If M.J. Akbar were the kind of editor he used to be, he would have laughed at the statement that the former junior external affairs minister Mobashar Jawed Akbar had put out, riddled as it is with clichés and bombastic terms. He would have ordered his reporters to dig deeper and expose any wrongdoing.
But Akbar a politician now, acted like a politician: The day after the statement, he used the might of a powerful law firm and picked on one of his (so far) 20 accusers. She had said he didn’t ‘do’ anything to her, had only made her deeply uncomfortable by calling her to his hotel room in the evening, while she was 23 and he was 43—nearly a quarter century ago. And so he sued her for defamation.
He chose the wrong target. The woman is Priya Ramani, who was part of the founding team of this newspaper and the editor of the weekend magazine, Lounge. Disclosure: I’ve been writing for this newspaper since it began and Ramani is a friend. But this goes beyond a personal friendship. As Ramani’s husband (and my friend) Samar Halarnkar, who also writes for this newspaper, says: “It is the job of men to move from the sidelines and join the fight wholeheartedly. If they cannot, they should step aside and leave it to the women."
This is not, and cannot be a fight women should fight alone. The list of academics that graduate student Raya Sarkar prepared last year had named names, but hadn’t provided many details; the accounts emerging now reveal the full horror.
The toxicity in our offices, workplaces, classrooms, film studios and newsrooms is a male creation. We men have benefited from patriarchy whose rules we have set, and whose norms privilege us. We have become unaccountable. Men behaved boorishly in the past and continue to do so now; we think we have immunity.
As Shruti Rajagopalan argued in these pages on 15 October, the cost of being accused of sexual harassment has been low for men and the cost of complaining has been high for women. The #MeToo movement changes that equation, but only just. Some of the powerful accused men are using defamation laws to silence critics, like Akbar and actor Alok Nath (against screenwriter/producer Vinta Nanda).
To be sure, they have the right to sue, but as the Reynolds Test in the UK and The New York Times v Sullivan case in the US have shown, disclosures in public interest —even if not entirely accurate, but made in good faith—constitute protected speech, when they involve people in public life. Whether behind closed doors or in public space, how an editor, politician, or an actor behaves with anyone, but in particular with people who may be subordinate to him and are unwilling, is a matter of public interest.
True, allegations can be reckless, and it is horrible to be at the receiving end of such allegations, if they are false. But sexual harassment is not a matter only about the law—not in the sense that nobody knows what it means, but that each individual’s definition of what’s acceptable behaviour can vary. Law cannot define harassment in binary terms. The relationship between two adults rests on mutual consent. And consent is fluid; it is never permanent, it can change during an interaction, and an individual can at any point say no, and the other individual must respect that. The argument, as some have made, that you need the criminal standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to establish harassment, has limits in instances where no physical force is used. Harassment can be verbal, through a leer, by staring at body parts, ogling, and many other ways. There may not be any witness. To dismiss such scenarios as ‘he said, she said’ is wrong. In fact, in several cases, it isn’t only a matter of two individuals. Many unconnected, unrelated women have provided details of their encounters. It takes a politician to see in this pattern a conspiracy, and not as description of his behaviour as others have seen it. So let us think of the preponderance of probabilities, not the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard.
The real tragedy, then, is not the loss of reputation of the men, but the wounds the women have carried for so long.
To that, add the dynamic of power—picture a young woman, fresh out of college, who has come to a big city to follow her chosen career, sometimes defying her parents. She lands a dream job with a boss she is in awe of. Then, the rude awakening. Think of the vulnerability. If she returns home, elders might say, “We told you so", and get her married off to a suitable boy. If she keeps her head down and continues to work, avoiding the man’s advances, her career may suffer. If she complies, she undermines her sense of self.
That’s why women take long to speak up, if they choose to do so at all. Their silence does not mean acceptance. The fact that many men have ridiculed the #MeToo movement and challenged the women’s intent shows why women haven’t spoken up so far.
This is the period many Hindus worship Durga for nine nights and then immerse her in water. Many assert India treats its women well by pointing out the pantheon of Hindu goddesses. But those are made of stone and clay. What are we doing with the real women around us, who are groped, pitied, protected, assaulted, told what to wear, what to do, whom to marry, and not to eat chowmein?
Women’s anger has been bubbling for centuries. It is for all of us, men and women, to channel the energy unleashed by the fury to transform India. If not, get consumed by the wrath, and rightly so.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi