“MeToo” flames now sweeping across India

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Nandita Das

New Delhi–Call it a bonfire of the vanities or an all-consuming sacrificial havan. But the “MeToo” flames now sweeping across social media have turned into a cleansing firestorm, burning holes in carefully honed public personas and turning the heat back on those whose job is to keep the social conscience and hold the powerful to account.

From best-selling authors to creative filmmakers to senior media editors and other guardians of public morality — people across industries are being named and shamed by the “MeToo” and “Time’s Up” movements which began in Hollywood a year ago.

Shobha De

The irony is profound in the case of celebrity author Chetan Bhagat. With a Twitter following of over 12.3 million, Bhagat has long been an active social commentator. But it is social media that is now pestering him with questions.

“Bhagat now finds himself arraigned in the court of public opinion, having to answer charges ranging from sexual harassment to wilful abuse of power that comes from a mass culture of celebrity worship. The old cliche of idols having feet of clay couldn’t ring truer,” said a senior media analyst.

On Saturday, Bhagat responded quickly to the charge with a somewhat abject apology, saying “sorry” for “going through a phase” in trying to “woo” a woman — all of this without naming the woman concerned.

“Much of what Bhagat says suggests that he believes himself to be no worse than ‘stupid’, guilty at best of misreading the drift of an intense, friendly social interaction and not being able to exercise ‘better judgment’.

“There was, as he puts it, ‘nothing physical’, ‘no lewd pictures or words were exchanged’ — as though sexual harassment cannot be said to have taken place in the absence of these overt predatory markers,” the analyst said.

In a scenario where silence or brazening it out are seen by many as an acceptable option, this may come as a relief. But is it enough, the victim might want to ask?

The lady who came out against comedian Utsav Chakraborty and opened a Pandora’s box of harassment complaints against a slew of popular comics on social media feels “punished” for telling the truth and claims she is facing post-traumatic stress disorder. And it doesn’t matter that Chakraborty wrote tweets over tweets explaining the “context” of his behaviour because the damage was done a long time ago.

It was actress Tanushree Dutta who last month gave the MeToo campaign the much-needed spark in India when she renewed an old allegation against acting veteran Nana Patekar of harassment on the sets of a 2008 film, “Horn OK Pleasss”. A decade ago when she came up with the same accusation, she says she felt silenced by those in power.

But now, there’s silence no more.

Leading stars have spoken up against the harassment that goes behind the gloss and glamour, and how the industry protects the “creeps” by letting complaints go unanswered or unaddressed.

Filmmaker Hansal Mehta has openly called “Queen” director Vikas Bahl a “creep” as the latter grabbed the spotlight, again in light of the MeToo movement, over allegations by a woman who had earlier accused him of sexually assaulting her.

“Will anybody do anything about this bloody creep or will the industry protect him like it always does,” questioned Mehta, who as a father of two daughters, fears they would have to deal with such “predators”.

Faced with sustained trolling and criticism, Mehta finally declared that he was “done with Twitter”.

“A platform that has ambiguous guidelines about hatred, negativity and abuse is no platform for debate or discussion — forget social change. Goodbye,” he said before deleting his account.

“Queen” star Kangana Ranaut hasn’t been far behind in calling out Bahl, who she said “bragged about having casual sex with a new partner every day”.

Two women have also come out about singer Kailash Kher.

As Nandita Das noted, “The hushed whispers are getting louder and are finally being heard.”

“Unlike in the past when such discussions disappeared all too quickly from the media, this time it appears that more people are listening. Women at the work place and outside too often face harassment and violence that almost always goes unreported. Especially, though not only, when perpetrated by powerful men.

“I am adding my voice in support with the hope that more lasting change comes out of this,” Das said.

The fire has spread from Bollywood and the comedy space to the news media industry as well, with a slew of journalists and editors being named.

Now, as Shobhaa De puts it, there are people “waiting impatiently for ‘MeToo’ in Indian politics”.

“Who will cast the first stone?” De asked.  (IANS)

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