The 23-year-old Jyoti Singh from New Delhi had been gang raped in a moving bus in 2012. She later succumbed to her injuries. “I want to survive,” she had written on a piece of paper she handed to her doctors. The Supreme Court decision upholding the death sentence of the rapists is yet to be executed. “What is the benefit of the law if it takes so long to punish perpetrators in connection with such heinous crimes. Justice delayed is justice denied. We all know that,” Asha, Jyoti Singh’s mother said.
The apex court’s judgment was based on the incident being the “rarest of rare” – a criteria required to award the death penalty in India. There was nothing rare about the intensity of the rape committed. There are hundreds of such cases of exceptional violence. A ‘newly born’ one and a half year old girl was raped by a man in the presence of his own children. A 2017 BBC report shows that, in India, a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes. A 2017 report by Global Peace Index had claimed India to be the fourth most dangerous country for women travelers. Registered cases of sexual harassment at Indian workplaces increased 54% from 371 in 2014 to 570 in 2017. As many as 70% women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared the repercussions, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association in 2017, of 6,047 respondents.
I can go on; the magnitude of crimes committed pave way for innumerable surveys to be conducted.
MeToo India: My Time Has Come
The MeToo movement started in October 2017 in the US bringing down stalwarts of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Rob Moore and Kevin Spacey.
India was responding in whispers- unsure and unaware, on the outside, and scared to look in the mirror, on the inside.
Then, in September 2018, former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta accused veteran actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her ten years ago on a film set. And, Indian Twitter blew up. There were accounts coming in from various workplaces: authorities of the government, filmmakers comedians, senior journalists, and noted authors were named. Journalist Priya Ramani accused M.J. Akbar, junior minister for external affairs in the Modi government, of sexually harassing her when he was the editor of a newspaper, and she, a 23-year-old reporter. She labelled him a “predator.” Across these cases, papers were handed in and suspension of operations assumed.
Even the highest level of the judiciary was not exempt when a former staff accused the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, of making unwanted sexual advances. She claimed being dismissed from the job as a result of rejecting those advances. Instead of following the Supreme Court’s in-house procedure, the CJI constituted a ‘Special Bench’, including himself (thereby defying the principles of Natural Justice). He used his constitutional office to respond to personal allegations; the committee called it a conspiracy on judiciary and attempts to malign its reputation- all this without having heard the complainant!
Meanwhile, as innumerable accounts kept pouring on social media, a section of men “feeling” cornered and “wronged” gave birth to this hashtag called #NotAllMen, connoting that not all men are sexual offenders. While it goes without saying that not all men are terrible, what matters is that so many men have been named to be terrible, and this hashtag pulls us back from the bigger battle that we, as a society, need to fight- that of equality for women in all spaces. Further, as this was happening, a lot of accounts were questioned on their credibility and that led to the hashtag of #BelieveHer. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a low-caste woman was working in the fields with her husband when she was assaulted and gang-raped by five men; that led to the promulgation of Vishakha guidelines for sexual harassment at workplace. Surveys show that most women are molested a minimum of once in their lifetime. So, when women are constantly roaming in the fear of their dignity, BelieveHer becomes essential.
Breaking It Down: MeToo And Its Unwarranted Criticisms
India has an awfully skewed sex ratio, add to that, it’s patriarchal dominance, and the societal apathy clouding this country. In India, men have uninhibited access to the top of the ladder, and get away with things on account of them being “men”. Their identity in the society is synonymous with for their status. This power asymmetry is what has allowed for injustices, and most importantly sexual offences, to remain unchecked.
NotAllMen was a pathetic and desperate attempt at escaping liability; patriarchy has strangulated the identity of women for thousands of years- and, the very commission of that violence estops them from escaping from that liability. One cannot seek such a sorry excuse of a hashtag for lacking class consciousness and gender sensitivity. What’s important for movements like MeToo to succeed is the acknowledgement of the collective responsibility entailed, which leads towards the progress of society as a whole, instead of engaging in petty ego clashes.
BelieveHer is relevant. Even the Special Committee constituted for the CJI’s hearing passed judgement on the character of the complainant, which as disgusting as it sounds, has been a tried and tested, long implemented way of handling cases of sexual harassment and other sexual offences against women. However, if the highest court of the land indulges in such a shameful act, what message does that convey to its citizens? Women have struggled and suffocated for centuries. We owe it to them to believe them, we owe them a safe space to be able to voice the violence meted to them, and especially because there is no way that the violence can be undone. That is the closest we as a society, can remedy the injustice. Rest, let due process decide.
That the title is borderline sensitive, I am aware. I was told that if I write about delay and denial of justice in the light of the revolution that MeToo transformed into, I’d be giving ammunition to everyone who says sexual harassment cases should be reported as soon as they happen. The concern is so valid, given the fact that this has been one of the most controversial (and frankly stupid) criticisms of the movement: why out men who didn’t commit the wrong right now, but in the past?
