THE MINISTER’S exit proved well-timed. It fell during the festive week of Navaratri, when Hindus celebrate the mythical victory of the ten-armed goddess Durga over the wicked, buffalo-headed, cobra-encoiled demon Mahishasura. The resignation on October 17th of M.J. Akbar, a junior minister, marked the first big triumph for India’s #MeToo movement, and perhaps a turning point for women’s rights.
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Mr Akbar, a suave and erudite former newspaper editor, responded with fury to allegations that he repeatedly made unsolicited advances on female subordinates. Asserting that no one had accused him of any form of assault, he dismissed the stories as “fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice”. Mr Akbar’s lawyers lodged a private criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, his initial accuser. The minister also suggested that the accusations were politically motivated.
Within hours, however, some 19 other former female colleagues volunteered to testify against Mr Akbar. Among other things, they alleged that during his newsroom days he had habitually ogled female underlings, touched them inappropriately and scheduled meetings in hotel rooms when he was not fully clothed. Mr Akbar abruptly decided to step down to defend his reputation “in a personal capacity”.
Mr Akbar is the biggest fish, but not the only large one, to be ensnared by such accusations. Since September a score of prominent figures in media, the arts, academia and business have been parrying claims that range from date rape to stalking, groping or merely insistently texting female colleagues. Some have lost their jobs; others have been suspended. Many, pilloried on social media, have gone silent.
Some have fought back, even while expressing sympathy for the #MeToo movement. Varun Grover, a popular comedian, issued a detailed rebuttal of anonymous charges that he had molested a fellow student in his college years. He invited his accuser to present her own detailed case, even if she wished to remain anonymous, because it was important for the movement that the testimony of women should be substantiated. “Revolutions can be messy but they can’t be perceived as unjust,” he says.
The sudden exposure of sexual wrongdoing in high places has prompted fierce debate. Accusers who have gone public risk a barrage of insults on social media, including charges of publicity-seeking or of having invited abuse by their own moral laxity. Mimi Mondal, a Dalit (formerly known as Untouchable) writer, notes that since curbing sexual abuse requires women’s testimony to be taken seriously, Dalit women stand at a double disadvantage.
It is true that, so far, the exposure of male misbehaviour has been limited to the uppermost crust of Indian society when, in blunt fact, lower class women suffer immensely more. Some 52% of Indian women, according to government health surveys, believe it is permissible for husbands to beat their wives. A recent online survey found that 78% of people who claimed they or a relative had suffered sexual abuse at work had not reported it.
The elite nature of India’s #MeToo movement has also invited criticism from the political right. “This entire debate of sexual exploitation…is peculiar to certain industries, involving glamour and money,” sneers the Organiser, a journal considered the mouthpiece of India’s biggest Hindu-nationalist group. “Why is it so that the professions like modelling and acting are infested with such incidences?” Its answer is that “so-called liberal elites” have strayed from the proper path of virtue.
But who is to lead people on that path? Long before the current wave of exposures of sexual predators among the wealthy and privileged, “godmen” of varied faiths provided the most glaring examples of male misbehaviour. In the past decade alone at least a dozen prominent gurus, priests and “babas” have been tried and jailed for rape. In a recent case in the state of Haryana one Baba Amarpuri stands accused of drugging, raping, filming and blackmailing some 60 women. No wonder the avenging goddess Durga is so well loved.