India Unleashes Its Own #MeToo

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India Unleashes Its Own #MeToo

Across India, women are speaking up with tales of their abuse at the hands of powerful men.

India Unleashes Its Own #MeToo

Activists of the Congress Party’s women’s wing shout slogans against Bollywood actor Nana Patekar during a protest in support of former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta in Mumbai, India (Oct.11, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

India’s own #MeToo movement was unleashed this month, with scores of women in credible public positions calling out rape, sexual abuse, and harassment at the workplace at the hands of star editors, filmmakers, corporate honchos, bankers, and prominent people in other sectors.

The torrent of allegations against Indian men gained momentum as more and more women across the country felt emboldened to post accounts of their mortification in detail on social media or write about it in publications.

The outpourings shook a nation that has built a culture of silence around such abuse, breezily dismissing or excusing such behavior on men’s part because “boys, after all, will be boys.” In most cases, the naming and shaming of the accuser by the women was accompanied with complaints of not receiving any redress from the concerned authorities.

The opening salvo was fired by Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta, who rekindled a decade-old allegation against actor Nana Patekar in television interviews. This uncorked a storm on social media, polarizing public opinion on the issue. While many challenged and rubbished the now retired actor’s account of the incident as an attempt to gain publicity, some Bollywood actors came out in her support.

Soon after Dutta, female director Vinta Nanda accused an unknown actor of rape on her Facebook page. “I can remember more liquor being poured into my mouth and I remember being violated endlessly… I hadn’t just been raped, I was taken to my own house and had been brutalized,” she wrote. Within hours, the accused was identified on social media as Alok Nath, a small-time actor who first brazenly denied any wrongdoing and then went on to sue Nanda for defamation.

The accusations kept snowballing. Up next was journalist Ghazala Wahab, who shared her ordeal on the Wire, a news website. She narrated how Mobashar Jawed Akbar, erstwhile editor of the newspaper she worked for (The Asian Age) and now a minister of state for external affairs in the current NDA government, molested her.

“Sometimes, he would walk over to the door and put his hand over mine; sometimes he would rub his body against mine; sometimes he would push his tongue against my pursed lips; and every time I would push him away and escape from his room,” her article stated.

The barrage of outpourings highlighted a disquieting picture. Not only were most of the allegations shocking but they also underscored a deafening official silence on what were, in many instances, open secrets. Parallels were also drawn between India’s #MeToo movement and that of the United States, which began last year when at least a dozen women came out in quick succession to corroborate allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, highlighting a pattern of abuse and a culture of silence around it.

As the #MeToo accusations spread like wildfire to other industries, a string of men in authority came under investigation by their employers or went on to apologize for their infractions. Some even relinquished their high posts.

Prashant Jha, the political editor of Hindustan Times, a leading Indian newspaper, stepped down after allegations that he had sent inappropriate messages on WhatsApp. The former executive editor at The Times of India and former editor-in-chief of DNA, Gautam Adhikari, withdrew from his post as senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. following three allegations of sexual harassment against him. He also mentioned he will be discontinuing his column at the Times.

With a growing public outcry against powerful and abusive men, some companies have instituted new measures to make women feel safe in their workplaces. Organizations like the Cine And TV Artistes Association (CINTAA) are investigating complaints and Producers Guild is setting up a special committee to help #MeToo survivors.

“Whether such measures have far-reaching implications for workplaces and gender-sensitivity or not remains to be seen. But at least the status quo is being challenged. It will definitely be a deterrent for exploitative men,” says a CINTAA member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to this correspondent.

There’s optimism as well that such a movement has finally taken root in a conservative country like India, notorious for its entrenched patriarchal ways and misogyny. A survey by the IndiaSpend media analysis firm has found that registered cases of sexual harassment at Indian workplaces skyrocketed by 54 percent, from 371 in 2014 to 570 in 2017.

At the same time, according to surveys, over 75 percent of sexual harassment cases in India go unreported. Over 52 percent of Indian women, polled in government-run national family health surveys – the latest released in January 2018 – think it is okay for a man to beat his wife.

Abuse of women is widespread in India and is rarely discussed, partly because of the shame felt by those who have suffered, and partly because of fear of reprisals, especially at work.

“Given our social dynamics, the #MeToo is a watershed moment for India where cases of sexual abuse are routinely brushed under the carpet and stigma attached to the victim rather than the perpetrator,” says Amita Bhola, a counsellor with Dream A Dream, a pan-India nonprofit. “We need such exposés  to empower women and make society more inclusive.”

Bhola’s words find echo in the book New Feminisms in South Asian Social Media, Film, and Literature, a collection of essays by several renowned women that refers to a new and powerful anti-sexism movement in India. The work analyzes emerging disruptive articulations that represent an unprecedented surge of feminist response to the culture of sexual violence in South Asia.

The writers chronicle the expressions of a disruptive feminist solidarity and offer critical investigations of these newly complicated discourses across narrative forms – hashtag activism on Facebook and Twitter, the writings of diasporic writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Bollywood films like Mardaani, feminist Dalit narratives in the fiction of Bama Faustina, social media activism against rape culture, journalistic and cinematic articulations on queer rights, state censorship of the documentary India’s Daughter, and feminist film activism in Bangladesh, Kashmir, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, according to a synopsis.

However, while such sorority augurs well for feminism in India, there’s no doubt that the #MeToo movement remains a fledgling one in the country currently buffeted by vicious attacks from those who find themselves caught in its maelstrom.

In a 41-page letter to Delhi’s chief metropolitan magistrate, M.J. Akbar has sued journalist Priya Ramani (another journalist who accused him of predatory behavior) of “willfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously defaming the Complainant [Akbar], on wholly and completely false, frivolous, unjustifiable and scandalous grounds.”

Ramani retaliated with a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” with Akbar’s decision to take legal action against her. “By instituting a case of criminal defamation against me, Mr. Akbar has made his stand clear: rather than engage with the serious allegations that many women have made against him, he seeks to silence them through intimidation and harassment.”

Experts say Akbar’s action could intimidate women still deciding whether to publicly accuse men of misconduct, harassment, or rape. Others may feel pressured into taking back their complaints for fear of legal action. India’s labyrinthine court processes will further discourage women from coming forth and reporting their abusers.

The weeks ahead will indicate whether India’s #MeToo movement will carry on as robustly as it had begun or not. And, more importantly, whether it will lead to a gradual change of attitudes.

The Indian government, meanwhile, has challenged public opinion by supporting M.J. Akbar in his refusal to resign over allegations [Update: Shortly after publication of this story, Akbar tendered his resignation]. The government’s aim now seems to be to buttress Akbar’s legal action and hope that this squashes the tide of revelations against him and others.

This is downright hypocritical, say analysts, for a government that professes to make women the centerpiece of social change by launching several girl-centric schemes including signature campaigns like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save the girl child and educate her).

The government’s disturbing stance on Akbar has also imbued the #MeToo campaign with a political color. The opposition Congress Party has seized the opportunity to demand Akbar’s resignation, and make as much political capital out of it as possible in the run-up to important state assembly elections next month and the general elections in 2019.

Be that as it may, ordinary people are happy that at least the elephant in the room is being addressed, and that the important issue of sexual abuse is moving from the periphery to the center of public discourse. Meanwhile, society must ponder how to support the #MeToo victims who are now facing legal action for outing powerful men. The time to turn the tables on patriarchy is now. And it seems that the tidal wave has finally swamped the world’s largest democracy.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist. She tweets at @Neeta_com.