspondent with The Quint – Meghnad Bose. Meghnad was accused of sexually harassing and sexually assaulting multiple women whilst he was a student at Asian College of Journalism and also after graduation.

“I'd heard first-person instances of incidents of the times he'd bullied, harassed, and was emotionally abusive to the women in the TV module, and not done anything. This included him mocking women because they were untalented, telling them on their faces that they couldn't make a good anchor because they're fat and on some instances, making them cry. We've all heard horror stories about Meghnad's behaviour in ACJ and turned a blind eye to it. His daily behaviour in campus included being downright mean to women in public, asking them about the bras they're wearing or insisting on holding their waists or hands. He'd also ask women on the lawns to lie on his lap, pulls their cheeks, or rate the women in ACJ,” Priya wrote on Twitter.

Several of Priya’s batchmates corroborated the story and also came out with their horrifying accounts of the sexual harassment and sexual assault they had faced at Meghnad’s hands. Another batch mate had also called out the journalist and said that “rating women was his favourite pastime.”

As a fellow batchmate, this writer can also vouch for these women. The toxicity in the college was so great that when women spoke against Meghnad, who was a popular student in the college, an entire community of students had gaslighted the women in question and stood by Meghnad.

“It's also behaviour that has been normalised for him by everyone who was friends with him in ACJ (which includes me). We'd all gotten to the situation where we silently distanced ourselves from him but never confronted him about his behaviour. He also had too much clout,” Priya wrote in a Tweet.

A former student of School of Communication, Manipal University openly spoke about how a fellow batchmate had sexually harassed her during their time in college and that his friends had stood by him.

Manasa* spoke about her former batchmate Indraneel Sen, who currently works with PTI in New Delhi. “I want to call out my classmate from Manipal – INDRANEEL SEN. Currently works at PTI, Delhi. He harassed me for years telling me he loved me, threatening to kill anyone who touched me/married me. Found out he has harassed others too,” she adds.

Manasa recounts a terrifying experience where Indraneel allegedly sexually assaulted her on one occasion and then sexually harassed her for months. When Manasa continued to say no multiple times, Indraneel allegedly threatened to call her father and speak to him about her alleged “bad behaviour.”

“Then he found out I was dating someone and he started threatening him and anyone who tried to touch me. Cut to me moving to UK, I don’t know from where he got my number, he would randomly call. I would say hello, he would cut the call,” she adds.

Since Manasa had blocked Indraneel on all social media platforms, she says that it was nearly impossible for him to harass her anymore until he got to her on LinkedIn.

“I also really want to mention that he would pass disgusting comments about most of the women. He was a proper bully,” she says.

Speaking to TNM, Shreya*, a former student of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute says that the campus culture was so toxic that survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault were scared of getting hurt or brutally assaulted by fellow batch mates and teachers in 2015.

“Two of my teachers – Shamal Sengupta and Niraj Sahay – sexually harassed me. One of them coerced me to have sexual relations with him because not doing so would have amounted to me not getting good grades. Currently, a trial is going on in Kolkata High Court against him as there was a rape complaint. The problem was that five of us from my batch had filed anonymous complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault against three professors – Shamal Sengupta, Niraj Sahay and Shubhadra Choudhary and a few students. When the issue of the complaints came to light several students had turned against the victims and had supported the predators,” Shreya recounts.

Shreya remembers being constantly scared of the repercussions of her decision to file a complaint with the institute’s sexual harassment committee. The issue had escalated to a level where the accused students were demanding that the names of the complainants be made public.

“This was scary. The students who were accused of sexual harassment got several women of the college to partake in a signature campaign, vouching for their stellar conduct. They went to every room and got signatures. Only the women who had complained did not sign and that’s how they figured out who had filed a complaint. They began targeting us. The women started a separate hate campaign. We were slut shamed and called vulgar names by fellow batch mates. The accused professors were brought into our hostel and they would have drinks with the predators,” Shreya recounts.

This resulted in the women facing severe mental trauma and with no mechanism to support the survivors, some of the women who had complained were mulling withdrawing their statements, she says.

Shreya also faced many problems related to her academic achievements due to the complaint she had filed. One of the accused – her fellow batchmate Anil, allegedly demanded sexual favours from her. “I was in a film institute and we work as teams for projects. I was a director and he was the editor in our group. He wanted me to have sex with him, in return he would edit the film. I was so disgusted. Finally, he backed out and did not help me because I refused,” she adds.

Shreya also states that although the ICC had found the professors in question and the students guilty, they were suspended for a few months and then brought back into the college.

As students of various journalism and various colleges supporting multimedia courses, the perception is that of a liberal, freethinking community of like-minded people fighting for social injustice.

More so in journalism colleges, since it is perceived that these students would go on to become journalists, whose words would have the power to change minds. These students are assumed to be the “good ones”, who would fight for women’s right, write about the horrible effects of sexual harassment, call out the those perpetuating a culture of misogyny and patriarchy. What is so shocking is that there are predators in these safe spaces too. They masquerade as warriors of righteousness. They even have the audacity to offer support, write outraged stories about injustice done to women. But predators will be predators and what the conversation on Twitter has taught so many people is – Time’s up.

Women are coming out, one by one, calling out their friends, colleagues and batch mates.

A very close friend, who was with me in journalism school sent me a message – “Remember ********, he just messaged me. He is apologising profusely. He is begging me not to name him and destroy is career. He knows what he did but he is scared. He has offered to put out a generic public apology. I don’t think he cares about whether I have recovered from what he did. He only cares about his life,” Vandana* says, “I haven’t made up my mind about whether I am going to name them.”

The problem with toxic campuses is that the victims are gaslighted for voicing their concerns. In all these instances, the students stood by the alleged perpetrators instead of offering support to the survivors, who tried to speak up. And there are rarely any effective redressal mechanisms.

“The problem is SCMC does not have an internal complaints committee. Right now, we are in touch with the college director and have made demands to ensure that everyone in the college undergoes gender sensitivity training, including the teachers and students. They are in the process of setting up an ICC, and we will fight till it happens,” Vishaka says.  

Since most of these colleges are considered "progressive" and "liberal", there are no awareness programmes about gender sensitivity and classes on what constitutes sexual harassment and what the students can do if they have survived such an assault.

"No one stood by the victims in ACJ. The students were scared to file a complaint with the ICC because of the backlash from other students. Some of the victims were also bullied. They don't have gender sensitivity training in ACJ or in any journalism colleges because everyone believes that this is a liberal space without any predators. This thinking has to change," Vandana says.

*Names changed to protect identity.

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