An actor who made a career out of his sanskari image is accused of rape. A film-maker known for one of the most refreshing feminist films from the Bollywood stables is called out for alleged sexual harassment and intimidation. A high-profile journalist who shot to fame with a report on Haryana’s “rape culture” stands accused of bullying and harassing women. A best-selling author is charged with propositioning an unwilling woman. A Union minister who was once among the top editors in India is accused of serial abuse by women journalists. It’s a list that refuses to end, a serpentine trail of predatory behaviour by some well-known men that include former journalist M.J. Akbar, actors Nana Patekar and Alok Nath, authors Chetan Bhagat and Kiran Nagarkar, film-maker Vikas Bahl, former editor Gautam Adhikari, journalists K.R. Sreenivas and Meghnad Bose and comedian Tanmay Bhat. Many of the accusers are well-known women; some are just faceless, nameless victims. In many cases there is damning proof in the form of screenshots of WhatsApp conversations. In some, it’s just one person’s word against the other.
It could be the most defining moment of the #MeToo movement in India, a country where a majority of the women find themselves on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy and are frequent victims of a society where misogyny and patriarchy run deep. But it could also collapse under the burden of its own expectations and contradictions, as the maelstrom of truth and allegedly false accusations jostle in the hazy space of Twitter and Facebook.
But whatever the outcome, the floodgates appear to have been opened—urban Indian women have found a collective voice, a common platform to open up and share their trauma, some dating back many years, of sexual abuse, harassment and intimidation by powerful men who preyed on their insecurities. It’s what Pinky Anand, the additional solicitor general, says is about redefining the issue of unacceptable conduct by men. “I think the movement itself is proving to be a social cause and it is putting it out in the public domain…the entire concept is getting classified as not acceptable. I think it’s a very big achievement of the movement,” Anand tells Outlook.
Journalist-turned-politician M.J. Akbar
One of the biggest casualties of the pushback by women has been the Indian media, its image already at its lowest over allegations of failing to hold the mirror to the truth and taking sides in an ideologically polarised country. And the biggest name under the spotlight is that of Akbar, a celebrated former journalist who is now the junior external affairs minister. His boss, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, ducked questions by reporters about the allegations of sexual harassment at his previous workplaces. But the women who have called him out were unsparing as they recounted their ordeals. After journalist Priya Ramani named Akbar, one among the many testimonials against him came from writer-conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra. “I do not say this lightly..i know the consequences of false accusations &it has been now 17 yrs &i have no concrete proof…,” Bindra tweeted on October 9, alleging that Akbar invited her to his hotel room at night to “discuss work”. She added that things “got nasty” after she refused and he made “lewd comments once when we had a meeting”. Since the allegations surfaced, more women have come ahead with their stories, including a gut-wrenching account in graphic detail by one of his former colleagues, Ghazala Wahab. Akbar had not issued any denial till the time of going to the press.
Even before Akbar was named among the serial offenders, other journalists were called out, some by multiple women, revealing a deeply entrenched predatory culture and institutionalised misogyny in the highly closeted media world. For most of the victims, the sense of entitlement of the perpetrators was nauseating. And many spoke about the difficulties in speaking out as the onus of proving an incident of assault lies entirely on the survivor in a “pro-perpetrator and anti-victim system,” says Anoo Bhuyan, a journalist at The Wire, who has accused Business Standard’s Mayank Jain of making sexual advances on her. “#MeToo because I spent days asking, What kind of woman am I, that this man could approach me just like that... and tell me to #F#*^Him?” Bhuyan wrote. Jain has since resigned from the organisation and also tweeted an apology. Some men are also in the dock for what is being described as behaving badly and, in some cases, with a degree of criminality. Prashant Jha, author of How the BJP wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, stepped down as the political editor of Hindustan Times after a former colleague accused him of pestering her with unwanted attention, while Dhrubajyoti Purkait, from the same newspaper and also an LGBT rights activist, was called out for alleged assault. Journalist Manoj Ramachandran has been accused of texting a vulgar message to a woman in 2005, though he had apologised the day after sending the text. Journalist Sagarika Ghose tweeted about a “formidable pillar of the Left, crusader journalist” and a “god awful lecher” whom many speculated on social media to be Outlook’s founder-editor, late Vinod Mehta. In an interview past year, she had described Mehta as “best boss ever”.
