In a steadily worsening atmosphere of fear, hatred, phobia and dread in our education circles, a new chapter was added recently. A reputed Kolkata school forced 10 of its pupils to ‘confess’ in writing that they were ‘lesbian’.

At a time when concerns are rising about the safety of students in school, given the repeated reports of molestation and sexual abuse within school premises and by school-employed personnel, this is a whole new can of worms – in more ways than one.

Happenings at the school

Here’s what happened. According to media reports, on March 8, 2018, the principal of Kamala Girls’ High School called 10 of the students in. Acting on “complaints” of other students, these girls were confronted, and, according to the principal, they admitted to being lesbian. The students were then made to sign a “confession” letter.

The parents of the girls who were singled out in such a manner didn’t take things lying down. They stormed the office of Shikha Sarkar, Acting Headmistress, argued with her, and accused the school of forcing the written admissions under coercion.

The school, on the other hand, claimed that the move was legitimate disciplining and aimed to bring the students on to “the right course”. Various reports in the media stated that the girls were found to have been behaving badly, or “being naughty” in class. As a punishment, they were called into the headmistress’ office and made to sign the confession.

The headmistress claimed that other students had lodged a “complaint” about the 10 students engaging in “such behaviour”. She said that the authorities called these students in and they admitted to it. It was only in consideration of the “sensitive nature” of the issue, in her words, that she asked them to put it in writing. She wanted the guardians to help the school “bring these girls on the right course through efforts both at home and in school.”

Another scene from the gathering of people on the pavement outside Kamala Girls’ High School in South Kolkata to protest the incidents in the school and the West Bengal Education Minister’s comments on the matter. The time would be around midday on March 19, 2018. Three individuals can be seen holding a placard that says in part Bengali, part English: “Samakami aami, bhalobasha aami. Shame Education Minister!” (So what if I’m homosexual, my love has meaning. Shame Education Minister!) Behind the protestors is the school building wall, with a closed window. Torn and peeling posters take up one part of the wall to the left. Shoulder bags of some of the protestors can be seen lying on the ground to the left. There are a couple of small plants behind the protestors, growing in a small enclosure running parallel to the school wall. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Protest outside Kamala Girls’ High School in South Kolkata on March 19, 2018. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Later, the parents of these students were called in to discuss and sort out the matter, but they didn’t react in the manner that the school authorities had expected them to. Instead, they insisted that the girls had been forced to sign the letter.

According to media reports, the students were told things like “Write that you have put your hands in your friend’s blouse; that you’ve tickled them under their skirt, hugged them and held their hands.” One student was threatened with expulsion because she refused to write anything without her parents present.

The parents were shown the “misdeeds” and told that their daughters were “suffering from homosexuality” and must be “dealt with”. But the parents allegedly told the media that some of these students were actually witness to an incident of molestation on the school premises in February 2018 and hence had been targetted, possibly to divert attention from the matter or to suppress it from coming to light.

Apparently, the parents submitted all the letters signed by the students to the police and a complaint was lodged. However, an FIR was not registered. The parents, it is believed, later withdrew their protest.

The Education Minister’s ‘intervention’

While the headmistress’ actions were problematic enough, matters were made worse within a few days when the West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee made a controversial statement. On March 14, 2018, the minister said that the West Bengal government would approach the school management to ascertain whether or not it had obtained a written admission from the students.

In continuing the conversation, the minister told reporters that “such” reports had never come to him in the past, and that if an “incident” (of lesbianism) had really taken place, it would be “against the ethos of Bengal.” The minister’s message was clear, that lesbianism (or homosexuality) was not to be tolerated in schools in Bengal, and in his interview to The Quint the minister said, “I will not inculcate the idea of lesbianism in school.”

