The rage of Indian women — submerged thus far in the recesses of memory, wrapped away in swathes of fear and self-doubt, and suppressed for years by entrenched social stigma — has finally come pouring out to set in motion India’s long-overdue #MeToo moment. Caught in the swirl of these floodwaters: an official in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, journalists, actors, directors and writers — all accused of varying degrees of sexual harassment, misconduct or assault. Finally, India’s women are pushing back against the corrosive abuse of male power. It is nothing short of a revolution.
Among the most high-profile men accused this week is M.J. Akbar, once a celebrated newspaper editor and, currently, the junior minister for foreign affairs. He was first accused by columnist Priya Ramani, who had written about Akbar — without identifying him — in an October 2017 article for Vogue. She recounted the night he asked her to his hotel room and made unwanted advances, including asking her to sit on his bed. She was 23; he was 20 years older and her prospective editor. Since then, six other women revealed how they were harassed and violated by Akbar. “The rage of younger women who had been through much worse pouring out like lava onto my Twitter timeline forced me to question why I was keeping quiet,” Ramani told me during an interview.
Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister and Akbar’s boss — and a strong female leader in her own right — has ducked questions asking what actions the government would take against Akbar. But the government’s awkward silence on the allegations against Akbar is entirely untenable. A harrowing account by Ghazala Wahab about how Akbar molested her has added a dimension of possible criminality. The fact that Akbar represents India abroad — he was in Nigeria to mark the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth when the accusations erupted — makes his continuation in Modi’s cabinet even more shameful. He must resign — or better yet, he should be fired. The government has taken pride in the the fact that women hold traditionally male-dominated ministries, such as defense. It will be mere tokenism if no action is taken in the light of multiple and grave allegations against Akbar. At the very least, there needs to be an immediate and neutral inquiry into all accusations.
The trigger for this latest wave of allegations was provided by the actress Tanushree Dutta, who has accused actor Nana Patekar and director Vivek Agnihotri of inappropriate conduct in two separate incidents during the shooting of a film in 2008. Confronted with the usual backlash and innuendo (“Why didn’t she speak earlier?” and “She is doing this for her 15 seconds of prime-time fame”), it turned out Dutta had filed an official complaint right after the incident with Patekar. But no one took it seriously. Worse, her car was attacked by a violent mob connected to a local political party.
A decade ago, India simply dismissed her story. This time, her reiteration — combined with the unfettered space offered by social media — has begun an unprecedented and searing conversation across professions. “Let women speak up and speak loudly; there should be such a crescendo that the rest of the noise simply ceases to matter. In any case, secrets aren’t healthy; get them out,” Dutta told me during a conversation at We The Women, a feminist festival that I curate.
But as more and more women join the chorus, the crescendo has left organizations and individuals no wiggle room for tone deafness. Women have documented evenings where job interviews turned into unwanted propositions, shared screenshots of WhatsApp exchanges with creepy predators, and drawn strength from community networks to identify alleged perpetrators. The number of such accounts have now run into the hundreds, and companies have been forced to take swift action.
Prashant Jha, who had been the political editor of the Hindustan Times, had to step down pending an inquiry into a complaint by a former colleague. Phantom Films, a high-profile production house that created Netflix’s “Sacred Games,” has been dissolved after one of its partners was charged with assault. Shows by the stand-up comedy group AIB have been dropped as two of its members battle allegations of sexual misconduct. One of its comedians has been accused by several women of sending unsolicited photos of his genitals. Another journalist, Gautam Adhikari, has quit his job at a U.S. think tank after at least three women accused him of kissing them without consent.
What this female insurrection tells you about India’s legal system is also significant. Women have tried due process and lost hope. Even the most talked about cases take far too long. The rape trial of journalist Tarun Tejpal was meant to be fast-tracked in eight months. Five years on, Tejpal is out on bail and the case has seen interminable delays. In other cases, the police can be hostile, witnesses coerced and women character-assassinated in court. Social media has provided a platform to women that Indian courts have failed to offer.
This movement also asks us to question our own normalization of harassment. Even the strongest among us have often looked at abuse as an inevitability, as an occupational hazard, as a sort of of boot camp that is meant to toughen us up. Of course, like women everywhere, we sometimes don’t speak in real time for fear of damaging our careers. Once, during an interview, a politician pawed my breasts; another time, a senior lawyer stalked me with unwanted phone calls. I have been molested while reporting in a conflict zone. Even when I managed to slap the perpetrator or push him off, I did not go public because I thought I would be seen as too soft or would not be sent on those assignments again.
“We fight it out, rough it all out through all of the harassment so that we don’t come across as unable to handle the rigors of field work as reporters,” says Sandhya Menon, one of the first journalists who opened India’s #MeToo conversation in the news media. “The minute the man turns sexually aggressive and we complain, we are afraid of being looked at as children who run and cry and complain. So we say ‘I’m a bad-ass, gutsy girl and I can handle it.’ That’s what we want to be seen as. Until we realize that ‘bad-ass’ doesn’t mean being groped and propositioned to.”
Women are angry. And we have had enough.