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The Power Of #MeToo

The Power Of #MeToo

MJ Akbar would have done well if he had resigned the moment it became clear that his continuance in office was untenable. Instead, he tried to brazen out in the belief that he would be able to intimidate the lady who first raised the accusing finger at him in the MeToo movement which has been going from strength to strength.

It did not create a good impression when he obtained the services of 97 lawyers of a legal firm to break the backbone of a single lady who was very considerate even when she exposed him. In fact, the first time Priya Ramani went public about her experience, she did not even name him. It was only later when the movement gathered a momentum of its own that she named the junior minister in the Narendra Modi government.

Akbar was abroad on an official assignment when the MeToo movement hit him where it would hurt him the most. The fact that he was able to file a voluminous criminal suit against her the day after he returned to New Delhi shows that he had made up his mind to defend, rather than leave the ministerial job till he was able to prove that he was more sinned against than sinning, to quote the Bard.

His tactics did not work, as it only encouraged more and more women, including a foreign journalist, to share the wretched experiences they had. Faced with a barrage of statements from senior and well-respected women journalists, all he could think of to counter them was to allege a political conspiracy aimed at influencing the next elections.

Why on earth should so many lady journalists from various regions of the country come together and attack a minister, who is a political nonentity and who is as dispensable as the curry leaf in sambar.

Akbar should have realised that the MeToo movement was not primarily aimed at him, as he became a victim like many others from various professions like journalism, cinema, art, and sports. It is just that he happened to hold a fancy political job and was the more famous among them. He was known for his political judgment which helped him build a career, away from editing and writing. I remember some of his cover stories in the Sunday he edited like on the funeral of Jayaprakash Narayan. I bought the magazine, priced at a humbly Re 1, mostly to read him.

One late evening, I interviewed Akbar at a hotel in Patna when he came to the city to promote his biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, which is remembered more for one quote attributed to Rusi Modi of Tisco that he found Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten “in a clinch” at his father’s home at Nainital. This Modi was known for the tagline in Tisco advertisements, “we also make steel”, as for the jumbo omelet that he himself made and ate.

In the course of my interview, I just asked Akbar why he thought of writing a new biography when there were many already. He lambasted me with a counter question, “How many biographies do you know of?” I mentioned the one written by S. Gopal and another written by a Malayalam writer, whose name I could not remember. Then I dropped the bombshell, “Nehru’s autobiography!”

“What a "puerile" question! Do you know at what age Nehru wrote his autobiography?”. He kept berating me until I managed to regain my confidence and ask him questions, rather than to be asked questions.

In the end, he offered me tea and snacks and we parted as friends. I wrote a whole column in the Hindustan Times based on this interview and I also mentioned the bitter experience I had.

I was a little stunned when he joined the Congress and decided to contest the Lok Sabha election. I expected him to contest for an urban seat where he would be more familiar than the most backward Kishanganj constituency in Bihar.

On the way to Kishanganj, he addressed a meeting at the Khuda Baksh Oriental Library at Patna. I was also present on the occasion. The circular hall was filled to capacity with many young men sitting on the floor. I wanted to ask him why he chose to contest from a Muslim-majority constituency when he mouthed secularism all through, although I knew that the Congress under Nehru had thought it safe to field Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister, from a Muslim-majority area.

I realized that Akbar was not a good politician when he began attacking those who questioned him, instead of answering them. Small wonder that the meeting turned into a fiasco and he had to be escorted out of the hall. A few weeks later, I was invited to deliver a lecture at the same library and I found the audience extremely polite and attentive. No, it was not because I was a better speaker. It was because I was, perhaps, a better listener.

Several women who worked with him at the Asian Age have in a statement spoken against him. I had a cartoonist friend who was grateful to Akbar because he gave him a job when another illustrious editor threw him out of a national daily because he could not digest the fact that the cartoonist could get a Padma Shri, which he could not. In fact, the newspaper carried a story to point out that non-entities were getting the Padma awards!

When Akbar decided to quit the Asian Age, he wanted the cartoonist also to quit to express solidarity with him. He was in agony and he would discuss the matter with me. It was my task to comfort him and to give him moral courage. He knew it was not easy to get a job and there was no certainty that Akbar’s plan to start a weekly would take off. Finally, he stayed on at the Asian Age, though he dreaded the consequences of antagonizing Akbar.

