Human rights and women’s rights activist, advocate BS Ajeetha, has resigned from the Kalakshetra Foundation’s Internal Committee (IC), which looks into sexual harassment complaints.
This comes against the backdrop of sexual harassment allegations against teachers of the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts run by the foundation, leading to the dismissal of three faculty members and suspension of one, Hari Padman, who has been arrested and slapped with charges under three sections of sexual harassment laws.
An advocate at the Madras High Court, Ajeetha spoke to The Federal on why she has resigned and what ails the reputable Bharatanatyam dance school. Excerpts from the interview:
What made you resign as an external member of the IC of Kalakshetra Foundation?
I see that students have completely lost their confidence in the management and the IC. Also, I have come to understand that the management has been undemocratic in dealing with student issues. The management has failed to address students’ issues in an appropriate manner.
Also read: Kalakshetra board sets up independent inquiry committee to probe sexual abuse allegations
But you were also part of the IC. Students have alleged that sexual harassment has been going on unchecked for years.
The IC is not the authority where the complaint lands first. The first authority students approach is Kalakshetra Foundation. I am not connected with Kalakshetra’s day-to-day affairs. Complaints, if any, must be forwarded to the IC by the management.
I can say this for sure because I personally conducted various awareness campaigns for the entire set of girls and boys. We explained the Act and what is construed as sexual harassment, etc.
During these awareness meets, I shared my (phone) number and details of the management authorities to approach in the case of any issue. E-mail IDs for flagging issues were also shared with students.
Students have alleged that they raised sexual harassment issues in the past, but no action was taken.
The IC conducted various suo motu hearings. But not even a single complaint from the current students was presented, either by the management or by the students.
We received around 15 complaints from former students — most of the complaints were more than 10 years old. The issues raised were over consensual affairs. Among the complaints, four female students didn’t turn up before the committee. Now I understand that students don’t have any faith in the committee or the management.
Also read: Chennai Kalakshetra sexual harassment row: Professor Hari Padman arrested
How come they don’t raise the issue with internal redress forums, but hundreds of students turn out in public protests?
It’s a universal problem. Many students in professional colleges are fined up to Rs 3,000 for just speaking up. Kalakshetra is a more peculiar institution. Not speaking out is one thing students imbibe. They may lose their degree or score poor marks by fighting for their legitimate rights.
You have to keep in mind that the director of the foundation is part of the IC; only one representative comes from outside the institution.
Yet, we (IC) took action against four male students for sexually harassing female students. In all these cases, the girls dropped out of the institution once the action was taken. That’s their predicament.
During the recent protests, too, many Kalakshetra students covered their faces with placards. That shows their fear. It puts the onus on the institution to remove that fear.
The sexual harassment case against Assistant Professor Hari Padman is based on an alleged act committed four years back. Is the delay going to be an issue?
You would remember the Padma Seshadri issue (child sexual abuse). The students’ parents complained after many years. But after the initial set of complaints, many more were made.
Youngsters need time to come out of their shell, and to gather courage. Multiple factors are at play before they come out in the open to share how they were subjected to sexual harassment.
In the case of Kalakshetra, they are groomed to be submissive. They need much more time than others. But see, once the Kalakshetra students’ protest has given them momentum, they are talking of 100 complaints lodged by students. But to my utter shock, not even one of them reached the IC.
Also read: Kalakshetra row: Professor booked for sexual harassment; college shut
As an IC member, did you come across any other student issue?
I received many complaints from male students through e-mail. They have accused male teachers of touching them inappropriately. We forwarded these to the management for taking action, as the IC is only mandated to handle sexual harassment inflicted upon women.
In one specific suo motu hearing, a student spoke of how she was humiliated and spoken harshly to. The student said she lost two years of college life because of that. There were other issues, like a teacher being very tough with them.
There were issues of partiality or not being given enough opportunity. Most of these didn’t fall under the category of sexual harassment. The management had to take action according to their service rules and employment rules. So, I forwarded such cases to the administration.
Was it right on your part to resign as an IC member after much water flowing under the bridge?
I am just expressing my displeasure with the management with my resignation. I didn’t want to be part of this dispensation for multiple reasons.
I would say for sure that there wasn’t any problem with the functioning of the IC. Unfortunately, most of the issues dealt with today weren’t brought to the attention of the IC at all.
The students’ struggle has brought to the fore issues that aren’t restricted to sexual harassment. It has exposed the undemocratic nature of management. Many disciplinary issues of the faculty, including authoritarianism, were also not handled well by the management.
Students have lost hope in everything, including the IC. The management, instead of handling the issue, tried to find fault with the students.