THE past couple of weeks have seen a virtual tsunami of first-person accounts by women exposing habitual sexual harassers in high places in the worlds of film, journalism, the arts, academia, and activism. These women, like American women exposing sexual predators in Hollywood like Harvey Weinstein last year, used the hashtag #MeToo to demand that women’s experience of sexual violence be acknowledged and believed. By breaking the sense of isolation that women are forced to feel they accuse powerful and respected men of sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement has given many women the courage to speak out and expose their tormentors.
A journalist, Priya Ramani, outed senior journalist and Union Minister in the Modi Cabinet MJ Akbar as someone who preyed on young women in the newspapers and magazines he edited. Soon, many other women came out with their own experiences of facing sexual assault and prolonged harassment at the hands of Akbar.
As the outcry for Akbar’s resignation or removal from his post as Minister gained momentum, Akbar dug his heels in, refused to resign, branded his accusers as liars and suggested that the #MeToo storm has “risen a few months before a general election” because of a political “agenda” to embarrass the Modi Government. Akbar’s continuation as a Union Minister and the nature of his defence made it clear that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP party backed Akbar in trying to brazen it out. Akbar filed a defamation case against Ramani in an open attempt at intimidation. However, after 20 women journalists came forward to support Priya Ramani with their own testimonies of sexual harassment by Akbar, Akbar was forced to resign. This a huge victory of the #MeToo movement against the might of the Modi Government.
Akbar’s claims that the allegations are politically motivated are bogus since #MeToo has exposed sexual offenders on all sides of the political spectrum. If Modi supporters and right-wingers like Akbar, Nana Patekar, Chetan Bhagat and Alok Nath have been exposed, so have prominent anti-BJP faces and voices including journalist Vinod Dua and artist Jatin Das.
The issue of sexual harassment must not be seen through a political lens. Progressive and Left organisations, parties and circles too must take responsibility and accountability for preventing and acting against sexual harassment and misogyny in their own ranks. Women who are exposing sexual harassment by prominent and influential men are doing so at great risk and cost to their personal peace of mind and safety, as well as their professional careers. The system is stacked against them. The journalist who was raped by senior journalist Tarun Tejpal five years ago, still waits in vain for justice, as Tejpal manipulates the police and courts and has succeeded in indefinitely stalling the legal process.
Women complainants are being intimidated by defamation cases. In addition to Priya Ramani, film producer Vinta Nanda who accused Alok Nath of rape, and Tanushree Dutta who exposed sexual harassment by Nana Patekar and mob violence Patekar’s supporters face defamation cases which attempt to silence and scare away complainants. A woman employee of an organisation run by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar has lost her job after accusing Chandrashekhar’s close aide of sexual harassment; the aide has obtained a gag order from Court preventing her from speaking about her case.
But women are fighting back. Akbar’s supporters are trying to dismiss sexual harassment complaints as trivial compared to the “real” concerns of India’s poor and working class women. They must be reminded that it was a Dalit village woman Bhanwari Devi whose experience of sexual harassment followed by gangrape in her job as a saathin prompted the Supreme Court to pass the Vishakha Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at the workplace in 1997. Sexual harassment is a tool widely deployed in global workplaces and factories the world over, to discipline women workers - and India is no exception. The impetus of the #MeToo movement has kickstarted efforts in the US to ensure support for domestic workers, farmworkers, factory workers, restaurant workers, sanitation workers and others in fighting widespread sexual harassment. The same must happen in India as well.
Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi has promised to set up a panel of four retired judges to offer justice for the #MeToo complainants. But such moves can only be understood as eyewash and an attempt to contain and control the #MeToo flood. The BJP's long silence on Akbar and his delayed resignation and its refusal to discipline its MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar who is complicit in silencing and punishing a woman employee who complained against sexual harassment once again exposes the hollowness of their “Beti Bachao” rhetoric.