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India’s #MeToo Manthan : PM Modi Must Help Drive Change Post MJ Akbar

PM Modi must now use this opportunity to legislate institutional mechanisms to change the system so that this movement goes beyond hashtags. Before a new legislation is enacted, this can take various immediate forms from fast trac courts, free legal representation, security of jobs, extension of Whistleblower’s Protection Act 2011 for these women where applicable, etc. Safeguarding women from the vulnerabilities associated with our system will only allow the filth to be contained if not eradicated. And for a mass cleansing of this nature we can only look towards a clean, firm and determined political leadership for direction – Swachh Bharat II !

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The one thing on which there would be a consensus in our argumentative, and highly polarized political firmament, is the fact that PM Modi is a change agent. He has shaken things up in the national discourse and, whilst the jury is out on the immediate impact, there can be no argument on the massive disruption he has created in the thinking at a national level : from Swachh Bharat, demonetization, crack down on black money, Jandhan, IBC to triple talaq and the move towards an uniform civil code – the list goes on.

Modi now has as similar chance to help drive large scale change for women’s safety in the workplace. As is obvious from the #MeToo revelations, sexual harassment is all pervading – this really reflects on the thinking of our nation with respect to gender equality and respect for women as seen through the prism of  our highly patriarchal society. Such things will take couple of generations to resolve at the core as it needs education reforms on a fundamental level,  but a firm beginning may have finally  been made with the MJ Akbar sacking.

Making examples of the high and mighty is a necessary ingredient in driving sustainable transformation. The PM has used this opportunity to do precisely this by making an example of MJ Akbar, albeit in my view, after some avoidable dithering and a national outrage. Thankfully, he was a political lightweight though symbolically important in BJP’s scheme of things as a highly erudite ex-member of the Gandhi entourage. Though many more ministers have continued in governments run by all dispensations in the past with allegations of far more horrific crimes, PM Modi has demonstrated that he is substantively different in matters of public accountability where it is not about legality but perceptions – a position which is  radically different from what all political parties have taken whenever exposes of  their ilk have been made in the public domain. Contrast this with well governed democracies like the UK or the US where even a hint of impropriety was enough to force ministers out of government.

What we are witnessing through the #MeToo movement is a radical metamorphosis  of  mindset which is as revolutionary, or perhaps even bigger, than what was witnessed during India’s freedom movement where we morphed into the self belief of being able to independently chart our own destiny. PM Modi would be wise to tap into this movement and identify himself with the wave of empathy which millions feel towards these wronged women. This is not only his “dharma” but will also prove to be politically expedient in a time when he needs to reengage urgently with the alienated middle class on a massive scale. He must resist the temptation of the majority in positions of power who insist on only the legal redressal route for these women who have had the courage to speak out……that, as is well known, is a non starter due to various reasons except maybe for the rape allegations by Vinta Nanda against  Alok Nath or Tanushree Dutta’s case.

The #MeToo movement is not about legality but about influencing change and demonstrating support. Change is apparent in the attitude of women albeit, at the moment, restricted to the educated middle class. But will men’s attitude change too ? This won’t happen if some of the high and mighty get off easily and, more importantly, those in decision making capacity are not seen to be vigorously supporting the need to change. That is the leadership role which must be demonstrated by both the political and business leaders including highly regarded celebrities. 

It is here that we have our Achillies heel on three counts. First, leaders are not uniformly seen to be supporting this movement whole heartedly. The most glaring case in the public domain is of BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s close aide Abhinav Khare who has been accused by a young management consultant and political analyst  of sexual harassment. According to The Wire, despite the Vishakha guidelines the ICC of Namma Bengaluru Foundation took more than twice the mandated time of 90 days but ultimately substantiated the allegations and recommended a range of punitive measures against Khare. When these were not implemented, the lady’s attempts to force the management were curtailed by two ex parte injunctions Khare  obtained from the courts in his personal capacity by naming Namma Bengaluru as one of the defendants. The import of this is not lost on anyone who understands the nuances of the legal process and corporate dynamics. What this has effectively done is to totally silence the victim and stopped Namma Bengaluru from disclosing its position publicly. Tweets by the woman claim that she is now without a job and Rajeev Chadrasekhar has blocked her account ! I have been fortunate to have had my management thinking shaped by luminaries like Mr Azim Premji in the early stages of my career and the key tenet of which has been to lead by example. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, though perhaps legally compliant,  may have let the young woman down in her quest for justice.

Similar is the impact of  defamation suits on Priya Ramani and Vinta Nanda and gag orders by courts on Sandhya Menon amongst others. Though this is within the purview of the law, it will require exceptional courage, wherewithal and emotional fortitude for these women, especially the young and vulnerable, to go through the rigors of a criminal trial process and will actually stymie voices of dissent.

Secondly, the Vishakha guidelines have been structured to deal with contemporary cases only and not older cases of harassment. Thus we effectively have no law to deal with such old cases whilst eerily exposing the victims to defamations suits and other legal wrangles. A catch 22 !

Thirdly, the nation’s attention is riveted only on cases which have “important” names associated with either side of the equation. What about the many other ordinary people who carry on with their craft and their mute victims ? How about the many faceless predators of insignificance like Abhinav Khare, who have been fortunate enough to  remain incognito - and would have remained so had it not been for a fortuitous association with the name of someone like the famous BJP MP ?

As a father of two daughters on the verge of entering the workplace, the best outcome of the #MeToo movement would be a large scale crusade to change our collective, sickening mindset driven by age old, societal conditioning that sexual harassment is  a gender based perk ordained to men, and, therefore “chalta hai”. Boys will be boys after all !  If this transformation is driven from the highest level by a charismatic leader like PM Modi it would help provide momentum to the ardous process of bringing about lasting impact. PM Modi must now use this opportunity to legislate institutional mechanisms to change the system so that this movement goes beyond hashtags. Before a new legislation is enacted, this can take various immediate forms from fast trac courts, free legal representation, security of jobs, extension of Whistleblower’s Protection Act 2011 for these women where applicable, etc. Safeguarding women from the vulnerabilities associated with our system will only allow the filth to be contained if not eradicated. And for a mass cleansing of this nature we can only look towards a clean, firm  and determined political leadership for direction – Swachh Bharat II !

Of course, individually we will also have to demonstrate the resolve not to create heroes out of the perpetrators by denying them all means which give them publicity – boycotting them from lit fests, movies, comedy shows, deleting twitter following, prime time debates on TV, etc. This will be body blow for the likes of Suhel Seth who, in the absence of anything substantive to show for, depend solely on their verbosity and the twitterati for their so called “power” over vulnerable women.

Else it will dissipate into one more instance of outright scandalous, salacious, gossipy reporting and hyperventilating prime time fervor on national TV with no tangible results at the end of it all. 

The betrayal of the Anna Hazare mass anti corruption movement of 2011  must not be allowed to happen this time around.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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MeToo movement magazine 13 October 2018

Prabal Basu Roy

The author is a Sloan fellow of the London Business School and a chartered accountant. He has previously been a director/ Group CFO in various companies. He now manages a PE fund and advises startups / corporates.

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