You could say it’s just another week in the life of working women in India. A retired Supreme Court judge is probed for sexual harassment. A high profile editor faces charges of sexual assault. And revelations emerge of a massive surveillance effort on a working woman in Gujarat, allegedly by then home minister Amit Shah at the behest of an unnamed “saheb”.
Each instance involves powerful men in roles that demand public accountability. Two cases bring home the terrifying brutality of that violence, and the inordinate courage it takes to stand up against it.
A three-judge Supreme Court panel has begun an inquiry into charges of sexual harassment levelled by an intern against a recently retired judge. The intern had earlier this month blogged about her harassment that had occurred last year in December. What began as a solitary blog has rippled wide. Another intern has spoken about being sexually harassed by the same judge and a lawyer says she was harassed by a senior advocate. How far does this rot go? And what protection does the legal fraternity afford to women who speak up?
A similar can of worms is being prised open with a journalist at Tehelka saying she was sexually assaulted by the magazine’s founder Tarun Tejpal at its recent Think festival (disclosure: my husband and I were invited to Think by Tejpal).
Tejpal has admitted to a “lapse of judgment” as he “recuses” himself from the magazine for six months, an act he describes as “atonement”. It is not enough. His publication has assumed the role of public interest journalism and, ironically, Tejpal’s own favoured thinking cap is of a crusader against injustice. An alleged violation of the law is not an “internal matter” as Tehelka’s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury told The Indian Express. If Tejpal has broken the law, he must face its legal consequences.
There is no room for ambiguity. But sadly these narratives of violence seem to follow politically preordained trajectories. Our responses to them are fashioned not in absolute terms of right and wrong but selectively conditioned by political leanings. So, while a section of the right sees Tejpal’s fall with glee, it defends the violation of an adult woman’s privacy as ‘protection’.
If BJP leader Arun Jaitley talks of Tejpal’s “secular philandering”, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari dismisses a charge of sexual assault as an “unfortunate incident”. One says nothing about Shah’s refusal to speak, the other makes a big noise about misuse of State power.
The abuse of women is not a political football game. It is far too serious for that. The BJP’s defence that the surveillance was done for the ‘protection’ of the woman at the request of her father reeks of patriarchy. Did she ask for her phones to be tapped? And if she was a willing participant then surely she would have gladly shared information about her personal movements instead of getting the state to mount an officially unauthorised surveillance against her.
Unfortunately, many men continue to be caught in a time warp as they cling to their false sense of entitlement. Sexual harassment is an abuse of power, a betrayal of trust and one of India’s worst-kept secrets. But one thing has changed, and it is the refusal of an increasing number of women to remain silent.
Whether it is a Dalit girl in Haryana rejecting a ‘compromise’ with her rapist or a young intern and journalist taking on entrenched forces, we are seeing more and more women stepping up to say they will no longer be suppressed or silenced.
There is a new courage and a new defiance. The test lies in how we respond. Will we stand by them? Will we applaud their dignity or lapse into prurient key-hole peeping? Will our institutions deliver justice or will we allow predators to wallow in their own atonement or chosen silence?
In our response lies the sign of a mature, civilised society that affords protection to all its citizens.
The views expressed by the author are personal