The last time I saw Akbar was when his car and mine were crawling in a traffic jam near AIIMS. I saw him just two car doors away reading some papers with the aid of a special light in a black Merc. No, he was not a minister at that time. I remembered his answer to one of my questions, “You can do a lot in life if you do not waste your time in gossiping! Most people do not spend most of their time on work. I do not gossip at all. That is why I was able to write this book while holding my job”.

Akbar was an ardent critic of Modi but when he realized that he was the rising star of Indian politics, he hitched his wagon to the BJP to become, what, a junior minister. He accepted a deputy minister’s post when a person like Smriti Irani was given a Cabinet post and that, too, with as important a portfolio as HRD. Modi just wanted a couple of Muslim names in the ministry!

In all his exploits, the details of which are now in the public domain, he did not succeed. Now, even power has slipped out of his hands. The case he filed, in fact, throws up opportunities to the ladies concerned to grill him in an open courtroom.

Be that as it may, the MeToo movement has a lot to commend itself. That it took nearly one year for the movement to reach the Indian shores is in itself a reflection of the situation in the country. There are many who question the relevance of entertaining complaints about incidents that happened decades ago. Let it be understood that a sexual offense remains a sexual offense even after a century.

It is several decades since Sukumara Kurup escaped killing one Chacko to claim an insurance settlement. If Kurup is alive and identified, he will still have to face judicial trial. The period when the incidents happened and the period now is quite different from each other.

To expect a young journalist trainee to speak up against her big boss about what happened in a private space was unthinkable. Nobody would have believed her and even if someone would have believed, he or she would not have dared to take a stand for fear of retribution. Worse, character assassination was easier in the case of a woman than a man.

In a MeToo case, an actress gave shelter to a young girl who was about to be molested. Of course, she protected her and comforted her but the truth is that the predator went scot-free. Also, in the ordinary circumstances, no family would like to seek judicial succor for fear that the lawyers would only humiliate the girl or woman concerned!

We have seen as recently as a few months ago how a family in Uttar Pradesh suffered when they sought justice against a BJP legislator and rapist extraordinaire! That is why many of them could not open up against the injustice meted out to them by those who should have protected them and cared for them.

I remember an incident. A trainee journalist complained against a senior journalist to the newspaper management that he propositioned to her. Nothing happened to him while the girl stopped coming to the office after that incident. I heard him boast, “No, I did not do anything wrong. I invited her to my room and she refused and there the matter ended”. No, I am not privy to what actually happened. It ruined the career of a girl.

A senior UNI journalist approached me for an opening for his daughter. He wanted her to learn the ropes. I approached the editor and he agreed to let her attend office as a trainee. She attended office one day and the next day onwards she stopped coming. A few weeks later, when I accosted her father somewhere, I asked him why she stopped coming to office.

“No, I can’t trust my daughter with the sex maniacs that some of the editors are. I just wanted to disabuse her of the belief that journalism was a great profession. I am, instead, looking for a suitable alliance for her”. He sent me an invitation card a few months later. I wish he had not bothered me with the request when he did not want his daughter to be a journalist.

Nothing has strengthened the woman as the MeToo movement. It is a blessing to all professions that if anyone dares to do anything against a woman, all she needs to do is to use the hashtag once and the guilty would be brought to his senses. In that sense, it has done a great service to keep the predators under check. Having said that, it must also be admitted that there are women who found short-cuts to curry favor with their bosses and move up their professional ladder.

Now the question, what should be the state response to the MeToo movement? Is it possible to try the guilty in all the cases that have been brought to light? Will a person be able to prove that she was forcibly kissed in a lift on a wintry day in the nineties? Most cases are of this kind. So what is the way out?

Why can’t the state appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like the one South Africa under Nelson Mandela appointed to go into the horrific incidents that happened when apartheid was practiced in the country. The Commission did not punish anyone but it provided a restorative forum for the victims to give statements about their experiences. Some were selected for public hearings too.

Let such a commission be appointed with someone like Justice Kurian Joseph — it could be any other judge — at the helm to go into every complaint with a view to ensuring that no man, however influential or powerful he may be, would not force himself upon any woman, however meek and submissive she may be. That is the power of #MeToo!

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 22nd October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 43)