In some ways, 2001 was a very different time. The internet had arrived in India a few years prior, and I had just opened a new email account. There was no social media. In terms of society’s regressive ways, it wasn’t a very different time, though. One of the earliest uses of the internet in the country was for watching porn and participating in dirty chat rooms. The main difference I feel, however, in light of the recent #MeToo storm gripping the country against sexual harassment, is that there were just a few women who vocally revolted in those days, and today there are countless that are screaming in protest.
I was one of those who decided to speak up in 2001.
It was my last year at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India’s more progressive universities, when I first received an envelope (by post), containing a page torn from a porn magazine with names of me and my friends written all over. My first thought was to file a police complaint. The fact that I thought of addressing the crime surprised almost everyone around me. The School of Languages, Literature, and Culture Studies (popularly known as SL), where I studied, was particularly a nasty place for young women. There used to be an annual tradition of a “chaat-list” (a loser’s list, if you will) in SL – picking on men and women from all the departments of the School and making fun of them. It used to be full of slut-shaming when it came to women – and if you were friends with seniors, they would advise you to be low-key in SL all year round to avoid hitting that list.
After a friend of mine refused the advances of a classmate of ours, he made a very sexual and derogatory poster dedicated entirely to her, and posted it in every single corner of the huge School building – a special edition chaat-list. Of course, she cried and found it difficult to even step out of her room for some time, but refused to do anything about it. When I received the first envelope and showed her, she ran out and called a mutual friend of ours – to console me, and perhaps find a manly tit-for-tat response to the guy who had sent it to me.
For a little perspective, consider that only two years before this, in 1999, a famous model, Jessica Lal, was murdered in a Delhi nightclub by Manu Sharma, the son of a famous politician, in front of a huge audience – and the court case was still going on. In 1996, a young woman, Priyadarshini Mattoo, had been raped and killed at her home in Delhi by a crazy stalker. Both the cases were going on in the courts and justice was a far sight. Nobody in their right minds used to think of going to the courts in those days, especially for a sexual harassment case. And so, this male friend advised me to file the case with university’s Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), formed just a few years earlier.
I knew the sender was Amit, someone I had known very well, because of the handwriting. I am not sure if he thought that a little bit of tweaking would make his writing unrecognizable or if he was just brazen enough, like a lot of men are, to think, “So what if I am harassing a woman!” But that’s how things were back then — and to an extent, even today — until women started crying out using the #MeToo campaign and naming names.
Since the conversation has been more or less linear about harassment just being a man’s domain, let me fill out the backstory here. Another girl, Puja, and I used to be very close friends. When I made some more friends, like young people do, Puja didn’t appreciate it. She also thought that one of my good friends was soon going to be my boyfriend and got immensely jealous. She stopped talking to me completely. I can only guess what conversations she had with her friend Amit, but he started sending these lewd posts to me — probably to teach me a lesson for not treating his lady well. For her part, Puja wrote abusive things about me in our school’s elevator, elsewhere in the building, and in her classroom (to show one of my friends who was her classmate). The harassment was relentless. Her classmate and confidant N and her boyfriend from the French center were a part of all this, helping her put all these nasty stunts all across the campus.
Once I bumped into Puja and N, who also used to live in our hostel, in my corridor and they started sneering at my red T-shirt, and made a stupid comment like men do on the streets. This is when the case was going on. The envelopes with threatening letters kept coming in even after I had filed the case. The arrogance was astounding.
During the GSCASH questioning, all of them told the committee that I didn’t have a “good character.” A lady classmate of Amit’s, Puja, and N (all from the Russian center) went and told the GSCASH committee the same thing: I had never even seen her or talked to her in the three years at the university. Since one has to meet a lot of administrative figures for a case like this, I had to meet the Rector, who inquired about my grades since I was in high school until the time at the university. I was sitting there quite confused what my academic performance years ago had to do with the case at hand. Our dean at the time, Mr. Qureshi was thankfully, kind and understanding.
Some of the conclusions I drew up during the drama were that, first, people think they can get away with harassing you if they can prove that you don’t score high on the moral chart as prescribed by the society, and second, in India, your academic record is also somehow linked to that morality chart
Thankfully, the members of GSCASH at the time were solid feminists. Plus, there were forensics. I was told that the university administration had sent the evidence to National Forensics Laboratory, which cost a pretty penny at the time. Amit and Puja were both found guilty. The university decided to expel Amit and suspend Puja from the hostel for two semesters. Puja’s punishment was rather meaningless as this was the end of our degree — and she had actually been the person who instigated it all.
I don’t know how things would have been if I had filed a criminal case. Maybe it would still have been going on, with a huge cost to my emotional well-being. But I have found it difficult to find closure, given that I had not seen shame, guilt, or remorse in any of the accused or involved. Every now and then I see some of them on Facebook, friends with people who were at the university while all this happened. I believe in redemption and reformation all the more now than ever — because it would have meant that a person accepts their guilt and then works on themselves to become a better human.