By Kahini Iyer
In the first months after #MeToo, women rejoiced to see some repercussions, however minimal, being meted out to harassers. Renowned editor and former junior minister MJ Akbar resigned from his post following numerous allegations against him, and is currently fighting a court case. Author Suhel Seth, whose harassment was actually caught on video, had his consultancy contract with Tata and Sons terminated. And actor Alok Nath, who is on trial for the alleged rape of writer-producer Vinta Nanda, was expelled by the Cine and Television Artistes Association (CINTAA). Dozens of important men were ousted from the positions of power that enabled their abuse.
But the outrage could only last for so long. Here we are, facing the prospect of a film called #MainBhi, in which Nath plays a judge standing up to the scourge of sexual harassment and child molestation. According to Khalid Siddiqui, another actor involved in the project — which was shot before the allegations against Nath came to light — Nath’s character, in the vein of Amitabh Bachchan in Pink, makes a rousing speech against molestation. With no apparent irony, Siddiqui expressed his hope that the film “starts a debate” on the subject of molestation, particularly against boys. As for Nath, he comes out both unrepentant, and completely ignorant to the optics of the situation. He asked if there was any problem with him doing a film, and insisted it should be released.
Months on from the #MeToo movement, incidents like these throw up a pressing question: Now that the #MeToo furore has died down, will the predators come out to play with impunity once more?
Looking to the US, whose #MeToo movement kicked off about a year before the Indian wave with the exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, might provide us a glimpse into the future of our own cabal of predators. Weinstein himself has returned from his self-imposed exile in Arizona to fight a sexual misconduct case that, according the Guardian, is unlikely to result in conviction – despite the allegations levelled against him by more than 80 women.
And Weinstein is not the only man who has decided that shame and public absence is sufficient punishment for his crimes. A tweet by the Oxford Dictionary caught on to the term “shame-leave”, used by the New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner, to describe an Eater report about a Californian chef-cum-restaurateur who returned to work after being accused of sexual harassment. The chef brought with him a plan that included therapy for himself, an all-women advisory board, and a monthly dunk tank, presumably for his employees to express their frustration and anger at him in lieu of legal recourse.
Here in India, the ludicrously inadequate concept of shame-leave is already starting to sound familiar. Co-founder of talent agency Kwan Entertainment, Anirban Blah, was accused by four women of casting couch policies and harassment, after which he was removed from his position. However, a WhatsApp message circulated around the organisation apparently said that he would secretly continue his work. Yet, Blah’s shame allegedly drove him to contemplate suicide. He is now undergoing therapy in Bangalore – just as Weinstein did in Arizona, before presumably returning to belittle and degrade his accusers in a courtroom spectacle.
Then there is the grandaddy of shame-leave, Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal. After being accused by an employee of repeated sexual molestation back in 2013, Tejpal, in an email to his Tehelka second-in-command Shoma Chaudhary, dramatically proclaimed: “I must do the penance that lacerates me.” Was Tejpal suggesting that he’d face criminal proceedings, or give up his organisation? Of course not. True to the tenets of shame-leave, his so-called penance involved recusing himself from his editorial office for six months (though he was later arrested and is currently out on bail).
There are droves of men whose crimes have not been corroborated by CCTV footage, as Tejpal’s were. There is comedian Louis CK, who decided his shame-leave had gone on long enough when he sprung his performance on an unsuspecting New York audience. Aziz Ansari similarly dropped off the map, only to return with a set that pointedly targeted “wokeness”.
Unfortunately for the men accused, the medieval punishment of public shame-leave is no longer going to cut it.
Unfortunately for the survivors, the medieval punishment of public shame-leave still might be the only justice they can expect. No amount of therapy and self-improvement will undo the damage done to their victims, many of whom are left desperately in need of the very same therapy. Nath himself is out on bail, after a judge suggested that, because Nanda did not come forward immediately for fear of challenging a big name, she acted for her benefit, and might have made a false implication. This, despite Nath’s former colleagues Sandhya Mridul and Deepika Amin backing up Nanda’s claim with their own allegations of harassment. We already know conviction rates for sex crimes are abysmal, and now, a society that welcomes harassers back after a sabbatical ensures that they are shielded from meaningful consequences.
If #MeToo is to have an impact beyond its first outpouring of righteous fury, then shame-leave can never be acceptable atonement. By passing the responsibility for punishment to the accused, we are not only refusing to take it on ourselves. We are also failing to do the one thing that the voices of #MeToo have been clamouring for: To acknowledge they are every bit as important as the powerful men they accuse.
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