#metoo

India’s #MeToo Moment Was Groundbreaking, but What Has Changed a Year After?

Prominent actors, journalists, and artists accused of sexual harassment are back in the mainstream after intimidation tactics were thrown at survivors. Is this how it ends?

by Pallavi Pundir; illustrated by Prianka Jain
08 October 2019, 8:07am

Early this month, a breaking story put into question the progress of the #MeToo movement in India. The headline? “Instagram was ordered to reveal the identity of a user posting sexual harassment allegations against men in the Indian art scene.”

The user in question was the Scene and Herd (@Herdsceneand) account, which posted sexual harassment allegations against some of the most prominent names in the Indian art world in December last year. One of their disclosures was that of sexual misconduct by artist Subodh Gupta towards young female staffers. Gupta, according to a few survivors, was a “serial sexual harasser.”

Last month, Gupta slapped a case against Scene and Herd, seeking Rs 5 crore ($70,2325) in damages from the account admins. And now, the Delhi High Court has directed Instagram to reveal the identity of the users linked to the anonymous account. The court also ordered Facebook and Google to remove posts containing the allegations.

It was on October 8, 2018, when the long-awaited wave of the global #MeToo movement finally hit Indian social media. A sexual harassment complaint by Tanushree Dutta against fellow actor Nana Patekar resurfaced wherein Dutta said Patekar acted inappropriately while they were shooting a film in 2008.

In a matter of days, more disclosures came in the form of Twitter threads and Facebook posts. As one woman’s note urged others to speak up, the insidious pattern of silence broke instantly, by (mostly) women who’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted by (mostly) men in powerful positions. Since then, the list of sexual harassment allegations against prominent figures in India has grown. The well-known names came from Bollywood, the journalism and media industry, and even politics.

It was empowering, but then came the backlash, which was of no ordinary nature. Within months, the women who came forward were weighed down by litigations and defamation suits. Somewhere in the fringes, the men’s rights activists, or “meninists,” reared its head too, aiming to dilute #MeToo. So now, one year on, where exactly are we?

One thing is clear: the #MeToo movement did shake the system, for better and worse.

First, the good news. An analysis by ComplyKaro Services, an Indian provider that helps companies and organisations comply with legal obligations, found that among the top 100 Bombay Stock Exchange companies, there’s been a 14 per cent increase in reports of sexual harassment.

“Getting complaints is good because it means women are encouraged or are comfortable with making complaints,” said Vishal Kedia, the trainer and founder of ComplyKaro Services. “I'm not getting into the right or wrong, or whether it happened or not because that's for the committee to decide. But the fact that women are coming in higher numbers means that there is now a better redressal mechanism as compared to the past.”

However, Kedia voiced some apprehensions. “Along with the rise of cases, there’s also been an increase in the pendency in the cases, which is concerning,” he added. Pendency is the state of being pending, undecided, or undetermined. Kedia’s concerns are justified. During the movement, it’s become clear that formal routes of justice (that of going to the police station and filing a criminal complaint under the Sexual Harassment Act) are not effective, at all.

Consider the two most recent high-profile cases. In one, a woman, who was an employee under Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, accused him of sexual harassment. This ended with the Supreme Court setting up a panel (which included CJI Gogoi as well) and exonerating him of all charges. In another ongoing case, journalist Priya Ramani, among other women, accused former Union Minister and veteran journalist MJ Akbar of sexual harassment. In retaliation, Akbar slapped a defamation case against her and, 11 months on, the hearing is still dragging on. “This case has come at a great personal cost to me and I had nothing to gain from it," Ramani said during the court hearing on September 9.

A few people VICE spoke to are still undecided about whether or not last year’s wave of allegations shifted anything in society. “I’m not sure whether there has been a miraculous change in atmosphere since the disclosures came in October to November last year,” said advocate Rebecca John, who is part of Ramani’s counsel.

“If a woman has to think twice before she makes a disclosure, and if she's going to be faced with intimidatory tactics in the form of court proceedings and cases, or other forms—including the silent ones like her inability to find another job, being labelled as a troublemaker, etc—it's disturbing because all it can do is silence more women and create a chilling effect.”

In light of these and many, many more cases, some observe that the direction #MeToo in India has taken is similar to how things usually go for women in a patriarchal society.

“The movement sent waves of shock in our society, and it was being reported sensitively. But I think, along the way, it became accusatory and questions about timing came up, and whether they can prove it. It just went in a different direction, and, usually, all things about women go in that direction,” said Audrey Dmello, advocate and director of Majlis, a legal centre for women’s rights.

Majlis works as an external third-party to Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) in several companies. While she feels that organisations have become very conscious after the movement, with some “scampering” to start the process of setting up anti-sexual harassment cells, that doesn’t mean that they’re devoid of internal bias and politics.

“As part of [some of those] committees, I have a knowledge of the law. I’m sensitive to women, and I’d stand my ground and explain to [the committee members]. But what could be happening in other places? That worries me,” Dmello said. “I’ve heard of absurd things like the victim and the accused being brought face-to-face, or having lawyers come in to the meetings, or the survivors being asked questions that are extremely irrelevant to the case.”

