India’s #MeToo movement

India’s #MeToo movement

Hide, you lech: #MeToo is singeing powerful men, and it shows no sign of abating

When the #MeToo movement took off in the US in October 2017, it was difficult to imagine it happening in India, too. India has never had a popular, organic feminist movement, unlike the West. Legislation like the Domestic Violence Act were a culmination of the efforts of civil society organisations, but there was no pan-India movement for the same. Similarly, the Sexual Harassment Act and guidelines for the workplace was a result of the Vishakha judgement of the Supreme Court.

In India, women have learnt to occupy spaces without making much noise. While this may have insulated society from disruptive shocks, it is also why a majority of Indian women still remain voiceless. Society has not made it easy for the woman to speak up. Parliament, the apex institution for representation of the interests of our people, only has around 11% women members, despite women comprising almost half the population. The absence of women in positions of power and the lack of an overarching feminist consciousness among women has made the fight for their rights all the more grueling.

For all the above reasons, the ongoing #MeToo movement in India is a welcome surprise. Despite the risk of alienation, women have chosen to speak up against men of power and influence like MJ Akbar, Chetan Bhagat and Nana Patekar among others. Union minister Akbar must step down on grounds of moral responsibility and probity. Rape charges against actor Alok Nath must be probed after an FIR under Section 376 IPC is registered.

What’s overwhelming is the support pouring in from women and men alike. That these women have found extensive support on social media is an indication of two very important social facts: one, Indian society is more open and willing to address the issues faced by women than previously thought. Two, women are coming out in support of other women, breaking the stereotype that women never support each other. While it may be true that in many instances, women have not looked out for other women in the past, that has changed, perhaps due to changing economic circumstances of women.

Historically, women’s access to resources has been through men, who have been in possession of these. For women to gain access to these resources, they have had to depend on men through associations like marriage and consanguinity, putting women in competition with each other. With the increasing economic empowerment of women, the extent of reliance women have to place on men to gain access to resources for survival is declining, thereby reducing the competition among women. Women today are more free and willing to speak up in support of other women. The #MeToo movement is a prime example of this change.

The silence of women survivors of sexual harassment and assault shows the failure of the State machinery to address their concerns. It took over 10 years for actor Tanushree Dutta to gather the courage to speak up against the lewd behaviour of her co-star and the violence committed by his supporters against her. The free pass that is often given by the police to mobs with political links is a cause for worry, as is the fact that cases of sexual harassment are not treated with the gravity they deserve. Scars of sexual harassment may not always be physical, but they run deep. It is imperative that the State machinery is cognisant of this fact when dealing with a survivor. The Ministry of Women and Child Development’s move to set up a committee to investigate #MeToo cases is welcome, but such efforts must be sustained and not remain mere knee-jerk reactions.

It must be remembered that amidst the small victories offered by #MeToo, there is a section of the population that continues to have no legal recourse available against sexual harassment. These are the men who have been sexually harassed by women and by other men. Sections 354, 509 and 376 of the IPC deal with sexual assault by outraging modesty, eve-teasing and rape. These offences can be committed against women only, implying that the State does not recognise sexual crimes committed against men. This is just one of the many ways men bear the brunt of the adverse impacts of patriarchy and it is high time we start to address them as well.

The most important achievement of the #MeToo movement in India is the emphasis it places on consent. Indians have been apprehensive of discussing matters of sexuality in the public sphere until very recently, leading to little awareness about notions of consent. Popular portrayal of consent as including instances when the woman says “no” has contributed to a very flawed understanding of consent. While what comprises consent per se is still a matter of debate, the movement has made clear what is not consent: any form of refusal, whether implicit or explicit.

On the legal front, there may be hurdles in obtaining justice when reporting an allegation of sexual harassment many years after the incident. Not only does it make the investigator’s job difficult but also, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, leaves room for embellishment of facts. In the case of Meharaj Singh vs Union of India, the apex court held that any delay in registration of FIR must be taken seriously and the first informant must give an explanation in respect of the same. Further, Section 468 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, states that for offences punishable with imprisonment for three years, the period of limitation shall also be of three years.

Yet, since an offence of molestation under Section 354 IPC is punishable with five years imprisonment, the limitation bar under Section 468 will not apply. Therefore, the FIR of Tanushree Dutta under that section will be maintainable.

Finally, with more and more women having the courage to come out and expose the sexual predators of the past, the police, too, are under a corresponding duty to register the FIR. The newly-inserted Section 166A CrPC prescribes imprisonment of upto two years for police officials who fail to register an FIR for serious crimes against women, particularly under Sections 354, 370, 376, 509 and related provisions. Moreover, the newly-created Police Complaints Authority also provides an efficacious remedy for women aggrieved by police indifference to their cause. The dignity of Indian women has been defined by the likes of Rani Laxmibai and cannot be defiled by base individuals driven by lustful thoughts. History is witness to the fact that those nations have progressed that learnt to respect women. India cannot be an exception.

(The writer is a former civil servant and presently a lawyer in the Bombay high court)