Never before has there been such an avalanche of public sentiments on a topic that was “out of bounds” for decades if not centuries. Now that #MeToo has caught on and the conflagration has turned into a prairie fire, those singed by it are busy applying Burnol on the exposed portions, while others are running for cover. This had to happen. I am glad it has. Yes, there will be a spate of false accusations and even blatant lies, with many innocents being forced to defend themselves against false charges. Yes, the kangaroo courts that have sprung up across India have summarily tried and convicted many without a shred of evidence to support the charges. So be it. What is underway — a huge tidal wave of change — is far more important than the fate of the few who are wrongly condemned. They can clear their names eventually. As they should. But the process of examining the toxicity within our society must not be pushed aside because of a few missteps.
Watching (and sometimes participating) in impassioned panel discussions on television, one thing is very clear: the sound barrier has been breached and women’s voices are being heard minus filters, possibly for the very first time in our patriarchal society. This is a major first, so let’s not devalue its potential and impact. My biggest concern as of now is about credibility issues. Let me explain. Some of the old geezers in media who have been accused by far junior female colleagues of repeated violations are hiding behind the old excuse, “Can she prove the charges?” And they are right in feeling smug and safe on this score. No, Sirs, the ladies you brazenly insulted and assaulted have no way to nail you in a court of law. Simply because you were up to your nasty tricks in a dinosaur era — no smartphones, no sexting and no social media. Here is the toughest part — unless the men were indiscreet enough to proposition their targets by writing sexually explicit letters, chances are they will get away minus a scratch. Which intelligent editor would make such a faux pas and incriminate himself? That leaves victims in a spot, with just their credibility to protect them. No photos. No screen shots, no video grabs, no recorded phone calls. Just their word against the tormentor’s. How lopsided is that?
In the case of prime example M.J. Akbar the issue gets murkier. He has denied all allegations and said boldly, “Lies do not have legs.” They so do! Ironically, it appears that it is his lies that will catch up with him. Senior female journalists have sensibly decided to fight him together. He can challenge the details of a few accounts of harassment — but even the mighty Akbar, with his power of words, may run out of justifications soon. At the time of writing, he had resigned as junior minister in the BJP Cabinet. It’s a call he couldn’t possibly have taken on his own, without the top honchos of the party putting pressure on him to do so without embarrassing himself or them any further. This administration is not known for owning up and taking flak, regardless of the issue. Why should Akbar’s case be treated differently? His 97 lawyers too must have advised him to go on the offensive and intimidate the women into silence. A big fat defamation case has been filed against Priya Ramani, the first woman to set the ball rolling. 97 lawyers? Against one woman? Someone, please remind Mr Akbar it’s too late for that. His case may not possess legal legs, but surely there is something bigger known as moral responsibility — an idea that is alien to his political party. An anathema, even.
There are many other serial offenders in the media and they will have to face enquiries. If a few heads roll, the message will go out loud and clear. The same media that reports extensively on crimes and misdemeanours of others, should take the lead in clearing up its own house first. Heads of TV channels being prime culprits. The same goes for Bollywood and its reporters, who exist in a unique media space, outside the mainstream. Since most editors of fanzines and popular Bollywood websites happen to be women, they need to scan their coverage of Bollywood more scrupulously. It’s time to tell it like it is, and not participate in the massive cover up, generally led and sustained by powerful men. As of now Subhash Ghai from the older big league has been named, and he has of course, denied all wrongdoing. More names are expected to surface in the coming days. Will the pliant Bollywood press play ostrich and continue to write gushy pieces glorifying known sex offenders? Will at least a small percentage of the widespread exploitation be acknowledged and exposed? Will any of the top heroines share their early days and talk about what they endured at the hands of producers, directors and co-stars? No chance. Those of us who monitored the shenanigans over decades were aware of what was going on. But unable to carry the stories, without the mandatory “proof”. There are any number of wounded and emotionally damaged female top stars who have been subjected to the worst kind of brutality. They are the walking dead. Their stories are shocking and tragic. Despite the safety nets in place right now, it is doubtful any of these beautiful and highly successful ladies will divulge long buried secrets. It is simply not worth it, in their book. Some of them are married. Some have teenage children. Some are with habitual offenders even today, putting up with their partner’s bad behaviour with other women.
Suffering in silence should never be a choice for anyone — man or woman. Which is why it is important to encourage and applaud those who are speaking up and taking a strong position against sexual oppression.
The red flags have been up for years. But it is only now that society is sitting up and paying attention. Whether it is an M.J. Akbar or a Subhash Ghai, we must let men like them know that their zamana of entitlement and privilege is over. It is time for new beginnings. The women of India are claiming their place on equal terms. Don’t waste your time and energy trying to push them back. As participants and partners in a vibrant democratic process, their vote is invaluable. Any political party that offends and hurts their hard-won dignity will pay a monumental price for such arrogance.
As M.J. Akbar grapples with his personal Siege Within, and Subhash Ghai taps a new Taal, women across India stand united in this war. It’s do or die, this time. Watch that next step, mates!...