Last year when more than 70 women came out with allegations of sexual harassment against celebrated movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo Movement originally started by Tarana Burke succeeded in grabbing headlines. But Weinstein was not the only one who faced such accusations. Many other actors were accused of sexual harassment. Some like Kevin Spacey of House of Cards fame were even dropped from the series. The Movement it seems have finally reached India. In the last few weeks a large number of women came out with disturbing accounts of sexual misconduct by many men at the helm of power.
The #MeToo Movement against Harvey Weinstein which started as a Twitter hashtag spread across countries and cultures. Started by actor Alyssa Milano, it soon found support amongst noted actors like Gyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman. In fact popular Times magazine named the movement ‘Person of the Year’. In India we can say that the movement started when ex Miss India and actor Tanushree Dutt in a recent interview stated that in 2008 she left the movie Horn Ok Pleasss and acting as well because Nana Patekar misbehaved with her. He insisted on doing an intimate number with her which made her feel uncomfortable. After this interview, many other women from different fields came out with their own horrid accounts of harassment. Stand up comedians, journalists, film personalities and even the names of many politicians started cropping up in such accusations.
The #MeToo Movement in India however gained momentum when the stand up comedian Utsav Chakravarty of All India Bakchod (AIB) was accused of sending unsolicited pictures of his private parts to writer Mahima Kukreja. Kukreja further stated that even after complaining to the authorities, the company did not pay any heed. After this the director of the film Queen, Vikas Bahal was also accused of sexual misconduct by an ex employee of Phantom Films. Phantom Films is partner to Netflix to India. Similar grave accusations have surfaced against Union Minister M J Akbar and veteran actor Alok Nath. Many senior journalists have also been accused of making unwarranted advances towards their colleagues, employees. However some women journalists like Anoo Bhuyan, Rituparna Choudhury and Sandhya Menon have come forward to document such stories as well as provide support to the women who are coming out.
When Mahima Kukreja spoke against Utsav Chakravarty, many women in Twitter complained of similar harassment of the comedian. Interestingly the founding members of AIB Gursimran Khamba and Tanmoy Bhat tried to maintain a safe distance from the entire issue. Utsav Chakravarty cited mental issues for such behaviour and apologised. Senior journalist of Times of India K R Sreenivas was send on administrative leave once such accusation surfaced in his name. Anoo Bhuyan of The Wire complained against Mayank Jain of Business Standard. Four days later Mayank Jain resigned. The women speaking out against sexual harassment at workplace have made one thing clear, they are no more victims. They are not responsible for what they had to endure and they want to hold the perpetrators accountable.
This time when the women came out, the impact was visible. When Vikas Bahal was accused of sexual harassment, Anurag Kashyap decided to dismantle Phantom Films. Bahal’s lawyer however criticised Kashyap’s behaviour as a case of professional jealousy. Another incident which rocked Bollywood is Binta Nanda’s statement accusing Alok Nath of rape. Nanda was a writer for the popular Zee serial Tara. Nanda recounted that she complained about the incident when it happened. But nobody came out in her support. In fact she stopped getting work and had to face some kind of professional boycott. Today however things have changed and many openly acknowledged Nanda’s courage and vouched support. When asked to respond, Alok Nath neither agreed nor dismissed Nanda’s accusations. He rather stated in a patronizing tone that he helped Nanda in her career. But after Binta, another actor Sandhya Mridul also came out with similar accusations against Alok Nath. Tara’s lead actor Navneet Nishan came out in support of Binta Nanda. In fact she stated that Alok Nath came to teh set drunk and misbehaved with her. As a result she slapped him. Quite a few women also came out against director Sajid Khan. Sajid’s sister Farah and cousin Farhan Khan however stated that Sajid must be held accountable for such behaviour.
The #MeToo Movement was not limited to Bollywood. In 2017, journalist Priya Ramani wrote a piece for Vogue. Without mentioning M J Akbar’s name, she recounted how he made advances when she was interviewing him. She went to the extent of complaining that it felt more like a date than an interview. Later though he recruited her for a job, she made it a point to never be alone with him. Somedays back in a tweet, Ramani took Akbar’s name. In fact till date around 7 women journalists have come out with similar accusations against him. Sushma Swaraj, when asked to respond maintained silence. While news of Akbar resigning was doing the rounds, he clarified that he will not resign and he will respond to the accusations. He shamelessly filed defamation case against Priya Ramani. When many other women journalists came out against him, he was finally forced to step down. Another Journalist, Prashant Jha of Hindustan Times resigned when his ex colleague Avantika Mehta complained that he wanted to establish a relationship with her despite her denial.
This may be India’s #MeToo Moment. Every day many such incidents are being reported where women are openly holding their abusers accountable. However this is not the first instance where women spoke about sexual abuse. Before this, last year a list was drawn up which listed the names of sexual abusers. It had the names of a large number of noted academicians as well. However the identity of the survivors was kept secret. The accusations were also at times vague in nature. Many accused outrightly dismissed the accusations.
Activists who were critical of the list maintained that merely naming and shaming one’s harasser is not enough. It is important to bring them to book through institutional means. However the latest initiative is slightly different. Women are no longer nameless faceless survivors. They have openly voiced their experience against men who misused their powerful positions and tried to take advantage of them. These women did face a backlash for coming out against powerful men.
Sexual harassment scars many for life. The career of Tanushree Dutt came to an end because of her traumatic experience. Many questioned her why she did not speak up earlier. She in fact did and videos of supporters of Nana Patekar attacking her car is also available. When she complained to director Vivek Agnihotri he did not pay any heed. There are nonetheless a large number of men equally rallying behind women and assuring support.
Many activists largely supporting the movement however pointed to certain crucial aspects. It became evident that educated, articulate and urban women faced a backlash when they spoke against powerful men. In such a situation, one can only imagine, how difficult it would be for a lower caste, lower class uneducated woman to demand justice. This movement will be successful in true sense when each and every voice is heard. Another important issue is that most accused have stepped down voluntarily. But this is not the same as their organisations taking any action against them. Institutional mechanism continues to be weak.
Unlike the last time, many women decided to take legal recourse. This is the apt time to revisit the Vishakha judgement and evaluate how safe workplaces are for women. The loopholes need to be immediately addressed. If institutional mechanisms do not compliment the #MeToo Movement, it will be reduced to a mere social media moment and a tool for TRP hungry media houses. It is also important that while pointing out the shortcomings of the movement, we do not dismiss it. Otherwise we will end up strengthening the impunity that most sexual abusers enjoy and again put the onus of proof on survivors.
Parvin Sultana is currently working as an Assistant Professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Assam. Her research interest includes gender, minority rights etc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org