The long-awaited arrival of #MeToo in India has received two kinds of receptions: cathartic yet celebratory cacophony and uncomfortable silence. The first comes from most working women and many men – on Twitter mostly. The second stems from many men and some women – in most newspapers so far. (Must be modesty; they prefer not to talk about themselves.)
Reactions to MeTooIndia so far have been like reactions to Gandhi and untouchability: one section thinks it’s going too fast and too radical, the other section sees nothing less than dangerous portents in the speed at which it is unravelling.
This, latter section of society feels good old ways are threatened, small matters are being blown out of proportion, things are not so black-and-white as projected, and if this snowballs it will hurt day-to-day interactions between men and women in the workplace. Unfortunately, no one is articulating this viewpoint in public, arguably because it would not seem right. Only Udit Raj, a BJP MP, was left to speak up for them. He boldly sought to discredit the nascent MeToo campaign, terming it a “wrong practice”. How can a woman accuse her former live-in partner of rape ten years later, he asked, among many rhetorical questions.
Here is an attempt to address this second section, and answer some of their fears in the spirit of dialogue.
What is happening so far is merely naming and shaming, trial by (social) media, without a shred of evidence. That is not fair.
The latest developments began with actor Tanushri Datta, and she is pressing for a police investigation. Allegations against actor Alok Nath too will be a matter of formal investigation and not mere shaming. In news media, those working journalists who have been named are facing the due procedure under the Vishaka law: an inquiry has been instituted. If the procedure laid down by the supreme court finds them innocent, there is no reason for them to be shamed. In one instance, a journalist has maintained that allegations made against him anonymously from a day-old Twitter handle are baseless, and has filed an FIR with police. No reason for him to be shamed yet.
Naming-and-shaming goes on in all walks of life: a Bollywood star accuses another star of indecent behaviour and the latter’s career has not suffered much; political leaders accuse rivals of corruption and so on, with nobody paying the price. For many of us common men, shame may really be too much, and there have been cases of rape accused committing suicide out of shame. Legal procedures often fail. Not fair, not just. But tens of thousands of women have been facing a not-fair-not-just situation for decades.
Mere shame of some potential innocents is not enough to silence hundreds of victims from complaining and seeking justice. It is not enough to grant basic courtesy and dignity, restore rights to someone who could be your sister or daughter.
Many people try unethical means to succeed in competitive careers, in journalism, in Bollywood/TV and in so many other sectors that are yet to be touched by MeToo. Some women resort to appealing to baser instincts of their male bosses or colleagues. It is quid pro quo. Both parties enter into it knowing its ramification. But now the poor guy will face punishment or blackmail if she chooses to, even years later.
If the male involved in an apparently consensual relation is her boss or carries power to make or break her career (as Alok Nath did), then the law does not look at it as plain between-consenting-adults business. He should not have walked down that path in the first place, whether she complains ten years later or not.
What has emerged in the early October is that there are a lot of predators out there, and they are looking for sexual gratification, not financial one. So, it is too early to put the blame on the other side.
This seems to be an attempt to shame one political party, now that elections are round the corner.
One peculiar thing about gender injustice is that it is above party lines. The only politician named so far is from the BJP, but the party has no monopoly in this area. A CPM MLA is also in the queue. Starting with Poonam Mahajan and then Smriti Irani, a number of women from the BJP have spoken up in support of MeToo. Indeed, senior (usually male and sometimes female) politicians have discretionary powers to make or break a newcomer’s career, and thus most political parties too would have hundreds of MeToo’s waiting to speak up. We get a glimpse of them once in a while, like the woman who protested outside the state unit of a national party last month, accusing seniors of sexually harassing her for an election ticket.
Often, what you call sexual harassment in the workplace is about a very fine distinction. It can be subjective. What is merely a flirty text message or a suggestion for an outing is unacceptable and horrifying advances for the other.
Yes, unfortunately, the matter can be subjective. But then, whether something wrong is happening or not can only be confirmed by the person to whom the wrong might be happening. That can give power to that person, so be it. In any case, the loss of the option to forward a risqué WhatsApp message to a friendly female colleague or resisting the temptation of a friendly pat on her back is not a huge price to pay for letting her work without worries.
This is just another instance of the jumping-a-red-signal syndrome. Something is No No in the rule book but everybody assumes that since everybody else ignores it, there should not be a problem. Copy-pasting from published work – till one day a respected editor has to resign on it. Changing habits is not easy, unless forced.
Office equations will now change. A man will always have to be on guard in dealing with a woman colleague. There would be much misuse of women’s empowerment.
When reports of the Aadhaar hack started coming it, one of its pioneers retorted saying that every lock can be broken, every system can be hacked. In the same vein, every law can be misused. But, then, every law can be improved upon, too.
The world being what it is, an imperfect place at best, things can become dicey in some cases. That would be the price to pay for overall cleaning up. Women and dalits have been subjected to such behaviour for a long, long time, and when society is trying to balance the scales, with the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act or the dowry law, things can go overboard in some cases. Being subjected to a power from across the gender boundary will be a new experience from men. It will take a generation for the scales to find the balance. Till then, we can look at it from a utilitarian perspective: in making our workplaces hostile for half the populations, we are making it difficult for half the talent available.
Moreover, let us first put the law to some use before worrying about its possible misuse.
(The column appears in October 31, 2018 edition)