It was perhaps inevitable that the tide of sexual harassment charges that has swept through media, the film and entertainment industry and even the literary world over the past few days would eventually touch the government. On Monday evening, four journalists went public on social media with allegations against MJ Akbar, veteran journalist and minister of state for external affairs. All four suggested a similar pattern of behaviour. Akbar, the legendary newspaper editor, is alleged to have repeatedly made unwelcome advances to young women who were starting out in their careers, either too in awe of or powerless to speak out against him. So far, however, neither the government nor the Bharatiya Janata Party, to which Akbar belongs, has made an official statement on it. Television reports quoting unidentified sources in the ministry of external affairs suggest there is no internal inquiry against him because this is a “personal” matter for Akbar. It is an institutional response that is as callous as it is out of step with the times.
As allegations of harassment pour in, against actors, journalist, comedians, authors and singers, each industry is struggling to formulate its response. Already, heads have rolled. The co-founder of a comedy group has “stepped away” for failing to act on accusations of harassment, journalists have resigned, been removed from positions of authority or gone on leave, a production house associated with a director who faces charges has been dissolved. Apart from individual media organisations, the Editor’s Guild of India put out a statement voicing support for the women who say they were harassed and asking for unbiased inquiries. The Indian Film and Television Directors’ Association has taken public note of the recent spate of charges in the industry, sent a show cause notice to an accused director and set up an all-woman inquiry committee. Even parts of the political establishment seem to be making an attempt to catch up – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said it would examine allegations against Malayali actor and party legislator Mukesh, though it contended that all charges could not be true.
While most industries and organisations seem anxious to be seen to be taking action, the government has maintained a determined silence while the BJP is yet to put out an official party statement. When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was asked whether an inquiry would be started against Akbar, she walked away. In Maharashtra, a minister questioned actor Tanushree Dutta’s charges and held up the accused Nana Patekar’s credentials as a social worker. Only Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi reportedly said action should be taken on each allegation. But a stray comment by an individual minister is grossly inadequate to address the current churn across various professional worlds.
As woman after woman comes out with her story, she disrupts long-entrenched power structures that kept the abused silent and guaranteed impunity to the abuser. As she names herself a survivor, she rejects the sense of shame that was supposed to be her burden rather than the offender’s. As testimonies given on social media are taken up by offices and industry bodies, it raises the hope that institutions that have failed so many in the past will become more sensitive and accountable. But if this new moment is to result in lasting change, it must be enabled by arguably the most powerful institution in the country, by government itself.