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Raise the baton now

Women are often forced to keep quiet about sexual abuse. In Britain, the Savile case has encouraged many to speak up. Indian women should follow suit. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Nov 18, 2012 22:39 IST

The resignation of a Director General of the BBC, treated in Britain as though a torpedo has hit the ship of State, is probably non-news to an international public. Viewers abroad will still glide through Strictly Come Dancing or Hard Knocks or whatever they watch in Mumbai, Chennai, Dilli or Timbuktu and not know what has hit the source of their entertainment.

So it may be that an Indian viewer has never heard of Jimmy Savile or of Lord McAlpine.

Those who haven't have missed nothing and don't need to know that programmes about them precipitated the resignation of the boss of the Beeb. His departure, I predict, will be followed by many of the top heads of this Kafkaesque institution. With the Ace gone, many picture cards will leave the pack.

Why? Because the BBC has been hit by two substantial scandal-sized journalistic storms. The first concerned Jimmy Savile, a weird character who with his below-the-shoulder silver hair, albino complexion, northern accent, peaked caps and cigars was a leading DJ on the most popular BBC music programme Top of the Pops.

His speciality was making funny gobbling noises as he made announcements and his popularity with the viewers propelled him into being the star of several other shows. The most famous of these was called Jim Will Fix It in which children were asked to write in with something they dearly wished for - like meeting the President of the US or piloting a plane from off an aircraft carrier. Savile would then arrange for a televised fulfilment of the wish.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s he floated several children's charities, some of them for children with disabilities, physical and mental.

He died last year aged over 80 and just as the BBC was setting out to celebrate his great career with memorial programmes, one of their investigative teams began preparing an investigation in which witnesses alleged that Savile was a regular and inveterate child molester and paedophile who used his role as head of charities to gain access to children and sexually assault them.

This programme was, through the labyrinthine processes and considerations of the internal editorial BBC machine, suppressed. A year later the rival Channel, Independent TV, ran the story. Deputy-Heads began to roll at the Beeb. A very public media probe into why this sordid tale of young boys and girls being assaulted, some of whom were invited at the time as part of audiences to BBC shows and then into Savile's dressing room, had taken perhaps 30 years to be exposed.

The BBC ran its own story into why it had cancelled the previous programme. Internal BBC investigations began, resembling an animal chasing and swallowing its tail and continuing to ingest its spine.

Women and some men in their 50s and 40s now emerged to recount how they had been molested and subjected to sexual abuse by individuals living and dead when they were children below the age of sexual consent, which is 16. Names other than that of Savile began to emerge.

A man accused Conservative ex-minister Lord McAlpine of molesting him years ago in a children's home in Wales. The BBC ran the story only to find that the witness then claimed he had accused the wrong man. Muddle and mayhem.

Remember the throngs of screaming teenage girls at pop-concerts in the last decades of the last century? Wasn't it accepted that members of pop bands would carry these groupies away into their dressing rooms and have sex with them in serial formation if their libido could manage it? The pop-stars one presumes, wouldn't ask these girls for their birth certificates before proceeding.

Now in their 60s and 70s very many pop idols are legitimately sweating at the prospect of some 50-year-old recalling precisely what was done to her when she was 13.

What accounts for 30 years of silence on the part of the victims? Were the 60s and 70s tolerant of sex between the underage groupie and the pop-talent? Did society turn a blind eye to 'consensual' paedophilia? Have times and social tolerances changed?

Though Indian film stars and cricketers have similarly hysterical groupie followings, no misdemeanour of this sort has emerged. There is no Jimi Hendrix tradition of underage debauchery.

And yet in a recent conversation about the Savile case to a group of mature lady friends in Mumbai, all of them said that they had encounters of this kind as infants or little girls. One recalled how a friend of her father would seat her on his lap and covertly direct her hand to hold his penis. Another recalled an 'uncle' whose game was breast and bum squeezing. There were more appalling experiences. None of them told their parents, though sisters, cousins and friends shared stories of the proclivities of particular uncles and even male servants amongst themselves and evolved strategies of how to avoid them.

The group of women who recalled these experiences were molested by men who are now probably dead. Very few of the circumstances they recalled are peculiar to Indian settings or culture, though I have heard from some women of priests of their religion taking advantage of prescribed ceremonial rituals to feel them up.

So why the tacit shroud of silence? I asked.

The replies: 'My dad wouldn't have believed me';'No-one cares'; 'That uncle was a very smooth and respected man and I was scared of his overbearing wife who would have killed me'; 'It completely confused me. I only thought it was kind-of wrong.'

The silence of these lambs was broken in Britain by the exposure of Savile. One or two coming forward on TV led to a deluge of allegations - the proof of what happened decades ago is bound to be circumstantial and one word against another.

The answers from my Indian women friends indicate that there is a chorus of millions of victims waiting to raise their voices if only some conductoress would raise a baton.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal