Ford and Datta: study in contrast

Ford and Datta: study in contrast

It is a case of contrasts: as former Miss India Tanushree Datta’s allegations of sexual harassment against senior actor Nana Patekar are drawing ridicule and attacks on her in India, the US Senate has put on hold the confirmation of a federal judge being elevated to the American Supreme Court on similar charges.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, 53, picked and strongly endorsed by President Donald Trump and the Republican party, was accused two weeks ago by Christine Blasey Ford, 51, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University, of sexually assaulting her when he was 17 and she 15, at a party in a private home.

Republicans, along with their voters, responded with incredulity and ridicule. But Ford’s case was taken up by Democrats, their voters, women’s and civic rights groups across the US. Kavanaugh and Ford were cross-examined on their claims by the US Senate’s 21-member Judiciary Committee on September 28.

Tanushree is on record that she went to a police station and filed a complaint against Nana and others in 2008. She was ignored, ridiculed and, from all accounts, blackballed from the Hindi film industry and she reportedly moved to the US to start a fresh life.

According to her accounts, reported in the media recently, she was humiliated in the middle of a film set by Nana and others.

And the only support she got since was from two actors, Irrfan Khan and Suneil Shetty, and from a film journalist who reportedly witnessed the incident. Today, the few who defend her and her right to report an incident so many years later, including some in the film industry, are being severely trolled.

In the Ford situation, the Republicans do have a case. Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh come at a politically expedient time for the Democrats, ahead of mid-term elections. Kavanaugh, if confirmed, would ensure that the nine-member US Supreme Court, currently split equally between conservative and liberal judges, would go the way of the former.

Republicans have accused the Democrats of doing an “unethical hit job” to derail Kavanaugh with the last-minute allegations of Ford. Still, the undercurrent of the “MeToo” movement and the outrage expressed by a large number of women, including some Republicans, ensured that when Ford got her hearing, her emotional and stirring testimony was heard by the entire country in a televised debate.

All the Republican senators on the committee, none of them a woman, decided not to risk asking her any cross questions, lest they came across as insensitive. They hired a senior, very professional sex crimes woman prosecutor to ask on their behalf.

Kavanaugh, defending himself in an eloquent opening testimony, also was careful not to discredit that Ford had gone through a terrible sexual assault. He said: “I believe that Dr Ford did face sexual assault by someone, sometime, somewhere. It wasn’t me.”

Trump, in a departure from his usual unguarded remarks, said Ford’s testimony was “compelling.” And Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican, went against his own party and asked for a week-long FBI inquiry into the allegations against Kavanaugh. The evidence gathered in that enquiry will be placed before the 51-49 Republican majority Senate, which will vote on whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed or not.

The evidence will have to be damning if the Republicans have to back off from putting Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court bench. He may still go through. The exercise, however, is a clear example of the power of public opinion and the “MeToo” movement and how it has forced a “culturally defining” moment on the nation, as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat who brought coffee for Ford after her testimony, put it.

In Karnataka, there is a lady civil judge who sent complaints in writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief Justice of India and the President, against the inappropriate behaviour and advances of her senior who was to be elevated to the Karnataka high court, on the recommendation of the Supreme Court collegium. It is a sign of the post-Vishaka guidelines times, the impact of the so-named Nirbhaya rape case and again, the “MeToo” movement that this complaint was taken seriously by the PMO.

But the Karnataka high court has since conducted an internal inquiry and cleared the senior judge’s name. The lady judge was not questioned on her side of the story. Instead, she is facing threats, isolation and pressure to withdraw her complaint against the judge.

India is going through a cultural churn, waking up to gender dynamics. The Supreme Court is at the forefront, with decisions on privacy, decriminalisation of alternative sexuality and adultery and clearing the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple. But there is still a way to go before the Tanushree Dattas and the lady judge (who is still too scared to allow her name to be printed) are taken seriously enough to effect change.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author, based in North Carolina, USA)