Quote: The damage done to the psyches and developing sense of self and sexuality of the girls, both the ones singled out and the ones watching can be incalculable. The damage to the psyches of any of the girls whether accused or onlooker, who happens to have any confusion about their sexual orientation or gender identity, or has realized they have a different sexual orientation or gender identity, can be infinite.What the school’s actions imply

Kamala Girls’ High School’s actions were extremely problematic. They would be for any educational institution, but most of all for a school dealing with adolescent pupils. While there are certain protocols and codes of conduct in a formal space such as an educational institute, one must also keep in mind the biological development of adolescents. So, while “naughty behavior” from students might come under the scanner and attract censure, it would also be the school’s responsibility to not let discipline interfere with, or impact negatively, the natural human development of students.

In this case, the naming and shaming of students by labelling them with an identity deemed as ‘deviant’ reeked of homophobia and a complete lack of understanding of human sexual development as well as of different sexualities. In a mixed gender institute, would offending students – boys and girls being disciplined for similar behaviour with each other – be made to state their heterosexuality in writing? This was a pertinent question raised by Malobika, queer activist associated with Sappho for Equality, Kolkata.

Other pertinent questions arise as well. First, what attempts were made to check whether the “complaints” were based on actual incidents or merely pranks? Second, even if there were incidents such as girls holding hands or putting their arms around each others’ shoulders, as long as they were not overtly obscene behaviour or a violation of consent, was the school really in a position to regulate?

Third, are the school authorities so paranoid that they must sexualize all touch? Are they not aware that normal healthy physical contact – and sometimes even performance of milder ‘romance like’ contact within the safe spaces of same gender friends groups – is an essential part of growing up?

At an already delicate stage in their mental, emotional and physical development, to label and shame and isolate some of the students is tantamount to bullying and discrimination. The damage done to the psyches and developing sense of self and sexuality of the girls, both the ones singled out and the ones watching can be incalculable. The damage to the psyches of any of the girls whether accused or onlooker, who happens to have any confusion about their sexual orientation or gender identity, or has realized they have a different sexual orientation or gender identity, can be infinite.

Community reactions

A 14-year-old student we spoke to, off the record, expressed how she felt: “As a student, if such behaviour happens to them from the school, at such a delicate age of their lives, then it will affect their mental and emotional growth very badly. Schools should be a place where all are made to feel safe and secure and help them deal with all forms of abuse. Instead, the teachers are the ones who are indulging in this type of abuse and discrimination. I find it extremely shameful and disturbing.”

The parent of a 15-year-old said, “I’m disgusted with the school and how they handled the issue. They don’t have any right to harass the children; they should have called the parents and told them what the girls were doing, instead of taking such strange steps.”

There have been vociferous and vehement protests from other quarters as well. A second year college student stated, “I’m disgusted about all these actions by the school”, while a teacher in another institution said that this incident made them “really uncomfortable”. They said, “It makes me sad that schools would put children through this.”

Sujata, a concerned citizen, also spoke to us. She agreed that this was a horrendous contravening of the children’s rights. “The school has no right to extract such a confession,” she said. “Anyway it is of no concern to the school if the girls are different, it is their personal matter. Moreover there is no certainty that these girls are even of the orientation they are being accused of.” She was worried how the girls, now back to their regular classes, would be faring after having been targetted. “If the parents made the decision to withdraw the complaints under threat of possible dismissal of their children, it is understandable. It must be difficult for them too, to deal with this labelling and targeting by the school,” she added.

Response from civil society organizations

Numerous NGOs, queer support groups, and sexuality rights and anti-discrimination/anti-violence groups have roundly condemned this incident and have taken a call to action to help prevent such incidents in the future.

Malobika of Sappho for Equality stated that teachers in schools and colleges need to be sensitized about “the differences between sex and sexuality to avoid such misunderstandings and misconceptions in future”.

Sappho for Equality drafted an open letter condemning the action of Kamala Girls’ High School and the statements made by Education Minister Partha Chatterjee. This letter, widely endorsed by many organizations and individuals, was submitted to the Department of School Education & Higher Education and Department of Women & Child Development and Social Welfare.

