In India, not everyone may have been familiar with Harvey Weinstein’s name. But now they should be.
The disgraced Hollywood movie producer and political liberal has been sacked from his company after an exposé blew the lid off of decades of accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. He was the force behind the classic American movies “Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Gangs of New York,” among others. He was a major donor to the Clintons, had long-standing ties with the White House when Barack Obama was president and was a longtime champion of progressive values, even contributing to a Gloria Steinem chair at Rutgers University. Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Ashley Judd became only some of the big names on a long roster of women who are breaking years of silence about alleged harassment and bullying by the once all-powerful progressive mascot.
In Weinstein’s case, the real story is not so much that he has finally been called out after all these years; but rather how many people — both men and women — conspired to cloak what his liberal friends must have indulgently dismissed as innocuous peccadilloes of the artsy, the wealthy and the angst-ridden.
But let’s be honest. In India, too, don’t we all know of countless powerful men — editors, authors, actors, writers — who may have crossed the line from consent to coercion? We don’t know for sure if their highly discussed sexual encounters sprang from a disturbing power-differential with women who were at their professional mercy or if these affairs were the consenting choices of equals. Worse, in some cases, we do know that what we want to call sexual liberty was really a kind of lecherous leeriness. And yet, we have looked the other way.
India’s secularists (myself included) were forced to confront this when Tarun Tejpal, the swashbuckling celebrity editor of anti-establishment newsmagazine Tehelka, was accused of sexual abuse and harassment by a much younger colleague in 2013. Just last month, Tejpal, a superbly networked journalist and the toast of every well-heeled Delhi drawing room, was formally charged with rape, under a tough new law that no longer defines the crime only by genital penetration.
Ironically, Tejpal’s magazine was at the forefront of campaigning for the new stringent set of rules governing rape. Beyond arguing that the woman was a willing participant in a sexual encounter, Tejpal framed his defense in terms of political victimhood. He charged that he was being targeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party for his critical reportage about the ruling BJP over many years. His case has continued to divide India’s old elites — as in the United States, the rise of the right has created a new social hierarchy. As in the Weinstein case, the Tejpal controversy raised serious credibility questions about prominent liberals and the feminist causes they propounded. The attacks from the right wing — which hated Tejpal — was a bit like the Republicans in the United States who are now dancing on Weinstein’s metaphorical grave.
But it was the silence of liberals that was more deafening than the voluble criticism of the right. And just as the Weinstein case shone an uncomfortable light on how long Hillary Clinton took to condemn Weinstein, here in India, many politicians of the opposition parties not only failed to disassociate from Tejpal but also some leaders even stepped up to provide him a legal defense.
Tejpal was my neighbor and a social friend of sorts who stood up for me in a tough phase of my professional life. When the controversy erupted, like so many others of my ilk, at first I hoped it wasn’t what it sounded like. But as more details emerged, my feminism demanded that I take a strong, unequivocal position — and I did — much to the abiding disapproval of several of my friends, who believed that the larger hit to a liberal magazine brand was somehow part of a right-wing conspiracy. I disagree. The magazine, as it turned out, had not even set up a court-mandated committee to deal with sexual harassment complaints. Its liberalism had been exposed to be shallow and skin-deep, restricted to its writings but not applied to itself.
More recently, filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui, another much-feted staple of India’s creative circles (a Rhodes scholar I knew only slightly from my college years at Delhi’s most reputed liberal arts institute), had a rape conviction overturned in a controversially worded court judgment. Before being embroiled in this case (the rape allegation was made by an American citizen), Farooqui was regarded with awe among most of my liberal friends. His stated politics aligned with theirs; he’d read history at Oxford; he was considered an artistic powerhouse for his stage performances and he had co-directed India’s official entry at the Oscars in 2010.
But in an outrageously written order, the judge in Farooqui’s case suggested that a “a feeble ‘no’ may mean a ‘yes,’” arguing that, “in an act of passion, actuated by libido, there could be myriad circumstances which can surround consent and it may not necessarily always mean yes in case of yes or no in case of no.” This gobbledygook turns feminist principles on their head. I don’t know whether Farooqui is innocent or guilty. What I do know is that the reasoning to acquit him sets a dangerous precedent for all women who fight harassment. And once again, as Indian liberals, let’s admit it: If Farooqui were not “PLU” (People Like Us), there would be a lot more noise over the basis of the verdict.
When it comes to our native Weinsteins, self-proclaimed progressives across the world appear to stumble. Like American progressives, we have had to learn — the hard way — that the mere public championing of modern, forward-thinking slogans doesn’t make you any less likely to be scummy when it comes to women. We know that within our social circles there are powerful men with gargantuan egos who will abuse their influence and stature. Yet we muddle our wider ideological positions — on women, on minorities, on gay rights, on equality of religions, on corruption, on sexual liberty — with our need to overcompensate for individual perpetrators of harassment (or those accused of it) because they have been public advocates for the same rights we believe in. Or we privilege our broader political choices — left wing/right wing –over the transgressions of men who have betrayed every principle they espouse. We think we are protecting liberalism from an assault by the extreme right wing; in fact, our hesitation is undermining it and leaving it open to spoof, contempt and derision. And when we do take positions, we weaken them with “whataboutery” — feeble proclamations of “he was wrong, but what about you?”
Women are unable to call out their harassers in real time for a variety of reasons — key among them the fear of being judged and disbelieved and the fear of losing one’s professional edge. And consent, like choice, is a loaded word in the gender debate, especially when it comes to a man who wields extreme power and a professional woman who is dependent on his approval to survive. Could Monica Lewinsky as young intern have really said “no” to Bill Clinton? If a twentysomething reporter’s much older boss maintains that she has a conflicted crush on him, is the onus on him or her to establish equality? In some cases, the violations are obviously coarse and need no debate. But when liberals become complicit in the conspiracy of silence that shrouds such cases, we only come out looking like weak and hypocritical frauds.