First the news
Modi government’s junior foreign minister MJ Akbar quits facing sexual harassment allegations from 36 women so far. PM Modi went by Ajit Doval’s advice to seek ex-editor’s exit and the mounting charges swung decision for sure. And this happens less than 24 hours short of the scheduled hearing of Akbar’s defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani by a magistrate’s court at Patiala House. The decision, it is said, was driven by Akbar’s failure to provide a clear picture of how many more women were likely to come forward as witnesses against him and what the content of their testimony might be — leaving the government open to a barrage of criticism. It must be noted that PM did not ask for Akbar’s resignation earlier on his return from Africa going by Arun Jaitley’s advice to brazen out the allegations against Akbar, as has been the policy of this government whenever facing criticisms (as in, Lalit Modi or Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallya departures, Smriti Irani or PM qualifications imbroglio, demonetization and currency exchange failures, fuel price-rise or jobless growth etc).
It is important to note that the RSS number three Dattatreya Hosable tweeted in support of the #MeToo movement after the allegations against Akbar surfaced. RSS-affiliated BJP leader R Balashankar, in turn, was reported as saying he saw no reason for the party to “get involved in Akbar’s personal battle to save his reputation”. Inside the ranks of the BJP, there was also disquiet among senior women politicians. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who met with Akbar on Sunday to discuss the allegations against him, declined to comment on his claims of innocence. For their part, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Textiles Minister Smriti Irani spoke in support of the #MeToo movement.
However, it is pertinent to note here that the PMO had first rejected Minister Maneka Gandhi’s proposal to constitute an inquiry committee of four retired SC/HC judges against MJ Akbar and other high profile persons against whom charges were brought, and the rationale given was that it is an urban elite issue and will not harm BJP politically. Hence, Modi made Akbar resign is actually misleading. And, Akbar still remains Rajya Sabha MP from BJP.
After Akbar tendered his resignation, Priya Ramani tweeted that “as women we feel vindicated” and she is looking forward to the day when she gets justice in court. There are enough indications that the defamation case will fall flat as there will be now a flood of accusations against MJ Akbar, and rightly so. More than 20 former employees of Akbar’s Asian Age have asked the court hearing the defamation case filed by Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani, to consider their testimony about the “culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation that he engendered and presided over” at the organisation.
This is not Priya’s battle alone. And this will only grow stronger with every passing day with biggies like Alok Nath, Subhas Ghai, Suhel Seth, Sajid Khan and many others caught up in the web. Several organizations like Phantom and AIB have been dissolved or lost projects. Several known names like 16 women film directors, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar etc distanced themselves from “known offenders”. Several editors including two of Times of India group (Kolkata and Hyderabad editions) have stepped down.
The movement surely enters the version 2.0 now and is likely to lead to many recounting of experiences from media and other sectors which are known for exploitation of women: entertainment, advertising, hospitality, legal and some corporate houses.
The spirit now is that this is the battle of every woman who has faced, witnessed and been a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace. If, as women, they let this pass without standing up to it, they would be poor supporters of the cause. Hence, Tavleen Singh’s poor defence of MJ Akbar and Suhel Seth has been stoutly attacked by all and sundry.
The other aspect is many men are openly coming in support of this rising tide. Author Rashid Kidwai and India Today Online Editor Kamlesh Singh, both former Asian Age employees, who have come out openly to support their former colleagues and the cause. Priya’s journalist husband Samar Harlankar has written a powerful piece saluting his wife. Many commentators, including me, are active in social and mainstream media, and also on streets, in support on #MeToo movement.
What will be important to note is the impact this rising tide has in the hinterland, in regional media, in small towns of India. Such sexually aggressive behaviour by men — along with the lewd comments, the demand for sex, their bodies rubbed against the female body — are part of the everyday experience of women on India’s streets, public transport and homes. The alleged behaviour of an Akbar or a Seth isn’t deviance; it is the norm. For many men, then, violence against women — of which sexual harassment is just a small part — works much as drugs do for addicts: it offers at least the illusion of empowerment where none exists, fixing feelings of rage and impotence when they have no claim to a dignified life in a jobless economy. And for some men, sadly enough, this is the proof of their power and entitlement.
The sexual harassment of some women by some men isn’t just a big problem: it is, instead, the very fundamentals of our culture, built over centuries, built as it is on a toxic masculinity that celebrates violence. In our society, violence is not an aberration; it is the tie that binds us, if we look at the evolution of masculinity over time.
Hence, #MeToo Version 2.0 Ahead
#MeToo is, hence, a movement about equality, against misplaced masculinity and for a dignified work-place. It does not question consensual relations, it should not be used for settling personal scores through lies (as seen in Varun Grover’s case), and it should not be seen as a passing fad. #MeToo is about dismantling hierarchies of power that have existed for centuries, in our governments, court systems, corporate offices, family homes, and cultural institutions. Because power has always been consolidated into the hands of men, men have also been the ones framing laws and rules and social norms around their experiences. As a result, most social norms, and our processes for re-evaluating them, have excluded the voices, perspectives, and experiences of women. What we are now experiencing is the collective outpouring of rage over centuries of institutionalised sexism, which needs to enter the portals of other sectors of the economy and in various geographies of the country. Hence, the movement is as much for gender parity as against abuse of power.
#MeToo may not be a perfect structured or planned movement in its current form, but no movement that demands an upheaval of our social norms ever is. #MeToo can be the proverbial last straw that brings patriarchal norms to heel.
If we are able to redefine the norms around consent and masculinity that are at the core of #MeToo, we will move towards a new world-view in our office and public spaces. We may be then working towards a world where there is no female infanticide, no domestic violence, no eve-teasing on the streets, no barriers to girls’ education, no gender discrimination in homes and workplaces.
One thing from the Akbar episode is clear. If those affected stand in unison and if media is sensitive towards real issues of people, an arrogant government also yields. Can the media take it ahead with all causes they should stand by? Can the media moguls now take care to ensure better working environment for women? Will the corporate, the legal, the hotel and entertainment worlds take lessons from this? These are other dens of unsafe work environments for women. And will the people take a lesson that only a united force can boot a non-performing government out?
(The author is currently the Dean of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi & Mumbai, and former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities, and is a regular commentator on current affairs.)