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The #MeToo Movement Has Finally Made It To India and Here’s Why Its Important to Talk About It

Back in 2017, the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon when American actress Alyssa Milano posted the hashtag on Twitter, originally coined by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006, encouraging anyone who has ever been sexually harassed to come forward and tweet under the tag. And within 24 hours, there were over 500,000 tweets under it. While the West, especially Hollywood, dealt with the controversy, giving birth to the #TimesUp movement after the Harvey Weinstein debacle, India had been keeping very quiet. As an Indian, I am very well aware of how many cases of rape and assault are reported every single day and I was very surprised when we didn’t jump on the hashtag and speak our truth. But that all changed about a week ago when Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta came forward with her story from 10 years ago.

She opened up about how her male co-star, Nana Patekar, sexually assaulted her on the sets of the Bollywood movie Horn ‘Ok’ Pleassss ten years ago. She revealed how the actor tried to touch her inappropriately under the pretext of teaching her some dance moves. Dutta had complained to her producers but they paid no heed and asked her to continue on with the shoot. When she refused and decided to go home, her car was trashed by some political party workers who came in support of Nana Patekar. This sequence of events has been corroborated by journalist Janice Sequira, who claimed to be present on set at the time of the events. Dutta has since filed an FIR against Patekar, who has categorically denied the allegations.

Since then, many women have found the strength to come forward with their stories. It took some time, but the #MeToo movement has finally made it to India. For years, women have been silenced, they have been told by society not to speak about these issues because it was considered a ‘taboo’ and because it would tarnish the reputations of their families. In a patriarchal society, men couldn’t do no wrong, and those who came forward to challenge the were asked to keep their mouths shut. But everyone reaches their breaking point, and it looks like the women of India have reached theirs, because ever since Tanushree led the way, thousands of women have spoken up about their stories. They are naming names, not afraid of the consequences anymore. They have gained support from one another and are finally feeling strong enough to share their struggles.

Soon, #MeTooIndia started trending on Twitter, with the movement spreading like wildfire through the film industry, media, advertising, and comedy, with women sharing their accounts on social media of violence ranging from rape to emotional abuse – and this time, they decided to name the men responsible for those atrocities. Senior editors of two major national newspapers of India, The Times of India and Hindustan Times, have had to step down from their positions after allegations surfaced against them. Prashant Jha, the political editor of Hindustan Times stepped down after a former colleague accused him of harassment. Meanwhile, Times of India editor, K. R. Sreenivas has been sent on ‘administrative leave’ after journalist Sandhya Menon revealed that he sexually harassed her in 2007. After her account, six more women came out with similar stories against him. Times Of India is currently investigating these claims. And it’s not just these two, many female journalists have come out against their male counterparts in various parts of India with accounts of years of torment and abuse.

And while the #MeToo movement took Indian media by the storm, it has affected the comedy and acting sphere as well as multiple allegations against renowned comedians and Bollywood actors have surfaced since the dawn of this movement. Two members of All India Bakchod (AIB), one of the biggest comedy collectives of India, have come under fire after it was revealed that they were aware about the sexual harassment allegations against Utsav Chakraborty, who worked with them until 2016. Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba were well aware of the allegations against Utsav, who has been accused of sending lewd messages and pictures to women on social messaging apps. But even after knowing about it, Bhat and Khamba let Utsav continue to work with AIB, albeit on a freelance basis. What irks me most about this is the blatant hypocrisy displayed by AIB in this matter. They are known to be a feminist, outspoken comedy collective who would call out the wrong doings of society and always stand up for women. Yet they let a predator like Utsav still work with them. The group has issued a series of statements regarding the incident, stating that a detailed investigation will follow and have since let go of Bhat and Khamba, who are the co-founders of the group.

Comedy collective AIB promoting their now cancelled web series ‘On Air With AIB’. From L to R: Rohan Joshi, Gursimran Khamba, Tanmay Bhat, Ashish Shakya. Image credit: NDTV.

Another person in the comedy sphere who has been accused of harassment is comedienne Aditi Mittal, who has been accused by fellow comedienne Kaneez Surkha. Kaneez said in a statement that Aditi forcefully kissed her on stage during one of their gigs. Aditi has since apologized for the same. This goes to show that its not just men who are responsible for harassment– women are also sometimes guilty of the same, and they should be punished for their actions.

Just like how #MeToo shook Hollywood, it took no time in spreading around the Indian film industry as well. Multiple allegations against various actors, directors and producers have come to light since the birth of this movement, a lot more are bound to come in the near future. When Tanushree Dutta came forward with her story, there was a stoic silence in Bollywood for a few days. Everyone was scared to speak about it. No one wanted a controversy. The hypocrisy displayed in the situation was unreal. They refused to comment and made excuses like not knowing the whole story or the accuser must be lying and what not. Slowly, the film fraternity started to come forward in support of Dutta. When senior actor Amitabh Bachchan, who just so happens to be the brand ambassador for saving the girl child in India, was asked about this incident, he simply replied with, “Neither my name is Tanushree Dutta, nor it is Nana Patekar.”

