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NUJS students protest vs hurried CCTV dark age on campus, allege cameras encourage sex harassment by staff [UPDATE]

NUJS students write letters to VC protesting against CCTVs on campus
NUJS students write letters to VC protesting against CCTVs on campus

Female students of NUJS Kolkata have alleged being harassed, including sexually, on campus by male staff who also have access to video footage of them through Close Circuit Television Cameras (CCTV) that had been installed by the administration.

The students asked for monitoring and restrictions on the viewing of CCTV footage.

The law school’s Student Juridical Association (SJA), meanwhile, has asked for the removal of CCTV cameras altogether from classrooms and seminar or conference halls on campus, due to privacy concerns, dilution of classroom atmosphere and also because of the hasty and “ill thought out” manner in which the decision to install the cameras was taken.

NUJS had begun installing these cameras throughout its campus from February 2017, with the administration giving us security and accountability as reasons for the roll-out when we reported on it recently.

Women safety concerns

Residents of the women’s hostels have written a letter to NUJS vice chancellor Prof Ishwara Bhat (see below) protesting against allegedly giving “unrestricted access” of “recorded footage” from the women’s hostel to security staff and administration.

The letter has not yet been submitted to the administration but has been circulated internally amongst students for signature, at which point a copy was leaked to us. It is understood that the signed letter will be submitted to the administration in the coming days.

The residents have stated in their letter:

Residents of the women’s hostel are distressed that they are regularly taunted, abused, singled out and harassed by the very security staffs that are entrusted with their safety. These remarks are often sexually-coloured, cruel and intended to assassinate the character of these women. These remarks do not come from just the women staff but also the men who regularly conjecture about these women amongst themselves in Bangla often under the impression that it would be not be understood due to the language barrier.

The petitioners have written that they have been living under the fear of being constantly watched by men, ever since the installation of the CCTV cameras, and have also alleged:

Further, they are abusing this access by retaining and circulating the footage amongst themselves. Women students’ are regularly hounded and harassed by the guards, as are their friends who are pushed to identify them. This has resulted in the creation of an extremely oppressive atmosphere for women, where they are constantly afraid of the being watched by men.

They have also objected to the curfew of 2AM for female students, which is earlier than male students' curfews.

Read full letter by the female students (PDF)

SJA grievances

Independently, preceding the female students' complaints, the SJA has also written in a petition to Bhat that they have a “deep rooted, almost unanimous dissatisfaction due to the seemingly ill thought out installation of these CCTVs”, and have addressed a set of 18 queries under eight broad areas of grievances against the CCTVs.

Some extracts from the concerns listed in the petition:

Any kind of surveillance is always associated with authorities' intention to monitor groups that are deviant and a danger to the authority. Hence, use of surveillance cameras in an inclusive space such as classroom leads to an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion between the students, faculty and the concerned authority. Further, such visual surveillance instils a fear of constantly being watched. These clearly lead to erosion of ideas of privacy.

faculty members will have to consider the authority's viewpoint before finalising the inclusion of any written or media related content in classroom teaching or having an informal, interactive discussion in the classrooms. Since written and visual material used in classrooms fall directly under surveillance of cameras, it inevitably causes a chilling effect, thereby, hampering classroom discussions. As opposed to the right of physical and exclusive right to access classrooms, this amounts to mass surveillance

The SJA has also alleged in the petition that its earlier concerns surrouding the circumstances and rationale behind installation of the CCTVs were misrepresented by the registrar to the administration, thus defeating the purpose of having a representative student body on campus.

Also, they state that the decision could not stand in the absence of consultation with the student body, which in this case was non-existent. The SJA has given the example of Nalsar Hyderabad in its letter, noting that Nalsar did not install CCTVs in classrooms and discussion rooms in its roll-out of cameras on campus.

They also argue that given other necessities on campus, such as solving the “cess pool” renovation and “hostel crunch”, installing two dozen CCTV cameras was a waste of funds that should have been better utilised.

Holding teachers accountable for being unprofessional, using student feedback and installing cameras that faced only teachers and not the entire classroom, would have been a better approach to follow, the SJA stated in the letter.

The SJA also highlighted the problematic approach of installing surveillance without first formulating a policy for such surveillance:

While there are hardly any known instances of cameras enhancing security, the footage has been used to call up parents of those who violated curfew timings on some instances. Moreover, who all can access this footage and what is the policy on its usage remains yet to be notified. Similarly, the absence of any policy has caused vast unrest among the snident community, with obvious concerns regarding privacy and misuse of the footage recorded by both the recently installed CCTV cameras and the ones installed earlier in absence of any policy safeguarding students' privacy and ensuring that no misuse of the recorded footage.

Bhat was not reachable for comment since earlier today.

Update 10 August: Bhat has commented to the Telegraph, which has also carried a story on the letter: “Students are expected to enter the campus by 11pm. But at times some return to the hostel at 1.30 or 2 in the morning. Some of the students have been identified with the help of footage.... Maintaining discipline on the campus is our utmost concern. We have no other intention. CCTV cameras will remain at the entrance as security tools. The privacy of the students is not being violated,”

Read full SJA petition (PDF)

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