The two words that remained a constant in the newspapers the last couple of years were #MeToo. In India, the movement, inspired by a similar global campaign, created a storm where allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct were levelled against several ‘famous’ men from the entertainment and media industries, some events dating back to more than two decades.
Soon after, social media platforms became the perfect breeding ground for more such allegations that were confined to Facebook posts and tweets that were never ‘registered’ as complaints in a police station or followed up as suit in a court of law. While most allegations turned out to be true, some were made to ‘seek revenge’ from or simply ‘defame’ men in positions of power. It was the investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017 that laid the foundation of the #MeToo movement. Later, a tweet by American activist and actor Alyssa Milano in October 2017, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet” unleashed a series of allegations by women and started the #MeToo movement that soon globally.
#MeToo in India
In India, the #MeToo movement gained momentum in October 2018 when Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta accused actor Nana Patekar and a few others of sexual harassment and intimidation during the shoot of their film ‘Horn Ok Please’ in 2008.
Soon after, the social media was flooded with first-person accounts of women who shouted out ‘Me Too’ as they shared experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct by ‘famous’ men – film directors, writers, actors, artists, politicians, advertising professionals, editors, journalists, etc. Other women who levelled allegations include – Priya Ramani against M J Akbar, Vinta Nanda against Alok Nath, comedian Mahima Kukreja against Utsav Chakraborty, singer Chinmayi Sripada against Vairamuthu, among others.
The allegations were primarily confined to sexual misconduct and obnoxious behaviour at ‘workplace’. The allegations stirred up a massive storm in the country because of the names involved and the extent of sexual harassment at workplace. The media was spilling over with new names being ‘outed’ almost every day. The country was aghast!
The reactions that poured in, as evident from social media, were mixed. Most women supported the movement as it was an ‘easier’ way to call out to a ‘predator’ and name and shame him than going to a police station and getting shamed instead. These women received massive support from the media, civil society, women groups, etc.
At the same time, there were concerns about the implications of this trend that had taken over the country. Amid the storm, there were voices, meek but firm, pointing towards the direction the movement was going in. Why were the victims quiet for so long? Why did these women not register a complaint within their organisation before? Why did they not approach the police or the court? Why was the due process of law not followed? Will social media be the platform to ‘register complaints’ now? And, if so, who will decide whether the accusations hold any water?
The law to protect women
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, also known as POSH, was enacted in 2013 to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work. Not to forget, the Act was derived from the pre-existing Vishakha Guidelines – a set of procedural guidelines to be used in cases of sexual harassment at workplace – put together after the Supreme Court order in 1997.
The women who made allegations were primarily journalists and actors and while their tweets and posts did start a long overdue conversation on the safety and well-being of women at their workplace, they also raised questions about the ‘silence’ of these ‘powerful’ women all these years.
“I still cannot believe that these firebrand journalists were unable to register a complaint with the International Complaints Committee within their big organisations”,exclaims Mumbai-based law graduate Sujata Naik. “I agree the movement has started the discussion and has drawn attention to women survivors but it’s not that the law was not there… India had provisions in place since 1997,” Sujata continues.
#MeToo ruined lives
The repercussions of ‘social media allegations’ were far worse from what met the eye. While a few allegations did turn out to be true, many other died a natural death in the absence of the foundation of truth. But the damage they caused was never ‘outed’ on social media and no one could be held accountable in the absence of a law that hold ‘liars’ of such nature responsible for the offence.
The movement soon transformed into a platform for public humiliation with no checks, but more media trials, ostracisations, etc. Many men lost their jobs, several were slapped divorce notice by their wives, families were humiliated and shamed, children were harassed, faced name-calling and a lot more.
In law, punishment serves the following purposes – Deterrence, preventions, compensation, retribution and rehabilitation. There is no place for ‘public humiliation’ in the legal machinery of the world’s largest democracy. At least, not in formal settings.
Of the 87 women who had blamed Harvey Weinstein, more than 30 reached a USD 25 million settlement. While he and most other powerful men accused could afford the biggest of lawyers, media defence, etc., there were many more who did not have access to a platform to put out their version for public opinion.
However, one must concede that #MeToo movement has paved the way for women seeking justice in cases of actual harassment at workplace, as many organisations are now doing a lot more fearing loss of reputation. “Women also are now more confident in approaching the ICC as she and the committee know she can always ‘post’ about her harassment on social media,” feels Bengaluru-based Media Professional R Geetha.
#MeToo takes a toll
In December 2018, 35-year-old Swaroop Raj, assistant vice president in Genpact was found hanging from the ceiling fan at his home. He was temporarily suspended following complaints of sexual harassment at workplace against him. The suicide note, left behind for his wife, read, “I would not be able to face the world as everyone will look at me with that eye even if I come clean. I want to let you know how much I love you. I have an allegation by two of the employees on sexual harassment and trust me I didn’t do anything. I know the world will not understand it but you and our families should trust me. The allegations are baseless. But the entire Genpact will know about it. Hence, I don’t have the courage to face everyone. I want you to be strong and live your life with respect as your husband has not done anything.”
His wife registered an FIR against the female workers at Genpact and five other male workers stating her husband was “declared guilty without being given an opportunity to be heard”.
And suicides committed the world over by men who faced false #MeToo allegations included:
– Mexican rocker Armando Vega Gil who killed himself denying #MeToo accusations of an anonymous woman who tweeted that the rocker had sexually harassed her. He took the extreme step to protect his son from the effects of the false accusations.
In India, in some of the high-profile cases, the ‘accused’ succeeded in getting a clean chit while others continue fighting legal and personal battles. The #MeToo movement that started to help women ended up in breaking and humiliating families.
Meanwhile, although Vinta Nanda filed a rape case against actor Alok Nath, after months of investigation and lack of sufficient evidence, the police closed the case. Actor Tanushree Dutta and her lawyer Nitin Satpute filed a protest petition against the B-summary (closure) report filed by the police in her complaint against Nana Patekar.