'Such a struggle at Kalakshetra is unprecedented.'
In 1936, when dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale founded Kalakshetra, her vision was to 'establish an institution that imparts to the young the true spirit of art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism.'
But the recent student protest accusing teachers of sexual harassment, caste discrimination and verbal abuse, goes against all that the founder had envisaged.
Though one of the accused teachers has been arrested, the issues raised by the students are not going to end with it.
Amidst all the chaos that is happening at Kalakshetra, the only third party member in the Internal Complaints Committee, advocate BS Ajeetha resigned from the committee a few days ago.
"If the students are driven to protest, it is a struggle, and their voices should be heard," Ajeetha tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
You have been a member of the Internal Complaints Committee for the last four years. You resigned now saying you were disturbed by the response of the administration. What exactly disturbed you?
The students were protesting; they wanted to close the institution and go home.
When getting to study at such a prestigious institution is a very big achievement for a student, they are forgetting all that and coming out to protest.
I would say, such a struggle at Kalakshetra is unprecedented.
If the students are driven to protest, it is a struggle, and their voices should be heard.
What was disturbing to me was that their voices were not heard.
Did you try to make the administration realise that they should listen to the voices of the students, especially when the accusations were about sexual harassment because the ICC was constituted under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act?
The students have made two types of complaints, one is pertaining to sexual harassment and the other not pertaining to sexual harassment.
The IC or the Internal Committee -- it is called IC and not ICC after the law has been amended -- is a gender-specific Act and we can only listen to the complaints of sexual harassment of women.
And we cannot take up any other complaint as the committee is constituted under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013.
So, within the ambit of law, the powers that have been given to the committee is creating awareness, prevention, protection and redressal when complaints on sexual harassment come.
The main complaints of the protesting students have been of sexual harassment by some teachers. Did those complaints come to the committee?
In the last four years, we had received three-four complaints. We solved them, and the perpetrators were punished. The wrongdoers left the institution.
But this time, we didn't get any such complaint.
The student who was named was an intern at the institution, and she came before the committee and denied all the accusations in the strongest terms. She, in fact, said that she was going to take legal action against the social media posts.
After this, the IC decided to conduct a detailed awareness programme on sexual harassment at the workplace to students in the first week of January, and I volunteered to take up the awareness session. I told them they could contact us without fear if they were to encounter any such situation.
We shared the ID and phone numbers of all the four members in the committee.
I told them that I was not part of the institution and only a third-party member in the committee, so they could tell me with confidence and without fear of any consequences. I assured them that the IC would conduct a time-bound enquiry.
But no student or teaching staff came up with any complaint.
Hence, after Pongal this year, we conducted a suo motu enquiry based on the social media posts by a former director in which she had named two students, one still studying and another a former student.
She wrote that they had sexual relationship with a teacher. The allegations raised by her were pretty bad.
After speaking to the student named in the post, their friends and teachers, we came to the conclusion that all the allegations were unfounded and baseless.
After we ended the enquiry, we got four more complaints. One was from a student who left the institution four years back. She said she had to discontinue her studies because of the insults and humiliation by a teacher.
But we could not take it up, as sexual harassment was not mentioned in the complaint. We forwarded the complaint to the administration to take appropriate disciplinary action though it happened years ago.
You mean, her complaint came to the committee?
Yes. She wrote to us that she lost two years of her life due to the humiliation, and she wanted justice.
The committee did not enquire into this because she had not mentioned any sexual harassment in the mail.
That's why we forwarded it to the administration.
What she mentioned was an unpardonable offence. Because of the antagonistic nature of a teacher, a student had to leave the course!
I spoke to the director that no student should lose her student life like that.
But now she says that sexual harassment led to humiliation and insults...
Yes, she must have written it in the police complaint now, but I have not seen her police complaint.
But the complaint she sent to us did not mention that it was sexual harassment that led to humiliation and loss of two years of her life.
Then, we received three more complaints from male students regarding sexual harassment by male teachers. This was soon after we completed the suo motu enquiry in the first week of February 2023.
Since it was a gender-specific Act, we had no authority to take up their complaint. Their complaints were not within the ambit of the committee as we were to take up sexual harassment complaints from aggrieved women only.
So, I told the administration that a disciplinary enquiry had to be conducted by them, and they should respond to each student separately.
Is it not unfair not to take up sexual harassment complaints by boy students? What they face is also sexual harassment...
The Constitution provides for special enactments for women, children and people belonging to scheduled castes and tribes. So, it is not unconstitutional when there is a special law for women.
This sexual harassment Act is a gender-specific Act.
I agree what the boys faced was also serious misconduct. The service of the teachers involved can even be terminated on enquiry if they were proved guilty as there is a conduct rule in every institution.
Sexual harassment of a boy by another male is also as serious as sexual harassment against a woman. But it does not come under this particular Act.
So, the committee did not have the legal authority to receive a complaint and conduct an enquiry.
You mean only the administration can deal with a sexual harassment complaint by boys?
Yes. They should have set up an enquiry committee immediately to deal with the complaint. And the administration, after an enquiry, should have taken immediate action against the erring persons.
I don't think the administration took any action. That's why it was raised by the protesting students.
Remember, this happened by the end of February and early March, but the administration did not deal with all this. So, I did not want to be in such a place, and I resigned.
After I resigned, I came to know that the present committee is dismantled and a new one will be reconstituted.
Another reason why I resigned was, as the students protested, I came to know that many students were subjected to discrimination, they were verbally abused, body shamed and not given fair opportunity in the programmes put up by the institution.
The administration should have taken up all these issues, but they did not. It was like they were only accusing students that they were backed by somebody.
A place that is not democratic enough to listen to the students, is not one I want to be associated with.
Some very serious accusations have come from some former students that the place is very casteist...
If the students are saying that, it could be true.
When the entire society is casteist, why would it not be there at Kalakshetra?
But the Kalakshetra administration said that all the allegations were just rumours to malign the institution...
When the students protested, they said it was to malign the institute.
Instead of addressing the issues raised by each student, they tried to hide behind such excuses.
They just want to protect the institution. But they can't do that at the expense of students.
If they did not receive any complaint on the kinds of discrimination faced by the students, it must be because the students did not have confidence in them.
It is true we cannot say sexual harassment or discrimination can be stopped completely. But what can be done in institutions like these so that students can raise such issues without fear?
This is not a problem of Kalakshetra alone; it is universal. It is there in every section of society.
Students union is the only answer to alleviate their fears. Some 30-40 years ago, students' unions were very strong but today, that's not the case.
When there is a union, students will have the confidence that they have a platform to air their voice.
A culture of democracy has to be there in all the educational institutions.
In the last six-seven years, every institution has been taken over by people with certain ideology and whoever talking in a different voice is getting silenced.
I feel students unions should be a must in all educational institutions so that the voices of students are heard.
What happened at Kalakshetra should be an eye-opener.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com