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Xavier’s Prof speaks up: It was a witch trial, I was slutshamed for my Insta pictures

The story of a teacher and the moral police — in her own words

St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata (Photo: sxccal.edu)

I joined St. Xavier’s University as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English on August 9, 2021 almost a year after I returned to India following the completion of my PhD. I did my BA in English from St. Xavier’s College (SXC), Kolkata, following it up with an MA in English from Jadavpur University. After being awarded a full fellowship by the European Union on a programme specialising in medieval and early modern literature, I left India in 2015. Having successfully defended my doctoral thesis during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, I returned to India.

The months following my return were tough. People were falling ill, loved ones were being lost, and most academic institutions had hiring freezes in place. After a few months of struggle, I managed to secure a contractual position as a Visiting Lecturer in one of Kolkata’s private universities. It wasn’t a lucrative position and didn’t exactly utilise the skills I had to offer, but it was something I needed to do in order to acquire some much-needed work experience. Around May 2021, I received a job offer from a university in Hyderabad. Although this was a full-time position, it required relocation, a prospect which was problematic not only in view of the calamity unleashed by the Delta variant but also because of my father’s persistent health problems.

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This was around the time that St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata (SXUK) advertised a full-time position for Assistant Professor in English. I applied around the end of June. Shortly afterwards, I was interviewed, and three days after the interview, I was formally offered the position.

It seemed like a no-brainer to take it up. I would, after all, get to stay in Kolkata, close to my parents which would make caregiving easier. It also felt like a fiscally responsible choice — I was offered a slightly higher salary than the university in Hyderabad, and given the reasonable cost of living in Kolkata, I would be able to accrue some much-needed savings.

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I joined SXUK in August and quickly adapted to the rigours of full-time teaching. I was elated at finally being assigned texts that I liked teaching and that were consistent with my areas of specialisation and research interest. The students were sincere and perceptive, and the in-class discussions were animated and immensely engaging.

This idyllic pedagogical journey was, however, to be brutally terminated soon and in a manner which still sounds more like a bizarre nightmare.

I was summoned to the university via a phone call on October 7 on the pretext of a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor. The meeting — about which nothing was told to me over the phone — turned out to be a modern re-enactment of a witch trial where I was interrogated and subsequently slutshamed over my private Instagram pictures. These pictures — of which a cleverly curated selection had been printed out — were allegedly the basis of a complaint sent to the university by the father of a first-year male undergraduate student. The complaint, which bemoaned my lack of propriety and the ostensibly sexually incendiary nature of my images, denigrated my right to bodily autonomy and reduced my personhood to a mere sexual receptacle upon which the voyeuristic calumny of heteropatriarchal morality was liberally poured. If the nature of the complaint sounds absurd, the actions of the university truly beggar belief.

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Not only was I morally policed and harassed for over an hour over images which I had privately shared with a select group of people, but I was also forced to tender my resignation.
SXU Professor

Not only was I morally policed and harassed for over an hour over images which I had privately shared with a select group of people, but I was also forced to tender my resignation. The fact that five women enthusiastically participated in this was particularly insulting and traumatising. I was told that my failure to voluntarily resign would be punished by the lodging of a criminal case against me for putting up “objectionable” photographs.

Shame, horror, revulsion — I felt every emotion with agonising intensity. For many days after this episode, I was nauseous, unable to eat properly, visited by night terrors. The stress was so unbearable that it battered my immunity and I contracted Covid-19 for the second time. It was particularly devastating to watch the toll it took on my parents, especially my father who started having fainting fits. In the aftermath of the incident, his ailments worsened, leading to him coming down with Covid in January 2022 (during which he was hospitalised in the HDU for 21 days) and subsequently developing severe heart failure.

I write these things not to elicit sympathy. I write them to illustrate that arbitrary decisions taken by authorities leave behind very real and irreversible human casualties in their wake. To all those who have asked me why I didn’t wait for them to fire me, I ask: can you possibly place yourself in my position? Can you work at a place where absolutely no protocol is followed, where the very highest office-holder orchestrated and presided over a kangaroo court and subsequently descended to issuing open threats, where not a single colleague came out in the open and took a united stand? Do you think, after more than a year of returning to India and struggling to find a job, it was easy for me to turn down a full-time position? I was driven to financial ruin as a consequence of this. The immediate fallout was losing the entire security deposit that I had paid for a flat that I had taken on an eleven-month lease. More long-term consequences included having to scrape the bottom of my savings to defray legal costs and being unable to contribute financially when my father was hospitalised twice in a matter of months.

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My life has felt like a relentless nightmare for the past ten months. However, through it all, there was one thing that remained unchanged — the burning, raging sense of wrongdoing and the consuming desire to seek justice. At no point in this entire ordeal have I ever questioned myself and my truth. Although I fully respect personal opinion, even going so far as to maintain that the complainant has the right (however misplaced) to disapprove of the way in which someone conducts themselves in their personal life, it is my unshakeable conviction that subjective morality cannot supersede the law of the land. As a citizen of India and as an adult, I possess certain inalienable rights which cannot be stolen from me — the right to wear what I want and the right to visually document that and share them with the world are part of my constitutional freedoms.

However, I must state that even in my wildest dreams, I had not anticipated the extent of media traction this story would receive. It has been overwhelming and humbling in equal measure to see the outpouring of support. In what has often been a long, lonely, and thankless battle, the avalanche of (mostly) positive reinforcement has bolstered my desire to continue fighting. I am fighting this fight to reclaim my autonomy, my right, and my dignity. I believe that my work should speak for me rather than what clothes I choose to wear. Although the infamous “swimsuit” pictures have hijacked the narrative, it doesn’t matter whether I wore a swimsuit or a saree. Clothes do not come with moral tags attached to them and say nothing about the worth of the person wearing them. Above all, I am fighting to reclaim my bodily and feminist agency and to ensure that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. I would have liked to be a model example, but I will settle for being a cautionary tale for the time being.

The writer is an assistant professor with a university in NCR. Her name is being withheld at her request

First published on: 17-08-2022 at 09:47:24 am
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