Varta Trust, a Kolkata-based gender and sexuality publishing and advocacy non-profit organization, termed the incident “shameful” and demanded action against the headmistress of Kamala Girls’ High School. In a social media petition, Varta Trust called for age-specific and age appropriate gender and sexuality education in schools and colleges in Bengal. A copy of the petition with a list of 1,000-plus signatories was submitted to the Education Minister as also to Dr. Sashi Panja, Minister of State, Department of Women & Child Development and Social Welfare, and Ananya Chatterjee Chakraborti, Chairperson, West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights. See comments from signatories below.

Another snapshot from the list of signatories to a social media petition created by Varta Trust and submitted to the Education Minister Partha Chatterjee and other government stakeholders in protest against the incidents in Kamala Girls’ High School and the minister’s comments on the matter. A comment by a signatory from India and dated March 16, 2018 says: “Let me put it very categorically – a school is not a place to indulge in any kind of sexual activity. So if any incident of that nature has taken place the students and their guardians should be warned. But to ask someone to write a confession that he / she is homosexual / gay / bisexual / lesbian / queer is totally unacceptable. Here the main focus should have been on the sexual activities (if anything of that nature had taken place at all) not the sexual orientation of the students. The total incident reeks of utter homophobia that needs to be eradicated from the educational institutions.” Another signatory named Arundhati Bhadra, also from India, says: “I was also in a same sex relationship in high school in 1988-90. Everyone knew but no one objected.”

The petition stated: “The entire incident is a reflection of the desensitization of societal institutions and administration at a time when civil society organizations in Kolkata and Bengal have been scrupulously working to spread awareness on gender, sex and sexuality and make it part of free expression and exercise of basic human rights through a range of activities.”

The petition demanded that the government should “undertake a massive drive to sensitize the heads, faculty and administrative staff in schools and colleges as well as parents / families of students on gender, sex, sexuality and mental health.”

This is a snapshot from the list of signatories to a social media petition created by Varta Trust and submitted to the Education Minister Partha Chatterjee and other government stakeholders in protest against the incidents in Kamala Girls’ High School and the minister’s comments on the matter. Against the names of the signatories are their comments. The most prominent of these comments is by a person called Anwesha Banerjee from India and dated March 16, 2018. The comment states: “Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. The boys and girls in co-ed don't need to confess anything about heterosexuality, then why should someone with different sexual orientation do that? Homophobic outlook of the Indian society should change and change for a good reason, because they exist as much as we do. They're humans, so are we. Schools should include frank discussions about sexual education and sexual orientation.”

When Varta Trust followed up on the petition submitted to the West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, they stated that though they couldn’t issue a direct order to start sessions on gender and sexuality in schools, they could forward such a proposal to the Department of School Education & Higher Education to initiate a dialogue on the matter. It was suggested that Varta Trust and other concerned NGOs should send in an outline of a module for such sessions, with the topics to be covered, age group of participants, and mode and duration of the sessions. Varta Trust is in conversation with other NGOs in this regard.

Das Theke Das Hajar, a joint forum against sexual violence which has both organizations and individuals as members from different parts of Bengal, also drafted and issued an open letter condemning the statements by the Education Minister and the actions taken by Kamala Girls’ High School.

In other positive developments, Modern High School for Girls (via their MACE society) and Jadavpur University recently collaborated to hold a panel on gender and sexuality issues for students and teachers in Kolkata. There are more such events planned for the future, and this seems like a welcome change.

It is an encouraging sign that these moves are being made by citizens, community groups and educational institutions irrespective of what the government says or plans. Of course, even the teachers attending the workshops have a long way to go in terms of opening up on sex, gender and sexuality, and the parents even more so. But it is a start. There is hope.

About the main photo: Protest event outside Kamala Girls’ High School on March 19, 2018 – a street play on demolishing myths around gender and sexuality diversity in progress. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Bengali translation: Click here – courtesy Ebong Alap webzine.