Rajshree Singh*, a survivor who outed a fellow journalist for sexual misconduct last year, reiterated the point with her own experience last year. She told VICE that soon after her disclosure on Twitter, the organisation where the accused worked said that they would immediately file a complaint against the latter. However, the process was anything but swift.

“What followed was a lengthy, drawn-out investigation by the ICC formed by the organisation,” she said. “By the time it wound down, I was so exhausted with the process and depleted of any mental energy that the ICC's eventual findings had little bearing on me. In hindsight, it seems to have had little effect on the accused, as well.”

In Singh’s case, the committee's penalties for the accused included counselling sessions and a brief transfer to another city, among others.

“[But] when I asked the ICC/HR if details would be shared with me, regarding whether he actually went for counselling sessions or whether there were any other allegations against him, I was told that that would be an internal matter,” said Singh. The accused has since reappeared with his bylines and videos on the organisation’s website.

Keeping survivors out of the loop in the aftermath of what is technically “justice” is a result of an existing bias against women. This explains why most accused are back in the mainstream within a year.

John said this quick acceptance to society reinforces sexist attitudes. “This bias is everywhere. And it exists in the complete lack of empathy, in the complete lack of understanding. Most of the time, one hears comments like, ‘You've woken up 20 years late,’ or ‘How can it be true?’ There's an attempt to trivialise it, to not understand why a woman is making the disclosure. I don't think this has changed much in a year.”

Perhaps the most jarring indicator of this failure of justice is seen in Bollywood. Actor Alok Nath, who was accused of rape, is now back in film sets. All charges were eventually dropped, with the court’s judgement implying that he could be falsely implicated.

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Personalities from Bollywood who were accused of sexual harassment, assault and rape by different women: (From left) Actors Nana Patekar and Alok Nath, and director Vikas Bahl. Photo courtesy: Bollywood Hungama (for Nana Patekar) and Wikimedia Commons

In another case, sexual assault complaints against director Rajkumar Hirani was meted with no inquiry by his production company. He was even recently appointed as the jury head of the Malaysia International Film Festival. In yet another, Vikas Bahl, accused by a woman who worked with him in 2018 of sexual assault, was also cleared of all charges by the ICC of Reliance Entertainment (the company that was a 50-50 joint venture with Bahl’s now-dissolved production company, Phantom Films).

Even Patekar, the accused in the case that started the #MeToo movement in India for sexually inappropriate behaviour on a film set, has been cleared of all charges by the Mumbai Police.

Away from the spotlight, many are also concerned that the movement may have, as predicted by skeptics, failed to defend women beyond the elite.

“I concede with the allegations that it’s an extremely elitist movement,” said John. “The fact that you could use Twitter and Facebook to make your disclosures obviously means that you belong to a certain class of people and section of society.”

“We never talk about the unorganised sector of our country, from domestic workers to factory workers, to construction workers, who face violence at the workplace and domestic violence, as well as the violence of poverty, and therefore have no choice but to keep quiet. I don’t think anyone has documented the extent of violence these women face.”

However, it would also be unfair to overlook some of the supporting work and campaigns that have sprung up to support the survivors. Bengaluru-based organisation Jhatkaa.org, a digital space for campaigns has been flooded with calls and emails from women, especially college girls, who have outed their professors and superiors for sexual harassment. They are asking for more support to back their claims, especially with the common response having been gaslighting not just from the accused, but also institutions.

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One of the posters for a campaign that Bengaluru-based Jhatkaa started, which is currently supporting two college students who were expelled from her hostels for calling out their professor for sexual harassment and misconduct. Image courtesy Jhatkaa

“Digital advocacy campaigns like ours, where we bring in allies and government agencies like the MWCD, change the perception that this is one akeli ladki (lone girl) trying to change things, as opposed to thousands of people supporting her,” said Jyotsna George of Jhatkaa.org. “We employ various public mobilisation strategies to sustain pressure on the institutions, telling them we're watching, compelling them to respond and take sexual harassment seriously.”

Perhaps the movement’s best accomplishment was in emboldening the younger generation to speak up.

“I think the younger women, particularly those who are going to universities and colleges, or who are entering the work space, are clear about what they will tolerate and not tolerate. What you're going to see is an intense confrontation,” said John. “So you can have strategic silences for a while, but you can’t expect women to hold it within for much longer. That was the volcanic explosion that you saw in 2018. You'll continue to see that.”

Punita Maheshwari, the campaigns manager at Jhatkaa.org, agrees that the #MeToo movement affected the youth the most. “While it's easier for the youth to mobilise their friends and other students, there's also the aspect of them being at an age where they're drawn to different forms of revolutions,” she said.

So while many see the faltering flaws of the #MeToo revolution, some are optimistic that it has the potential to branch out to something more.

“#MeToo was one way. But it doesn't have to be the only way. I don't know what they will be but I'm sure there will be more creative ways and different ways in putting forth these disclosures,” John said. “I don’t think women can be silenced. That stage is over.”

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*Name has been changed for the subject's privacy and protection.

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