And then there is The Quint’s Meghnad Bose of the Haryana rape report fame, who has been called out by men and women for his misdemeanour in the recent past. Several women took to various social media outlets to call out instances of Bose’s bullying and harassment in the past. Journalist Divya Karthikeyan posted a screenshot by an anonymous person on Twitter, calling out Bose for physically forcing himself on her. “He touched my lips, my mouth, and forced his fingers inside my mouth,” the screenshot read. Other women had similar accounts of Bose who allegedly “bullied, harassed, and was emotionally abusive to the women in the TV module”. Bose published two separate statements, one of which said his “head hangs in shame and apology”, while The Quint said in an e-mail response to Outlook’s queries that “an ICC has been formulated as per the provisions of POSH Act 2013 and is functioning as per the Act”. Bose has been asked to “proceed on leave” pending an inquiry.
That more and more women are speaking up in India now is evident from the number of sexual harassment cases reported at workplaces. Data from the ministry of women and child development shows that the number of such cases ranged between 520 and 570 countrywide since 2015. However, 533 cases were reported till July-end this year alone. Many point out that a skewed sex ratio in organisations is one factor for the crooked power structure, and for women being uncomfortable with speaking out. (Disclaimer: only 26 per cent of Outlook’s current employees are women but constitutes half of the editorial staff). Also, though most organisations insist they have a strong mechanism in place to address sexual harassment, the inherent patriarchy is evident in instances of them either ignoring the complainant or asking the victim to “adjust”.
Sexual harassment at the workplace has been called out in India earlier too but they were mainly single voices speaking against powerful men, like the 2015 police case against R.K. Pachauri, the former head of TERI, who was accused of predatory behaviour by a woman who had worked with him earlier. Last year, a law student, Raya Sarkar, published a list of names of alleged sexual predators in academic institutions. She said the list was sourced from students who claimed to have survived sexual harassment in academic spaces. The now unavailable public spreadsheet with over 60 names from 29 academic institutes sparked a nationwide debate on its ethicality, but was self-admittedly designed only to caution people against alleged perpetrators. A couple of months later, both the list and accused were all but forgotten.
The spark for the present movement too has its genesis a decade ago when former beauty queen and actress Tanushree Dutta filed a complaint with the Cine and TV Artistes Association, accusing co-actor Nana Patekar of sexual harassment on the sets of her 2008 film Horn OK Please. The association did nothing on her complaint and a traumatised Dutta was soon to leave Bollywood. On September 25, she reiterated her allegations in a TV interview. This was a different India with social media playing a vital role in shaping opinions. Dutta’s story was soon viral. And one by one, women started opening up with their own stories. #MeToo was no longer a mere hashtag; it was revolution in the making, felling big names sitting on ivory towers built on high moral grounds. One of the accused include Alok Nath, whose on-screen persona has spawned countless memes on sanskar, a term used to denote Indian ethos. At least two women have accused Nath of forcing himself on them, a charge he denies.
Actor Nana Patekar
Amid the gathering storm, Bollywood’s reaction to the allegations has bordered on the dismissive. While a few actresses have stood up for Dutta, most others have maintained a stoic silence. The silent brigade includes the biggest name of them all, Amitabh Bachchan, who had moved the nation to tears as a lawyer in the 2016 movie Pink, arguing in court that a woman’s “no means no”. The cine artistes’ association expressed regret for not helping Dutta earlier. But then, Bollywood is guilty of making stalking glamorous and the Shahrukhs and Salmans have inspired millions of Indians not to take no for an answer and go after the women they fancy. (Star Hush Inc.)
Director Vikas Bahl with Kangana Ranaut
The irony of the situation, perhaps, lies in the fact that several among the named and shamed have built their careers on seemingly ‘woke’ ideals. Director of the Kangana Ranaut starrer, Queen, Vikas Bahl, has been accused of sexually assaulting a crew member of Phantom Films, the now-dissolved production company set up by Bahl, Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Madhu Mantena. Though the incident happened in 2015, Kashyap and Co. expressed regret only after the allegations surfaced in public. Industry insiders said the incident was known to all. Veteran theatre and Bollywood actor Rajat Kapoor has also been named and shamed by the Indian twitterati as a sexual offender. Kapoor later issued a public apology.
