On Wednesday, former minister of state for external affairs and veteran journalist MJ Akbar announced he was resigning from his post after multiple charges of sexual harassment against him. “Since I have decided to seek justice in a court of law in a personal capacity,” said the media statement put out by Akbar, “I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity.”
He was stepping down to clear his good name, suggested Akbar, who has filed a defamation case against Priya Ramani, the first of many journalists to accuse him of harassment. Earlier, he had dismissed the charges against him as “lies” that did “not have legs”, as a political conspiracy deliberately brought up a few months before the elections. He then suggested that it was impossible for him to have harassed colleagues at the Asian Age since his tiny plywood and glass cabin offered no privacy. As for Ramani, he pointed out, she herself had said he did not “do” anything. So then “there is no story,” said Akbar, who seemed to be slipping out of ministerial mode and into the shoes of an editor appraising a salacious piece of news. The bravado may have frayed after 20 other women journalists asked the court to consider their testimonies against Akbar.
Over the last week and a half, as the silence over sexual harassment broke in India, accused men have struggled to formulate a response. Some, like journalists Prashant Jha, KR Sreenivas and C Gouridasan Nair, have retired hurt, handing in resignations or stepping down from their posts without much protest.
But not everyone is willing to go quietly into the night. Some feel they can stare down their accusers. Others tried to explain away their behaviour as the result of miscommunication between the sexes in a liberated age. Others dwell on a sense of injury at what they suggest are malicious accusations. Broadly speaking, the accused men would slot themselves into three categories: the indignant, the progressive and the wronged.
Apart from Akbar, two other accused men have filed legal notices against their accusers: Alok Nath and Nana Patekar. Indeed, much of the belligerence and dismissal came from an older generation of powerful, well-known men who seem to think dealing with sexual harassment is like swatting away a fly, that the avalanche of stories is a new fad which must not be allowed to get out of hand.
While Akbar called it a “viral fever”, Subhash Ghai, accused of having raped a woman after spiking her drink, spoke in a similar vein: “It is sad that it is becoming a fashion to malign anyone known, bringing some stories from past without any truth or blown up false allegations if all. I deny strictly and firmly all false allegations like these.”
Artist Jatin Das, who faces at least three charges of molestation and harassment, dismissed these accusations as “vulgar”. “Anyone can say anything about anybody and it gets published,” he said. “There might be truth to both sides but it’s the innocent which loses dignity.”
Vinod Dua, who runs the programme “Jan Gan Man Ki Baat” at the Wire, and is also accused of harassing and stalking a woman, suggested the #MeToo movement deflected attention from the really important questions in the months leading up to the Lok Sabha elections:
“With the elections closing in, the questions that should be asked have been relegated to the background. Neither the Sarkari media nor Durbari media are asking these questions, newspapers aren’t asking them either. What is being debated upon is who, how many years ago, sexually harassed whom. A Union minister has also been named ... and there has been some muck thrown at me too... I will mention this too…”
These comments were later edited out and the video uploaded again. Towards the end of the video, however, Dua made a concession to the allegations: he would give the Wire a week to investigate them.
Then there was journalist and writer CP Surendran, whose female colleagues accuse him of inappropriate or coercive behaviour and who dismissed them as a “lynch mob”.
But Surendran’s response also fits into another register, that of the intellectual or artistic male, the liberated individual who does not believe in outdated sexual mores, who expects women to participate in his dream of liberation:
“I may have made what some people consider to be sexist comments. I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality. I choose not to think in given categories. This may be construed as arrogance. I may have put an arm around a woman at a party, never at work. That act of familiarity may have caused offense, which I regret, but I have never meant to give grief… I have no gender or political loyalties. I have paid a price for this all my life. I often rub people of both genders the wrong way with my often ill considered views. You have picked six women (who knows there could be more who took offense) from across 30 years, and have made a map of me as a deviant. The majoritarianism that liberals deplore in political discourse is what is at stake here.”
It seems to be a popular argument, the progressive man who is misunderstood, who ruffles feathers because he just does not conform to conventional ideas of social behaviour. Advertising executive Bodhisatwa Dasgupta, for instance, tried to explain his transgressions as a problem of not understanding “boundaries”. A problem that became acute, he claimed in a post that was later taken down:
That was Bodhi becoming someone because he felt it was okay to be that guy. Bodhi felt entitled to be the way he was, because apparently, it was eccentric and endearing. And apparently, nobody took offence to it.
And so over time, the boundaries became thinner and thinner, till it was hard for me to tell what they were, or where they lay. And it didn’t matter who I was interacting with, or what sex they were — I just couldn’t tell where to draw the line.
Such men seemed unable to hear consent or the lack of it as they conducted their socially unconventional relations. Author Chetan Bhagat explained the first allegation against him only amounted to infidelity, that he was swept away by such powerful emotion he could not help but make advances towards the woman. In subsequent posts on social media, he suggests he merely took a professional interest in the woman, described as an “erotica writer”.
In the second allegation, he is accused of kissing a woman against her will. But even this, he initially suggested, was consensual because of the way she had signed off a mail to him three years after the alleged offence. He then took umbrage to the fact that women were sullying the movement with so-called fake allegations:
“So who wanted to kiss whom?@iratrivedi’s self-explanatory email from 2013 to me, esp last line, easily shows her claims from 2010 are false, and she knows this too. This mental harassment of me and my family has to stop. Please don’t harm a movement with#fakecharges#harassed.”
Among the many other grievances that Bhagat had was that such allegations had forced him to go into social media lockdown, “as if I am some convict”, unable to thank his teeming multitude of fans as he launched his new book. This allows him to join the ranks of the aggrieved, the alleged offenders who claim the charges targeted their families and careers.
Take filmmaker and columnist Pravin Mishra, who feels the sole purpose of the allegations against him was to derail his PhD submission:
“The post was timed just 18 hours before my PhD DAC review with an intention to disorient me. If she waited for two long years, she could have waited for a few more hours. There are people involved in the conspiracy who know my life inside out.”
It is true, as charges of sexual harassment unfold, many lives have been thrown asunder. These may include accused men. But first they involve the women who made the accusations, those who stayed silent for years precisely because they feared damage to their family, their careers, their personal reputations. Do the accused men recognise this reality?