FOUR YEARS AGO, WHEN THE fashion magazine Vogue came out with a campaign for women’s empowerment, a video it commissioned had Alia Bhatt heading home in a car on a late lonely night. It breaks down and she sees an SUV in the other lane with menacing-looking men in it. The vehicle takes a U-turn towards her. Instead of being frightened, she walks up and asks for help. They get out, shifty-eyed, and try to fix her car. When it doesn’t get repaired, she asks for a ride home, sits cheerily among them and gets dropped home without harm. The video ends with the line ‘Can We Give Her the World that She Believes Exists?’ The director of that video: Vikas Bahl.
You could call it poetic irony that the sexual-assault charge Bahl faces also has to do with dropping a woman off: an assistant director to her hotel room after a late-night party. A Huffington Post India investigation revealed he allegedly slunk inside the room and fell on the bed feigning sleep. When the woman couldn’t get him to leave, she slept nearby piling up pillows in between as a divider. She felt his hand creep in her dress and fobbed him off repeatedly. According to the article, ‘She was too shaken to face him, she said, so Bahl masturbated onto her back. “Fuck you, bitch” she recalls Bahl saying, before he pulled up his pants and left the room.’ This reportedly happened in mid-2015. Five months later, she complained to the director Anurag Kashyap, one of Bahl’s partners in Phantom Films. Bahl, however, stayed on and she had to work with him. It is only now that Phantom’s partners have owned up to not having addressed the complaint properly. They have had to disband Phantom.
It is an episode illustrative of why the present MeToo campaign has so much fury underlying it. Sexual harassment is pervasive at a level men don’t comprehend, and actions women regard as clear violations are taken by them as cursory sexual impulses or courtship rituals. Since men exercise the levers of power, it is their psychological outlook that decided what was ‘normal’. Thus, even the most liberal who believed in women’s rights, like Phantom’s filmmakers, were blind to their own responses. So also All India Bakchod (AIB), a stand-up comedy group that relentlessly signalled disdain for sexism on Facebook; and yet, when its own comedian was exposed as a harasser (he sent uninvited dick pictures to women), its founder took it too casually and also had to leave.
The eventual self-sacrifices at Phantom and AIB weren’t the outcome of contrition. They were forced. In a couple of weeks, through the sheer force of community, using public naming and shaming, women online in the entertainment and media sectors have ensured that actions have consequences.
The MeToo hashtag was the result of a call—‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet’—by the actor Alyssa Milano in October 2017 to ‘give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. It followed revelations of sexual assaults by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The catchphrase wasn’t hers, though. In 2006, an activist Tarana Burke began a MeToo movement among young Black women survivors of sexual violence. After Milano’s use of it, Burke too tweeted, ‘It made my heart swell to see women using this idea—one that we call “empowerment through empathy”… to not only show the world how widespread and pervasive sexual violence is, but also to let other survivors know they are not alone. #metoo.’ It had taken 11 years, the shocking scale of Weinstein’s assaults and the wide participation of celebrities against it for the phrase to go mainstream. It resonated in other parts of the world, including India, because the same wounds exist everywhere and social networking is a unifier across geographies.
Without some form of due process, allegations risk being weaponised, given the nature of Twitter as a battlefield of ideologies
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The attention span of social networks, however, is short and sporadic. The MeToo movement is a metal thread periodically electrified by a spark. This time, it was the US Supreme Court judge (then awaiting confirmation) Brett Kavanaugh being accused of a sexual assault over 35 years ago. In the US, there was also the larger political impetus of his appointment putting a woman’s right over her own body in jeopardy if the legality of abortion were to be overturned by a more conservative court. In India, the re-emergence of Tanushree Dutta and her allegation against Nana Patekar, first made in 2008, was the trigger. Just as interest began to flag, Bahl was exposed. Journalists began to put out their own experiences of harassment by editors and colleagues, resulting in the media’s MeToo moment.
A few elements of the movement stand out. MeToo is about remembered violations, not just the present; there is no time bar on seeking redress. Women have come out with decades-old events. The well fuelling this movement is thus limitless, provided there are sufficiently shocking cases to rally around.
MeToo also highlights a difference in how men and women perceive sexual harassment. Men see it in terms of actions of extreme infringement, women in terms of experience. Many men fail to comprehend how a flirtatious WhatsApp message can be conflated with the consent yardstick—‘No Means No’—of rape, when the ability to block the sender is a fingertip away. To the woman, the trauma in receiving such an unexpected message is real and has so far been brushed aside as irrelevant. At this point of the movement, women are wary of calibrating their responses, the punishment of public shaming being at the very least appropriate in every case. A student in a journalism college making an unwelcome sexual advance on a fellow student at a party is thus in the same basket as a physical violation by a senior editor of his junior in an office.
Women are also wary of due process or the presumption of innocence being used to derail the movement. The journalist Namita Bhandare argued in The Print, ‘Nobody advocates chucking out due process or promoting a lynching through naming and shaming… What does due process mean when an RK Pachauri is still invited to attend award ceremonies all over the world? In a civilised legal system, a man is innocent until he is found guilty. Yet, three years after the filing of a police complaint, the trial has not even begun and his accuser continues to live terrified to enter an office or open her email for the absolute fear of who or what might be lurking there.’
However, some form of due process, if not the current one, will soon have to be worked out. It is not sustainable to continue trials by online media arguing due process does not work, especially if all instances of personal violations, from rapes to WhatsApp messages, are bundled together. There will almost certainly be defamation cases filed (the difficulty of due process will ironically be of help here because such cases also take years and no one pursues them to conclusion; but the process, as always, is the punishment). Meanwhile, it will only take a judicial order for a clampdown, as when a Supreme Court judge was accused some years ago.
Without some form of due process to account for authenticity, allegations risk being weaponised, either for personal reasons, or, more probably, for political ends given the nature of Twitter as a battlefield of ideologies. This has already started. A left-leaning news website’s editor was accused by two Twitter handles with women’s names that gave the impression of them being journalists. The accounts had been created only last year, however, and a Google search provides no record of their journalism background. Almost immediately after their tweets, a right-wing online magazine reiterated the allegations, giving them added exposure. Because the term that an accused be considered an offender until proven innocent had been set by the online eruption, the editor now has to see his name clubbed with others on various lists of alleged predators. There have been several such instances of writers and journalists being accused by newly created Twitter accounts. Due process exists because the guilty are few in number, and innocents, the rest of humanity. Without a filtering mechanism, anyone is at risk of being labelled an offender.
A new moral behavioural framework is emerging to govern the relations between men and women in public spaces, but until the definitions are clarified, it is going to be a thorny path. After the catharsis, a mid-point will need to be found for actions that must be dealt with in private spheres and those in public. In any case, one thing is crystal clear: in the media, at least, the terms of behaviour of men have been clearly drawn and they will be too frightened to overstep it. This is a giant leap. In the entertainment industry, expect no such miracles.