by the Gender Circle
Last year was a watershed year for us in terms of beginning to have more of a say in various decisions taken by the administration. We, as a community, have always encouraged engagement and deliberation when drastic changes have been proposed and we have tried to foster a culture where informed consent is key. Whenever important decisions have had to be made, our elected committees have always followed the Constitution that governs them. They have tried to consult with students, engage with issues and have held general body meetings when policy changes are attempted as is required by the Constitution. Such processes are extremely important when such committees have the duty to represent the various views held by different members of the entire student body.
So, with this background in mind, let’s talk about something very few of you are aware of.
The GenderCircle had approached the authorities to discuss the removal of the CCTV cameras at the entrance of both hostels. The one in the Girl’s Hostel was not functional, so that was removed as a priority as the administration understood our concerns of privacy and how we should have the freedom to remain unmonitored within the confines of our home. We would here like to add, that in retrospect, we realise that this initiative should have been in consultation with the Hostel Welfare Committee (hereinafter, HWC) and we would like to apologise for the same. We simply thought that it was a matter of urgency, and went ahead with it.
However, the HWC has also recently approached the Registrar with the proposal to put vending machines in both the hostels so that people have access to something to eat 24 X 7. This is a great initiative. Only, they also want to ensure that they have CCTVs in the hostel receptions for two reasons – firstly, for hostel Security and secondly, to make sure that the vending machine does not get vandalized. We, the Gender Circle, approached them when we heard about this since we had reservations about concerns that pertained to privacy, liberty and some gendered impacts of CCTVs as well. We held a meeting with them more than a week ago wherein we flagged the various issues that needed to be discussed and decided that further engagement was required. We prepared a document underlining our arguments to them. These arguments were presented after undertaking a fair amount of research and perusing works from various sources. We will be happy to share all of these articles and studies with you if anyone so wishes to read them.
There are currently no rules in place for who can look at CCTV footage, whether surveillance will be constant, how long it will be stored for, or how these cameras will be used. We are unsure whether there are other alternatives that could be pursued which are less restrictive. We feel that at this point of time, there is uncertainty and lack of knowledge regarding this among our student community to understand the complexity and the gravity of surveillance.
We would like to highlight few arguments against CCTV cameras here:
Effectiveness of CCTVs:
As the HWC itself pointed out to us, the CCTVs intended to be installed will not be continuously monitored. Thus, the primary purpose would only be to discover the identity of the wrongdoer once an act has been committed. Therefore, the stated purpose itself puts prevention outside the ambit of CCTVs.
- In terms of deterrence, CCTVs are not offering any advantage over those offered by the presence of guards at the respective hostel receptions. The studies that we have gone through regarding the effects of CCTVs on deviant behaviour do not indicate whether deviance is curbed once CCTVs are installed. Furthermore, there are very strict rules pertaining to who can and at what time they can enter hostels in case they not supposed to.
Another argument presented by the HWC was that the guards are not going to be present at all times because they might have to lock the mess or attend to their other human needs. We think that the argument is, firstly, equally applicable to cameras given that they might not be working or otherwise impaired at critical junctures. Secondly, we do not think that the time taken by the guards to do other necessary things while leaving their posts creates a large enough security issue to warrant the placement of CCTVs even if one were to assume their effectiveness. This argument is in addition to arguments that we will present later in this report which indicate that the cost of placing CCTVs (not monetary but in terms of other effects that we will elaborate on subsequently) are disproportionate to any perceived benefits.
Our Hostel is Our Private Space
- The HWC had stated that the reception and entrance area to the hostels was tantamount to public space. We are of the belief that our hostel reception is our private space. Their argument for the same was that parents, visitors and other individuals (boys into the girls hostel and vice versa is still a no) were allowed to enter this area and therefore the area is a public space. We would like to point out that the space cannot be purely public given that for large parts of the day, the area in question is effectively a private space for the residents of the hostel. We think that over and above the rights or implications of visitors in this space (whose visiting times are limited to a few hours per day only, i.e. from 4 PM to 7 PM), the residents of the hostels would have rights in priority over this space.
We feel that this argument is on a slippery slope because if the hostel reception could be regarded as a public space, then perhaps, areas such as the mess, common rooms, gym, lifts, corridors, classrooms, meeting rooms etc. could also be allowed to be monitored.
