Indian politics has been roiled by a scandal of Trumpian proportions as a number of brave women face off against the country’s powerful, institutionalized patriarchy. Amid a long overdue #MeToo movement that has brought down high-profile harassers and abusers in media and the film industry, the political establishment is pushing back.
As with the aftermath of the testimony by Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, India has unleashed the might of misogyny against women who have dared to lift the complicit shroud of silence from the transgressions of influential men. Most glaring and egregious has been the case of M.J. Akbar, India’s junior foreign minister and a former newspaper editor who has been accused by 15 different women of harassment, sexual assault and molestation.
Instead of resigning or being sacked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Akbar has filed a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, a writer who first accused him by name. If she fails to prove her accusation in a court of law, she could face a prison sentence of up to two years. In other words, the onus of proof has been placed on a victim and survivor.
One of the instruments of slander against the #MeToo moment here has been to present the expanding community of women speaking up as a virtual lynch mob that has abandoned due process. But to see Akbar’s petition against Ramani is to understand why women have lost faith in the legal system, which is entirely tilted in favor of those with money and muscle.
Akbar’s court affidavit lists an army of 97 lawyers. The law firm insists that this is procedural and that only six lawyers would actually appear in court. But the criminal lawsuit and the display of the grand resources available to a powerful, politically connected man represent a clear effort at intimidation and bullying. It’s also a dire warning to all women: Shut up or we will come after you, too.
While the Modi government may want to present the rage of multitudes of women as a left-liberal conspiracy, the campaign has embarrassed and agitated even supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “The refusal of M.J. Akbar to resign is utterly shameful,” Rashmi Das, an investigative journalist and activist with the Sangh Parivar (the BJP’s ideological mentor), told me in an interview. “Politically, it is self injurious for the BJP. . . . Our Sangh founders must be crying in pain; all our values are ground to dust.”
The government is making a fatal error. As women, we do not see sexual infringement as an ideological or political battle. It is a grave mistake to reduce our fury to a negotiation of partisan politics. Whether it is Akbar, who represents a right-wing party, or journalist Vinod Dua, who works at a left-wing website; whether it is Chetan Bhagat, the author, or Suhel Seth, the celebrity consultant; whether it is director Sajid Khan or Kiran Nagarkar, the writer; whether it is Tarun Tejpal, former liberal icon, or R.K. Pachauri, the climate-change evangelist — every single man who has faced grave allegations must respond to scrutiny, probe or inquiry.
Every day that Akbar continues in office (while targeting the women who have charged him with abuse), the government seems to be saying that it doesn’t care about how women think or feel. The brazenness of the junior minister’s political response has emboldened other men to indulge in victim-shaming. Misogynistic murmurs have been enabled about whether women were too flirty, too naive and too late to speak. Actor Alok Nath used his wife to file a defamation case against film producer Vinta Nanda, who accused Nath of rape.
“The accused have no other recourse but to file for defamation and intimidate us,” Nanda told me in an interview. “They are expecting us to cower but it’s not going to happen as this time around we’re supported by our respective industries as well as media and co-complainants.”
She added: “I’m ready to fight till the end because I’m on the side of truth. I can’t believe that Alok Nath has made his wife file the suit against me. That to me is what patriarchy means.”
How this ends will have a serious impact on the presence of Indian women in the workforce. Twenty million women quit working between 2004 and 2012. Female workforce participation rates continue to decline. The culture of impunity for sexual misconduct allegations sends the message that the workplace will continue to be hostile to women. This is a direct obstruction to our constitutional right to work.
As a woman, this historic inflection point gave me hope at first. I thought our collective voice could no longer be ignored. But I’m aghast as Akbar continues to cling to high public office, in which he officially represents India internationally. He must resign or be fired immediately, and his lawsuits need to be dismissed.
Women need to be even angrier than we are.