In October 2017, the global #MeToo movement started with a public call to action by actor Alyssa Milano, who invited women to tweet about their experiences of sexual harassment with the hashtag #MeToo. That year, #MeToo made an imprint on India too, but only in small pockets of social media and academia.

India’s breakthrough #MeToo moment was to occur a year later, quite unexpectedly, with no grand campaign announcement or call to action. It began with one woman’s tweet, on the morning of October 4, 2018, calling out comedian Utsav Chakraborty for sending unsolicited nude photos to women. Actor Tanushree Dutta’s sexual harassment complaint against Nana Patekar had been in the news for a month at the time, and it lay the groundwork for women’s reactions to the tweet about Chakraborty.

Within days, it spiralled into an avalanche of public sexual harassment accusations that jolted the fields of journalism, film, music, entertainment, advertising, literature and art.

By the end of October, allegations had been made against more than 60 men, including Union minister MJ Akbar (who was forced to resign when 16 women accused him of sexual harassment during his years as a newspaper editor), veteran actor Alok Nath (who was accused of rape), brand consultant Suhel Seth, filmmakers Subhash Ghai and Vikas Bahl, musicians Kailash Kher, Vairamuthu and Anu Malik, authors Chetan Bhagat and Kiran Nagarkar, journalists Vinod Dua and CP Surendran, and artists Jatin Das and Subodh Gupta. These are just a handful of the total number of men against whom allegations were made last year.

Some of the allegations were investigated by the police, and others by internal committees set up in offices under the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Some men faced punitive action, others were cleared of charges. Many of the claims might forever remain unresolved, with no clear means of assessing the veracity of the accusations.

But the #MeToo movement, while it was at its peak last year, became much more than a stack of allegations against well-known personalities. Both on and off social media, the women speaking out formed bonds of sisterhood and shared mental health resources to look out for each others’ needs.

The movement was critiqued for not being inclusive enough – for leaving out the stories of women from marginalised groups and unorganised sectors. There were intense debates on the ethics of public naming and shaming, and many men turned the movement into a joke: beware of interacting with women, or you could get “me too-ed”.

In newsrooms, reporters and editors had to deal with new dilemmas: how credible were social media allegations? Did anonymous allegations need to be reported? And no one quite knew what to do with the men who had faced accusations: did they lose all professional credibility? Ought they to be socially shunned? Who would determine the degree of punishment they deserved?

Now, a year since the #MeToo movement began, many of these questions remain difficult to answer, and several more have been added to the mix. For instance, where does #MeToo stand today? Is it still alive? How much has it changed workspaces in India? And what is its legacy likely to be?

Former union minister MJ Akbar was accused of sexual harassment by at least 16 women. Photo: PTI

Toning down the banter

To assess the impact of the #MeToo movement, had conversations with junior and senior-level employees from a variety of Indian companies throughout September. Almost all of them claimed that the buzz around me too died out in offices a month or two after October 2018, and it is no longer a topic of conversation or interest for most workers.

But the movement did leave an unmistakable mark or larger corporations around the country. In general, employees of several large companies claimed that #MeToo altered the dynamics of social and professional interaction between men and women. In some cases, the change lasted for a few months after the movement began, and in others, it is still palpable.

“I think men have become a little more cautious about the kind of banter they have with women in the office,” said a woman working in Mumbai in financial services – an industry that continues to be male-dominated. “Even if they were not being offensive before, we can sense that they are more careful now, after all the trainings about what is appropriate and what is not.”

At a major accountancy company, a woman employee claimed that after #MeToo, men have stopped making casual observations about their female colleagues’ clothes and appearance.

In most smaller companies, however, employees that spoke to claimed that the #MeToo movement has had no major impact on workplace culture or conversation. For some workers, the idea of #MeToo is little more than a joke. “Sometimes when colleagues have casual conversations, women jokingly tell the men to be careful or else ‘me-too kar doongi’ – but everyone knows it is just in jest,” said an HR executive at a bank in Mumbai.

More workshops than ever before

Workplace banter aside, #MeToo made human resource departments of several large companies scramble to ensure that they had set up internal complaints committees to look into sexual harassment allegations, or that their existing committees were functioning in accordance with the law.

Organisations and experts that conduct sensitisation workshops on sexual harassment suddenly found themselves more in demand than ever before. “There has been a flurry of activity in the past year – even companies that had internal committees on paper realised they needed an external member or trainings for their employees,” said one Delhi-based expert who has been conducting corporate workshops on sexual harassment ever since the law was passed in 2013.

General awareness about sexual harassment and the fear of consequences have increased, the expert said, but the only thing missing is a greater degree of inclusivity in internal committees. “Companies don’t often represent voices from different departments in their internal committees, so the committees tend to be dominated by top management,” she said. “And very few companies think of including their housekeeping staff in the trainings on sexual harassment.”

Some human resource executives spoke to said their background checks of prospective employees now include queries about sexual misconduct. One advertising agency in Mumbai said it chose not to hire two people in the past year because of sexual harassment complaints made against them.

“Our policy is that if there is one allegation against a person, we let it pass,” said the HR head of the advertising agency. “But if three or four people confirm a prospective employee’s sexual misbehaviour, then we don’t hire him. If we find that a person who was accused has apologised and is known to have changed his behaviour, then we believe everyone deserves a second chance.”

Journalists protest against sexual harassment in the workplace in New Delhi on October 2018. Photo: AFP

‘A very polarised environment’

What about the hiring of women, though? Did #MeToo change people’s perceptions about the prospect of working with women?

Earlier this year, a research group at the University of Houston conducted a survey of more than 300 American working professionals, and found a clear backlash against women after the #MeToo movement: 19% of the men in their study said they were reluctant to hire attractive women, 21% claimed they were reluctant to hire women for jobs that involved close interpersonal interactions with men and 27% men said they avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues.

The executives to whom spoke in India denied such a backlash against women in their companies. But outside of the organised structure of corporations, in more freelance-based industries of film and music, the story is possibly different.

Several artistes and technicians in these industries displayed extreme reluctance to talk about the #MeToo movement and its impact in the past year. Those who did talk admitted a bias against working with women, because the movement has left many men feeling afraid of being accused.

“The problem with #MeToo is that as a man, you are guilty until proven innocent, so if any woman accuses you of anything, even if it is false, it could ruin your career and your personal life,” said a cinematographer in Mumbai. “If I need to hire someone for my unit, I would first consider at least two men before an equally qualified woman. And I know a lot of people who feel the same way in the industry – it is a very polarised environment right now.”

For those dejected by such a perspective, however, there might be some hope yet.

A senior executive at a global healthcare company in Mumbai told that she saw all of these unconscious biases creep in against women employees a decade ago, when her company first started conducting gender sensitisation and diversity workshops for employees.

“At the time, many male employees perceived it as a ‘feminist movement’ being thrust on them, and were uncomfortable working with women,” the senior executive said. “But over time, thanks to continuous training workshops, people changed, and being sensitive about gender and diversity became normalised. Our work culture changed much before the #MeToo movement last year.”