Published: 08th July 2019
#PhDMeToo: Bipolar Calcutta University scholar harassed by colleague, alleges inaction by guide and VC
A former PhD researcher in the Department of Microbiology, he has accused a colleague and his guide of mental harassment — but other researchers say that his guide was absolutely not at fault
On July 3, Sachin Batar, a PhD scholar in IISER had kickstarted a campaign titled #PhDMetoo. Influenced by the popular #MeToo movement, #PhDMeToo is aimed to call out cases of harassment by research guides in institutes in India. Within a few days, a large number of research scholars across the country have called out their harasser guides. Most anecdotes were extremely poignant and spoke about incidents of mental torture, bias, caste-based discrimination and gender discrimination.
Following the campaign, Raj Choudhary*, a former researcher in University of Calcutta's Department of Microbiology had a rather sad story to share. He was, allegedly, subject to mental torture by both his guide and a colleague, following which he claims he had to leave his research project halfway. He had also written to the university's Vice-Chancellor about the same, but he says that no action was taken.
Raj, who is bipolar and suffers from related anxiety and depression, says that a colleague of his would make fun of him constantly about his illness. "The magnitude of harassment has crossed all limits in the last few months in the version of abusive rants (citing my mental condition, my family, my sexual orientation, my secular political views, etc). I once stopped this person from spewing communally divisive venom in the department. He even went to the extent of instigating me to commit suicide. I took several attempts to harm myself last week although my consciousness had saved me in the last moment," reads his letter.
At the same time, his guide Dr Soumalee Basu denied all the allegations. She said that soon after the complaint was registered, she had a word with her students. "I had talked at length with all my students personally, all of whom individually denied the occurrence of such incidence. Thereafter, I had communicated their version to the university and other bodies," she wrote to us.
Currently working in a different lab in the same university, he says that he had complained about the same to his guide Dr Soumalee Basu, but she did not show any 'compassion'. He also says that Dr Basu had in fact, made the rules in her lab stricter and made the scholars work overtime almost every day. "I'd asked her several times to do something about it, but she'd simply ignore it," says Raj. "Then a few months later, she called me to her chamber and said that she is 'incompatible' with me. I don't know what that really means. That was it. My research dream was shattered," he says. Post this incident, he also developed psycho-dermatitis, a skin disorder caused by extreme stress.
Like many, Raj too thinks that the #PhDMeToo movement is much needed, considering the number of harassment cases in the field. "We need clear guideline so that these things don't happen. The reputation of a lot of good labs and institutes in the country is being dragged through the muck because of these cases," he says.
'Dr Basu went with him to the doctor several times'
Contradicting Raj's complaints about his guide's inaction, a few research scholars, who worked with Raj in Dr Basu's lab refuted all of Raj's claims. One of them, who was 'surprised by Raj's claims' said that even though Dr Basu helped him overcome his issues, the latter wasn't able to come up with satisfactory results and behaved rudely with his guide and colleagues. She also claims that Basu was instrumental in Raj getting a PhD position and that she had accompanied him to his doctor many times. She also says that contrary to Raj's claims, the environment in the lab wasn't strict and the work hours were less, when compared to other labs.
Raj says that Basu asked him to leave the lab stating incompatibility. But here's what his colleague had to say. "Despite her (Basu's) efforts, Raj was unable to stay in a routine and used to throw tantrums in the lab destroying the sanctity of our workplace. Therefore Dr Basu asked him to discontinue but was assured of recommendation for applications to other labs." She adds that Raj was part of every social gathering including an excursion from their lab.
Sea of support for Dr Basu
Seconding her claims, another former researcher in Dr Basu's lab said that Raj wasn't committed to his work and has caused repeated damage to the work environment in the lab. Calling Basu the best research supervisor in the country, she says, "Whatever I have achieved in my career till date can be attributed to Dr Basu’s dedicated guidance." She adds that her previous guide has mended the lives of many with patience and compassion. A few other mentees also call Basu a humble, approachable, inspiring teacher. "She was not only a good teacher, but also a good human being with a very sweet personality. I can hardly believe that she can be rude to anybody," says another scholar
*Name changed on request
(This copy was updated with Dr Basu's response as well as the responses of other research scholars who worked with/under Dr Basu at Calcutta University)