Editor’s Note: FII has been in touch with two of the survivor’s friends, who in their capacity as the latter’s hostelmates, have attested to witnessing much of what has been described in the article. FII has also procured their consent to legally testify the survivor’s statements, if required.
Trigger Warning: Emotional abuse, sexual assault
In 2017, the List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA) brought out names of 75 academics who were anonymously called out on grounds of sexual assault, in turn, sparking the #MeToo movement in India. At the time, there was much outrage in response to the list, ranging from justified shock and fury, to hollow calls for “due process” from esteemed feminists. But the toxicity of the academy has ensured that nothing substantial happened till date, and the list has now been long forgotten.
But we still remember; the trauma is etched onto our bodies in ways we are unable to forget. And we refuse to forget.
Serial number 39 on this list was Kanav Gupta, ad-hoc professor of English at one of Delhi University’s leading colleges. Popular among students as charming and easygoing, Gupta took advantage of his position as one of the very few male professors in a women’s college. I was one of the many students completely enamored of him – he knew, I think, and probably used that to begin a conversation with me via text. Thereafter, he began to use college extracurriculars, and other related events as excuses to initiate conversations or meetings, whether in groups or alone. I was enthralled by his persona, as well as the transgressive nature of our situation – he kept reminding me that no one could know since he would get fired and I would be rusticated – and our interactions escalated.
Within a couple of months, he asked me to meet him at his house. This explicit trespassing of professional boundaries highlighted several patterns of toxicity, which were exacerbated by the power imbalance between us. His disregard for my safety and comfort was a regular feature of our interactions, and would always be couched in the need for secrecy. Our meetings would always take place at his convenience alone, most often at odd hours and under circumstances that I had made clear were compromising my physical safety. He manipulated me into discounting my own concerns through repeated reassurances that I was “the first student [he] had ever been with,” implying that my discomfort was a small price to pay for our relationship.
I imagined our “relationship” to be one built on fiery passion, admiration, and consent. Except, I was still figuring out what consent meant. While I was not a minor, I was still his student, and he still held power over me. This power did not mean that he influenced my grades or my professional growth, but it did mean that he was in a position to manipulate and control me. This manifested itself as both emotional abuse and physical coercion. He was constantly dismissive of my intellectual abilities, and gaslit me for expressing how I felt. He refused to wear a condom because he felt “uncomfortable”. By denigrating me, he convinced me that I needed him to guide me through my academic and personal life, and this pretty much defined our whole “relationship”.
About a year later, I graduated and moved to another city for my Master’s, despite his persistent attempts to make me stay on in Delhi. The fact that I no longer studied in a women’s college and was outside his physical grasp incited him to violate, in increasingly aggressive ways, the boundaries I set. He became extremely controlling, possessive, and suspicious of my every move. Once I finally began to see how emotionally abusive he was, I decided to end the relationship.
His efforts to contact me were persistent, even after I asked him to stop. If I blocked him on one platform, he tried to reach me on another. He would incessantly call/text/mail, sometimes multiple times a day. He intimidated me with messages saying that he was moving to the city I was in, and emotionally blackmailed me by blaming me for his failures, drunken driving, and other professional losses. This went on for months.
A few months later that year, when I was home for the semester break, he landed up in my hometown. He wanted to meet me one last time because he needed “closure”. I agreed on the condition that a mutual friend would join us, but he seemed outraged by the idea that after all this time, I couldn’t trust him enough to meet him alone in a public place, and pushed me till I relented. We met the next morning for breakfast, and I showed him around the city, as asked. He requested that we have lunch together so we could talk; I hadn’t heard of the restaurant he mentioned but knew the locality, so I agreed. We had a pleasant, nostalgic conversation, and I didn’t even notice when the taxi pulled up in front of an apartment complex. When I began to ask questions, he played the outrage card again, and said that the restaurant only offered food delivery, and that could I please trust him. This was his colleague’s house, and she was a very nice lady, so I should “chill”. I gave in.
We went upstairs, but contrary to what he had said, no one was home. I convinced myself that I was overthinking, so we ordered food and began to talk. It was a sentimental conversation, with a lot of reminiscing and a lot of tears, that led to us kissing. I thought I was safe. Then everything changed.
He pinned me down onto the bed and put all his weight on me. Quickly undressing, he forced himself inside me while I completely froze, unable to move or say anything. I don’t think my brain could process what was happening, so I just lay there and waited for him to finish. It is only later that I learnt that this is a very common trauma response – especially to sexual assault. Once he went to the bathroom, my brain jerked awake and told me to run. I grabbed my stuff and was about to leave, when he said something that I still haven’t been able to forget: “Where are you going? I can’t let you leave without making you cum.”
Realising that the assault was going to continue, I made a run for it. I rushed out of the apartment and into the first autorickshaw I could see. He followed me into the shared auto and tried to talk to me through the entire ride. I have no memory of what he was saying – all I knew was that I needed to get away from him. The auto dropped me off and I ran for my life. I ran through a six-point crossing and kept running till I couldn’t see him anymore. Then I went to the nearest pharmacy I could find, bought an emergency contraceptive, went home, and stood under the shower for what felt like a very long time.
I knew something was horribly wrong, but I couldn’t put a pin on it. It took me close to five years, and the List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA), to finally confront and name, even to myself, what had actually happened. I had been raped. The visceral fear I remember and still experience is a reaction to the culmination of two years’ worth of abuse in a physical violation.
I don’t know who put his name on the LoSHA. It shook me when I realised I wasn’t the only one – that the list represented multiple unspoken, unmarked experiences and voices. The thought that there was someone else who was manipulated, controlled, and harassed from a position of power and entitlement, made me see the danger of a man who held court on feminism and political resistance.
Kanav Gupta still occupies space in the academy, much like most of the others on that list, and will probably go on to hold positions of academic power, where he can continue reproducing the same toxic patterns of abuse. Structures of power inherent in an institution like the academy enable perpetrators’ continued impunity. Few face consequences even when “due process” is followed, and most escape identification as abusers simply because institutional justice is inaccessible to most survivors. As such, the only recourse most of us have is public naming and shaming, in the hope that those in power are held accountable for their actions. Our traumas must be collectively remembered, and our abusers must not be allowed to forget.
In solidarity, #MeToo.
Disclaimer: This article was updated on 10th February 2021 to include a screenshot of Raya Sarkar’s original post on LoSHA.
Featured image source: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India