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India and Britain must have clear definitions of harassment, rape

The problem here in India, as is in Westminster, is that there does not seem to be any agreement on what amounts to harassment, or indeed rape. The need for some due process and seriousness is particularly urgent bearing in mind the discussion about changing the law on marital rape

opinion Updated: Nov 12, 2017 16:25 IST
sexual harassment,rape,marital rape
Following allegations British secretary of state for defence, Sir Michael Fallon, resigned saying he has fallen below the high standards expected of the armed forces(REUTERS)

I have been in London this week where the Mother of Parliaments has been accused of being smothered in slime and its members described as sex-pests. I started every day by listening to discussions on BBC Radio 4’s breakfast show about this slime, the allegations women either employed in parliament or political journalists have made against MPs, described as a ‘Tide of Allegations’ by the Sunday newspaper, The Observer.

The sudden emergence of these allegations has been sparked off by the allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein,

The allegations have already claimed the scalp of the secretary of state for defence, Sir Michael Fallon, who has resigned saying he has fallen below the high standards expected of the armed forces. The allegations have also led to the suicide of a member of the Welsh assembly. He was suspended from the Labour Party without even being told what the allegations against him were.

The Welsh assembly member’s suspension and indeed many other allegations raise questions which are relevant to India also.

One question is how do you judge allegations when all you have is the word of the alleged victim and the man she claims sexually harassed her. A second question is how do you assess what is sexual harassment and what is flirtation, or the suggestion of a drink together, a proposal for a date or even consensual sex be decided. The second issue was taken up by the former editor of the Guardian Peter Preston in his weekly article in The Observer. He describes sexual harassment as: “A moveable feast of indifference or outrage: and there is no single answer, no single set of rules that can deal completely with something so personal or malleable. It’s about many things including age and changing attitudes.” Preston ends his article saying: “It is crucial for all involved, including the media, that there is some sense of due process and due seriousness here in the weird new world of tinder and tribulation.”

When I say this question is relevant to India I am not suggesting that parliament is riddled with MPs being described in Britain as sex pests. The Indian media has not considered legislators’ personal lives as a right and proper subject to investigate so we don’t know much about the goings on in Parliament.

Happily there is a far wider awareness of sexual harassment in India outside Parliament now and many ones against alleged perpetrators. This is all for the good. However, the problem is that here as in Westminster there does not seem to be any agreement on what amounts to harassment, or indeed rape. The need for some due process and seriousness is particularly urgent bearing in mind the discussion about changing the law on marital rape. I know feminists will jump down my throat for raising this issue but we have already seen cases where men who might at the worst be accused of breach of promise have been accused of rape because a consensual sexual relationship has not ended in marriage.

I certainly realise that what was acceptable behaviour in my young days is rightly not acceptable today. I also recognise that what was a common male attitude to women, should no longer be tolerated. But at the same time it is important to recognise as Preston did: “a life wasted on whatever side of the divide is a life wasted.”

The women who have alleged that they have been sexually harassed by British politicians maintain this has happened because of the fear of the authority MPs wield. Former political journalist Jane Merrick, who complained about Fallon, said she felt that by complaining she had at last “redressed the power balance” between her and the politician.

This question of the misuse of power and authority which the Westminster revelations raise is clearly relevant to India’s politicians too. A former employee working in Westminster’s secretariat related an incident when she justifiably pointed out that a politician was exceeding the time limit for his speech and he had threatened her saying, “don’t you know who I am?” Those words are all too often heard in India spoken by politicians who refuse to accept the limits of their authority.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 11, 2017 18:06 IST