At last count, Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar had been accused of sexual harassment by at least 10 women journalists . These accusations fall in a large spectrum — from inappropriate behaviour to acts of physical impropriety — and some date back to more than 15 years. That the clamour for his resignation reached such a crescendo this week is indicative of the fact that the #MeToo movement has truly arrived in India and it will have an impact in not only making powerful men pay for their past mistakes but also etching a new behaviour code for everyone.
While the latest fire was lit by actor Tanushree Dutta’s accusation against Nana Patekar , the trend of naming perpetrators began last year when a list of men in academia who behaved inappropriately with colleagues and research associates went around. Not much came of that list, barring one whose service was terminated. It is notable that even women who were pushing for a due process of investigation then have now thrown in their lot with the list and are choosing instead to name and shame people through social media.
About due process
At the heart of this change is the utter failure of due process. Victims who have written formal complaints and tried to get their organisations to act have mostly found themselves facing a system that prefers to be complicit with the perpetrators. In the case of the former TERI chairman, R.K. Pachauri, for instance, despite the victim filing a police complaint and compelling the organisation to initiate an inquiry, he not only continued in TERI for another year but was publicly supported by the board members. The case of rape against the former Editor of Tehelka , Tarun Tejpal, is another example. In spite of being a “fast track” case, five years on, it has only seen a series of adjournments, with no sign of justice on the horizon. These events, added to the daily news cycle of multiple rapes, stalking, and harassment from all across the country has resulted in victims of sexual crimes entirely losing faith in the justice system.
This failure of due process is the success of #MeToo. After decades of witnessing the impunity of the perpetrators, #MeToo is fuelled by an impunity of sorts of the ‘victims’. Publicly naming and shaming, sometimes through anonymous screen shots, is obviously a flawed process, and nobody is blind to that. Yet, for many people, including the senior journalists who have pointed their fingers at Mr. Akbar, that is the only option available for any hope of justice.
Now that the floodgates have opened, various kinds of stories are getting exposed — ranging from awkward flirting to physical assault. One other factor that is cleaving the discussion into two is the nature of consent. What needs consent is often a function of society — many aspects of intersexual behaviour especially in the workplace that were acceptable 30 years ago, needless to say, are not tolerated any more. However, with the advent of smartphones and instant messaging, interpersonal behaviour and the definition of consent have undergone a particularly momentous metamorphosis in the last decade. It is imperative at this point, therefore, to consider that consent is not static, but needs to be continuous and incremental.
In the dating mores of millennials, seeking and swapping intimate photographs of each other is par for the course. While the tendency, especially among the older generation, is to sweep subsequent allegations of violation of this trust as something the victim should have accounted for, and maybe even taken responsibility of, the #MeToo movement has revealed that to be outmoded. What is regarded as appropriate behaviour is anchored in many things — the age of the participants, their geographic location (what is acceptable in Denver is questionable in Delhi, and what is true for Delhi need not be conventional in Dindigul), as well as the social and economic demographic they occupy. A one-size-fits-all rule is not applicable. As more people get on board social media, where many of these structures tend to be invisible, a code of conduct that is constantly evolving is an inevitability, as will be the violations of this. As the online space matures, so will user behaviour. Dismissing these incidents as irresponsible acts by the victims is only going to postpone the inevitable meltdown, not prevent it.
The larger message
Lastly, many people — especially men — have raised concerns regarding false accusations. This is valid, and there have been instances of this even in the last 10 days. No movement is perfect, and all battles have collateral damage. This makes it important that men, instead of beating their chests about potential victimhood, be active allies in making the due process a fair and functional one in which all victims — including those of false allegations — can seek justice.
There is no doubt that the genie is now out of the bottle. Everything is fair game — misread cues, unsolicited text messages, unnecessary comments can all find their way to a large audience, sometimes stripped of context and continuum. This is no foreseeable way to go back to a time when victims — real and perceived — chose to remain quiet. This makes the building of a new, fair system that delivers brisk justice critical to everyone’s interests.