A platform for the privileged?

A platform for the privileged?

There is a story in the Valmiki Ramayana where Ahalya, the wife of Gautama Maharishi, is condemned to a lifeless existence after being raped by the god Indra. She is released, ironically, when touched by another man. Rama’s foot restores her honour, although her molester escapes scot-free. Social media was not available for wronged women in the Thretha Yuga.

Whereas, the 21st century victim can now punish her seducers online. The #MeToo movement is a powerful campaign to enable women to expose sexual predators -- mostly in the workplace. Influential and highly respected men usually got away with such misdeeds with no qualms. But, not anymore. Like its American model, #MeToo has become an active platform in India where victims can relate their experiences to shame the offenders.

Based on their allegations, several heads have already rolled. A popular author, an eminent journalist, a renowned scientist. No one is spared. Professionals in every field, including corporate czars, musicians and film celebrities, have been named and shamed in public. A scary time indeed for lecherous men in this country.

Sexual harassment, whether verbal, physical or emotional, has always haunted women in India. A movement like #MeToo has now come as a boon. But, in a country of more than 600 million women, how many have benefited from this movement? Other than the allegations of well-heeled, well-educated women, we have not heard the voices of those who are molested and raped in ordinary workplaces like factories, government offices, schools or even households.

Young women employed in the unorganised sectors are the most vulnerable and voiceless. How many girl children who suffer abuse in bonded labour have told us their stories? Victims of dowry deaths and honour killing also die without leaving a trace of their misery on the elitist #MeToo platform. They receive neither media attention nor public sympathy while newspapers and television channels continue to highlight the woes of the upper crust. They are the courageous heroines who are lauded for their ability to speak up and expose the men who violated their space.

This is not to disparage or trivialise the #MeToo movement. While it has helped to rip the mask off lecherous men, there is always the danger of sensationalising experiences at the risk of irrevocably damaging reputations. True, irresponsible and baseless allegations can be revoked after proper investigation. But the hurt of public defamation cannot be erased.

The law says that a person is deemed innocent “until proven guilty.” The slow legal process in a country like India offers little solace to persons whose standing in society suffered irreparable harm. Again, since these accusations cannot be ignored, a minister is asked to step down, a scientist forcibly retired, a musician barred from singing. Even if they are proved innocent later, their public image would be in tatters by then.

Perhaps, an internal complaints cell for women in all workplaces — as already required under the sexual harassment at workplace law and the Vishaka Guidelines — is a better solution as both victim and accused will have the benefit of privacy while impartial investigations are conducted. This will punish the guilty without compromising the innocent. It will also discourage irresponsible and false accusations.    

The present trend of posting wild allegations in a public domain has many repercussions. Loss of social standing not being the least. These allegations have now reached hysterical proportions. A friendly banter by an office colleague or an endearing hug from a teacher becomes sexual pursuit by a predator. An actor’s earnest attempt to play his role to perfection is construed as an attempt to rape.

A far cry from the days when teachers bonded with their pupils with warmth and affection. Or, when film stars infused passion into acting without fear of being branded rapists. Future generations of film-goers may have to get used to insipid acting in films. Just as future classroom lessons may be restricted to the internet. Teachers in schools, scientists in laboratories, journalists in newsrooms and doctors in hospitals will have to be on guard all the time.

The culture in the performing arts, too, will change. An air of suspicion will cloud all their activities. The #MeToo podium will rule our lives while helpless children from impoverished homes will continue to be abused and women with no standing in society will continue to be exploited.

Perhaps, the greatest loss will be in the pleasure of reading a book, watching a play, enjoying a concert, or even reading a newspaper. The private life of the writer/actor/musician/journalist will keep intruding. We will live with the eternal question — was this person a sexual predator? 

I remember a rasika’s significant comment during a Marghazi concert: “Enjoy the music — don’t bother about the singer.” I wonder if that will be possible anymore.