The stand-up comedy circuit, like media and academia, has also been forced to introspect after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct came up. Writer and comedian Utsav Chakraborty was the first to fall, when Mahima Kukreja, a writer and comic, took to Twitter on October 4 to speak about being sexually harassed by the former All India Bakchod and HuffPost employee. “I want everyone to know @Wootsaw is a piece of shit,” she wrote, tagging Chakraborty’s Twitter handle. “He sent me a d*#^% pic, was creepy, then cried saying I’ll ruin his career if I tell others. I told two of the most influential men in comedy in India. Nothing happened…,” Kukreja said in the first of a series of tweets. This followed similar allegations against Chakraborty by known names and anonymous accounts. He put out a detailed apology later. When contacted, Chakraborty said he would be able to comment on the matter “someday, but not today” and that “everything has crashed and burned”. AIB reacted almost reluctantly and acted only when two of its co-founders Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba were also charged with sexual misconduct.
The comedy scene was jolted by another shocker when Aditi Mittal—one of the first female stand-up artistes in India—was accused of sexual harassment by another woman comic, Kaneez Surka. “Aditi Mittal walked up on stage and forcefully kissed me on my mouth out of the blue and put her tongue in my mouth...A public apology...will be be my closure,” Surka tweeted.
Actor Alok Nath
Writers Chetan Bhagat and Kiran Nagarkar have not been spared by the sexism-scanner either. In an anonymous account tweeted by Sandhya Menon, a woman recounted being “felt up” and had her bra strap fiddled with by Nagarkar. Later, content writer Poorva Joshi and journalist Shilpi Guha recounted similar incidents of harassment by the celebrated writer, who has denied the charges in a TV interview, saying he’s “capable of no such thing”. In the case of Bhagat, a female journalist anonymously accused him of inappropriate behaviour, posting screenshots of their WhatsApp conversation on social media. The writer posted an apology to not just the accuser but his wife as well, stating that he had “deleted the person’s number soon thereafter” and that they “haven’t been in touch for years”.
While some of the accused have accepted their guilt, others have issued outright denials. In between are those who claim to “remember nothing”. Gautam Adhikari, former DNA editor-in-chief, says he can’t “recall such lapses” towards any colleague, after being accused of sexual misconduct by several journalists, including Sandhya Menon, who also alleged harassment by the Hyderabad resident editor at Times of India, K.R. Sreenivas. In graphic accounts of her encounter with Sreenivas, Menon tweeted how her editor laid “his hand on my thigh and then told her that “my wife and I have grown apart”, following which she asked Sreenivas to back off. In a statement on October 5, Sreenivas mentioned submitting “to the investigation” by the organisation’s committee against sexual harassment. TOI responded to an e-mail from Outlook stating it “has a strong POSH policy and does not tolerate any act of sexual harassment at workplace”.
As the Indian leg of the #MeToo movement gathers momentum on various platforms, there is also some amount of scepticism creeping into the discourse, especially on what constitutes sexual harassment (Is Some Of It #TooGrey?). While India has broadened its rape laws to include several forms of sexual harassment, the trial by social media has exposed ambiguous areas. “In one or two instances, am not sure they can be called sexual harassment. I am not condoning what they did, but their acts can be judged on grounds of morality not harassment,” says a senior journalist seeking anonymity. Well-known anchor columnist Nidhi Razdan was among the first to point out the pitfalls of trivialising the movement. She sought to draw a line saying that “some jerk you met on a date or some creep in the office who tried to get too close doesn’t qualify as sexual harassment”.
For many, the intensity of the movement is the result of the country’s failure to provide a sense of security to women, at workplaces and beyond. “We need to move past the obsession of going to the police as the system has repeatedly failed women. No matter where the complaints are made, people need to take them seriously,” says senior advocate Rebecca John. But she left unsaid what next after naming and shaming the offenders.
For Sandhya Menon, this movement provides a platform to bring about changes that laws often fail to. “One woman or three women saying it is not going to make him change his behaviour. But when 25 women get together in a room with him and hammer it into his mind, maybe he’ll think twice about it”.
After all, it took nearly 100 prominent women speaking out to bring down the most powerful predator of them all, American producer Harvey Weinstein. From Hollywood to Bollywood and beyond, the #MeToo story needs a closure. And the onus lies on men to back off when she says no. But, for the time being, this is a story with the inevitable disclaimer: to be continued…
By Arshia Dhar and Siddhartha Mishra