India is now seeing the unleashed cry to bring sexual harassment to justice. Will it be enough to bring change?
A major film production house has been shut down. A prominent journalist has stepped down as bureau chief of one of the biggest news dailies pending investigation. A resident editor of another big newspaper has been sent on “administrative leave”. A popular director’s new film is being dropped from film festivals, and the country’s most popular comedy collective seems to be on the brink of getting dissolved.
All this happened within a week of the #MeToo movement hitting India. From the looks of it, the movement is just starting to gain momentum.
After almost a year of the movement raising an unparalleled storm in Hollywood and taking down the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Indian women are now bravely coming forward and blowing the lid off their own stories of sexual harassment, with the collective refrain: ‘#TimesUp’.
But unlike America, where investigative journalism drove the movement, Twitter has become the go-to platform in India for women to deliver their testimonies of when they were harassed. Many testimonies are accompanied by screenshots of texts exchanged between the women and the alleged perpetrators.
In solidarity with survivors of sexual assault, multiple women have opened their DMs (Direct Messages on Twitter) to encourage other women to share stories of their sexual predators anonymously if they are not willing to identify themselves in public.
The two industries which have taken the biggest hits are comedy and media, both male-dominated and fraught with stories which, until now, only existed on the grapevine.
Punching above their weight
It all began with writer and comedian Mahima Kukreja who publicly accused Utsav Chakraborty, a comedian and YouTuber, of sending her and a minor unsolicited pictures of his genitalia. This opened a pandora’s box of unreported sexual harassment, leading more women to come forward with similar allegations against Chakraborty.
As soon as the collective silence of male comedians was called out,Tanmay Bhat, the CEO of All India Bakchod (AIB), stepped away from his association with the famous comedy group. Bhat has been accused of not taking any action against Chakraborty even when he was made aware of the accusations in the past and continued to provide him with work.
Recently, Gursimram Khamba, a co-founder of AIB, was anonymously accused by a woman of harassing her in 2015-16.
Soon after Chakraborty was called out, Sandhya Menon, senior journalist and writer, named and shamed K.R. Sreenivas, Times of India (TOI) editor, as well Gautam Adhikari, founding editor of DNA (an English daily), accusing them of inappropriate behaviour. Adhikari has since resigned as the senior fellow of the Center for American Progress (CAP) after seven women petitioned TOI accusing Sreenivas of grevious sexual misconduct, causing him to be sent away on ‘administrative leave’ pending further inquiry.
Prashant Jha, the political editor and bureau chief of Hindustan Times, has also been asked to step down from his managerial position after a former employee of the newspaper leaked screenshots of his messages.
Since Menon posted her experience on Twitter, Indian social media has been taken by storm with the sheer number of women journalists who have started sharing their experiences of sexual harassment.
The most recent high-profile name to have come up is that of MJ Akbar, the current Minister of State of External Affairs and former editor-in-chief of The Sunday Guardian. Senior journalist Priya Ramani was the first of several women to go on record accusing Akbar of sexual misconduct.
The government, so far, has remained tight-lipped on the issue.
“The government should take action and sack M.J. Akbar. As lawmakers, if they don’t show zero tolerance towards misbehaviour against women, how can we expect other organisations to do the same? Should someone get immunity just because they’re powerful?,” asks Rohini Singh, a journalist with The Wire.
What seems to have kickstarted the movement was actress Tanushree Dutta revealing her disturbing experience of sexual harassment. Just when India was watching the disturbing spectacle of the Ford-Kanavaugh hearing last month.
Dutta hit the headlines when she accused Nana Patekar, a veteran Bollywood actor, of touching her inappropriately on the sets of a film 10 years ago. Dutta had complained of Patekar’s behaviour in 2008, but was subject to vicious attacks for doing so. While facing the wrath of abusive internet trolls and being called “publicity hungry”, she has also received overwhelming support from many women.
Other names from the industry like those of filmmakers Vikas Bahl and Rajat Kapoor have also been linked to alleged sexual misconduct. There are also allegations of veteran television actor Alok Nath raping a former colleague 19 years ago.
A drop in the bucket
It was perhaps the combined push of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing, Dutta’s allegation and the lingering effect of Hollywood’s #MeToo movement that has now driven Indian women out into the open–mostly from the media industry–to come out and give the names of their male aggressors.
“This is one among many waves of #MeToo. This is certainly not the first or the only time this has happened. The difference is that real impact is being felt this time. There was a coming together of many things which gave women what I’m calling “the sweet spot”, that absolute tipping point,” says Anoo Bhuyan, one of the first journalists to call out a reporter for his sexual predations.
Many women are also tracing back the movement to a list of alleged sexual molesters in academia, in India and abroad, which was compiled and shared by lawyer and activist Raya Sarkar last year.
While the list, called LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia), was hailed by many, some also questioned the veracity of the list and called it a “witch hunt”.
“I think outing your harasser and acknowledging due process as a failure is becoming mainstream now. However, I wish the women who outed their harassers last year receive the same support women are receiving today. It's the least we can do,” says Sarkar.
What can be said for sure is that the current rise of the movement has done a great deal in uncovering the toxic culture of silence within the media industry.
Media organisations have now sprung into action and are rushing out statements, assuring that “due process” will be followed by their Internal Complaints Committees.
While women are being lauded for their courage, there are some who have raised concerns about what qualifies as sexual harassment and what does not.
Many journalists, including Singh and Nidhi Razdan of NDTV, also tweeted about the need to make a distinction between harassment and a bad date or casual flirting. Concerns are also being raised about anonymous Twitter accounts being made to call out names of men.
Many womens’ collectives are actively working towards keeping the movement alive by reaching out to survivors, collecting statements and charting out future action.
The movement, so far, has seen action being taken against some influential men in positions of power and many are hopeful that it can lead to women from other industries and marginalized communities coming forward.
Dixit also thinks that if people are receptive to the accounts of the survivors, which have mostly come from English media, women from other industries, especially from informal sectors will also find the confidence to share their stories.
“If this has been generated on social media, it can also be used in the offline world where people can also find ways through institutional mechanisms to get redressals,” she adds.
The past few days have been nightmarishly difficult for women to say the least. Many have tweeted about how it has been “mentally exhausting” for them to read “so many disturbing accounts” of women.
With more and more men being called out, the rigid power structures and hierarchies at workplaces are now exposed and laid bare. This had made it nearly impossible for survivors to come forward and complain, in some cases for years.
But #MeToo is giving out clear, strong and much-needed message: one of holding perpetrators accountable whoever they may be, and of creating a better, safer and equal environment for women.
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