Several high profile men including Bollywood celebrities, famous journalists, and even a minister stand accused under India's burgeoning #MeToo movement.
For years the relentless whispers and incessant gossip in Indian newsrooms were about the salacious happenings involving some male senior colleagues and their “dalliance” with young female journalist-recruits. They were rarely spoken aloud or turned into an issue. But, the last few days have turned this inside out with some of the women coming out publicly against their tormentors, inspired by the #MeToo movement.
The accusations have triggered a collective gasp across media establishments in India. Among those accused of varying degrees of sexual harassment are a junior minister in the federal government (a until-now highly respected ex-journalist) and several senior editors. Some are employed at big media groups like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times.
The revelations have been so potent that one accused editor has had to step down from his position and another forced to go on leave.
The state of India’s press
The #MeToo movement started in the United States in 2006 but it received a tremendous boost in October 2017 when top Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was charged by several women of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse. The women openly narrated their experiences and forced the film industry and the law to hold Weinstein to account.
Since then the #MeToo movement has triggered a spate of public narrations around the world by victims of sexual predatory behaviour of varying degrees by men in authority.
Though India had seen bits and pieces of #MeToo influence in its film industry, the media had largely been quiet, until last weekend when a Twitter message from one woman journalist victim triggered an avalanche of similar stories from fellow female journalists.
The revelations could not have come at a worse time for the Indian media, already reeling under state pressure to conform and not dwell too deep into the failings of the federal government and several state governments.
In the last couple of years, journalists who have had the courage to speak their minds and cross the unwritten line into the realm of criticism have been threatened, attacked and even been killed. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, at least 142 were targeted between 2015-17, and as many as 70 journalists killed in India from 1992-2016.
India’s standing in the international press freedom index has dropped since the advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the last year, it dropped by two notches to 138 out of a total 180. This has led several political commentators and opposition parties to term the situation as an “undeclared emergency”, a reference to the period 1975-77 when Indian democracy was suspended including the right to free speech and expression.
A surfeit of Indian television channels and a mushrooming of new media and traditional publishing has not seen a concomitant increase in investigative reporting and probing stories on the various governments. Instead, the popular perception is that of a media that puts out stories that are largely favourable to the government.
Do victims have any recourse?
Along with the media, the film industry based in Mumbai (India’s Hollywood) is reeling as well with revelations involving top actors like Nana Patekar and Alok Nath. While Patekar has denied the allegations, Nath has been quoted as saying someone may have done it, but not him.
The #MeToo revelations in India come six years since the gruesome rape of a woman in the capital New Delhi, popularly called the Nirbhaya case.
The rape traumatised the nation to such an extent that outdated federal laws were amended and legal protection was brought in for the victims of sexual abuse. Under the amended laws, every organisation was mandated to have a redress committee to look into any case of sexual harassment.
The latest revelations of sexual misdemeanour in the media (those after the amended law was passed) indicate that the committees have either not been set up or not functioning as they are supposed to.
In many cases, members of the committees have reportedly pressured the victim to take back their complaints, or get them diluted. Rarely has action been taken against the accused.
But what the Nirbhaya case has irrevocably done is trigger the media to widely publicise rape cases and instances of sexual abuse. Not just that, in an earlier era victims would have mostly kept quiet or would have been harassed by the perpetrators to ignore such abuse.
Since the Nirbhaya case, tolerance among people for the rape accused and sexual predators seems to have evaporated.
With the media now witnessing the spectacle of top notch journalists shamed on social media by victims, many fellow-professionals hope that it will force a potential predator to at least pause before he goes for the kill, if not abandon the idea altogether.