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As the rest of the world debates what has changed in the year since the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the revolutionary #MeToo movement took India by surprise – just two weeks ago.
After a few isolated fits and starts, #MeTooIndia is rattling several high-profile men and institutions in news media and entertainment.
It was sparked when Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta aired allegations of inappropriate behavior by her then co-star, Nana Patekar, on a film set about a decade ago.
Multiple women then accused popular stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty of sending them unsolicited pictures of his genitals.
It has since taken a dramatic leap forward with scores of women accusing editors, authors, Bollywood actors and film directors of sexual misconduct that ranges from harassment to rape.
The outpouring has offered a much-needed catharsis for many women, some of whom mustered the courage to break their silence after two decades.
Women journalists — who are required to report on injustices faced by others and strive for accountability — have long endured harassment by senior editors, colleagues and sources, keeping horrific stories about their perpetrators to the confines of whisper networks.
The sexual harassment and abuse that earlier forced them to remain quiet, quit, move cities or change industries is now fuelling them to spearhead #MeTooIndia.
Allegations have led two top editors at prominent newspapers — Prashant Jha of the Hindustan Times and K R Sreenivas of The Times of India — to step down while a former Times of India executive editor resigned from a U.S. think tank.
Seven women journalists had written to the Times Group urging action on the allegations. The paper later released a policy on how they cover #MeToo, stating that it will investigate complaints against their employees in support of the movement but not of accounts posted online anonymously.
In India, conversations on gender inequality, consent in office spaces, and the sexual harassment of women reporters in the field are long overdue.
Several other influential editors and journalists are being investigated by their companies’ Internal Complaints Committee mandated under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013.
Mainstream newspapers and start ups alike, including those facing allegations, are running articles on the allegations to inform readers and sensitize them to issues related to sexual harassment — while also embarking on some much-needed introspection as they face a major test of credibility.
For journalists, it is critical to seize the impetus of this movement to further the discourse of sexual harassment, from newsrooms to the field.
Most women journalists, including me, have been groped and molested in crowded political meetings or public spaces from which we report, something we have unfortunately normalized as a ‘hazard of the job’.
The solution is not to send only male reporters to unsafe situations, as some of our peers and editors have suggested. It is time for journalists and news organizations to have a frank conversation about women in the field and come up with policies that provide protection and redress — while still giving them the right to pursue stories.
The biggest name to be caught up in the #MeTooIndia fury is MJ Akbar, a former newspaper editor once considered a legend in news media circles. At least 14 women have made allegations against him of varying degrees of sexual harassment dating back to as early as 1990.
In response, he has suggested the movement has an agenda ahead of the upcoming 2019 general elections and has filed a criminal defamation suit against journalist Priya Ramani, who first named him. Mounting pressure finally led him to resign on October 17 from his post as junior minister in the external affairs cabinet and he has decided to fight the case personally.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has not made any statement in response to the serious accusations against Akbar. It has also maintained a steely silence on the #MeTooIndia movement more generally.
Nevertheless, #MeTooIndia marks a watershed moment in exposing the ubiquity of sexually predatory behaviour in the country’s media industry.
It has opened up much-needed conversations on consent, privilege, power, gender imbalances and everyday sexism. It has facilitated men and women to renegotiate their interactions within and outside office spaces.
And while a few have apologized publicly for their behavior, many men have denied the allegations. Some of them have anointed themselves as victims of anonymous social media outrage.
Despite finding support and strength from one another, the women who have courageously spoken out are reliving their trauma, with many being intimidated and facing counter-accusations of indulging in Faustian bargains.
But India’s #MeToo movement continues undeterred and resilient, snowballing to other industries. The modest impact it has made so far is already giving more women in India the confidence that those who put them through horrific sexual harassment and violence can no longer get away with it without facing the consequences.
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