India’s #MeToo Moment Came Late, but It Will Be Transformative
The rage that animated protests against sexual violence in 2012 has returned, and Indian women are fearlessly speaking out against powerful perpetrators.
Six years ago, Indian women set in motion their epochal demand for equal rights by protesting the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. The 23-year-old New Delhi student had been gang raped in a moving bus and later died from her injuries. The crime inspired tens of thousands of people nationwide to take to the streets to express their outrage. It was the most vocal protest against sexual assault and rape in India and led to wide-ranging legal changes.
Then, in October 2017, the #MeToo movement began to break the grip of powerful men in the United States, bringing down the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and a slew of television executives, actors, journalists, and other prominent male celebrities. The hashtag circulated freely in India, but the mood was wary. As the first anniversary of the movement approached, Indian women were hesitant to fully engage.
In a country where fathers make the rules, husbands enforce them, and male bosses reiterate them, speaking out against someone familiar was always going to be hard. Confronting powerful men is a central theme of #MeToo in the United States. But in India, men aren’t considered powerful only because of the jobs they hold. They are powerful because they are men. The challenge Indian women face is significantly greater.
Then, last month, a well-known actress repeated her account of being sexually assaulted by an actor in 2008 on a film set in Mumbai. On the pretext of dancing with her, Tanushree Dutta alleged, the actor Nana Patekar had instead groped her. When she objected, Patekar mobilized a mob of men to stop her car from leaving the lot. She quit the film, then the industry, and finally the country, immigrating to the United States.
It’s unclear why Dutta’s account of a decade-old assault resonated. The spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation in the United States had just telegraphed to women all over the world that male denial superseded female testimony. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never been compelled to explain allegations that in 2009 he had a woman’s phone secretly tapped. “The 62-day surveillance ended after the woman agreed to get married and leave Gujarat,” the Bangalore Mirror reported.
After Dutta’s allegations became public, Indian Twitter blew up. On Oct. 4, a stand-up comic was accused of sending explicit images. Then a filmmaker was accused of masturbating on a colleague. A member of a popular comedy collective, All India Bakchod, was accused of sexual harassment and assault. Female journalists named names, too, accusing highly placed men at the Times of India and the Hindustan Times and then famous authors, boldface-name actors, and an ad man with nearly 5 million Twitter followers.
The micro-testimonies—most of the accusations first broke on Twitter—were graphic. And they were enormously effective. Within one week, many of the accused had resigned. The comedy collective distanced itself from founding members. The filmmaker’s colleagues dissolved the production house of which they were all a part.
On Oct. 8, the accusations reached the highest levels of the Indian government. In a devastating tweet that linked to an essay she’d written last year, the journalist Priya Ramani accused M.J. Akbar, the junior minister for external affairs in Modi’s government, of having sexually harassed her when he was a newspaper editor and she was a 23-year-old reporter. “[Y]ou were as talented a predator as you were a writer,” she wrote.
By Oct. 12, nearly 15 women had come forward to describe Akbar’s modus operandi. As though working from the Weinstein playbook, the accusers alleged, Akbar would invite women, on the pretext of discussing work, into a hotel room or his office, where he would then proposition them, grope their breasts, and violently assault them. One accuser said that Akbar appeared before her in a bathrobe, naked underneath. Another said he wore only underwear.
“[H]e called me in his cabin,” the journalist Ghazala Wahab wrote in a viral essay. “I knocked and entered. He was standing next to the door and before I could react he shut the door, trapping me between his body and the door. I instinctively flinched, but he held me and bent to kiss me. With my mouth clamped shut, I struggled to turn my face to one side. The jostling continued, without much success. I had no space to manoeuvre. Fear had rendered me speechless.”
Akbar’s journalism career dates back to 1971. It spanned six storied newspapers and magazines, where he enjoyed top positions such as editor in chief. In contemplating the number of women whose lives he had potentially damaged, one accuser told HuffPost India, “I don’t think even Harvey Weinstein has hurt so many women.”
When the story broke, Akbar was abroad representing India in functions to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. But the response of the Modi government hinted at what was to come.
Akbar’s immediate boss, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, refused to answer a direct question about her subordinate’s actions. “You’re a woman minister in charge,” the reporter asked. “Will there at least be an internal probe?” Swaraj scuttled off.
Another female minister, Smriti Irani, said she couldn’t comment because she “wasn’t present” at the time of the alleged assaults. The chief of a women’s wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) told reporters, “Female journalists are not so innocent that they can be misused.” Out of six women in Modi’s cabinet, only one expressed unconditional solidarity with the victims. “I believe in all of them,” said Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development.
Gandhi’s male colleagues didn’t speak out at all, acting as though the matter didn’t concern them. But is Gandhi empowered to do anything?
The Indian prime minister has never been held to account—by an increasingly pliant mainstream media or the public—for his behavior toward women. The woman he allegedly stalked. The wife he denied having. The mother he only meets to trot out a photo-op. He has maintained a calculated silence in the face of countless rapes across the country. Even after a BJP colleague was accused of raping a teenager, Modi chose political opportunism over the rule of law. When he does talk about sexual assault, he does so in terms of “shame.” He refers to the victims as “daughters,” proving only that he has patriarchal notions of a woman’s place in the world.
And, despite his promises to empower women, he has failed to pass a bill that would reserve 33 percent of seats in the lower house of Parliament and state legislatures for women. He has taken no proactive measures to improve female labor force participation, which stood at a dismaying 24 percent in 2015-2016, down from 36 percent in 2005-2006.
On his return to India, Akbar denied the allegations and alleged a conspiracy. “Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election?” he asked. In fact, Akbar has no constituency. He’s a former member of the Indian National Congress and a current member of the upper house of Parliament, which means that he doesn’t even run for elections.
On Monday, Akbar filed a defamation case against Ramani, the journalist whose tweet triggered the outpouring of accusations. It was a startling act of aggression by a man whose behavior toward women has been described, by multiple former colleagues, in terms of a “predation” that was an “open secret.” So far, Modi’s government seems to be standing behind Akbar as resolutely as the Republicans who defended Kavanaugh.
The protests of 2012 were successful despite the apathy of the Congress government. The people who flooded the streets were the ones who introduced the subject of sexual assault into the public conversation. They forced anti-rape laws to be strengthened; they pressed the government to create fast-track courts for rape cases. Their actions empowered women to report rape.
Modi might stay silent. Akbar could cling to his job. But Indian women have identified their predators, and they will determine what happens next.
“Truth is the best defense,” Ramani told the Telegraph newspaper. “I’m not worried.”