Culture

It took too long and too many women, but India’s #MeToo reckoning is finally here

The beginning of a revolution

Looking back, the signs were all there. A fierce femme revolution was on its way. For years, our judiciary, bound by archaic terminology and a similar mindset, was suddenly, this September, full of poster-worthy feminist messages. While opening the gates of the ancient Sabarimala temple to women of all ages, Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud pronounced, “To treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at the Constitution itself ”. And while decriminalising adultery after 157 years, he once again said of the old law that it “deprives married women the agency of consent... offends the sexual freedom of women.”

When the top court of your land starts speaking a language that finally resonates with you, and empowers you by challenging ancient traditions, it changes the very atmosphere for women. It was in this heady moment at the end of September, that former Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta outed what has always been suspected about India’s biggest film industry: that male actors and other power players get away easily with sexual harassment, and sometimes, even rape. She alleged that the veteran actor Nana Patekar had sexually harassed her on the set of a film 10 years ago. Dutta walked out of the film and publicly spoke of her trauma at the time, but no one believed her. So, she spoke up again last month, and once more, Bollywood responded with a deafening silence. Patekar would have gotten away with dismissing her claims a second time, but on October 4, something happened that would change Indian women forever.

Tanushree and Nana Patekar

Two women, the comic and poet Mahima Kukreja and journalist Sandhya Menon decided to use their Twitter timelines and invoke the power of their strong follower bases, to speak about their #MeToo moments. Kukreja outed comedian Utsav Chakraborty, who had sent her unsolicited pictures of his genitals. And Menon outed her powerful former bosses, Gautam Adhikari, editor-in-chief of DNA, who she said had grabbed and kissed her on the mouth after an office night out, and Times Of India’s Hyderabad editor, KR Sreenivas, who had put his hand on her thigh. Both women said they had taken the traditional route of redressal immediately after, and raised complaints with their associates, but they went unheeded. Spurred by these clear, unashamed descriptions of violation, slowly more and more women began to air their own, often long-buried, experiences with sexual harassment, and began to publicly name their abusers. It was as if the shame that women have for ages been conditioned to internalise as their own, had suddenly begun to evaporate. On the hour, a new woman would tweet at Kukreja and Menon, “#MeToo”.

What followed was a startling outpouring of support and courage, as women shed their silences, both old and new. Film-maker Vinta Nanda revealed that actor Alok Nath had raped her years ago, multiple women released screenshots of inappropriate messages from author Chetan Bhagat, adman Suhel Seth was outed for harassment by several women (including a minor), and union minister and former journalism titan MJ Akbar was revealed to have been something of a career sexual harasser by over 20 women who had encountered him in his newsrooms across four decades. And these were only the very famous of the countless accused.

Initially, many of the men and their organisations parried the accusations with vaguely worded defences. But soon enough, as the pressure mounted, heads began to roll: top editors like Adhikari, Sreenivas and Prashant Jha (Delhi bureau chief for  Hindustan Times) stepped down; the successful comedy collective All India Backchod (AIB) had the new season of their Hotstar show cancelled, an FIR was lodged against Patekar, and Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films was dissolved. As I write this, MJ Akbar has resigned from his position.

Critics of the movement’s messy, volatile nature suggest that this name-and-shame activism undermines due process and destroys careers and reputations based on just accusations. But what they wilfully ignore is that due process has failed women, and the movement is a response to that colossal failure. “These women have compelled everyone to listen and acknowledge the pervasive nature of abuse of power and male entitlement over women’s bodies, even in so called liberal workplaces,” says criminal lawyer and women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover. “The women’s narratives also expose the severe shortcomings of the law, both substantive and procedural.”

“Men accuse us of just wanting to name and shame,” says Menon, “but that's not what we want to do. We want to take this further.” And it looks as if they’ve succeeded, and #MeToo’s effects will be far-reaching after all. The main opposition party, Congress — who were instrumental in keeping up the pressure to sack MJ Akbar — has also had to fire the head of its student wing. Governing bodies across the film, advertising, and news industries have pledged to implement rigorous checks for safety at the workplace. Women who are facing backlash for outing the powerful — playback singer Chinmayi Sripada who outed lyricist Vairamuthu has been accused of having political and caste motivations; journalist Priya Ramani, who led the charge against Akbar, was slapped with a criminal defamation case by him — are finding strength in the outraged numbers online, and in agencies like Editors Guild Of India, which will likely translate into strong legal resources. National Commission For Women (NCW) opened its phone lines and promised to help file police cases, if the women so wished. And Maneka Gandhi, the women’s development minister, said she would get former judges to probe each allegation. The NCW also reached out to Menon, who has stayed at the forefront of the movement. “My heart leapt,” she says.

Celebrating with her is lawyer Menaka Guruswamy, who is fresh off her success in banishing Section 377. “#MeToo will go a long way in highlighting and addressing a prime cause of Indian women dropping out of the workforce. This phenomenon is unique to India, among various BRICS countries. Imagine what harassment must be like in a construction site, when its so bad in organised media or Bollywood.” As for concerns about false or exaggerated charges, lawyer Karuna Nundy says, “When women have suffered for so long and finally have the courage to come out, it is up to them to decide how. There may be a small minority of cases that are untrue, but in such situations, the accused can pursue legal recourse.” But for now, the floodgates are open, and the revolution has begun. Women have joined hands to march towards a new world — where misogyny and sexual abuse are no longer normalised, condoned or endured silently. And to get there, the movement must transcend its urban roots and include all women — across caste and gender lines — as well as vulnerable populations. It’s only a new world if it’s new for everyone.

girl me too