A Call for Caution for the Success of #MeToo / by Tara Kaushal

We must acknowledge and address the weaknesses of the #MeTooIndia movement for it to have maximum impact.

It was 12 and a half years ago when Gautam Adhikari, the Editor-in-Chief of DNA pushed me, a 22-year-old interviewee, against the door of his cabin and kissed me, tongue et al. When Sandhya Menon’s accusations against him became a foundational moment in the #MeToo movement in Indian journalism, my closest friend, who knew of the incident at the time, called to tell me he had been outed. This was the time for me to tell my story.

Although I have always intrinsically known that the blame/shame for any kind of sexual assault in not mine/the woman’s to bear, one does nonetheless consider it intimate, a bad thing that happened to you that isn’t for public consumption. I didn’t do anything then—as a young starving freelance writer, there were economic and power considerations at play. And when I fled from an assault in the hotel room of ad executive Navroze Dhondy in 2013, I wrote about the experience but without his name—if I wasn’t going the law enforcement route with my complaint, I didn’t want to deal with a potential defamation suit. My silence allowed my perpetrators to get away.

#MeToo has allowed women to take strength in solidarity and tell their stories. In the absence and distrust of a due process, survivors of sexual assault have taken to naming and shaming their abusers. But the question has been: what next? In capitalistic society, here’s where organisations can play a major role. There can be no legal retribution; in its absence, social and economic consequences will have to do. ‘It is getting to a point where men can’t do something awful without being accused of having done it.’ About time their #TimesUp.

But, there are a few things that can derail this movement. One is, obviously, false accusations. If the trial is going to be in the court of public opinion, we need to have some basic believability filters in place. Is an anonymous account created yesterday tweeting unverifiable broad statements about someone? Although Shivam Vij has argued in a piece that right-wing trolls will not try to co-opt this movement because it does not align with their overall ethics, this is what seems to be happening with the accusation against the Editors of The Wire.

Did the men in question respond in a timely and upfront way—like writer Varun Grover and HT’s Kunal Pradhan have? Who is the survivor, who is the accused, are there political or monetary agendas? Are there multiple survivor stories? Saving for the actual incidents (that understandably had no witnesses), every detail around my stories from all those years ago can be corroborated. So can many other accounts, including Tanushree Dutta’s against Nana Patekar; those of the 10 (at last count) women who have come out against former editor MJ Akbar; etc. We need to judge for ourselves.

Next, the women who accuse as well as the judging public must “separate scandal from harassment” (in the words of Doorva Bahuguna). Without commenting on the other accusations that have emerged against Chetan Bhagat, in the first one—where he is “wooing” a work contact over WhatsApp messages—one must separate our moral outrage at a married man flirting with someone, from harassment. Lust, love, sexual and romantic interest are an intrinsic part of human existence; when does flirtation cross the line to persecution? Doorva continues, “A guy asking you out (married or not) is not harassment. Him persisting after you say no. Him using his power to affect your life after you say no. Him shaming you after you say no. That’s harassment.”

My rule: I am forgiving of people who try their luck with me (sans touch) as long as they back off when I say no. This equation is not so straightforward in the workplace, where complex power dynamics may be at play.

Further, one must acknowledge nuance and grey on the scale of harassment. While women have all rights to tell their stories big or small, and the way each experiences trauma is personal (some people drown in three feet of water, others survive the ocean), all crimes cannot be treated the same. A hug that went on a moment too long < sustained harassment, worse with unwanted physical contact < rape.

The conversation around consent and the human rights of women has swung to such an extreme at the moment, that all transgressions are currently being treated the same. This is only natural, after years of repression, but it is dangerous. It allows those defending men to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It creates a for men/for women binary, but interpersonal relations, even harassment, don’t exist in binaries. Perhaps those calling for reason are being misunderstood when they say ‘not every bad date is rape’, but you must know what they mean…

Once one recognises the greys, the punishments must fit the crimes. One of the things I predicted about the recent POSCO amendment proposing death for child rapists is that there will be less reporting. ‘Would a child be able to identify his/her grandparent or uncle or aunt as the perpetrator if s/he knows this will send the person to the gallows? Would parents take things forward?’ I asked. In a similar vein, in this black and white view of harassment where the impact of revelation could far outweigh the impact of the crime, women may choose to stay silent again. Like my mother did in the 1990s, when she didn’t file a complaint against a man who set out to rape her in consideration for the man’s wife and children.

Is Tanmay Bhat—who was told of Utsav Chakraborty’s harassment but didn’t do enough—as wrong as the perp himself? Perhaps not. Yet, both have left AIB, same-same. By that measure, Seema Mustafa—who knew of Akbar’s harassment a woman and has recently written an indefensible piece defending his actions—should be removed from the website she edits too, right? As for Akbar, currently the MoS External Affairs, let’s see how the government reacts once he returns to the country.

Regarding my own harassers: Gautam Adhikari has stepped down from his role at the Center for American Progress and this is what he will be remembered for; that is enough. Since Navroze Dhondy seems to have faced no social or economic consequences, I am going to complain about him to the National Commission for Women.

The #MeTooIndia movement is of supreme importance to the conversation on gender violence in the country. Let’s make the most of it.

This article appeared on Firstpost.com on 12.10.18.