A year after India’s #MeToo campaign put dozens of prominent men in the dock for alleged sexual harassment, a new controversy has erupted.

In a series of tweets on November 21, comedian Utsav Chakraborty – the first to be accused of sexual misconduct on social media in India in October 2018 – claimed that four women who had previously accused him were either lying or had falsely represented consensual flirting via text messages as non-consensual harassment. Among the women he has accused is writer Mahima Kukreja, who triggered the 2018 #MeToo wave by alleging that Chakraborty sent unsolicited pictures of his genitalia to women and underage girls.

Chakraborty has now alleged that Kukreja lied about being harassed by him. He claimed that during a long phone call in November 2018, Kukreja and her sister threatened legal action against him if he publicly released any information that could damage her reputation. A YouTube channel named Expose Mahima has released two audio clips of this alleged phone call to support Chakraborty’s claims.

Since Chakraborty’s allegations, one of the women he named acknowledged having consensual sexual exchanges with him in text chats. Another woman clarified that she was not underage when she received sexually explicit texts from Chakraborty, but maintained that the texts were unsolicited.

Kukreja, meanwhile, has categorically denied Chakraborty’s allegations. In a detailed public statement issued on November 25, she claimed that the comedian had both publicly and privately admitted to his “predatory behaviour” and had apologised for it on Twitter in October last year. She described Chakraborty’s allegations as a “carefully planned and orchestrated PR-led campaign” to malign her, the other women who spoke up and the #MeToo campaign itself.

This intense exchange of allegations by Chakraborty and Kukreja created a mini-storm on Indian Twitter last week, with some people rising to Chakraborty’s defence and questioning the credibility of the entire #MeToo campaign.

Others – particularly feminists – have expressed shock and dismay at the new controversy while also asserting that it does not undermine the stories of all the other women who spoke up about sexual harassment because of #MeToo. For many feminists, this controversy is an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of “consent” in an age of sexting, and the path that #MeToo now needs to take.

‘Movement is bigger than an individual case’

Soon after Chakraborty made allegations against his accusers, women who had been at the forefront of #MeToo were targeted by Twitter users dismissing the whole campaign, abusing them for allegedly subjecting Chakraborty to a social media trial last year, and pushing them to respond.

In a statement on November 22, journalist Sandhya Menon said, “The [#MeToo] movement has always been about having a space and a voice to talk about sexual harassment that mostly was hitherto talked about between ourselves. It was never about a trial on Twitter.” Even if some people may have tried to misuse the movement through false representations, she said, #MeToo is still meant for justice to be done.

Menon was among the many women who facilitated the #MeToo campaign last year by speaking out on behalf of other women who wanted to share their sexual harassment stories anonymously. Menon and other facilitators claimed that they attempted to verify women’s allegations as much as possible before publicly naming the men they had accused.

After Chakraborty’s allegations against women last week, #MeToo naysayers have questioned the verification process of the campaign’s facilitators and accused them of being biased against men by allegedly believing all the women.

“But the point of the movement was never to believe women just because they are women,” Menon told Scroll.in. “The point was to take sexual harassment complaints seriously enough to investigate them instead of dismissing them.”

Rutuja Shinde, a feminist lawyer who provides free legal services to survivors of sexual harassment, emphasised that the Chakraborty-Kukreja controversy cannot truly hinder #MeToo even if it may seem like a setback. “This movement is not led by one person or group and is bigger than an individual case,” said Shinde. “The movement was created for victims of sexual harassment to reclaim their agency. It has started a dialogue about sexual harassment. It is important to see the movement in the broader context and not derail the conversation.”

Journalist Rituparna Chatterjee, another #MeToo facilitator, said she is tired of women constantly being scrutinised and questioned for speaking out about sexual harassment. “It is as if women and those helping them are on trial just for wanting safe spaces to work in,” she said. “Women have taken such a long time to reach this point, and the moment something goes wrong, we are immediately asked how it affects the movement.”

Chatterjee pointed out that an initiative like #MeToo will take more than one generation to bear fruit, but the fact that women have collectively spoken out and normalised the conversation on sexual violence is itself a big step.

Time for due process?

Menon, too, pointed out the positive impact of #MeToo by referring to anecdotes she has heard about changes in the workspace. “Based on conversations I have had with working professionals, I believe that more women are now having conversations about sexual harassment with their colleagues, and are open to making formal complaints about it,” she said.

Before the global #MeToo campaign, there was very little conversation in India about formal avenues for women to make sexual harassment complaints. Even though the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act had been in place since 2013, there was little public scrutiny about whether workplaces had set up functional and effective internal committees to look into women’s complaints.

In 2017, when a Facebook user began circulating a crowdsourced list of alleged sexual harassers in academia, naming several reputed male professors form prominent colleges, a section of Indian feminists severely criticised such public naming and shaming. While these feminists urged women to follow “due process” while making sexual harassment complaints, women speaking out during the #MeToo campaign claimed they had to resort to social media only because formal processes of complaint had failed them.

Now, a year after #MeToo peaked, many of these women believe it is time to make formal processes work.

“The movement was a reaction to the lack of due process – it erupted organically because we were trying to shake up the existing system and lay the path for new processes,” said Menon, who believes that #MeToo did succeed in these efforts to a significant extent. Within four months of the initiative, she began advising women to make formal complaints about sexual harassment instead of naming men on social media. “I believe Mahima [Kukreja] and Utsav [Chakraborty] should take the legal route at this point, if they want to,” she said.

Complicated consent

Several women acknowledged that Chakraborty’s allegations against his #MeToo accusers highlight how the tricky nature of consent can be in the context of sexting and casual flirting online.

Chakraborty has claimed, for instance, that he had once sent Kukreja a picture of his genitals only because she sent him an allegedly “suggestive” picture of herself and he assumed they were flirting. Kukreja, however, claims that she had only sent Chakraborty a picture of her face, to which he responded with an unsolicited “dick pic”.

Such situations, says Shinde, have become more commonplace among young people today, making it all the more important for everyone to understand what consent is. “It is becoming increasingly clear that consent is not continuous, has to be sought each time, is revocable at any given time, should be explicit and unequivocal,” said Shinde. “Past conduct is irrelevant to an instance of violation of consent.”