The #MeToo movement provided them a forum to vent out their anguish which they had harboured for decades to bring in a closure.
The storm, which started with Tanushree Dutta’s allegations against Nana Patekar, turned into an avalanche. While denting the patriarchal base of our industries, institutions and public offices, it has now spilled into the legal and political domains. All eyes will be on the judicial verdicts where many legal issues will have to be examined. The legal battle will be lengthy and complex, and its outcome uncertain.
It was obvious that the #MeToo movement could not stay confined within the comfort zone of social media, of “naming and shaming” with first person narratives of violations. However, we cannot undermine it as it was a bold step to expose their violators by providing intimate details of the abuse which involved naming body parts and graphically describing the type and extent of abuse. In a misogynist and patriarchal setting, every woman has more to lose by this exposure than her violator. It is only the courage of their convictions, which led many to lend their voice to the steadily galvanising movement which created ripples in the placid waters of several of our institutions.
This brought home the truth that sexual harassment is prevalent everywhere, that the 1997 Vishakha guidelines by Justice J.S. Verma in his historical verdict had not been followed, that corporate houses scoffed at them and maintained that these were mere “guidelines” directed at the government and that they were beyond them. Even within government offices, most women did not register complaints as the complaints committees were non-functional, or it was very easy to gang up against a female employee when a male boss was involved.
This attitude persisted even after the 2013 enactment — the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act. Most corporate houses did not set up the Internal Complaint Committees (ICCs) nor lay down an ethical code to govern workplace environments. Men ignored the lines that were redrawn or deliberately crossed the boundaries with impunity.
This becomes obvious when we see some of the apologies that have come in, “I didn’t realise it”, “I was not aware”, “If it amounted to sexual harassment, I am sorry”. These can be considered as some of the “best” responses, as the vast majority has resorted to a bald denial. They have either claimed that the incident did not taken place at all, or that the women were being vindictive, that it is a political ploy to mar their reputation.
Some have filed civil suits for defamation and claimed huge amounts as compensation. But M.J. Akbar surpasses them all. In the floodgates that have opened in the #MeToo movement, it is his name that stands out the most. And his response has been the most blatant — to file a criminal complaint of defamation against Priya Ramani, the first woman who blew the lid off the respectability mantle with which he cloaked himself with, for well over three decades.
He was the bright, suave, dynamic and astute journalist of yesteryears, young journalists were in awe of him and it is this adulation that he exploited, and in doing so, trampled upon the dreams and aspirations of these young women. The incidents described cover the entire span of his journalistic career. It is not that male journalists in various media houses where he held senior positions did not know about it. They did, but turned a blind eye to it, and spoke in hushed voices, and the young women had to find their own personal recourse to deal with these humiliating encounters. They watched in silent indignation as Mr Akbar crossed one milestone after another in his illustrious career and even secured a position as a union minister.
The #MeToo movement provided them a forum to vent out their anguish which they had harboured for decades to bring in a closure. His stepping down is a landmark victory for the women’s movement in India. He tried to brazen it out by holding on to his office, and by giving a political colour to the campaign, but finally had to give in, perhaps due to pressure from the party bosses.
It became a litmus test for the government which has been flaunting its pro-women programmes such as “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” and “Ujwala”. How could a person tainted with allegations of sexual harassment piled up against him continue as a minister? What will be the message that will go out globally? This is the reason he had to finally resign. If he was asked to step down earlier, as soon as the allegations against him had started surfacing, the government could have scored some brownie points, as a message about the government’s commitment to a zero-tolerance policy towards the sexual harassment of women would have gone out loud and clear. Unfortunately this did not happen.
The question everyone keeps asking is whether this campaign will result in lasting changes. Will it open up the avenues for more women to come out against their bosses and lead to a healthier workplace environment ensuring dignity to women?
This is yet to be seen. But there are signs that some changes will be brought about within the film industry and media houses. The big banners are in the process of hurriedly setting up ICCs (which they should have done a long time ago). Women directors have come out with a statement that they will not work with actors who have been accused of sexual misconduct. The comedy group AIB has decided to de-list every video featuring a former member, Utsav Chakraborty, who is accused of sexual harassment by several women. The most recent case is of Anu Malik, who has been asked to step down from the position he held as the judge of Indian Idol, since it was instituted in 2004, following allegations of sexual harassment.
Even within media houses heads have begun to roll. The resident editor of the Times of India in Hyderabad, K.R. Sreenivas, the Hindustan Times journalist Prashant Jha, Mayank Jain, principal correspondent of Business Standard, and Gautam Adhikari, founding editor of DNA, had to step down from the positions they had held.
But of utmost concern is the way the criminal case against Priya Ramani will pan out. Much depends upon it. Will it serve to silence the #MeToo movement as every woman who speaks out will be liable to the charge of criminal defamation? If that happens, it will indeed be a travesty of justice.
Some legal experts have said that the offences are time-barred and their allegations cannot stand legal scrutiny.
So why did they not complain earlier? The answer is simple. As one journalist succinctly stated, “In the early nineties when many of these incidents had taken place, awareness about sexual harassment was lacking. There were no Internal Complaints Committees. The idea of approaching the police was scary. We did not even have the backing of our families. Does this mean that the incidents did not occur?”
The naming and shaming device is a result of the failure of our criminal justice system to redress their grievances. The law on sexual harassment at the workplace stipulates clearly, it is not the acts of the abuser but the perception of the violated that is relevant. And it is here the graphic details contained in the personal narratives posted in the social media will come to their aid.