Even if the space was to qualify as a public space, we think that individuals do not lose their rights to privacy simply because a space is characterised as a public space. This would entail that individuals should still not be subjected to CCTVs even in such spaces. Lastly, this space would never qualify as a public space in the same way that a street would. This is because of the premises that it is located in and the purpose that it continues to serve within the confines of the hostel. Therefore, individuals living in said hostels would continue to have privacy implications that one would have within the confines of their homes. For instance, individuals or groups frequent the area for various purposes at all times that include but are not limited to studying, hanging out, eating certain food, wearing certain clothes, having meetings and engaging in other behaviour that they see fit to do in this space.
Gendered Implications of CCTVs
Voyeurism: It is quite probable that the monitor engaging in the surveillance may use the footage to treat the individuals observed as objects of sexual interest. In a patriarchal society, the effect of such voyeurism on women simply cannot be ignored but must be treated as a likely possibility. This is because the female body is considered to be an object of gaze in a very very different manner as compared to the male body. Even if we are guaranteed that the footage will be stored and not be monitored continuously, does not take away from the grave possibility of such footage being misused and perhaps it may never come to anyone’s notice.
Chilling Effect with regards to Expression
The impact of constant surveillance on the constitutionally recognised freedom of expression is one especially problematic in a law school which should foster engagement and respect heterogeneity amongst students in all spaces. This introduces the sense of self consciousness, which is further amplified by the power differential existing between the institution monitoring the footage and the person who is the subject of the surveillance. The mere fact that the makers of the rules are observing your conduct forces you to over-analyse each of your actions, and eventually restrict for the sake of self-preservation. Further, the University could also threaten to share the footage with the parents of students and this would create a further detrimental effect. This would mean that the students would have to be wary of each action; like the books they read, the groups they participate in, their intimate interactions, the way they dress, when they leave the hostel at night, when they come back in the morning, who the leave and come back with, scrutinising every possible observable detail. Campus safety policies should not result in securitization, such as over monitoring or policing or curtailing the freedom of movement, specially for women. We feel that we as a student community we should explore alternatives which will help in security but will not clamp down on our liberties and freedoms in the name of protection.
- College is an experience where the extent of expression increases as one becomes more comfortable with their surroundings. Certain students may be at a more vulnerable position than others when it comes to being monitored. This could be due to a variety of reasons and certain privileges. Consequently, certain students would also feel more threatened and would therefore be more likely to curb their behaviour to “toe acceptable standards and rules” which is a heavily arbitrary standard and creates an inequality where there is no reason to even consider one.
Operation of ambiguous rules
A natural corollary of the introduction of such surveillance is its use in the enforcement of institutional rules. This becomes problematic as, recorded accounts of students become subject to this application, and this would enable the institution to, firstly, introduce rules and apply them retrospectively to the footage in order to target such students in violation and, secondly, rules which are presently ambiguous become prone to be used as a tool against the students to further police conduct. In a campus such ours, where rules concerning the dress code and entry-exit timings, especially in cases of working on research projects, moot court competitions or even going out to collect food, are presently ambiguous, these cameras would enable the administration to take away any benefit presently accruing to the student body.
Retrospective Application of rules
One concern is definitely that considering the ambiguity that has been seen with the rules and the arbitrary manner in which they are notified, decided and executed, there is the danger of having punishments for actions done earlier in time. There have been instances in the past where footage has been used to pinpoint persons who have not adhered to “dress codes” that the University considers as “appropriate” or even to monitor their exit timings.
We as a group tried to engage with the HWC on these issues. In our meetings with the HWC, we requested them to hold a General Body Meeting since this is an issue that could have drastic impacts on the way we conduct ourselves in the confines of our hostel. We received communication that HWC would not like to engage in any further discussions on the issue. They would prefer deferring the matter to the administration. We still feel that something that impacts student liberty on campus should not be left to the sole discretion of the administration. CCTV surveillance is a topic that has been contested for a long time and it definitely a matter that merits much more contemplation than at hand. A GBM would involve students coming forward, presenting arguments from both sides, and then on understanding the nuances of the issue, coming to a decision, which is a much more democratic way of doing things. In a college like ours, such processes must be cultivated and not forsaken for convenience. If it is too close to the exams, perhaps this matter could be discussed next semester.
Once the CCTV cameras are installed, it will be hard for the student body to begin the process of removing them. No matter what decision we might arrive at in the General Body Meeting, it is important to follow due process and encourage a system of transparency wherein the students are involved and informed at each step of the process.
While we appreciate the initiative of the Hostel Welfare in trying to get vending machines for us, we also feel that a GBM would help us arrive at a more viable option to ensure the security of the vending machines.