This ended up angering a lot of people especially since he was the star of a critically acclaimed movie called Pink, which laid a very severe emphasis on consent of a woman. ‘When a woman says no, then it means no.’ This was a line delivered in the film by Bachchan himself. And it was expected of him to react strongly to this controversy given how similar it is to what he preached in the movie. After a few days, though, he came out in support of Dutta as well.

But Dutta is not the only person who has come forward. Veteran writer-director Vinta Nanda has accused actor Alok Nath – who is known for his roles as a stereotypical Indian father personifying religious traditions and moral values in films and TV shows – of raping her about two decades ago. Alok Nath has since denied the allegations. Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut has accused director Vikas Bahl of harassment. Ranaut has worked with the director when he made the movie Queen, which, ironically, happens to be about women empowerment. A woman crew member has also accused the director of sexual harassment. She spoke up about how he assaulted her back in 2015 and when she complained to Phantom Films – the directorial group Bahl was a part of, they did nothing to help her. The group has since been dissolved and director Anurag Kashyap, who was a part of the group and knew of this incident, has said that he ‘failed her.’

Other people who have been named in this movement so far are director Sajid Khan, who has been accused by 3 women for sexual misconduct; singer Kailash Kher, who has been accused by over six women, director Rajat Kapoor, who has since ‘apologised’ for his actions, and countless others who are yet to be named. This movement has shaken India like no other. People are finally talking about sexual harassment, which was once considered a taboo, and to some extent, still is. In regards to the mountain of allegations being brought to light against multiple people in the film industry, there is something that I have been noticing quite a lot. If someone comes forward with allegations against their favorite actor, people are very quick to defend that star with reasons like ‘he/she would never do that’ or ‘they’re not that kind of a person’ and what not. Here is a reality check:

You don’t know who they are behind the scenes. The characters that these actors portray in the movies or the persona that they display in the spotlight is not who they really are. It is all just a facade. You don’t know the kind of things they might have done in their life. Just because they are your favourite actor or actress doesn’t mean they can do no wrong in the world. It is a hard pill to swallow but you cannot be in denial forever. And one most certainly should not dismiss the credibility of the person who has gathered up the courage to stand up against them. They have literally nothing to lose.

The #MeToo movement has not only dominated the world of Bollywood and media, politics is shaken by this too. External affairs minister M.J. Akbar has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and has since resigned his post after days of demands by the general public. The ruling party members evaded the questions whenever they were asked about the same, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a stoic silence over the controversy. The silence is deafening and it has not gone unnoticed by the citizens of the country, as they demand strict action by the government against the allegations that are coming up.

Protests against MJ Akbar in India. Image: The Hindu

The reason why the #MeToo movement has dominated social media is because the justice system of India has failed its people. The victims were tired of being silenced or going unheard. They wanted answers and so they decided to demand it on their own in the only place where people were ready to hear them – social media. In India, the laws against harassment are faulty. If someone rapes a person over the age of 12, the punishment is only ten years in prison; under 12 is death penalty. Every day new cases or rape and assault are revealed in the papers. It has become so common that it almost feels like people have been desensitized reading about it each and every day. It doesn’t come as a surprise that so many people are coming forward with their stories.

And even now, when there are thousands of people who believe these survivors, there are a thousand others who don’t. They think that these people are only coming forward for publicity and fame. They ask questions like ‘Why didn’t he/she say it before? Why are they speaking up now?’, and I’m here to tell you why:

Its because they owe nothing to anyone – not me, not you, not the world. You are not someone who will decide when they speak up or how they speak up. These people have gone through a great deal of pain and trauma, the likes of which you would probably never understand. And they all deal with their pains differently. It takes time to heal, it takes courage to stand up and talk about their struggles over and over again for the entire world to scrutinize, it takes a great amount of strength to push past the trauma that haunts them for the rest of their life. It takes resilience to stand up to the world, most of the time alone, and face the criticism and judgmental looks of the society over something that they are not even responsible for and this is something everyone needs to understand. It is their story to tell and only they get to decide how and when they do it. They don’t owe it to anyone to speak their truth, especially not you, so don’t you dare question their integrity.

We should also keep in mind that men can be victims too. It’s not just women. Men can be abused and harassed too. So don’t dismiss their stories as ‘who would hurt you’ or ‘you are a man.’ Believe the male survivors too. They are just as much a part of the movement as the women are. In fact, a male member of the Affinity Magazine has been harassed for about two years by his house driver. He wishes to remain anonymous, but male survivors generally go unnoticed because of how the public would receive it and how the media would report it. And that should not happen because after all, they are humans too, and even though they are very less in number compared to women, they are still victims and deserve to get justice just as much as their female counterparts.

In the end, as an Indian, all I ask of the citizens of my country is that you believe survivors. This movement has opened a huge can of worms that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. So respect the people who have been brave enough to share their stories. Listen to them, try to understand their perspective. Acknowledge their bravery and let them know you support them. They’ve been let down by every single resource that has ever been at their disposal. This is their only chance. Don’t let them down. Show them that you are here to listen so that the ones who aren’t yet comfortable to open up can feel the confidence to share their stories. Don’t question their integrity. They have nothing to lose. They are not doing this for attention, they are doing this for justice. Something they haven’t had for decades. Hear their stories, believe their accounts, accept their pain and respect their strength.

It’s time to give them justice. And it’s about time we did, because they’ve had enough.

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

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