But, that’s the thing right? The answer is simple. The law and society didn’t make the survivors comfortable enough, back then, to come out with their trauma and lodge a case, so justice was denied at the first instance. Even now, the mechanism is the same. Their intentions are being questioned, due process is becoming a sham– so, justice is being delayed and denied. If now, the survivors are able to gather the courage and strength, feel comfortable enough amidst this wave of solidarity, why not? The idea is to remedy the wrong, not to focus on the limitation.
Feminist psychiatrist Judith Herman had made an astute observation: “The legal system is designed to protect men from the superior power of the state but not to protect women and children from the superior power of men.”
Face The Shame. Remedy The Wrong. Reform The Laws.
We have “chosen political opportunism over the rule of law”, calling it a “shame” for the country. We are busy filing defamation suits for things that are open secrets”. Sexual offences percolate down to every possible space- from workplaces, colleges to households. In October 2017, Raya Sarkar, a law student at University of California at Davis, had posted a list accusing South Asian academics of sexual harassment. In the recent MeToo movement too, a relevant chunk of cases came from educational institutions across the country.
But, recently, Reliance Entertainment announced that Vikas Bahl, accused of serious sexual assault had been ’exonerated,’ his credits as director of the upcoming Hrithik Roshan-starrer Super 30 reinstated while filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, accused of sexual assault, was seen at the Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony. Alok Nath, who was accused by several women, appeared in a key role in Ajay Devgn’s De De Pyaar De. In March, reports emerged that Nath had been cast as a judge in a film titled #MainBhi — Hindi for “Me Too”.
Me too’s moment came late but it has the potential to be transformative. These cases of reinstating people, not being concerned enough are cases of another level of justice denied as well. It will let down the voices of thousands of women who gathered the strength to come out with their accounts.
We have some progressive anti sexual harassment laws. For example, the 2013 POSH Act requires that an internal complaints committee be headed by a senior woman employee. The famous Vishaka judgment recommended that complaint committees should involve third parties (either an NGO or someone else familiar with issues of sexual harassment) precisely to “prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels [of the organisation].” Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 Section 354A has been inserted to tackle the menace of sexual harassment and the said offence has been made punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three years.
But, the said law has proved to be extremely inadequate to meet the new challenges as section 9 of the said Act prescribes a period of limitation of three months for filing a complaint and the power of the committee to condone the delay is also limited not exceeding three months. We are also yet to pass any legislation making sexual harassments of members of LGBTQ.
These are examples, but gender sensitisation is a need and movements of the likes of MeToo can be realised in full potential only if there are clearer laws with substance and we, as a society, set our priorities right.
Conclusion: Let’s Fix It, Because We Ought To
MeToo is at a nascent stage in India. Every time we question a survivor, we fail as a society and in magnanimous amounts. Every time we question her and oppose #BelieveHer, we take away her moment of catharsis. “I feel good when I voice protest against rapes. It gives me a sense of satisfaction,” says Asha, Jyoti Singh’s mother.
Over 80% of these cases happen with women in rural India. Most of them haven’t been reported yet. If we haven’t been able to redress even 20% of these cases, what does it say about our justice mechanism as a country? What good will all the business, investment, growth be if a citizen of this country has to be wary of her own relatives and friends at every possible moment?
These women who have been wronged will stand tall, fight tooth and nail and seek justice. “Truth is the best defense. I’m not worried, “ Ramani had said. But, the battle is only half won with will and truth. The rest half, for good or for worse, needs the assistance of the state and its machinery. Our constitutional morality teaches us that delay should not defeat justice.
Most of it comes down to us, citizens- especially, men in the country. Wrong will have to be remedied by the one committing it. #NotAllMen is just another idiosyncratic response to feminism and the justice it seeks to serve. Are we so small and sick and our egos so big, that we cannot bear a woman finally finding a voice, that too, a voice of pain, a call for help and redressal to the law and courts of this country? As long as we keep sympathizing with the abusers and seek to understand “their point of view”, “their side of the story”, there will be no justice. The bleeding heart of the problem: that this is a question of power, and without addressing that, you address nothing. Without understanding consent, without de-objectifying women as either sex objects or caretakers, you address nothing.
The reign of patriarchy needs to end, if we are to ‘develop’ (and, not grow) as a country. It is not only the legal system and its due process that delays and denies justice–our denial, lack of solidarity and acceptance about the shattering reality of sexual violence and harassment in India, our heavily conditioned privileged and patriarchal minds, fragile egos and lack of empathy- all these make us an accomplice in the act. Go ahead, try and absolve yourself of the guilt.