When college professor Tejaswini Desai told her first-year class that perpetrators of rape can be from any religion or community, she never imagined that the consequences would include being questioned by the police and a hate campaign on social media.
But this is precisely what happened this month to the 52-year-old physics professor at the Kolhapur Institute of Technology’s College of Engineering.
Desai had been assigned to teach a class on human values and professional ethics after the previous lecturer resigned. The lecture on June 8 began quietly enough, she told Newslaundry. The class of around 50 students told her they’d previously had a group discussion on discrimination. Desai suggested a discussion on gender discrimination, but it was shot down.
“Some students demanded to have a discussion on religious discrimination,” she said. “I agreed to their request.”
The discussion had been on the that occurred on June 7. Some students allegedly shared instances of Muslim acquaintances posting WhatsApp statuses about Aurangzeb on Chhatrapati Shivaji’s coronation anniversary. This led to some students eventually accusing Muslims of “being rapists and never getting punished for their crimes”.
Desai told Newslaundry, “Some students said Hindus never ever engaged in riots and Babri Masjid was demolished on the orders of the Supreme Court.”
Desai was concerned, worried about “students of other religions in the class”. “Things should not get ugly. So, I told them rape is not limited to any particular religion or community and rapists don’t have any religion or caste. It comes under the category of heinous crimes.”
To illustrate her point, she talked about powerful people in the past who had been accused of rape, including “Patils and Deshmukhs”, referring to the historic titles given to village heads or territory holders.
But, according to Desai, the students who had raised the allegations kept repeating that the “Muslim community was not tolerant” and “created obstacles in the celebration of Hindus”.
Some students allegedly recorded videos of Desai speaking in class.
By June 16, videos of Desai were circulating on social media. They showed her purportedly saying “Aurangzeb was good” while “Patil and Deshmukh were rapists”. The videos were posted by several accounts on Twitter and Facebook. A single tweet of social media influencer Shefali Vaidya was retweeted more than 1,000 times and got over 50,000 views.
Desai asserted that she’d never said those things – the videos were edited and taken out of context. She only learned about the videos on June 16, eight days after the class, when she was summoned to the principal’s office. An officer from Gokul Shirgaon police station was there too, and allegedly told her the video was being “widely circulated”.
“I’m not on any social media platform other than WhatsApp,” Desai said. “I was unaware.” The police official showed her the video, she said, and asked her about it.
Newslaundry contacted Avinash Mane, an assistant police inspector at Gokul Shirgaon police station, to ask why they went to the college that day. Mane said, “We came to know about the video through Twitter. We took cognisance of it and went to the college to conduct an inquiry about it.”
Desai said the college management “supported her” but also asked that she issue an apology.
“They were also concerned about me or my house being attacked. But I haven’t said anything wrong. Everybody knows a criminal can be from any religion or caste,” she said.
So, she discussed the issue with her family and decided not to apologise.
“In 1943, my father-in-law, who was a freedom fighter, had played a part in destroying the statue of British governor Wilson, where a Shivaji statue was built,” she pointed out. “Ironically, I was asked to issue an apology in front of the same statue.”
Desai communicated her decision to Mohan Vanrott, the director of Kolhapur Institute of Technology. She was allegedly “sent on forced leave as a disciplinary action” for 14 days. She said, “College authorities are very supportive and they didn't have any intent to take any action against me. But you can understand how much pressure they must be dealing with.”
Vanrotti told Newslaundry that the college has “formed a committee” to “investigate” what had happened.
“We will also find out about the students who made the video,” he said. “Whoever is guilty will be punished. But till our investigation gets over, Desai will be on leave.”
Desai, meanwhile, registered a complaint with the Kolhapur superintendent of police on June 17. In her complaint, she demanded action against those who edited the video and started the misinformation campaign with an intent to “create rift in the society”.
The Kolhapur superintendent of police confirmed to Newslaundry that the police have received the complaint and an inquiry into the matter is underway.