In the swirling waters of the MeToo Movement that have reached India, the rules of engagement on conduct involving women and men are being rewritten in ways that would hopefully make the country a safer place for women. Only three months ago, a Reuters global poll based on a survey of experts said India was the "most dangerous" country for women and that did not go too well with the establishment. Now that the US-born movement, where women take to social media to 'out' alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment, has become mainstream in India with many famous men turning notorious, it is time to see the writing on the wall.
There are many ifs and buts in this because India has changed very fast with the rise of education, awareness, democratic beliefs, economic growth and last but not least, the internet. The harsh reality is that only a few years ago, both men and women spoke in hushed whispers about the sexual escapades, shenanigans and exploitation of powerful people in politics, media and Bollywood, but possibly with different worldviews. While it is increasingly clear that most woman victims did not speak out of fear, concern for personal safety/jobs/careers or the helpless power structure they were dealing with, for many men, this seemed to be part of what was perceived to be normal in varying degrees of acceptability. That is changing. Today, there is a new normal. The trophies of yesterday have become the scars of today. The combination of social media and long memories is proving to be embarrassing for many.
I for one am surprised but not shocked that Union Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar, a journalistic icon for many of our generation including myself, is not resigning but combating accusations of sexual harassment or misdemeanour during his days as a rockstar newspaper editor. Surprised, because I thought there was sufficient circumstantial evidence from more than a dozen women to suggest that it was important for him to at least not hold on to a public office. Surprised because there is enough talk of clean public conduct from the BJP-led government to have included a concern for widespread public outrage.
However, on deeper introspection, there are reasons why the BJP may drag its feet -- or for that matter any political party. On the one hand, there are issues related to personal and public morality in which what happens in the personal sphere may not be uniformly or immediately brought into question in matters concerning public posts. On the other hand, and this is realpolitik, there is the issue of a precedent that might be set in a resignation. The open secret is that there are men in every leading political party whose personal lives and conduct are dubious. If a politically dispensable minister is forced to resign on grounds of sexual misconduct, the day may not be far off when a woman or two or three will speak out against another whose political clout based on caste, popularity or other vote-catching abilities is significant. Now, which party would want to get rid of a vote-catcher? Every party will pay lip service or protest in differing degrees of outrage. The top leaders will murmur, one or two spokespersons will be more forthright, and some will talk in generalities.
It is also a harsh fact that there are social and economic realities in India that make men historically powerful, and that cannot be wished away. If even getting women to rule from panchayat posts is difficult, it is more difficult to imagine power equations to change overnight on matters of sexual misconduct.
As of now, there is no visibly significant outrage against sexual misconduct in the vast hinterland of India. Allegations against lyricist Vairamuthu in Tamil Nadu are just drops in the ocean of India's state politics. Only the naive would believe other states do not have widespread instances of alleged misconduct. South Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore are pockets of resistance -- or maybe they represent the vanguard of a revolution in the making. What they used to say in the India vs Bharat argument -- about urban India flourishing while rural India is left behind -- can be stretched here. History, privilege, poverty, caste and gender have to be considered together to get an idea of the immensity of the issue. I recommend director Shyam Benegal's classic, Nishant as an educative movie on this subject.
Only time will tell us how the meeting of an irresistible force against an immovable object shapes up in precise terms, but my guess is that we are headed for reform, not revolution. Slowly but steadily, voices will spring up against misconduct even in the hinterland, inspired and egged on by women who have stood up to be counted. But in the immediate term, both workplaces and political culture will need a rebooting of attitudes and beliefs, and that is likely to happen in a measured pace. Even the best of men may have to learn a lot, as we are discovering from outpourings of feelings and experiences.
There is also the matter of jurisprudence in which legal technicalities will play out as court cases grind on because a presumption of innocence until there is proof of guilt is normal in a healthy democracy. Everything from the dates of alleged misconduct, the precise law under which it needs to be examined, the demand for stay orders and the levels of the judiciary will matter in the scheme of things. If shaming public figures is a punishment, a lot has already happened. If better conduct across India in professional and public life matters, there is a long way to go.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)