India's MeToo movement has just begun

The entire week has been overwhelming and emotionally draining. At one point, nothing made sense. Along with film, TV, literature and advertising, the movement hit the news media industry—including the Hindustan Times, my employer.

On Monday, the national political editor of the Hindustan Times—and my immediate boss—stepped down from his post, following accusations by a former colleague that he had sent her “inappropriate” messages, screenshots of which she had shared on Twitter. NDTV called it #MeTooIndia’s “first casualty in the Indian media”.

Reactions varied. Here are three versions I heard:

  1. Colleague #1 said the action was harsh: What is the big deal in expressing interest? Are we taking a moral stance on adultery? The guy tried, pushed a bit, it didn’t work out— end of story. There is a line between sexual harassment and flirting. Moreover, the said incident happened after the girl had left the Hindustan Times. So how is this workplace harassment?

  2. Colleague #2 was on the other extreme: this person believes that the guy had an easy escape. The punishment should have been harsher. Just stepping down from a managerial role is not enough. The action was inappropriate and should not have happened.

  3. Colleague #3 was more subtle, arguing that **the case falls in a grey area: If the girl says she got uncomfortable, it is because she felt uncomfortable. Who are we to decide how she should feel? If the action seems unjustified to us, consider it collateral damage. Women’s voices have been suppressed for so long: so let the floodgates remain open and the dams be broken. Some nuance will obviously be lost in the process; false accusations will be hurled. But that’s the cost we have to pay for the larger good.

Then, on Tuesday, a second incident: An anonymous Twitter account levelled allegations of sexual misconduct against the Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times. Unlike the previous case where screenshots were shared and the identity of the person was known, there was not enough information in this case.

HT’s Editor-in-Chief tweeted:

He added:

But just to close the loop, we will assess all claims stringently and fairly if the accusers come forward — and not merely from the statutory perspective but from that of creating a safe and productive newsroom for everyone.

This is not to say that anonymous complaints don’t matter and be rejected upfront. In fact, there have been a large number of anonymous testimonies in the movement. But they have come through gatekeepers—at least someone knows who that person is; someone can at least confirm that the complainant is real. That was not the case here.

These two instances illustrate the tension and the debate surrounding the #MeTooIndia movement.

  1. In the first case, there is no doubt that the said incident happened. Messages were exchanged. The debate is whether that constitutes sexual harassment.

  2. In the second case, the issue is if at all the incident ever occurred happened. Is it a real story or made up? How do you confirm the authenticity of an anonymous testimony?

These are not easy questions. While I am still conflicted, and confused, and overwhelmed by everything that’s going on, I am clear about one thing: #MeTooIndia was required. It had to happen. It is not perfect: there have been excesses, there will be more. But the horror stories we are now getting to know are symptomatic of how misogyny has been normalised and patriarchy internalised in our society. That system had to be called out.

The number of men who have been named in the ongoing #MeToo movement is increasing every hour. The list has prominent names, including MJ Akbar, currently a Minister of State in the Central Government and a former Editor; Alok Nath, the veteran “sanskaari” actor; Sajid Khan, Bollywood director; Kailash Kher, singer; senior editors and journalists at major newspapers. Some stories are horrific and downright disgusting.

Here is a list.

How come these stories were buried for so long?

It has been the failure of these very systems that has catalyzed this latest development in India’s #MeToo movement. Women are increasingly fed up at not being listened to. Assault victims in India are routinely discouraged from filing complaints by police — particularly if their abuser is a powerful or well-respected man. Legal cases often drag on for years (it is estimated that there are more than 30 million cases pending in Indian courts), and when women do make it to court they are routinely disbelieved by judges who have a narrow understanding of consent. While the law governing sexual harassment at work was passed five years ago, many major organizations and universities still have no official processes for investigating sexual assault. (BuzzFeed News)