On Friday, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi announced that her ministry would consider establishing a legal panel to investigate the flood of #MeToo allegations that have emerged on social media over the past ten days. Two days later, Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar, one of several prominent individuals to have been accused of sexual harassment, ended days of speculation and refused to resign after returning from a foreign tour.
At least 14 journalists have accused Akbar of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour in his role as editor at various newspapers. One of them was 18 years old at the time of the alleged incident. Akbar has denied the accusations, describing them as a political conspiracy before the 2019 General Election. He added that he was considering legal action against his accusers.
Menaka Gandhi was among the few Bharatiya Janata Party ministers and members who had announced unqualified support to the #MeToo movement.
“I believe in all of them,” Gandhi said on Friday. “I believe in the pain and trauma behind every single complainant…I am proposing to set up a committee with senior judicial and legal persons as members to look into all issues emanating from the #MeToo campaign.”
Though other BJP leaders and ministers also spoke about the allegations against Akbar, they did not take a firm stand. On Friday, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy asked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak about the allegations against Akbar. Uma Bharti, minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation, said on Friday that Akbar’s actions were between him and the women accusing him, and not a concern of the government. On Thursday, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani had said that while it was important that women speaking about sexual harassment allegations should not be victimised or mocked, it was not her place to make a comment about Akbar.
Women’s rights activists are, however, cautious about Gandhi’s proposed panel.
“This is a fairly habitual statement from Maneka Gandhi,” said V Geetha, an activist and publisher from Chennai. “This is not to say she does not take these complaints seriously. She just has not thought through what has been coming out from the MeToo movement.”
Ammu Joseph, a member of the Network of Women in Media, India, also pointed out the lack of follow through when it comes to Gandhi’s announcements. She noted that despite several news reports on how the Nirbhaya Fund, set up by the Union government in 2013 to compensate victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, the money had been underutilised or misdirected.
“She has made the right gestures and noises since 2012, before she was a minister,” Joseph said. “The question is how effective are these schemes down the line? It is one thing to make announcements, but do you put it in place or fund it?”
Ruth Manorama, a women’s rights activist from Hyderabad, noted that the consent of the women in question must be obtained before any legal action can be taken.
“The women who reported these allegations should be asked whether they want to pursue this issue legally,” Manorama said. “In most cases, there is no evidence. If these cases are dropped, these women will be accused of lying and using this movement to get favours. This committee they are setting up needs to be pro-women, not pro-perpetrators, or it will boomerang on the women in question.”
Geetha, Joseph and Manorama said that it was important to strengthen existing structures and back existing laws.
The State Commissions for Women must ensure that they set up local committees to prevent sexual harassment at the district level, Manorama said, and these should be funded by the Ministry for Women and Child Development.
“Instead of the government getting involved, they should implement the law and make sure employers are compliant with the law,” Joseph said. “That would bring in a lot of people who have no access to social media, whom this movement might pass over, and would make a huge difference to women workers.”
Geetha pointed out that proper implementation of the law would help those who are not privileged enough to speak out and be heard. “We all operate from positions of marked and unmarked privilege,” she said. “Those who have spoken out are articulate and familiar with this type of communication. It is possible for them to get some kind of a hearing. What happens when you do not have access to such a form of expression?”
The deeper issue that needs to be addressed, all three said, was the education of men. “The MeToo campaign has opened up the chances for women not to suffer in a culture of silence,” Manorama pointed out. “If women spoke up earlier, there was no conducive atmosphere for them. We need to build this further. Manu talks of women being second-class citizens, but the Constitution broke that. The spirit of the Constitution must get into everyone’s head.”
Said Geetha, “Feminist groups have worked for legal remedies for three decades now. Those who are coming out now have tried to work with the formal system in one way or another. One legal body advising the ministry is not enough. [...] We need to think of the standard of civility men have to set for themselves.”